The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in a statement on 28 January 2009 alerts the unfolding of a major humanitarian crisis:
“Hundreds of people have been killed and scores of wounded are overwhelming understaffed and ill-equipped medical facilities … People are being caught in the crossfire, hospitals and ambulances have been hit by shelling and several aid workers have been injured while evacuating the wounded.”
We also raise our serious concern about the safety and welfare of the civilian population of the Vanni who have been repeatedly displaced in recent months and have suffered untold hardship fleeing aerial bombardment and artillery shelling with inadequate access to food, shelter and medicine.
The LTTE is responsible for forcing the civilian population to retreat with them into parts of Mullaitivu under its control. Here the Red Cross and United Nations estimate that around 250,000 civilians are currently trapped in and around the direct line of the GOSL military offensive and the firing line of the LTTE. We have received reports that any attempt to leave this area carries the risk of death at the hands of the LTTE who are using these civilians as human shields.
However, the “safe zone” established by the GOSL is inadequate. The civilians who managed to escape to the safe zone face extreme risk and have become victims of indiscriminate fire. The GOSL claims that such bombardment is in response to LTTE artillery firing from near the safe zones; this does not justify the GOSL’s actions and such claims reveal the GOSL’s determination to pursue its war agenda at any cost. Furthermore, the GOSL should take immediate steps to show that it is concerned about the fate of Tamil civilians, including the rights of those who flee Mullaitivu.
Recognising the grave dangers to civilians, the Bishop of Jaffna, Rt. Rev. Dr. Thomas Savundaranayagam in a letter dated 25 Jan 2009 to the President urging larger safe zones, has made the following plea:
“We are also urgently requesting the Tamil Tigers not to station themselves among the people in the safety zone and fire their artillery-shells and rockets at the Army. This will only increase more and more the death of civilians thus endangering the safety of the people. I insist that both parties must observe the safety zone strictly.”
The LTTE’s use of civilians as human shields and deadly efforts to prevent civilians fleeing the war zone are unacceptable and clearly violate the laws of war. Despite this, it is the Sri Lankan state’s duty to ensure the safety and protection of all of its citizens. Civilian protection must take priority over military objectives. The GOSL should immediately prioritize addressing the escalating number of civilian deaths, the inability of injured civilians to reach areas of safety and medical care, and the sheer fear and terror experienced by the trapped civilian population.
The international community, as evident from their statements on the humanitarian situation, is aware of the mounting humanitarian catastrophe. There needs to be further concerted international pressure to prevail upon the GOSL and the LTTE to ensure the safety of the civilian population.
We therefore appeal to the United Nations and the UN Agencies, governments engaged with the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka including the State Government of Tamil Nadu, and international humanitarian organizations to:
• pressure the GOSL to create additional and more effective safe zones;
• demand that the GOSL and the LTTE establish corridors of safety with associated cessation of hostilities in areas necessary to allow for the safe passage of civilians to secure areas;
• demand that international organizations such as UNHCR and ICRC are given full access to provide adequate care for the civilian population;
• demand that neither the armed forces nor armed groups violate the rights of the displaced civilians arriving in government controlled areas;
• demand that both the GOSL and the LTTE ensure the Geneva Conventions are adhered to in the treatment of civilians; as well as any LTTE cadres that surrender or are captured by security forces and members of the security forces captured by the LTTE, including the right to life and humane treatment of the prisoners of war.
1. Sri Lanka Democracy Forum (SLDF)
2. Sri Lanka Islamic Forum (SLIF), UK
3. International Network of Sri Lankan Diaspora (INSD)
4. Sri Lanka Association – Stuttgart, Germany
5. Committee for Democracy and Justice, UK
6. Canadian Democratic League, Canada
7. Sri Lanka Circle – Berlin, Germany
8. Thenee – Tamil Website (web link: www.thenee.com / www.theneeweb.de / www.thenee.eu)
9. Uthayam Newspaper, Australia
10. Vaikarai Newspaper, Canada
11. Parai Magazine, Norway
12. Uyirnizhal – A Tamil Political Literary Magazine (www.uyirnizhal.com), France
13. Uyirmei – A Tamil Political Literary Magazine, Norway
14. South Asia Solidarity Group, UK
15. Free Media, Norway
16. South Asia Solidarity Initiative (SASI), USA