Sri Lanka: Civil society organisations deeply concerned by unfolding catastrophe

WLUML Networkers
The humanitarian crisis in northern Sri Lanka has been highlighted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Sir John Holmes, as well as by UN agencies in Sri Lanka.
All have raised concerns regarding the critical situation confronting the over 300,000 displaced persons presently trapped within the Vanni.
As civil society organizations that have consistently highlighted the intensifying humanitarian crisis in the north of Sri Lanka and that are deeply concerned about the immense civilian suffering, we once again appeal to the Government of Sri Lanka, the LTTE and the international community to take immediate steps to respond effectively to the unfolding catastrophe.

There are very few independent reports regarding the situation, due to the denial of access to media and humanitarian agencies to the conflict zones. The few reports that have reached the outside world since Monday January 26, 2009, point to the gravity of the situation.

An Urgent Appeal has been issued in the name of the Regional Director of Health Services in Mullaitivu, the area most recently captured by the Sri Lankan security forces, calling for the most basic of medical supplies to be sent to the region immediately. The report highlights the killing of around 300 IDPs within the last few days, injuries to many more and that others are not accounted for. Basic emergency medical care for the injured is not available due to the lack of essential drugs and services in Mullaitivu and surrounding areas where the fighting is heaviest. Heavy fighting and travel restrictions imposed by the fighting forces prevent the health authorities from transferring the injured to hospitals outside the conflict zones.

The humanitarian crisis in northern Sri Lanka has been highlighted by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Sir John Holmes, as well as by UN agencies in Sri Lanka, by the Jaffna Bishop Saundranayagam and by the ICRC.

The ICRC in a press release on January 27 quoted Jacques de Maio, ICRC head of operations for South Asia in Geneva "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. "

The few thousand civilians who have managed to flee the Vanni are detained in camps in Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna under the guard of the security forces, reportedly for screening to ensure that LTTE cadre do not infiltrate the south of the country. There are restrictions on the freedom of movement of those within these camps, and very limited access to extended family members and humanitarian workers, thus seriously compromising the ‘civilian’ aspect of these camps.

Recently there have also been individual reports of acts of violence and human rights abuse from within some of these camps. The continuing denial of access to the camps has been reinforced by their demarcation as high security zones, making any independent confirmation of this information impossible. The high level of impunity and lack of credible and independent investigations into incidents of abduction, disappearance and extra-judicial killings in Vavuniya and Mannar over the past months deter any witnesses to such human rights abuses from coming forward to report or seek redress.

As the fighting intensifies over the coming days, and the civilians get trapped into smaller spaces, we are gravely concerned that the casualties will mount and that the overall humanitarian situation will deteriorate even further. Hence we urge immediate action.

We call upon the Government:

To permit an international mission of mercy immediate access to the Vanni in order to enable an accurate assessment of the humanitarian and protection needs of the people of the Vanni.

To ensure urgent delivery of food and medicine to the Mullaitivu area and allow for the passage of medical convoys

To ensure that the security forces respect areas which are demarcated as safe zones

We call upon the LTTE:

To allow civilians freedom of movement and respect their right to move out of the conflict zones

To ensure its cadres respect areas which are demarcated as safe zones

To allow the passage of medical convoys

We call on the international community:

To extend its cooperation to the Government of Sri Lanka in protecting civilians by preparing an international mission of mercy with immediate effect

To unreservedly impress upon the LTTE to permit civilians trapped within the conflict zone to leave the area

Dated: January 29 2009

Signed by a group of civil society organisations including:
Centre for Policy Alternatives
Citizen Committee for Displaced People
Home for Human Rights
INFORM Human Rights Documentation
Mothers and Daughters of Lanka
Rights Now Collective for Democracy
Women & Media Collective
Women Living Under Muslim Laws – International Solidarity Network
and more…