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Besieged , displaced, and Detained.!

Besieged, Displaced, and Detained

The Plight of Civilians in Sri Lanka’s Vanni Region

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  1. Besieged, Displaced, and Detained
  2. The Plight of Civilians in Sri Lanka’s Vanni Region

 

  1. Map of Sri Lanka …………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 1
  2.  
  3. Summary…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………2
  4. Note on Methodology………………………………………………………………………………………………4
  5. Background: Return to War ………………………………………………………………………………………. 6

Concerns about Civilian Casualties ……………………………………………………………………………7

 

III. Government Detention Camps for Displaced Persons………………………………………………….. 10

Kalimoddai and Sirunkandal detention camps ………………………………………………………….. 10

International law on detaining displaced persons ……………………………………………………… 15

Proposed expansion of the detention policy……………………………………………………………… 16

Detention of recent arrivals in Vavuniya and Jaffna ……………………………………………………..20

 

A Note on Displacement and Other Figures Used in this Report………………………………………….23

  1. Humanitarian Needs in the Vanni and the Forced Departure of the United Nations and

Humanitarian Agencies ……………………………………………………………………………………………….25

Current humanitarian needs in the Vanni ………………………………………………………………….25

Government orders the UN and aid agencies to leave ………………………………………………….34

Government hostility toward the humanitarian community…………………………………………..36

Humanitarian impact of the UN/NGO withdrawal………………………………………………………..40

 

  1. Recommendations ………………………………………………………………………………………………….46

To the Government of Sri Lanka……………………………………………………………………………….46

To the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) (see our report Trapped and Mistreated for

additional recommendations) …………………………………………………………………………………47

To the co-chairs of the Tokyo Donors’ Conference (Japan, the European Union, Norway, and

the United States) and the World Bank, India, the United Kingdom, and the United Nations 47

 

Acknowledgements………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 48

 

Map of Sri Lanka

 

Summary

Several hundred thousand ethnic Tamil civilians are currently trapped in intensifying fighting between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the LTTE’s northern stronghold, known as the Vanni.1 As the LTTE has lost ground to advancing government forces, civilians have been squeezed into a shrinking conflict zone. The encroaching fighting has left many homeless, hungry, and sick, and placed their lives increasingly in danger.

 

2.The war in northern Sri Lanka receives little attention in the international media, in part because foreign journalists have not had independent access to the Vanni since fighting intensified in mid-2007. Independent human rights monitors are similarly prevented by the government and the LTTE from going to the area. As a result, the continuing suffering of the people of the Vanni remains largely unknown to the rest of the world.

 

  1. This report details the Sri Lankan government’s responsibility for the plight of
  2. displaced civilians in the Vanni, focusing on the humanitarian crisis created by
  3. sweeping government restrictions on humanitarian access and the government’s
  4. policy of indefinitely detaining virtually all civilians fleeing from LTTE-controlled areasin military-guarded camps.
  5. The LTTE has forcibly blocked civilians in areas under its control from crossing into government-held territory, compelling them to move with retreating LTTE forces. As a result, only about a thousand civilians from the Vanni have managed to reach noncombat zones—and most of these, including many families, have been detained in government camps. The LTTE also has continued to force civilians, including children, to join LTTE ranks and to carry out abusive forced labor.
  6. 1 Sometimes also spelled “Wanni.” The Vanni comprises parts of the districts of Kilinochchi (to the north), Mullaitivu (east),

Mannar (west), and Vavuniya (south).

 

2 At the time of writing, the majority of LTTE fighters and the civilian population of the Vanni (who were forced to flee with the

LTTE, see below) are mainly based in a small area of land east of the main A9 highway, between the A35 and A34 roads, east of

the road that runs from Puthukkudiyiruppu and Oddusuddan (see map).

 

 

In September 2008, Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ordered the United Nations (UN) and international humanitarian agencies to leave the Vanni. This policy has drastically worsened the plight of the civilian population, significantly reducing prospects that essential food, shelter, water, sanitation, and health care would reach affected individuals. Cyclone Nisha, which hit the area to devastating effect in late November, had a greater impact because of these restrictions.

With humanitarian and civilian movement in and out of the Vanni greatly restricted by both the Sri Lankan authorities and the LTTE, affected communities find it increasingly difficult to obtain desperately needed humanitarian assistance.

 

  1. While the government claims the withdrawal of UN and humanitarian agency staff
  2. was necessary to ensure their safety, such agencies work in many conflicts around

the world where their security is at greater risk. Sri Lankan officials also have shown overt hostility to outside agencies and humanitarian staff in recent months, suggesting that political considerations or a desire to remove independent observers from the scene might also have been behind the ouster. Human Rights Watch recognizes that continuing fighting in the region raises legitimate security concerns, but urges that UN and humanitarian agencies be allowed to make their own, professional assessments of the risks. Instead of a blanket ban, any restrictions should be implemented on a case-by-case basis and only where there is a situationspecific reason for the restriction. The government should urgently engage in good faith discussions with the UN and humanitarian agencies about allowing them back to assist civilians in need.

 

Civilians seeking to flee the fighting in the Vanni also continue to be fearful of their treatment by government authorities. The Sri Lankan government has established a policy of detaining civilians fleeing LTTE-controlled areas in search of safety. Most of the families and individuals stopped while crossing into government-controlled areas have been detained indefinitely in military-run camps.

  1. Virtually all Vanni residents are ethnic Tamils who have relatives—by choice or compulsion—in the LTTE.
  2. 3 When displaced persons from the Vanni began arriving in Jaffna district in November 2008, the Sri Lankan authorities
  3. detained dozens in the regular Jaffna prison alongside convicted criminals, as discussed below. Officials have reason to vet new arrivals to ensure that LTTE fighters are not disguised among them, but at present all who cross, including entire families, are

being detained indefinitely in camps with little prospect of joining relatives or host families elsewhere in Sri Lanka. This makes them particularly vulnerable to extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and other human rights abuses rampant in government-controlled territory.4 Forced to remain, and too fearful to flee, many are now also beyond the reach of the humanitarian agencies who seek to assist them. The government should immediately end the arbitrary detention of civilians seeking to flee the conflict.

As noted above, the Sri Lankan government does not bear sole responsibility for the plight of civilians in the Vanni. On December 15, 2008, Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting LTTE abuses against the civilian population, including preventing civilians fleeing combat zones, and the use of forced recruiting and abusive forced labor.5 But the government’s policies are greatly exacerbating what has become a desperate situation for many. Donors and other governments should press Sri Lanka to immediately reestablish full humanitarian access and allow civilians freedom of movement.

 

Note on Methodology

This report is based on research conducted by Human Rights Watch in Sri Lanka between October and December 2008, including in Vavuniya and Mannar districts in October 2008. More than 35 in-depth interviews were conducted with officials from United Nations agencies, international and local humanitarian organizations, regional and local analysts, diplomatic representatives, religious leaders, and ordinary civilians affected by the conflict. Human Rights Watch also obtained and reviewed internal and public documents related to the crisis in the Vanni. Following the research mission, follow-upinterviews were conducted over the telephone and other secure means of communications. Because of concerns of official backlash and security considerations, we have withheld the names of some sources.

4 Human Rights Watch, Recurring Nightmare: State Responsibility for “Disappearances” and Abductions in Sri Lanka, March 5,

  1. Human Rights Watch interview with humanitarian official, Vavuniya, October 14, 2008; Human Rights Watch interview

with priest who works in the Vanni, Vavuniya, October 16, 2008.

5 Human Rights Watch, Trapped and Mistreated: LTTE Abuses Against Civilians in the Vanni, December 15, 2008, available at

http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2008/12/15/trapped-and-mistreated

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

  1. Background: Return to War

 

  1. By mid-2006, the 2002 ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lankan government and
  2. the LTTE was in tatters, as major military operations by both sides resumed in the
  3. country’s north and east. Initial fighting occurred in the northern Jaffna peninsula
  4. and Trincomalee district, before the Sri Lankan army undertook an offensive against LTTE-controlled areas of Batticaloa district in the east. In July 2007, the Sri Lankan government announced the “liberation” of eastern Sri Lanka from the LTTE6 and refocused its military offensive on the LTTE’s stronghold in the north, the Vanni. The Sri Lankan armed forces first sought to take control of the western seaside district of Mannar, and by early 2008 they began retaking territory in the Vanni itself. Sri Lankan forces made significant gains against the LTTE, and by October 2008 had recaptured most of the territory west of the main north-south A9 highway that divides the Vanni.
  5. As government forces advanced, the LTTE withdrew to fortified positions in the
  6. jungles east of the A9 highway. With most of western Vanni under government
  7. control, Sri Lankan forces converged on the LTTE administrative headquarters of
  8. Kilinochchi. Despite numerous government claims that Kilinochchi would soon fall,7 at the time of writing, government and LTTE forces remained dug in. Casualty information from either side is rarely credible, but the government decision in mid- October to stop releasing its military casualty figures suggests that its own losses may be high.
  9. 6 Human Rights Watch press release, “Sri Lanka: Human Rights Situation Deteriorating in the East: Armed Faction is Killing,

Kidnapping Civilians,” November 24, 2008, available at http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/11/24/sri-lanka-human-rightssituation-

deteriorating-east.

