[The weekly commentary and analysis of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) on human rights and governance issues]

Embargoed for: 25 October 2006
Review: 138/06

Don't make another Darfur: Geneva Talks for Peace in Sri Lanka

The representatives of the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have already reached Switzerland for holding talks on 28-29 October 2006 to explore the possibilities to salvage the shattered peace process. According to the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry a total of 2,735 people, including 664 civilians were killed between 1 December 2005 and 10 October 2006.

Approximately 200,000 persons have been displaced in the conflicts since July 2006 and they have been regularly denied access to regular or sufficient humanitarian assistance. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) earlier stated that between April and 20 August 2006, about 162,000 people have been internally displaced, while 7,439 sought refuge in Tamil Nadu, India. On 31 August 2006, Office of United Nations Humanitarian Agency made an inter-agency appeal for $37.5 million to provide food, water, protection and other urgent assistance. On 5 October 2006, North Ceylon Association of Journalists stated that 39,000 children under the age of five were facing malnutrition in Jaffna due to severe shortage of infant food including milk. The conflict has since intensified.

Surging violence and a spate of killings of aid workers have severely restricted urgent humanitarian work in both government and rebel-held areas of North and eastern parts of Sri Lanka.

While no major breakthrough is expected from the proposed talks being held without any agenda, the peace mediators must focus on the cessation of hostilities and full and unrestricted access to humanitarian aid.

In this issue, ACHR WEEKLY REVIEW highlights the crisis faced by humanitarian agencies.

I. Denial of access to the humanitarian agencies

Since the war escalated in July 2006, the Sri Lankan government has imposed an undeclared embargo on humanitarian assistance to the LTTE controlled areas. Incessant military conflicts have made it more difficult for humanitarian agencies to deliver aid.

Access to Vanni region remained restricted since 11 August 2006. There have been severe shortages of food, water and medical supplies/equipment in hospitals. Fuel was in short supply and being sold at 400% its normal price. Pipe borne water was reported to be available only for 4 hours per day. On 5 September 2006, the consortium of NGOs in Jaffna urged the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to re-open the A9 road without delay and allow the transportation of the essential items to Jaffna. The closure of A9 road until mid-October, the only trunk road to Jaffna from rest of Sri Lanka, halted the flow of essential food provisions and medical supplies to Jaffna Peninsula. The child specialists attached to the Jaffna Teaching hospital warned that many of the children in the Jaffna Peninsula were affected by malnutrition as the provision sent by the government of Sri Lanka was inadequate and only could fulfill 25% of the entire need of nutrition.

There have been several instances when access has not been given to provide food and other emergency materials.

On 4 August 2006, a food convoy led by the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) from Trincomalee town to Muttur to supply food materials to the displaced civilians was stopped at Kantalai by the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) personnel on security grounds. The convoy comprising 16 trucks with food materials, four ICRC vehicles and two ambulances were left stranded in Kantalai town.

On 9 August 2006, soldiers of the Kajuwatta Camp allegedly barred eight lorries of NGOs carrying food and other essentials supplies for IDPs in the LTTE controlled Vaharai. Around 35,000 Tamils including children, elderly, and pregnant women displaced from Muttur East area have taken refuge in Vaharai area.

Again the ICRC relief was blocked at the Mankerni checkpoint and the Panichchankerni checkpoint for two days on 8 and 9 August 2006 respectively. Besides, the UN aid was also blocked by the SLA personnel at checkpoints in Somapura and Kiliveddi.

Again on 11 August 2006, soldiers of Mankerni army camp in Batticaloa district reportedly refused permission for a food convoy of more than ten vehicles being taken to the LTTE controlled Vaharai area by the South Indian Church.

On the evening of 12 August 2006, the SLA personnel reportedly closed all the entry points to and from the LTTE controlled areas in Batticaloa District with the exception of the A-15 highway which links Trincomalee and Batticaloa. All civilian traffic has been blocked as well.

Again around mid-August 2006, the SLA personnel refused the government agent of Jaffna District to transport injured civilians in Thenmaradchi to the hospital and remove the dead bodies from the area. Thousand of civilians who were trapped between the Forward Defense Line of Nagar Kogil, Muhamalai and Kilaly area were also not allowed to move out. Due to continuous curfew, the civilians injured Mankumban, Allaippiddy and Mandaithivu in Jaffna could not be provided medical treatment.

On 29 September 2006, the government dispatched the first consignment of drugs to the LTTE held territory in Mannar district since the closure of Uyilankulam checkpoint after fighting between the Sri Lankan government troops and the LTTE broke out on 11 August 2006.

II. Physical attacks on the aid workers

Restrictions and physical attacks on the aid workers have forced several agencies, including Oxfam, Care and Caritas, to temporarily suspend their relief operations.

In the worst case of attacks on aid workers, 17 employees of Action Contre La Faim or Action Against Hunger were killed on 5 August 2006 at Muttur town in Trincomalee district allegedly by the Sri Lanka Army soldiers who entered the town in the early morning on the day. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission pointed the needle of suspicion towards the security forces.

On 8 August 2006, a group of armed men reportedly hijacked a vehicle of the Sri Lanka Red Cross (SLRC) on its return after conducting mobile medical camp from the LTTE controlled territory Arippu in Musali division in Mannar district. The occupants of the vehicle, a medical officer, dispenser and the driver were asked to get down from the vehicle. Thereafter armed men drove the vehicle away.

On 20 August 2006, gunmen riding motorbike reportedly shot dead a Sri Lanka Red Cross employee, Nagarasa Thavaranjitham at his residence in Chettikulam, Vavuniya.

On 24 August 2006, unidentified armed men reportedly shot dead 29 year-old P. Jestly Julian, a worker employed by an UN agency UNOPS, at Munaiyoorkalam in Thambiluvil in Amparai district.

On 12 September 2006, a Tamil relief worker identified as Ragunathan Ramalingam working for the Seattle-based non-profit group World Concern was killed by unidentified men while returning to his office in the Trincomalee district.

On 30 September 2006, a hand grenade exploded outside the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Jaffna that caused “material damage" but no one was hurt in the attack.

III. An unwise move

Sri Lanka is currently contemplating to bring a legislation to ban NGOs that are allegedly found to be working against the national security and territorial integrity of the country. On 3 September 2006, Sri Lanka's central bank froze the accounts of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) amounting to about US$2 million (euro1.5 million). The TRO has been accused of facilitating the military activities of the LTTE.

It is in Sri Lanka's interest not to make Northern and Eastern province of Sri Lanka into another Darfur. The military conflicts do not justify the restrictions, threats and physical attacks on the humanitarian workers and agencies. These practices must stop forthwith.

At the same time, the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE must agree for immediate cessation of hostilities and development of mechanisms to enforce the cease-fire agreement.

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