SRI LANKA: U.N. Urged to Intervene to Protect Civilians

By Haider Rizvi | Inter Press Service

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 27 (IPS) – The fast deteriorating humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka – caused by the lingering armed conflict between the government and rebel forces – demands immediate action on the part of the U.N., a leading international human rights organisation said Friday.

The call for U.N. help comes as tens of thousands of civilians in Sri Lanka’s northern region have been caught up in a fresh round of fighting between Sinhalese majority-led armed forces and minority Tamil militants seeking freedom from the centre.

“The escalating humanitarian situation there needs an urgent Security Council response,” said Anna Neistat of the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, which works closely with U.N. rights bodies.

During a recent two-week trip to the conflict zone in the north of Sri Lanka, Neistat observed that many civilians were forced to flee areas controlled by Tamil fighters, only to get trapped in military camps run by the government.

Her statement came just a few hours after the top U.N. humanitarian official, John Holmes, briefed the 15-member U.N. Security Council about how much pain and suffering the Sri Lankan civilians were enduring as a result of the armed conflict.

In his visit to the north, Holmes urged combatants on both sides to make greater efforts to stop the rising toll of civilian casualties and to protect the people trapped in areas held by rebel fighters.

According to U.N. reports, thousands of Sri Lankans are fleeing Vanni, where government forces are in the midst of a fierce armed offensive against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The U.N. emergency relief fund has targeted 10 million dollars to assist civilians who have fallen victim to the fresh round of fighting between the army and the LTTE militants.

“I am desperately concerned about this humanitarian situation,” said Holmes at the end of his three-day visit to Sri Lanka to assess the humanitarian situation.

According to the U.N., due to the conflict tens of thousands of people in the north have been deprived of food and medical assistance. During his visit, Holmes urged rebels to let civilians move freely and pressed the government to ensure a “peaceful, orderly and humane end” to the conflict.

Sri Lanka has been mired in ethnic violence between the Sinhalese-dominated national army and the LTTE rebels for more than three decades. The armed conflict has taken tens of thousands of lives, and is considered one of the deadliest in the world.

Last month, government forces captured a major stronghold of the Tamil rebels. President Mahinda Rajapakse called it an unparalleled victory and said he wanted the rebels to surrender.

A ceasefire between the government and the rebel forces in late 2002 raised hopes for a lasting settlement. But peace talks stalled and monitors reported open violations of the truce by the government and Tamil Tiger rebels.

The current round of fighting, which started last December, has trapped some 250,000 civilians in the conflict zone, with more than 30,000 already seeking shelter outside their native towns and villages.

Holmes said during his visit he found that most of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) were mentally and physically exhausted after weeks of sheltering in makeshift bunkers, but that their basic needs were met.

HRW and other human rights organisations say they want the U.N. Security Council to address the situation in Sri Lanka in accordance with international humanitarian law “without any delay.”

“People who flee abuses by the Tamil Tigers should not have to fear abuses by the government forces,” said Neistat. “But so long as international agencies are kept away from the screening process, they will have reason to be afraid.”

Considering the fact that a number of journalists have been killed in recent weeks and months, she may be right. The London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International claims that at least 10 media workers have been killed in Sri Lanka since 2006. Many of the killings have been linked by observers to the military and other law-enforcement agencies in Colombo.

In its annual press freedom index last year, the media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters without Borders) ranked Sri Lanka 165 out of 173 countries.

Some reports from the region suggest that the Indian government is trying to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government to end its military operations in Tamil-dominated area, but whether it will be successful remains unclear.

Diplomatic observers who are knowledgeable about Sri Lanka’s internal conflict say that, at the moment, they do not expect that the U.N. Security Council is ready to send a peacekeeping force to that country.

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