7 C. Bryson Hull, “Sri Lankan aid workers to return to north soon,” Reuters, September 16, 2008, quoting President Mahinda

Rajapaksa as saying, “We can crush [the LTTE].” Many such euphoric statements about the anticipated “liberation” of the

Vanni are available on the Ministry of Defense website, www.defence.lk.

­­——————————————————————————————-

 

Concerns about Civilian Casualties

All parties in Sri Lanka’s armed conflict are obliged to abide by international

humanitarian law, the laws of war.8 Because of the sharp restrictions on

humanitarian agencies, the media, and human rights groups in the Vanni, there is

very little information available on the numbers and causes of civilian casualties

from the fighting. The Sri Lankan armed forces have used heavy area shelling and

aerial bombing against the LTTE, including numerous attacks on Kilinochchi.9 The

LTTE has frequently shelled areas held by the government, including near the district

capital of Vavuniya.10 Religious officials and others have reported a significant

number of incidents with single-digit civilian casualties (see below); despite the

wide use of artillery and airpower during the recent offensive, there have been no

credible reports of individual attacks causing high civilian casualties, and nothing

comparable to the November 8, 2006, shelling of the Kathiravelli School in

Batticaloa district, investigated by Human Rights Watch, which killed 62 civilians.11

 

A number of civilian deaths from Sri Lankan artillery and air attacks have been

reported to Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch does not have information

whether LTTE forces deployed among the civilian population or the extent to which

their restrictions on civilian movement have contributed to the civilian casualties. A

Sri Lankan armed forces artillery attack on August 8, 2008, in the vicinity of the

Mullaitivu General Hospital and district offices, resulted in the death of an 18-monthold

child and injuries to at least 16 civilians, including the Mullaitivu Government

Agent, Imelda Sukumar. An August 30, 2008, artillery attack hit the Puttumurripu

displaced persons camp, nine kilometers from Kilinochchi, killing five displaced

—————————————————————————————

8 The conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE is considered a non-international armed conflict under

international humanitarian law. Applicable law includes article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and

customary international humanitarian law. Common article 3 provides minimum standards for the treatment of all persons in

custody, including prohibitions on murder, torture, and other cruel treatment, and the taking of hostages. Customary

international humanitarian law sets out, among other things, rules on the means and methods of warfare, including

prohibitions on deliberate, indiscriminate, or disproportionate attacks on civilians. International human rights law, such as

found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman

or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, is also applicable.

9 At this writing, aerial bombing has been largely suspended because cloud cover during monsoon season prevents

identification of bombing targets.

10 For example, on September 8, 2008, the LTTE fired artillery shells at the Vanni military headquarters and launched a

commando raid on the headquarters. No civilian casualties were reported. Center for Policy Alternatives, “Field Mission to

Vavuniya,” September 2008.

11 Human Rights Watch, Return to War: Human Rights Under Siege, vol. 19, no. 11 (c), August 2007.

 

persons, including two infants.12 A Sri Lankan air force bombing around Kilinochchi on October 10 killed three female civilians, including Arumainathan Chadrathevi, a 46-year-old teacher, her nine-year-old daughter Achchika, and Usha Manokaran, 33, and wounded several others.13 Other reported incidents of civilian casualties have been difficult to confirm because of the virtual prohibition on access to the Vanni put in place by both sides.

 

Sri Lankan military authorities have insisted that they abide by the requirements of

international humanitarian law by taking measures to avoid civilian casualties. So

long as access to the region is denied to independent observers, such claims cannot

be verified. Vanni residents have in any case become accustomed to the conduct of

hostilities, knowledge they have used to reduce death and injury from the fighting.

Sri Lankan army area bombardments are somewhat predictable—shells are fired in a slowly advancing grid pattern, giving civilians familiar with this tactic time to flee in advance of the shells. Aerial bombings are often preceded by spotter planes,

effectively warning the population of impending attacks. In addition, almost all

civilians in the Vanni have constructed rudimentary “bunker” shelters, often on the

orders of the LTTE. And the LTTE in September relocated all civilians from its

embattled administrative center Kilinochchi after the town came under sustained

government bombardment; Kilinochchi’s hospital functioned until late October,

when its patients and staff were transferred to Dharmpuram.

 

Civilians trapped in the Vanni also face battlefield dangers beyond the

bombardments, including from ground combat between the LTTE and Sri Lankan

armed forces; incursions by so-called Deep Penetration Units of the Sri Lankan army that have been blamed for a number of killings of civilians; and the widespread use of Claymore mines, often triggered by tripwires that do not distinguish between military targets and civilians.14 And humanitarian agencies have expressed concern

 

12 The dead were: Karuppaih Anatharajah, 28, and his son Anatharajah Gowtham, 2; Thilakeshvari Visvathan, 27, and her onemonth-

old baby; and Alagesan Luka Pathamalatha, 28. Several others were wounded.

13 Human Rights Watch interview with religious official, Mannar, October 17, 2008; Internal humanitarian briefing note on the

Vanni, September 18, 2008, on file with Human Rights Watch.

14 A claymore mine is placed above ground, and when it detonates it sprays deadly shrapnel in one direction. Although the

limited use of command-detonated claymore mines against military targets under strictly prescribed conditions is permitted

under the treaties governing the use of mines, the use of “victim-detonated” claymore mines—in other words, those

that continual displacement and constant exposure to shelling, bombing, and

ground-fire have caused large-scale psychosocial trauma among the displaced

population, particularly children.15

 

As the civilian population becomes more concentrated in a smaller area of land, and the fighting moves towards them, the potential for large-scale civilian casualties will greatly increase. Both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan security forces have an obligation under international humanitarian law to allow civilians to leave areas where combatants are deployed, and to take all feasible precautions to minimize the risk to the civilian population.

 

detonated by a victim touching a tripwire—is strictly prohibited. International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Landmine Monitor

Report 2008: Towards a Mine-Free World, Sri Lanka country chapter, November 2008.

15 Presentation on UN interagency assessment mission of October 17-18, 2008, on file with Human Rights Watch.

III. Government Detention Camps for Displaced Persons

Kalimoddai and Sirunkandal detention camps

 

In the past year, despite the massive forced displacement of civilians in the Vanni,

only about a thousand people have crossed LTTE lines into so-called “cleared areas” under government control. Civilians in the Vanni who manage to elude LTTE forced recruitment and labor, and other restrictions on their movement,16 and reach government areas find they face great risks to their life and liberty. These include the danger of extrajudicial killing and enforced disappeance by government security forces and allied paramilitary groups, and long-term detention in poor conditions in government camps.

 

Since March 2008, Sri Lankan security forces have detained almost all ethnic Tamil civilians fleeing the Vanni, intercepting them when they approach governmentcontrolled areas. Active fighting around the main A9 road and numerous government and LTTE checkpoints, and the widespread use of landmines by both sides have made travel overland extremely difficult and dangerous. As a result, until the mid- November 2008 LTTE withdrawal from northern Vavuniya district, most civilians fleeing the Vanni did so by sea, bribing local fishermen to take them by boat to the port town of Trincomalee or other government-controlled areas. Small numbers of civilians fleeing the Vanni still attempt to bypass the government security cordon to live in the predominantly Tamil areas of Mannar or Vavuniya, but they face arrest if identified. Following the mid-November 2008 withdrawal of the LTTE from northern Vavuniya district, several hundred civilians who approached the official government checkpoint at Omanthai just north of Vavuniya town were promptly detained and

placed into camps (see below).

