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Sri Lankan gov’t and LTTE must guarantee freedom of movement for humanitarian workers, etc.

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As confrontations between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) continue in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, humanitarian workers, peace activists and journalists are being systematically attacked, threatened, restricted and obstructed from carrying out their activities. FORUM-ASIA calls on the warring parties to guarantee the safety and ensure freedom for humanitarian workers, peace activists and journalists, and for the United Nations to urgently intervene to bridge the widening protection and monitoring gap.

FORUM-ASIA expresses its deep concern about the serious attacks, threats and restrictions facing humanitarian workers, peace activists and journalists in Sri Lanka, as a consequence of the escalating confrontations between the Government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The killing of the Mr Kethesh Loganathn, Deputy Secretary General of the Government’s Peace Secretariat, the massacre of 17 humanitarian workers of the French NGO Action Contre la Faim, the murder Mr Sathasivam Baskaram, a distributor for the Tamil newspaper Uthayan – all within the month of August – reflect the extreme dangers faced by humanitarian workers, peace activists and journalists.

These killings are part of a wave of violence in 2006. Offices of three non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were subjected to grenade attacks while staff and vehicles, including ambulances, were directly attacked several times. Humanitarian workers have also been killed and injured in claymore mine explosions, while the fate of several others who had been abducted remains unknown after several months. Furthermore, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) have been attacked, and staff of the National Human Rights Commission in Jaffna have received death threats. Journalists have been murdered and newspaper offices attacked and raided.  

We are also extremely alarmed at reports that staff of humanitarian NGOs working in the Northern and Eastern provinces of the country have been harassed and threatened with arrest by government security forces, demanding permits by the Ministry of Defense (MOD), which the MOD headquarters have claimed is not required.  According to existing regulations, if international humanitarian staff would not be granted work permits by 1 September, it could result in a further reduction of NGO staff and will drastically affect crucial humanitarian work in conflict areas. NGOs, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and even the SLMM have been restricted from travelling to affected areas and having access to persons and communities affected by the conflict. These restrictions continue to deny civilians affected by the violence of much-needed humanitarian assistance, and to leave them more exposed to human rights violations.

Journalists too have been prevented from accessing areas in the north and east of the country, and particularly, Tamil media have been facing serious harassment. Four employees of the Jaffna-based Uthayan newspaper have been killed, newspaper premises have been bombed, and two warehouses containing electronic and newsprint equipment burnt. Offices of another Tamil newspaper, Surdaroli in Colombo have been raided by the army, and distributors of both newspapers have received death threats.

There have also been series of attacks on peace activities organised in major cities outside the theatre of war. In Kandy, two such events were obstructed and organisers of events were physically and verbally attacked by a group claiming to be from the all-Buddhist monk political party, Jathika Hela Urumaya. In Colombo last week, a group of Buddhist monks representing the National Bhikku Conference obstructed a peace rally by intruding onto the main stage, as around 5,000 people including religious leaders, prominent civil society activists and politicians appealed for peace. The inability or unwillingness of the law enforcement authorities to stop this intrusion led to scuffles between the organisers and intruders.

While we welcome statements made by the government and the LTTE condemning some of the incidents, we regret that no one has been held accountable so far. Continuing impunity serves as license for more threats and attacks. Investigations into these attacks must be given the highest priority, findings must be made public and those responsible held accountable.

It is clear that these attacks, threats and restrictions are part of a concerted effort to cleanse the conflict area of humanitarian workers, independent monitors and journalists—without whom the conflicting parties will be left with room for more widespread violations and abuse of humanitarian and human rights laws. In the face of rising attacks, threats and restrictions which severely impede their operations, several NGOs as well as some offices of the SLMM are being withdrawn from the conflict areas. On 1 September, the strength of the SLMM will be reduced in half, as monitors from the European Union countries of Sweden, Denmark and Finland will withdraw their monitors.

In addition to the negative impact on urgent and essential humanitarian assistance, the reduced presence of NGOs and the SLMM will further widen the huge protection and monitoring gap. The National Human Rights Commission remains crippled without legitimate and credible leadership, while there are questions about the independence and consistency of the LTTE-backed North East Secretariat on Human Rights (NESOHR). In the last few months, rather than engage in activities that will restore peace, the Peace Secretariats of both the government and LTTE have been reduced to disseminating reports of abuses by the other party to justify further military operations by each side.

In this context, we urge the government to urgently call on the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to expand its presence in the island, particularly in the Northern and Eastern provinces, in line with the recommendations of local and international activists and by the UN independent expert on extrajudicial killings. The government should also immediately invite relevant UN human rights experts, such as the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders and on Internally Displaced Persons to visit the country to asses the situation and make recommendations. This would be an indication of the government’s readiness, as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, to cooperate with the UN human rights mechanism. The LTTE should also cooperate fully with such UN experts and staff, particularly by granting them unrestricted and independent access to areas under their control.

The UN Human Rights Council should also seriously consider the situation in Sri Lanka during its 2nd session in September and act decisively. The Human Rights Council’s ability to act on Sri Lanka will serve as an acid test of its ability to acknowledge and respond to the despair or outrage when national protection systems fail.

We call on the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to fully respect international human rights and humanitarian law, beginning with guaranteeing the security of humanitarian workers, peace activists and journalists. Both parties must ensure that these have free and unimpeded access areas and persons affected by the ongoing conflict. Finally, we add our voice to calls from many sectors for both parties to stop the de facto war and return to the negotiations. The restoration of the ceasefire is the best protection for civilian communities and organisations against abuses arising from conflict.

For further details, please contact Ruki Fernando (+66-4-0991538 / [email protected])