For Immediate Release
Sri Lanka: Commonwealth Should Act on Crisis
Use International Clout to Press Both Sides to End Humanitarian Disaster
LONDON - The Commonwealth and its members should use their combined
diplomatic influence to press the Sri Lankan government and the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to cease attacks that violate
the laws of war and end the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka's northern
Vanni region, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) and Human
Rights Watch said today in a letter
to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG). A two-day holiday
pause in military operations was not long enough to address the
desperate situation of trapped civilians.
Fighting reportedly has resumed in the tiny government-declared
"no-fire zone" still in the control of LTTE forces, where the
approximately 100,000 civilians remaining are at grave risk. LTTE
forces have prevented civilians from leaving the area, while government
forces have repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled the no-fire zone.
More than 3,000 civilians have reportedly been killed and many more
wounded during the fighting since January.
"With the United Nations warning that there could be a potential
‘bloodbath,' the CMAG needs to assert itself to protect the civilians
trapped in the fighting in a member country," said Maja Daruwalla,
executive director of CHRI. "It should not stay silent during this
Both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE deny they are violating
the laws of war. However, there is credible information that the LTTE
is preventing civilians from leaving the conflict area and shooting at
those that try to escape. Displaced persons who have managed to flee
the fighting have been placed in detention camps by the Sri Lankan
government, where they are denied freedom of movement. The government
has said that it will improve access to the camps by relatives and
allow some to leave after screening for LTTE combatants, but to date
only a few hundred elderly have been allowed to leave. There are
allegations that an unknown number of people with alleged LTTE ties
have been taken into government custody, leading to fears of enforced
The Sri Lankan government has refused to allow independent observers
and journalists into conflict zones so that there is a lack of accurate
and timely information about the situation of the trapped civilians. It
has also barred most humanitarian agencies from the conflict area in
northern Sri Lanka, citing security concerns, leading to severe
shortfalls in humanitarian assistance. There have been repeated
allegations of threats and intimidation against Sri Lankan journalists
and human rights workers.
"The Commonwealth harms itself when it stays silent during a crisis
in a member state," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights
Watch. "Abuses by the Tamil Tigers should not deter it from pressing
the Sri Lankan government to uphold the Commonwealth's fundamental
In the Harare Commonwealth Declaration, 1991, Commonwealth Heads of
Government pledged to protect and promote fundamental human rights and
to support "the United Nations and other international institutions in
the world's search for peace."
Calling upon CMAG to protect the fundamental principles of the Commonwealth, CHRI and Human Rights Watch urged it to:
- Seek assurances that civilians are given the highest protections,
and that international humanitarian law is being complied with in full.
- Call upon the Sri Lankan government to cease attacks that violate
the laws of war, including artillery bombardment and aerial bombing
that does not discriminate between military targets and civilians, or
that causes expected harm to civilians and civilian objects
disproportionate to the anticipated military gain. Violations of the
laws of war by the LTTE do not justify attacks by government security
forces in violation of the law.
- Call upon the LTTE to stop using civilians as "human shields," take
all feasible steps to avoid placing military targets near civilians,
stop preventing civilians from leaving areas under its control, respect
and facilitate the right to freedom of movement of civilians, including
their right to move to government-controlled territory for safety, and
end all deliberate attacks on civilians, such as those seeking to flee
- State its concern for the trapped civilians, call upon both parties
to facilitate the immediate creation of humanitarian corridors to allow
trapped civilians to escape and offer neutral assistance to ensure safe
evacuation of civilians, as well as to provide aid for humanitarian
camps for relocated civilians.
- Consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement,
ensure that camps for displaced personsrespect the basic rights of
residents.The camps should be under civilian authority, residents
shouldhave thefreedom of movement due all Sri Lankan citizens, and
impartial humanitarian agencies should have access to the centers
without unnecessary restrictions.
- Call upon the Sri Lankan government to allow independent observers,
including journalists, access to conflict zones so that accurate and
timely information about the situation of civilians in such areas is
- Call upon the government to lift immediately the September 2008
order barring humanitarian agencies from the conflict area in northern
Sri Lanka and allow humanitarian agencies to return to assist at-risk
individuals and reach all civilians in need. Restrictions on relief
should be made on a case-by-case basis and only when there is a
specific and justifiable security reason for the restriction. Refusals
for valid security reasons should only be for as long as necessary and
should not block legitimate humanitarian assistance.
- Call upon the government to ensure that nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs) are able to perform their work without arbitrary
government interference. Regulation of NGO activities should comply
with international standards, be transparent, and follow clearly
defined procedures. Registration should ultimately facilitate the work
of NGOs and should neither disrupt legitimate NGO activities nor put
NGO workers at risk.
- Strongly urge all CMAG members to act on the crisis in Sri Lanka
collectively as a positive way to engage the crisis and such situations
in the future, while also giving full adherence to the Harare
Declaration among the Commonwealth's membership.
To read the letter from Human Rights Watch and the
Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative to the Commonwealth Ministerial
Action Group, please visit:
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