 

Tamil civilians seeking to flee fighting in Sri Lanka’s north during the 25-year-long civil war have long been subject to arbitrary detention in camps and other

 

 

16 See Human Rights Watch, Trapped and Mistreated: LTTE Abuses Against Civilians in the Vanni, December 15, 2008.

11 Human Rights Watch December 2008

 

 

restrictions on their freedom of movement.17 Still, most could hope to stay with

relatives or host families in other parts of Sri Lanka. The government’s March 2008 decision to establish new camps seems intended to eliminate that possibility

entirely.18 Since then, all Tamils—including whole families—fleeing the Vanni have been detained on the apparent assumption that they are a security threat. No

attempt is made by Sri Lankan security forces to distinguish between persons with

suspected LTTE links and ordinary civilians. The only exceptions appear to be for

some local humanitarian workers and clergy, who have been able to enter and exit

the Vanni.

 

The security forces send Tamils taken into custody to two so-called “welfare centers” in Mannar district (additional camps in neighboring Vavuniya district, as discussed below, have also been established). Kalimoddai camp opened in March 2008 Sirukandal camp opened in July 2008. As of December 15, 2008, Kalimoddai housed 461 persons (202families)19 and Sirukandal housed 345 persons (153 families).20 There were 226 children (persons under 18) in both camps.21 Many of those detained are young single men who fled the Vanni to avoid forced LTTE recruitment, and families who fled to prevent the forced recruitment of their children.22

 

 

17 See, e.g., University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) (UTHR). Trincomalee: State Ideology and the

Politics of Fear, Special Report No. 8, March 7, 1997 (“[T]he most unusual step taken by the Defence

Ministry [is] confining Tamil refugees arriving from the North (Vanni) in so called welfare centres in

Vavuniya. Conditions for them to move out and go to a place of their choice in Vavuniya town, the South or

East of the same country where they are fellow citizens is governed by extremely stringent conditions.”);

UTHR, A Sovereign Will to Self-Destruct: The Continuing Saga Of Dislocation & Disintegration, Report No.

12, November 15, 1993, p. 3.1.3.3.

18 United Nations Human Rights Council, “Report of the Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of

Internallly Displaced Persons, Walter Kälin, Mission to Sri Lanka (14 to 21 December 2007),” May 21, 2008, UN Doc.

A/HRC/Add.4, para 17.

19 For the purpose of the count, “families” are defined as either family units or individuals who arrived alone—the count is

used to establish the number of “units” of persons, rather than the numbers of families in a traditional sense.

20 Human Rights Watch communication with UN official, December 15, 2008; Human Rights Watch communication with

humanitarian official, December 15, 2008.

21 This figure was last updated on November 7, 2008. Internal humanitarian report on file with Human Rights Watch.

22 Human Rights Watch interview with priest, Vavuniya, October 16, 2008

Since the establishment of the internment policy in March 2008, Sri Lankan

authorities have also detained Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who have sought to return from India via sea, and placed them in the Kalimoddai and Sirukandal camps.23 Despite repeated assurances from Sri Lankan authorities since April 2008 that many of the displaced persons detained in the two camps, particularly those originally from Trincomalee and Vavuniya districts, would be permitted to leave, as of December 15, 2008, only 65 persons had been released.24 On October 23, two persons from Kilinochchi district detained in Kalimoddai were allowed to move out of the camp to a host family in Vavuniya; on October 24, 25 persons, including three families who had been detained after returning from India, were released from Kalimoddai and Sirunkandal camps and returned to their home area of Trincomalee.25

 

The civilians in the two camps are being held against their will. The camps are

completely fenced, and are closely guarded by Sri Lankan navy and army personnel, and the police. The security forces have refused to allow the civilians to leave the camps—except under tight restrictions described below—and integrate into local communities or live with host families.

 

In echoes of LTTE population controls, individuals wishing to leave the camp for work or other reasons must request a daily pass from the security forces and leave behind another relative as “guarantor” to ensure their return.26 The security forces limit the total number of day passes given out each day and those who receive a pass must return by evening. There are also restrictions on where detainees can go. Previously they could only go to nearby Murunkan, but in November, some camp residents—but not young single detainees—were allowed to travel to Mannar town.

23 Pax Romana, “Statement on the IDP Situation in Mannar,” 8th Session of the UN Human Rights Council, June 2, 2008;

Minutes of Inter-agency Emergency Shelter Coordination Meeting, Colombo, May 26, 2008 (noting that 4 families of 12

persons total continued to be detained at Kalimoddai camp following their return from India); Internal humanitarian report on

file with Human Rights Watch.

24 Human Rights Watch communication with UN official, December 15, 2008.

25 Human Rights Watch communication with humanitarian official, December 16, 2008.

26 Ibid.

13 Human Rights Watch December 2008

 

 

 

Camp residents who are not with families cannot provide relatives as “guarantors”

and are thus almost permanently confined to the camp. In order for single men to

leave the camp, they must request special permission for a critical situation such as

a medical emergency. Ordinary daily needs such as shopping, visiting relatives and

friends, or collecting firewood do not usually qualify. On one recent occasion, a

group of single camp residents were escorted to go shopping, but such cases are the

exception. Only when enough such special individual requests have been made by

single detainees is a group allowed to leave the camp. These restrictions have at

times put the lives of detained displaced persons in danger: in September, a

detained displaced person with a heart condition had to wait three days before

being allowed to leave the camp for medical attention.27

 

Available information indicates that the restrictions on movement for displaced

persons in the camps are increasingly becoming stricter, particularly for single men.After security incidents such as escape or suicide attempts, the security forces haveprohibited young men from leaving the camp altogether for extended periods. After ayoung man went missing from Kalimoddai in October—it remains unclear whether heescaped or was abducted—virtually no single detainees were allowed to leave thecamp under any circumstances, a restriction still in place at the time of finalization ofthis report on December 15, 2008.28 The Sri Lankan security forces claim that 13camp residents have “escaped,” but detainees told humanitarian workers the menmay have been abducted or “disappeared.”29

 

At least five camp residents, all young men, have been arrested from the camps andtaken into police custody. Nothing is known about what happened to them thereafter,creating fear among other camp residents, particularly young men.

Conditions in the camps are dire and need urgent attention. Most of the detainees

live in temporary emergency tents, and Kalimodai camp is built in a low-lying area

prone to flooding in the monsoon season. There are significant concerns about

27 Ibid.

28 Human Rights Watch communication with UN official, December 15, 2008.

29 Human Rights Watch communication with humanitarian official, December 16, 2008; Internal humanitarian report on file

with Human Rights Watch.

Besieged, Displaced, and Detained 14

 

privacy and hygiene in the camps, particularly at Kalimoddai, where there is

insufficient space and facilities to house so many families. A request to move the

camp residents to a more appropriate location was submitted by the Government

Agent of Mannar, but was declined by the Sri Lankan navy on security grounds.30

No schools operate in the camps. Children allowed to attend the nearby schools in

Murunkan and Parikarikandal are only offered a limited curriculum. On November 2,

a number of students were released from Sirukandal to attend schools in Mannar,

but their parents were required to remain in the camp. At least four children—down

from at least 20 children earlier—in Kalimoddai and Sirunkandal are currently not

attending school at all because of the difficulties they face in accessing educational

opportunities.31

 

Detainees in the two camps have very limited ability to pursue livelihoods. Most are

farmers and fishermen but have no opportunity to engage in work, making them

dependent on the assistance provided.

 

Humanitarian agencies operating in the camp need prior authorization to visit the

camps, and are often questioned about the purpose of their visits. Despite the dire

needs of the detainees at the two camps, many humanitarian agencies face a

difficult dilemma. The military nature of the camps and the restrictions on freedom of

movement imposed by the government are inconsistent with international law and

basic principles on the treatment of displaced persons. Many agencies feel that

providing humanitarian assistance to displaced persons under such circumstances

would legitimize unacceptable government detention policies. As a result,

humanitarian agencies took a joint decision to limit their assistance to relief

assistance, providing emergency water and sanitation facilities, but no infrastructure

support that could make these camps permanent.32 Instead, the agencies decided to

focus on advocating for changes in the way the camps are run, particularly allowing

freedom of movement for the displaced persons.

 

30 Internal humanitarian report on file with Human Rights Watch.

31 Human Rights Watch communication with UNICEF official, December 5, 2008.

32 Human Rights Watch communication with humanitarian official, December 2, 2008.

15 Human Rights Watch December 2008

 

The decision by humanitarian agencies to limit their involvement with the detention

camps was also motivated by the wishes of the camp residents themselves, who

articulated a clear position during a series of consultations. The detainees said they

did not want the humanitarian community to provide any kind of assistance that

would result in more than a temporary stay in the camps. They did not want their

detention legitimized or made more permanent by the building of longer-term camp

structures.33

 

The detainees wish to leave the camps as soon as possible. On May 10 and 11, local

authorities conducted a survey in Kalimoddai camp (then the only camp for

displaced persons from the Vanni). Out of the then camp population of 257

individuals (115 families), only five families indicated they were undecided about

remaining in Kalimoddai. The other families indicated they wanted to leave the camp

and had alternative places to stay, including with relatives and nearby host families,

a much healthier and secure environment for displaced families.34 Though these

findings were presented to the Government Agent of Mannar at the Consultative

Committee on Humanitarian Activity (CCHA) meeting held on May 15, no action was

taken.

