Impending Humanitarian Crisis in Sri Lanka

Respond to the SOS Appeal of the WFP

by Asian Centre for Human Rights, New Delhi, March 21, 2007

The WFP estimates that around 155,000 civilians have been displaced in Batticaloa including around 95,000 people who have been uprooted in the last one week.

Index: Review/159/2007

Impending humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka

Respond to the SOS appeal of the WFP

On 20 March 2007, United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Regional Director for Asia, Tony Banbury stated that the WFP will “run out of food supplies by the end of April 2007” to feed the increasing number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Sri Lanka if the WFP does not receive new funding very soon.

The WFP’s warning has once again brought to the fore the acute humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, particularly in Batticaloa district, due to the ensuing fighting between the Sri Lankan security forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

I. Impending humanitarian crisis

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 465,000 people have been internally displaced by the conflict in Sri Lanka, including 223,000 people who have fled their homes since April 2006. Batticaloa district in eastern Sri Lanka has been the worst affected. The WFP estimates that around 155,000 civilians have been displaced in Batticaloa including around 95,000 people who have been uprooted in the last one week.

Hundreds of people continue to flee from the conflict areas to comparatively safer areas.

There have been reports that the government of Sri Lanka has been forcibly returning the displaced people from Batticaloa to their places of origin in the Vaharai and Trincomalee areas despite serious concerns over the security situation there. More than 300 people were reportedly transported to a transit centre in Killaveddi on 12 March 2007 under pressure from the local authorities who threatened to stop assistance if they stayed in Batticaloa.

Although the IDP camps are highly congested and unhygienic, the immediate concern is food. In its press release of 20 March 2007, the WFP further stated that it supplied food aid sufficient only for about 60,000 out of 155,000 IDPs living in camps in Batticaloa district through the Sri Lankan government’s Ministry of National Building and Development. The WFP has also distributed some 13,400 tons of food which is only sufficient to feed 300,000 people for three months in Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Mannar, Trincomalee, Ampara and Vavuniya districts.

The WFP’s Common Humanitarian Action Plan for Sri Lanka has only received 33 percent of its required funding for food assistance with which it can feed only upto April 2007. The WFP has already suspended its Mother and Child Nutrition and school feeding programmes in some districts and suspended most food-for-work rehabilitation projects in the Indian Ocean tsunami -affected districts “in order to re-direct its limited resources towards the newly displaced”.

II. A real life general vs underground general

Hostilities resumed in Sri Lanka since the collapse of the Geneva talks of February 2006 between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. But the conflict came to the open since August 2006 after the government began its offensive against the LTTE accusing it of stopping supply of water in the areas they control from reaching people in government-controlled areas in Trincomalee district.

For long the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002 signed between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE had been thrown out of the window. While both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE were responsible for violations of the CFA, the then Sri Lankan government headed by Ranil Wickremasinghe drew the first blood by managing to split Col. Karuna from the LTTE. Soon the Karuna faction became the key actor as per as the violations of the CFA were concerned.

Following the election of President Mahinda Rajapapkse, the situation has further deteriorated. By hunting 18 United National Party (UNP) members of parliament to its party, President Rajapakse has effectively silenced any opposition in the parliament. Presently, the hold and control of the Rajapakse family over the government and fate of Sri Lanka is complete – a feat never enjoyed by the Bandarnaike family whether it were S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Srimavo Bandarnaike or Chandrika Kumaratunga. With brother Gotabhaya Rajapakse serving as the Defence Secretary, President Rajapaske who earlier acted as a military general in a Sinhala film, “Men who die”, as the Commander-in-Chief in real life has taken command of the war.

It is a case of reel life general who becomes Commander-in-Chief in real life and decides to take on the Commander-in-Chief of the most dreaded guerilla group in recorded history.

III. Suspension of fundamental freedoms in conflict areas

All the parties in the conflict i.e. the government and the armed opposition groups, including the LTTE and the Karuna faction have been responsible for gross violations of human rights, including killings, abductions, enforced disappearances, recruitment of children etc. Fierce fighting between the security forces and the LTTE and aerial bombardments by the security forces in LTTE-held areas resulted in heavy destruction of properties, loss of lives, and displacement of thousands of civilians caught in the conflict. Often civilians have been killed by the security forces.

In war zones, all fundamental freedoms remain suspended. The government of Sri Lanka introduced a “travel pass” system in Jaffna district wherein the residents have to submit applications to their local army official through the Village Officer and the Divisional Secretary if they wanted to travel out of the district. The applicants also have to submit a surety along with their applications which will guarantee their return to Jaffna. According to official sources, nearly 40,000 residents of Jaffna district have travelled out of Jaffna since August 2006. Thousands of applicants wait for passes to escape the conflict.

Due to restrictions on the freedom of movement, the victims cannot even file petition before the Supreme Court based in Colombo, if any human rights violation is committed against them. Without any formal declaration of emergency, fundamental rights in the war affected areas remain absolutely suspended.

As the aid agencies too have been denied unrestricted access to the conflict areas, misery is all set to intensify while human rights violations continue to take place. A South Asian Darfur-like crisis is in the making and international community must intervene to bring an end to the conflict.

ACHR: Abductions by the Security Forces Officially Admitted

by Asian Centre for Human Rights, March 7, 2007

It is unlikely that that the Justice Mahanama Tilakaratna Commission of
Inquiry established by President Mahinda Rajapakse will establish
accountability.