 

International law on detaining displaced persons

 

International human rights law and international humanitarian law during internal

armed conflicts prohibit arbitrary detention.35 The UN Guiding Principles on Internal

Displacement, an authoritative framework for the protection of displaced persons

derived from international law, provides that, consistent with the right to liberty,

internally displaced persons (IDPs) “shall not be interned in or confined to a camp.”

The principles recognize that “exceptional circumstances” may permit confinement

 

33 Human Rights Watch communication with humanitarian official, December 2, 2008.

34 Human Rights Watch press release, “Sri Lanka: End Internment of Displaced Persons: Government Illegally Holding

Civilians Fleeing Fighting in the North,” July 1, 2008.

35 See International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52,

U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force Mar. 23, 1976, article 9; International Committee of the Red Cross

(ICRC), Customary International Humanitarian Law (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), rule 99 and

accompanying text.

Besieged, Displaced, and Detained 16

 

only for so long as it is “absolutely necessary,” but the Sri Lankan government has

not demonstrated that such circumstances exist.36

 

In his May 21, 2008, report to the UN Human Rights Council on his December 2007

visit to Sri Lanka, Walter Kälin, the UN secretary-general’s representative on IDPs,

emphasized that displaced persons in Sri Lanka, “as citizens of their country,”

remained “entitled to all guarantees of international human rights and international

humanitarian law subscribed by the State.”37 His report noted that, “while the need

to address security may be a component of the plan [to receive IDPs], it should be

humanitarian and civilian in nature. In particular, IDPs’ freedom of movement must

be respected, and IDPs may not be confined to a camp” (emphasis added).38 The UN

High Commissioner for Refugees has similarly reaffirmed the rights of IDPs in an Aide

Memoire to the Sri Lankan government dated August 19, 2008 (discussed below).

The Sri Lankan security forces have a legitimate right to identify and apprehend

suspected LTTE militants found with civilians fleeing the Vanni. Suspected LTTE

militants must be treated in accordance with international standards, and not

abused, “disappeared,” or executed—a continuing problem in Sri Lanka. However,

the current blanket detention policy of the Sri Lankan government, placing anyone

fleeing the Vanni into camps, violates Sri Lanka’s obligations under international

humanitarian law and human rights law.

 

Proposed expansion of the detention policy

 

The problems faced by the approximately 800 persons displaced from the Vanni who

are currently interned in the Kalimoddai and Sirunkandal camps are not unique in Sri

Lanka. Although the vast majority of the more than 20,000 persons displaced during

the 2007 government military offensive in Mannar district were allowed to stay with

host families or in IDP camps without strict movement controls, the Sri Lankan

 

36 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2 (1998), noted in Comm. Hum. Rts. res.

1998/50, principle 12.

37 United Nations Human Rights Council, “Report of the Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of

Internally Displaced Persons, Walter Kälin, Mission to Sri Lanka (14 to 21 December 2007),” May 21, 2008, UN Doc.

A/HRC/8/6/Add.4, para. 8.

38 Ibid., para. 79.

17 Human Rights Watch December 2008

 

security forces continue to hold an estimated 400 displaced persons from the Musali

area under similar movement restrictions in the Nanattan Rice Mill and Church Land

“welfare” sites, denying them freedom of movement.39 A planned return of Musali

displaced persons to their areas of origin was suspended in early October 2008

because of concerns about the presence of uncleared mines and ordinance.40

 

In September 2008, the Sri Lankan authorities informed the UN and humanitarian

organizations that they were in the process of drawing up contingency plans to keep

up to 200,000 displaced people from the Vanni in new camps in Vavuniya district, in

case a mass outflux from the Vanni materialized.41 The government has identified

both transit sites and permanent welfare sites that it would like to use to house the

displaced persons from the Vanni around Vavuniya. Although the identification and

preparation of sites is still in process, the sites include several active schools,42

public halls,43 and three large tracts of land in Mannik Farm, Karuvalpuliyankulam,

and Kalwadinakulam that are in the process of being cleared and turned into large

“welfare centers.”44 Despite repeated requests from humanitarian agencies,

government officials have refused to clarify if the same restrictive internment policies

adopted in the Mannar-area camps would be extended to the new Vavuniya camps.

 

Whether the Sri Lankan authorities, the UN, and humanitarian organizations will be

able to meet the shelter, water and sanitation, food, education, medical, and other

needs of the displaced population in the new camps is an open question,

particularly in light of the humanitarian community’s decision to limit their

involvement in the Kalimoddai and Sirunkandal camps. Addressing these concerns

39 Internal humanitarian report on file with Human Rights Watch.

40 Human Rights Watch interview with Muslim community official, Colombo, October 8, 2008; Internal humanitarian briefing

document on file with Human Rights Watch.

41 Internal September 2008 humanitarian contingency plan meeting notes, on file with Human Rights Watch.

42 These include the Gamani Maha Vidayalayam School (active student population: 120) where three halls in disrepair could

be repaired and accommodate 120 displaced persons, and the Kalaimahal Maha Vidiyalayam School in Nellukkulam (active

student population: 2050) where one hall could accommodate 50 displaced persons. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has

raised concerns about the use of active schools with the Government Agent in Vavuniya, and reportedly received assurances

that active schools would only be used as a last resort. Internal September humanitarian contingency plan meeting notes, on

file with Human Rights Watch.

43 These include Muttaiah Hall, with space for 120 displaced persons, and Suthananda Hall, with space for 80 displaced

persons. Internal September humanitarian contingency plan meeting notes, on file with Human Rights Watch.

44 Center for Policy Alternatives, “Field Mission to Vavuniya,” September 2008.

Besieged, Displaced, and Detained 18

 

depends in large measure on whether the Sri Lankan authorities will adopt the same

unlawful restrictions on freedom of movement for the planned Vavuniya camps,

turning them into large-scale internment camps rather than IDP camps that are in

accordance with international standards.

 

According to humanitarians who have attended government meetings on the issue,

the current government plan is to receive displaced persons fleeing the Vanni at the

Omanthai military checkpoint, where all displaced persons will be screened.45 The

government agreed to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and

UNHCR to monitor the screening process.46 Those suspected of LTTE involvement will

be taken into custody, but the remaining displaced persons will not be allowed

freedom of movement; they will be first sent to military-guarded transit camps for a

period of around five days, and will then be transferred to the permanent “welfare

centers,” where they will remain for an unknown period of time under close military

guard. Sri Lankan organizations have already expressed concern that the displaced

persons will be indefinitely detained, like those at the Kallimodai and Sirunkandal

camps.47

 

In response to the government plan to create further camps for displaced persons

around Vavuniya, as well as in response to significant protection problems in other

IDP sites and with resettlement programs in the east and north, UNHCR wrote an Aide

Memoire to the Sri Lankan authorities on August 29, 2008, stating that it wished “to

take this opportunity to reiterate that it can only support IDP sites, in which the

physical safety and security, protection and well-being of the IDPs is ensured.” The

Aide Memoire states that the Sri Lankan government “should ensure that IDPs enjoy

full and unhindered freedom of movement within, as well as in and out of IDP sites,”

and reaffirmed that the “preferred option for emergency shelter is the host family

arrangement,” rather than restrictive camp options.48

45 Internal humanitarian contingency planning document on file with Human Rights Watch.

46 Human Rights Watch interview with UN protection official, Vavuniya, October 19, 2008; Internal humanitarian contingency

planning document on file with Human Rights Watch; Letter of UN resident coordinator Neil Buhne to Minister of Human

Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Mahinda Samarasinghe, dated November 28, 2008, on file with Human Rights Watch.

47 Center for Policy Alternatives, “Field Mission to Vavuniya,” September 2008.

48 UNHCR Colombo, Aide Memoire, August 29, 2008.

19 Human Rights Watch December 2008

 

The LTTE also bears responsibility for the plight of civilians fleeing from the Vanni.

The LTTE has frequently used civilian cover to move LTTE combatants into

government-controlled areas, either to avoid capture or to carry out attacks,

including targeted killings and suicide bombing attacks. For example, Human Rights

Watch documented a case in which the LTTE allowed a family to leave the Vanni on

condition that they take an LTTE cadre along as a “family member” to escape

scrutiny by the security forces.49 In the case of a mass civilian outflux from the Vanni,

there is little doubt among humanitarian officials and Sri Lanka experts that the LTTE

would attempt to disguise a large number of LTTE combatants among civilians in

order to move them out of the Vanni.

 

As noted above, the Sri Lankan authorities have an obligation to ensure the security

of the civilian population, including by taking into custody suspected LTTE

combatants and prosecuting them for cognizable criminal offenses in accordance

with international legal standards. Arrivals of large numbers of displaced persons

heighten such security concerns, but in no way lessens the obligation to abide by

international law.

 

The LTTE also has international legal obligations towards civilians. Placing LTTE

combatants within groups of fleeing civilians at a minimum violates the international

humanitarian law requirement to take constant care to spare the civilian population,

including by taking all feasible precautions to minimize loss of civilian life and

protect civilians under their control from the effects of attacks.50 Depending on the

circumstances, such practices may amount to using civilians as “human shields”

(deliberately using civilians to protect a military target from attack)51 or acts of perfidy

(deliberately feigning civilian status in order to carry out attacks), which are war

crimes.52

 

49 Human Rights Watch interview with Tamil journalist, Colombo, October 11, 2008.

50 See ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rules 15 and 22.

51 See ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rule 97.

52 See ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rule 65.

Besieged, Displaced, and Detained 20

 

Detention of recent arrivals in Vavuniya and Jaffna

 

The question of how the Sri Lankan authorities will handle new arrivals from the

Vanni is no longer just one of future planning; since late November, an increased

number of displaced persons from the Vanni have fled directly towards Vavuniya and

Jaffna districts. The restrictive policies currently being implemented by the Sri

Lankan authorities with these new arrivals confirm that the Sri Lankan government is

indeed expanding its internment policy towards displaced persons coming from the

Vanni.

 

Since November 21, a growing number of displaced persons have been detained by

Sri Lankan security forces at the Omanthai checkpoint—at least 419 individuals (174

families) by December 15,53 almost all of them from northern Vavuniya district.54 This

is due to a combination of factors. The LTTE withdrew from some formerly LTTEcontrolled areas of northern Vavuniya, including its own checkpoint at Omanthai on

the A9,55 allowing greater numbers of displaced persons to reach the government

checkpoint. Secondly, instead of letting civilians through the checkpoint, the Sri

Lankan security services since mid-November have closed it completely, and

detained civilians who arrive there.56

 

So far, the government has not complied with the most important agreements made

with humanitarian agencies on the procedures to be followed should there be an

influx of displaced persons towards Vavuniya. The government has not allowed the

ICRC and UNHCR to observe the procedures used to screen out suspected LTTE

militants at the Omanthai checkpoint, as had been previously requested (see above).

Given the Sri Lankan security forces’ disturbing record of “disappearances,” the

inability of the ICRC and UNHCR to monitor these screening procedures is a cause for

53 Human Rights Watch communication with UN official, December 15, 2008; Human Rights Watch communication with

humanitarian official, December 15, 2008.

54 Human Rights Watch communication with UN official, September 26, 2008, on file at Human Rights Watch.

55 At most entry and exit points to the Vanni, the LTTE and government forces operate separate checkpoints in relative

proximity to each other. The Omanthai checkpoints were formally established under the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement.

56 On November 18, the ICRC withdrew its presence from the Omanthai checkpoint, which was established following the 2002

Ceasefire Agreement, stating that they could no longer “obtain all the necessary guarantees for the safe passage of civilians

and goods.” This was also the date the LTTE formally withdrew its presence from the Omanthai checkpoint, leaving behind a

50 kilometer no-man’s land between the government checkpoint at Omanthai and the nearest LTTE presence. Normal civilian

movement has virtually stopped through the Omanthai checkpoint. Human Rights Watch communication with humanitarian

official, December 2, 2008.

21 Human Rights Watch December 2008

 

grave concern. The government also did not implement an agreed-upon registration

of the newly arrived displaced persons by civilian authorities that would have helped

ensure all displaced persons remain accounted for. The transit sites used by the

military were not those agreed upon and assessed by the humanitarian community,

and do not have adequate water and sanitation facilities.57

 

The displaced persons screened and detained at the Omanthai checkpoint have all

been taken to the Manik Farm area, where some areas of land have been cleared by

the authorities, and to Nellukulam. The families are currently staying at a school

building and a community hall, where they have been kept under close guard by a

heavy military presence. As at Kalimoddai and Sirukandal camps in Mannar, the

displaced persons have not been allowed to leave the camps, and some agencies,

including the Sri Lankan National Human Rights Commission, have had difficulty

accessing the camp.58 The military commander at Manik Farm has required that all

organizations visiting the camp, including UN agencies, the National Human Rights

Commission, and all NGOs, have prior written permission from the Vavuniya

Government Agent. The Government Agent has indicated to the BBC that the army

told her not to allow anyone to visit the camp.59

 

By December 15, at least 155 individuals from the Vanni had attempted to flee by

small boats towards the northern Jaffna district, and were intercepted by the navy at

sea.60 Since their arrival, the families have been kept under military guard at the

former court complex in Jaffna, with only the ICRC and UNHCR allowed access to

them. On November 2, a group of 28 displaced persons fleeing the Vanni were

intercepted at sea by the navy and moved to Jaffna town. There they were brought

before the Jaffna magistrate, and then sent to Jaffna prison. No legal justification was

given for detaining them at the prison, which houses convicted criminals and is

 

57 Letter of UN resident coordinator Neil Buhne to Minister of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Mahinda Samarasinghe,

dated November 28, 2008, on file with Human Rights Watch.

58 Human Rights Watch communication with humanitarian official, September 26, 2008, on file with Human Rights Watch;

BBC Sinhala language service, “HRC denied access to IDPs,” September 25, 2008.

59 Ibid.

60 Human Rights Watch communication with UN official, December 15, 2008.

Besieged, Displaced, and Detained 22

 

notoriously overcrowded and filthy, and so is not an appropriate facility to house

displaced persons.61

 

After interventions from lawyers for the displaced persons, they were transferred

from the prison on November 25 to the former court complex, where the other

displaced from Vanni were already being kept.62 In early December, the displaced

persons were moved from the courthouse premises to the Kopay Teachers’ Training

Complex, where they are still kept under military guard and not allowed to leave the

complex.63

 

61 The prison also houses a large number of persons who have sought protective custody fearing threats from the LTTE or the

security forces.

62 Human Rights Watch communication with Colombo-based human rights activist, November 24, 2008.

63 Human Rights Watch communication with UN official, December 16, 200

 

A Note on Displacement and Other Figures Used in this Report

 

Because of restrictions on access placed on humanitarian agencies operating in the

Vanni, there is no accurate figure available for the current number of displaced

persons there. Estimates made by various government agencies and humanitarian

agencies vary widely. Government Agents in the Vanni estimate 350,000 displaced

persons, while the United Nations estimates 230,000-300,000. Some government

officials suggest there are as few as 100,000. Because the government appears keen

to downplay the severity of the humanitarian crisis in the Vanni, the number of

displaced persons has become a point of contention. All other figures used in this

report have been updated at the time of writing unless stated otherwise.

 

At a meeting for humanitarian agencies convened by the Government Agent of

Vavuniya on November 4, 2008, the Government Agents for Mullaittivu and

Kilinochchi stated that they had counted a total of 197,103 displaced persons in

Mullaittivu (96,135 persons displaced since August 11, 2006, and 100,968 persons

displaced before that date), and 151,000 displaced persons in Kilinochchi (148,109

since August 11, 2006, the remainder before that date), for a total of 348,103

displaced persons. However, the figures of the Government Agents do not take into

account that a significant number of the pre-2006 displaced persons have again

been displaced by the conflict and are thus counted twice, which inflates the total

number.

 

The most recent (November 2008) figures of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees

estimate there are 230,000 displaced in the Vanni, a figure also accepted by the

United Nations Resident Coordinator’s office.64 This figure does not include the more

than 100,000 registered displaced persons who were displaced prior to August 11,

2006, and which are included in the counts of the Government Agents. However, the

UN has been inconsistent in using the 230,000 figure; on a number of occasions, the

UN has also estimated the number of displaced persons in the Vanni at around

300,000.65 Most recently, the UN World Food Program used a lower figure of an

“estimated” 200,000 displaced persons in the Vanni in a press statement, without

any explanation why their estimates differed from those of the other UN agencies.66

Officially, the World Food Program continues to use the figure of 238,000 displaced

persons.