ACHR WEEKLY REVIEW
[The weekly commentary and analysis of the Asian Centre for Human Rights]
C-3/441-C, Janakpuri, New Delhi-110058, India
Tel/Fax:  +91-11-25620583, 25503624
Website: www.achrweb.org; Email: achr_review@achrweb.org

Index: Review/157/2007
Embargoed for: 7 March 2007

Dear Sir/Madam,

Sri Lanka: Spectre of abductions by the security forces officially
admitted

On 6 March 2006, Sri Lanka’s Inspector General of Police (IGP), Victor
Perera stated that over 400 persons including “ex-soldiers, serving
soldiers, police officers and underworld gangs and other organised
elements” had been arrested since September 2006 on charges of abduction.
Mr Perera refused to divulge further details. But Asian Centre for Human
Rights (ACHR) believes that majority of those abducted have been killed.

It is unlikely that that Justice Mahanama Tilakaratna Commission of
Inquiry established by President Mahinda Rajapakse will establish
accountability. The International Independent Group of Eminent Persons
remains the last hope for the victims and their relatives, though the
Terms of Reference belie any such hope.

“ACHR WEEKLY REVIEW” provides detailed, independent and accurate
information and analysis on human rights, democracy and governance issues.

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AS-041-2007
March 7, 2007

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

SRI LANKA: Admission of the involvement of law enforcement officers in abduction and killing of civilians is a bold move, but what really matters is how is it going to be dealt with?

The admission by the Chief of Police in Sri Lanka that the police, army and the army deserters are responsible for abductions and killings of civilians is a bold move. However, for the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) this is no news since the AHRC has been in the past calling for intervention and warning the domestic and international community that the security forces in that country is behind many abductions and killings within Sri Lanka. For further information please see AS-029-2007, AS-027-2007, AS-312-2006 and AS-241-2006.

The Chief of Police Mr. Victor Perera has been reported to be admitting that a ‘large number’ of police officers and troops had been arrested on charges of abduction and extortion. However, for the ordinary Sri Lankan a few questions remain unanswered. Who are these officers who have been arrested and how far is the state machinery geared up and open to contain this? Will their names be disclosed to the public? Will those who have been arrested charged with a case and brought to trial after investigation of their case? Will such an investigation be fair and true? Will they be convicted? Will those who had been disappeared be able to return to their families and will the families of those who had been murdered or held captive receive any compensation? And last but not least does the Chief of the Police and Chief of Army has command responsibility over the acts of their subordinate officers and if yes how are they going to exonerate themselves from this?

If the Sri Lankan government and its Chief of Police is honest enough to contain this practice of criminal – law enforcement officer nexus, the first step that the government must take is to publicly announce the names of those officers who have been arrested in connection with abductions and killings. The government must also make sure that the charges against those who are identified now are investigated by an independent agency and the progress of the investigation also made available for public scrutiny. There must also be an honest attempt to further investigate the cases so that the rest of those who are still to be identified as culprits in service with nexus with the criminals are investigated and booked for their offences.

The AHRC has been intensively involved in issues of security and law enforcement in Sri Lanka for the past few years. Through its work and the experience gained by analysing several circumstances and cases in Sri Lanka the AHRC is certain that the law enforcement agencies in Sri Lanka are not at the moment capable enough to deal with the grave situation. The statement of admission by the Chief of Police is just the tip of the iceberg.

The issue is much deeper that affects the day to day life of every citizen. For example questions must be asked regarding what is the standard of selection into the security forces? Are those who are selected to serve in the forces good enough to meet the minimum standards of behaviour and in discharge of duties as a law enforcement officer? Are there any senior officers within the system who by their bad influence corrupt the new recruits? How transparent is the recruitment process itself? If there is a complaint by a subordinate officer against a superior officer are there any credible and functioning mechanisms to address such a complaint? If an officer is found to be involved in a grave crime, for example custodial torture, are the courts in the country honest enough to punish such an officer? Well, the AHRC’s experience shows that the courts in Sri Lanka still do not approach such crimes with the adequate seriousness and gravity such crime disserve.

The continuing failures in all the above, which in an ideal situation a government must have tried its best to prevent and punish crimes committed by a law enforcement officers, has resulted in a situation that the law enforcement officers within Sri Lanka are the most feared by the ordinary people. They enjoy complete impunity. This was promoted to a large extent by the earlier Chief of Police. For further information please see AS-241-2006. This has further isolated the law enforcement officers from the public. The call by the current Chief of Police with the bait of a ransom for information regarding erring officers is not likely to yield the intended result since the ordinary people relate to their law enforcement agencies as an unsafe place to tread.

The AHRC is aware that with a fallen system as it is in Sri Lanka, it would be difficult for the Sri Lankan authorities to be successful in an attempt to contain a serious situation of law enforcement officers involving in grave crimes, without external help. Help is readily available, from international agencies like the United Nations and even from other developed countries. However, it is for the authorities in Sri Lanka to admit their limitations, pack-up all egos and try to put an end to the corrupt law enforcement agencies the country has been suffering from for the last few decades. Such an attempt will in fact ease the authorities in Sri Lanka from being accused as doing a poor job and will also bring certain amount of transparency. However, it for the authorities in Sri Lanka to decide how they want to bring an end to the current situation.

The AHRC hope and will support all further sensible moves by the Chief of Police to put an end to the grave situation the law enforcement agencies in Sri Lanka are now in. To start with the Chief of Police must divulge the identities of the officers who are currently held for abducting and murdering civilians. The Chief of Police must also make it public what his government and department plan to do about the cases that has been identified as instances where law enforcement officers were involved with abduction, murder and extortion. The authorities must also make sure that there is a proper complaint mechanism that accepts complaints and investigate cases against officers and keep the complainant informed about the progress of such an investigation.

It is these primary but most essential steps that will later decide how far the authorities are serious in dealing with this terrible situation. The AHRC will continue monitoring the situation and expects that authorities in Sri Lanka will be serious and honest in its immediate attempts to contain this grave situation haunting the country and its people.