 

Estimates from national government officials typically have been lower than those of

the humanitarian community and their own Government Agents in the Vanni, which

appears to be aimed at downplaying the seriousness of the Vanni’s humanitarian

crisis. In November 2008, the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights

claimed that the actual number of persons displaced since April 2006 was 207,000

persons.67 During a November 21 ceremony accepting Indian government aid for

civilians in the Vanni, Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohana gave an even

smaller number, arguing that the figures of displaced persons in the Vanni were

“grossly exaggerated,” and stating that he believed there were “around 100,000”

displaced persons in the Vanni.68 It is not clear why the foreign secretary gave a

figure only half that estimated by the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human

Rights, but the humanitarian plight of the Vanni displaced population has greatly

concerned neighboring India, with a large Tamil population in Tamil Nadu state;

lowering the figures of affected persons may be an attempt to limit Indian pressure.69

 

Government officials have frequently responded to human rights concerns by

arguing over the numbers used rather than about the practices described, which

obfuscates the concerns raised. In any complex humanitarian situation, figures of

displacement and humanitarian assistance change constantly, as displaced persons

move or more humanitarian assistance is brought in. The purpose of this report is to

identify patterns of government and LTTE abuses that should be cause for concern,

such as restrictions on freedom of movement for displaced persons or interference

with the work of humanitarian agencies. Those concerns remain the same whether

200,000, 300,000, or a different number of persons are affected.

 

 

64 Human Rights Watch communication with UN spokesperson Gordon Weiss, December 11, 2008.

65 Presentation on UN interagency assessment mission of October 17-18, 2008, on file with Human Rights Watch

 

 

  1. Humanitarian Needs in the Vanni and the Forced Departure of

the United Nations and Humanitarian Agencies

 

Current humanitarian needs in the Vanni

 

The government-ordered withdrawal of all United Nations and international

humanitarian staff in September 2008 (detailed below) has had a severe impact on

the humanitarian situation in the Vanni. There are an estimated 230,000 to 300,000

displaced persons currently trapped in the Vanni conflict zone, as well as a smaller

number of Vanni residents who remain in their homes. Government claims that

humanitarian agencies were not necessary because the government itself was able

to meet the needs of the Vanni’s population proved to be untrue, and reflect a failure

to recognize that timely humanitarian assistance depends as much on efficient

logistics and distribution systems as on simply delivering the necessary supplies.

The most acute needs have been in the areas of food, shelter, water, sanitation,

health care, psychosocial counseling, and education. It is in the non-food sectors

that the impact of the ordered withdrawal has been felt most severely; it is these

sectors that are not included in the permitted UN shipments into the Vanni and

which are most impacted by the absence of qualified humanitarian personnel on the

ground.

 

The provision of basic assistance to IDPs in the Vanni is made more complicated by

the fact that many families have had to move multiple times to escape approaching

fighting. Each time, new shelters and sanitation facilities need to be constructed and

new supply lines established. The monsoon rains continue from October until

January or February, so the impact of heavy rains on shelter and sanitation will

remain particularly acute during this period.

 

The government of Sri Lanka has repeatedly asserted that the humanitarian needs of

the population in the Vanni are being met, claiming that its own efforts are filling the

gap left by the humanitarian departure. For instance, in a December 3, 2008,

statement, the secretary-general of the governmental Secretariat for Coordinating the

Peace Process, Rajiva Wijesinha, argued that the government was actually providing

too much food to the Vanni, and that international criticisms reflected a lack of

understanding about available government services: “The free health care and

education services Sri Lanka provides are not common elsewhere, which is what

doubtless led international commentators to assert that these services were

collapsing.”70

 

Such statements claiming that the Sri Lankan government is meeting the

humanitarian needs of the population in the Vanni are issued regularly by Sri Lankan

officials. They appear eager to downplay the extent of humanitarian suffering in the

Vanni, particularly after India, which has a substantial Tamil community and has

previously intervened militarily in the LTTE conflict, expressed concerns in October

about the humanitarian situation in the Vanni.

 

However, these government statements have not been backed up by convincing

statistics that show the level of assistance provided by the government, nor are the

distribution mechanisms explained. Most significantly, the rosy picture the

government seeks to paint of the humanitarian situation in the Vanni is directly

contradicted by the reports of their own government officials on the ground and by

the assessments of the United Nations and humanitarian organizations, as

discussed below.

 

The obstruction of humanitarian assistance documented in this report, and the

efforts by Sri Lankan officials to downplay the extent of humanitarian suffering in the

Vanni, should be distinguished from the exemplary and often courageous efforts

made by Vanni-based officials, civil servants, and humanitarian workers who

continue to do everything within their power to address the needs of the population.

For example, despite the challenges they face, teachers continue to try and provide a

stable educational environment for the children in the Vanni, setting up temporary

schools and attempting to take their school materials along with them when they are

displaced. Human Rights Watch’s concerns about the humanitarian situation in the

Vanni should in no way detract from these genuinely heroic efforts.

 

Food

Some food stocks remained in the Vanni at the time the government ordered the

humanitarian withdrawal, giving the authorities some buffer before its impact would

be felt. But those stocks are now being depleted. Much of the humanitarian effort is

now focusing on meeting the essential food needs of the displaced population.

Seven large UN food convoys were dispatched to the Vanni between October 2, 2008,

and December 15, 2008, carrying a combined load of 4,120 metric tons of food

(another food convoy is scheduled for December 18).71

Local food prices, particularly for vegetables, have risen sharply, and purchasing

capacity for most displaced persons and local communities has decreased because

of loss of livelihoods like fishing, farming, and day labor.

The UN World Food Program (WFP) and the government estimate that at least 750

metric tons per week are needed to meet the minimum nutritional requirements of

the displaced population in the Vanni—a figure assuming an efficient distribution

system with minimal waste or siphoning off of aid—difficult to monitor without a

humanitarian presence in the Vanni.72

 

Even the 750 metric tons is an underestimate, since the basic minimum WFP rations

per person of 0.5 kilograms73 for 230,000 persons (the smallest credible estimate of

the displaced population) would require a total of 805 metric tons per week, or 3,450

metric tons per month.74 Based on this formula, the IDP population of the Vanni

would require a total of at least 10,350 metric tons of food for the three months

between the withdrawal of the UN on September 16, 2008, and the time of

finalization of this report, December 15.75 However, the seven food convoys

combined only delivered a total of 4,120 metric tons of food, a shortfall of 6,230

metric tons of food over the minimum nutrition requirements of the displaced

71 Human Rights Watch communication with humanitarian official, December 15, 2008.

72 Human Rights Watch interview with humanitarian official, Colombo, October 8, 2008.

73 The WFP food ration includes 400 grams of cereals, 60 grams of pulses, 20 grams of oil, and 20 grams of sugar. Human

Rights Watch communication with UN spokesperson, December 12, 2008.

74 The formula used by WFP to estimate nutritional needs is: (number of persons) x 0.5 kg WFP daily ration x 30 days /1,000

(to obtain tonnage). Human Rights Watch communication with UN spokesperson Gordon Weiss, December 13, 2008.

75 ((230,000 IDPs) x (0.5 kg ration) x (90 days)) / 1,000 = 10,350 metric tons

population, or 60 percent of the minimum nutrition requirements. Again, these are

figures based on the lowest credible estimate of 230,000 displaced persons in need

of food aid; the actual numbers of people in need of aid may be significantly higher.

At a December 10, 2008, Inter-Agencies Standing Committee (IASC) meeting, WFP

officials estimated that the food deliveries into the Vanni since the September 2008

withdrawal had been 38 percent below the minimum nutrition requirements, but this

estimate is based on an estimate of 200,000 IDPs, which is lower than the 230,000

number used by other UN agencies, and also uses the date of the first convoy,

October 2, as the starting date for its needs assessment, ignoring the fact that no

food deliveries were made in September.76 Because of this, the WFP figures

underestimate the actual food shortcomings in the Vanni.

 

As a result, a very large gap exists between the minimum daily nutritional

requirements of the population and the food being brought into the Vanni. According

to humanitarian officials, some of the camps they work in are already down to

distributing just two meals per day, and one camp is reportedly surviving on just one

meal a day.77

 

Most of the international food assistance is in the form of rice and flour, and does

not include other food items that are in critically short supply, such as vegetables,

whose prices have skyrocketed. For example, a humanitarian assessment mission

found that the price of one kilogram of onions, a staple in Sri Lanka, had risen fivefold

from Rs.60 to Rs.300.

78 In a mid-October letter to the humanitarian community,

the Government Agent of Vavuniya described “the availability of essential

supplementary food items” as “remaining critical.”79

 

The government is also sending in additional convoys of non-UN food through

Government Agents, but the food on those convoys is destined partly to be sold at

76 Human Rights Watch communication with humanitarian official, December 12, 2008; Human Rights Watch communication

with humanitarian official, December 15, 2008.

77 Human Rights Watch communication with humanitarian official, December 2, 2008.

78 Presentation on UN interagency assessment mission of October 17-18, 2008, on file with Human Rights Watch.

79 Letter of Government Agent of Vavuniya to NGO Consortium, dated October 14, 2008, on file with Human Rights Watch.

 

the government-organized Multi-Purpose Cooperative Society (MPSC) stores, and not

for free distribution to displaced persons. Although these convoys may boost the

amount of food locally available, many displaced families do not have the financial

resources left to purchase food and so are entirely dependent on free distributions.

Some humanitarian agencies have been able to send supplementary food items on

two Government Agent-organized convoys, but only in small amounts that will not

affect the overall food shortages.80

 

The government has repeatedly claimed that these food convoys are sufficient to fill

the gap in needs, but has not provided any details even to the humanitarian

agencies on the amounts of food aid it has provided, how it is being distributed, and

who it is reaching, normally just publicizing the number of trucks it has sent into the

Vanni.81 Greater transparency by the government on exactly what it is sending into

the Vanni would allow the humanitarian community to better assess the needs in

specific areas, but it is clear that the food convoys sent in by the authorities come

nowhere near to providing the thousands of tons that are needed.

 

More significant has been the 1,700 tons of humanitarian assistance, including food,

clothing and hygiene items, that were contributed by the Indian government in late

November and distributed by the ICRC in early December. The Indian assistance

aimed to provide 80,000 family parcels of assistance, designed to meet the

essential needs of those families for three to four weeks.82

 

Furthermore, the departure of much of the farming community from the productive

paddy fields in western Vanni, now under control of the Sri Lankan security forces,

means that long-term food security for the Vanni is also at risk.

One of the most important functions of the humanitarian agencies was to fill the gap

in food distribution for families who were newly displaced; even before the

humanitarian withdrawal, it often took up to eight weeks to register newly displaced

80 Human Rights Watch communication with humanitarian official, December 2, 2008.

81 Human Rights Watch communication with humanitarian official, December 2, 2008.

82 ICRC press release, “Sri Lanka: Conflict-hit population to receive Indian government aid through ICRC,” November 20, 2008;

ICRC operational update, “ICRC distributes aid in the Vanni, assists Jaffna flood victims,” December 11, 2008; Government of

Sri Lanka press release, “50 truck convoy dispatched to Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu,” December 2, 2008.

(or re-displaced) families in their location and put them on the regular WFP food

distribution system. Humanitarian agencies provided these newly displaced families

with the rations necessary to survive during this critical period. That emergency food

ration capacity has been severely affected by the humanitarian withdrawal from the

Vanni, putting newly displaced families at increased risk.

 

Shelter

Since the start of the monsoon season in October, the shelter needs of the displaced

population have rapidly increased. Tens of thousands of displaced persons are

currently living without adequate shelter. Many displaced families are currently living

in low-lying paddy fields and along river banks. Makeshift shelters from cadjan (palm

leaf) are not a substitute for properly constructed shelters, and such local materials

are anyway not available in sufficient amounts to meet the shelter needs of the

population.83

 

The vulnerability of the displaced population in the Vanni was dramatically

illustrated by the impact of Cyclone Nisha. When Cyclone Nisha struck on November

25, 2008, an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 persons, the vast majority of them already

displaced from their homes, were forced to relocate to escape the flood waters. Local

authorities were reportedly instructed not to publicly release any data on the impact

of the cyclone on the Vanni population.84 An estimated 13,382 shelters were

destroyed in Mullaitivu district alone.85 Thousands of tarps and shelter kits were

already stockpiled by the United Nations and humanitarian agencies in Vavuniya,

but the authorities insisted that only tarps without humanitarian or United Nations

logos would be allowed to enter the Vanni. Sri Lankan officials said they were

concerned that tarps with UN or humanitarian logos would be abused by the LTTE to

shield their military installations from attack. The practical result was that persons in

dire need were denied available assistance.86

83 Human Rights Watch communication with protection official, December 2, 2008.

84 Human Rights Watch communication with protection official, November 27, 2008. The Vanni-based Government Agents

later did provide figures to the humanitarian community. According to the Government Agents, 45,000 families were affected

by the floods in Kilinochchi district, including 23,000 families who were displaced by the floods, and 21,200 families were

affected in Mullaitivu district. Inter-Agency Standing Committee Country Team (Sri Lanka), Situation Report 155.

85 Inter-Agency Standing Committee Country Team (Sri Lanka), Situation Report 155.

86 Human Rights Watch communication with protection official, November 27, 2008.

 

The lack of adequate shelter has a severe impact on the living conditions of

displaced persons: living exposed to the elements, families are unable to keep

themselves, their clothes, and food stocks dry, and they suffer from increased rates

of disease. A mid-October interagency humanitarian assessment—the most recent

one conducted, prior to the devastation of Cyclone Nisha—estimated that as many

as 70 percent of the displaced persons in Tharmapuram were living in inadequate

makeshift shelters, and concluded that more than 8,000 shelters were urgently

needed in the neighboring Puthukudiyiruppu area.87 Government Agents in

Kilinochchi and Mulaithivu districts estimated prior to Cyclone Nisha that at least

24,000 families (some 80,000 persons) were in need of proper shelter.88

 

Water and sanitation

 

In the crowded conditions in which displaced persons are living, ensuring access to

clean, uncontaminated water and properly constructed sanitation facilities becomes

a priority to prevent the outbreak of water-borne and communicable diseases. While

clean water is generally available to displaced persons, the severe lack of properly

constructed latrines means that open defecation is widespread, leading health

authorities in the Vanni to express serious concerns about the outbreak of

waterborne diseases. As one humanitarian worker explained to Human Rights Watch,

“When someone is displaced, they don’t bring their toilet with them.”89

 

An October humanitarian assessment mission found an urgent need to construct

4,000 new latrines in Tharmapuram and Puthukudiyiruppu areas alone.90 The

November floods further damaged water and sanitation facilities in the Vanni,

causing increased concern about the potential outbreak of water-borne diseases.91

The long-standing blockade on cement shipments entering the Vanni—reportedly to

hinder LTTE efforts to build reinforced military defenses—hampers the ability to

construct proper latrines.

 

87 Presentation on UN interagency assessment mission of October 17-18, 2008, on file with Human Rights Watch.

88 Figures presented by GA of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu at November 4, 2008, meeting with humanitarian officials in

Vavuniya.

89 Human Rights Watch communication with humanitarian official, November 23, 2008.

90 Presentation on UN interagency assessment mission of October 17-18, 2008, on file with Human Rights Watch.

91 Inter-Agency Standing Committee Country Team (Sri Lanka), Situation Report 155.

 

The inadequacy of proper latrine and washing facilities also increases the danger of

sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) against women, because they are forced

to use open-air facilities, often in isolated jungle areas, instead. The dangers posed

by the lack of proper shelters is illustrated by the unusually high number of snake

bites reported since the withdrawal of the humanitarian community; 194 snake bite

patients were admitted to the Tharmapuram hospital in October alone, including two

that were fatal.92 Most of these snake bite incidents are reportedly due to the

widespread practice of open defecation caused by the lack of toilet facilities.

 

Health care and psychosocial counseling

 

The heavy concentration of displaced persons in a relatively small area of the Vanni

has severely taxed existing health care facilities in the area. There has been a sharp

increase in diarrhea due to water contamination, fever and cough due to exposure to

the elements, snake bites due to inadequate shelter and sanitation facilities, and

traffic accidents caused by panicking civilians seeking to flee (540 traffic accidents,

including two fatalities, were reported during October in Tharmapuram alone).93 The

caseloads of the few functioning medical facilities has tripled,94 while the number of

medical staff available to respond to this rising caseload has diminished.

While the ICRC plays an important role in supporting the medical system in the

Vanni,95 the withdrawal of other assistance to the medical sector from humanitarian

agencies has weakened the medical response capacity. Because of restrictions on

movements on certain goods and services into the Vanni, acute shortages of

essential medicines including snake serum, antibiotics, pediatric medicines,

vaccines, and diabetic medicines have been reported.96

 

UNHCR and UNICEF did include some items with the World Food Program convoys

that addressed some of the medical needs of the displaced persons, including two

92 Inter-Agency Standing Committee Sri Lanka, Situation Report 151, October 30-November 6, 2008.

93 Ibid.

94 Presentation on UN interagency assessment mission of October 17-18, 2008, on file with Human Rights Watch.

95 ICRC operational update, “Sri Lanka: As Rains Arrive, ICRC steps up help for civilians fleeing conflict in the Vanni,”

November 14, 2008.

96 Presentation on UN interagency assessment mission of October 17-18, 2008, on file with Human Rights Watch.

 

trucks of mosquito nets to prevent the spread of malaria and other mosquito-borne

diseases, hygiene kits, medical kits, and pre-natal kits.

97           One urgent need, particularly for children, is psychosocial support for the stress

caused by the nearly continual bombardment and shelling many people have

experienced from the fighting. Many independent observers in the Vanni have

noticed signs of severe psychological stress among the displaced population.98 A

child protection official explained to Human Rights Watch:

 

Children in the Vanni are currently suffering stress, and the symptoms

are very visible: children crying, screaming, easily [frightened],

suffering nightmares, food disorders, and many other symptoms.99

 

Psychosocial counseling and support was traditionally provided by humanitarian

organizations that have now been ordered out of the Vanni. The capacity of

government agencies and teachers to respond to the high level of psychological

stress in the Vanni is severely limited by the lack of trained persons who could

provide such support and counseling—some of the only trained counselors present

in the Vanni at the moment are teachers (an estimated 5 percent of teachers in the

Vanni have received psychosocial training).100

 

Education

 

Continuity in education is important not only so that children can learn, but also

because the school environment creates an environment of relative safety and

stability that helps children cope with the strains of living in a conflict zone. Ensuring

 

97 Human Rights Watch communication with humanitarian official, December 15, 2008; Human Rights Watch communication

with UNICEF spokesperson, December 16, 2008.

98 Human Rights Watch communication with UN official, December 16, 2008.

99 Human Rights Watch communication with UN official, December 16, 2008.

100 Presentation on UN interagency assessment mission of October 17-18, 2008, on file with Human Rights Watch. For the

moment, the proper psychosocial response would include counseling parents about the effects of the stress on their children,

so that parents understand that the behaviors exhibited by the children are expected behaviors under stress, and aiming to

provide, to the extent possible, a stable environment for the children, with regular schedules, normal school attendance,

recreational opportunities, and explanations to the children about what is happening around them. Human Rights Watch

communication with child protection official, December 16, 2008.

 

continuity in education limits the amount of psychosocial trauma experienced by

children during conflict.101

 

Because of the massive displacement and concentration of displaced persons in the

Vanni, the educational system has become severely stressed. The limited number of

schools that continue to function (including schools that are themselves displaced

from their original location) have to cope with an influx of tens of thousands of

additional students displaced from their original schools. In Puthukudiyiruppu, the

authorities have reported an additional 7,848 displaced pupils, while in

Tharmapuram the authorities estimate an additional 26,000 displaced pupils.102 The

ability of the authorities to cope with this massive influx of displaced students is

further compromised by the fact that dozens of schools in the Vanni are also being

used to house displaced persons, and so can no longer be used for their original

educational purpose. The situation was further affected by the November floods,

when many school buildings were used to provide emergency shelter to people who

lost their shelters from flood waters.103

 

The influx of students has strained not only the shelter capacity of the schools, but

also their water and sanitation capacity, and has led to an acute shortage of

textbooks, stationary, uniforms, and school furniture at the schools.104 UNICEF did

include a number of blackboards and educational materials for primary and

secondary students on one of the WFP convoys, but in small quantities.105

 

 

Government orders the UN and aid agencies to leave

 

On September 5, 2008, Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ordered all UN and

humanitarian agencies to withdraw from the Vanni, stating that the intensification of

the fighting meant the government could no longer guarantee the security of aid

 

101 “Report of Graça Machel, Expert of the Secretary-General of the United Nations on the Impact of Armed Conflict on

Children,” August 26, 1996, UN Doc. A/51/150, para. 185.

102 Presentation on UN interagency assessment mission of October 17-18, 2008, on file with Human Rights Watch.

103 Inter-Agency Standing Committee Country Team (Sri Lanka), Situation Report 155.

104 Presentation on UN interagency assessment mission of October 17-18, 2008, on file with Human Rights Watch.

105 Human Rights Watch communication with humanitarian official, December 15, 2008.

workers in the conflict zone.106 In a directive to the NGOs, he ordered the withdrawal

“with immediate effect” of all NGO equipment and non-resident staff from the Vanni.

Henceforth, “in consideration of the prevailing security situation,” no expatriates or

NGO workers, including Sri Lankan nationals who are not residents of the Vanni,

would be allowed to pass the Omanthai checkpoint into the Vanni,107 As the deadline

approached, Minister of Human Rights and Disaster Management Mahinda

Samarasinghe issued a statement that “we will refuse to treat as relief workers

[those] who still remain in the [Vanni]”—a chilling warning to humanitarian workers

in a country where at least 29 aid workers have been killed since 2006.108

 

The UN agencies agreed to an almost immediate withdrawal of their staff from the

Vanni, announcing on September 15 that it had “been compelled to temporarily

relocate from Kilinochchi because of our security assessment that the situation has

become too dangerous to remain working from there at this time.” No mention was

made that their withdrawal was due to the September 5 government directive.109

 

 

To the frustration of some humanitarian workers, the UN did not seem to have

contested the forced withdrawal of humanitarian organizations from the Vanni, or

attempted to seek a delay to put alternative humanitarian structures in place.

Despite the approaching government offensive on Kilinochchi, the site of its

operational humanitarian headquarters for the Vanni, the UN did not implement

contingency plans to relocate the UN operations and essential staff to safer locations

in the Vanni, such as Puthukudiyiruppu. There was in any case no question about

remaining in Kilinochchi because of the heavy shelling and aerial bombing of the

town.

106 Ranga Sirilal, “Sri Lanka Orders Aid Workers Out of War Zone,” Reuters, September 8, 2008; Government of Sri Lanka,

“INGOs asked to quit LTTE-held area, UN ‘relocations’ to start,” September 10, 2008.

107 Secretary to the Ministry of Defense, Public Security, and Law and Order, Letter dated September 5, 2008,

SMOD/320/DEM/GEN(45).

108 “Sri Lanka sets deadline on aid agencies to quit rebel stronghold,” Xinhua, September 29, 2008.

109 United Nations Office of the Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator, “Statement,” September 15, 2008. An earlier UN

statement on September 9 “acknowledges the announcement by the Government of Sri Lanka that they can no longer ensure

the safety of aid workers in the Vanni, and their request that UN and NGO staff should relocate to government-held territory,”

and said that the UN was “now evaluating its options.” United Nations Office of the Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator,

“Statement,” September 9, 2008.

Faced with the UN decision to withdraw its staff from the Vanni, humanitarian

organizations were also forced to comply with the government order. In the following

days, CARE International, the Danish Refugee Council, OXFAM GB, Save the Children,

World Vision, the Sewa Lanka Foundation, the Solidar Consortium, and FORUT all

closed down their humanitarian programs in the Vanni and withdrew their

international and local staff who were not Vanni residents from the conflict zone.110

The LTTE refused repeated requests by humanitarian agencies and the UN to allow

Vanni residents working for the UN to leave the Vanni as well, so humanitarian

groups were forced to leave behind more than 300 national staff who were Vanni

residents. Concerns remain about the security of these national staff, most of whom

currently work as humanitarian “volunteers” under the direction of the Government

Agents in the Vanni. The LTTE has attempted to forcibly recruit some former

humanitarian workers to join their forces (see below).

 

Government hostility toward the humanitarian community

 

The almost immediate withdrawal of the UN and NGOs from the Vanni following the

order of the defense secretary remains controversial.111 One factor that likely weighed

heavily on the humanitarian organizations was the August 2006 execution-style

slayings of 17 Sri Lankan aid workers working for Action Contre la Faim (ACF), a Parisbased humanitarian organization, in the eastern town of Mutur following the

withdrawal of LTTE forces. There are strong indications of the involvement of

government security forces in the killings.112 An inquiry by the attorney general and

then a slow-moving investigation into the killings by a Presidential Commission of

Inquiry established soon after the killings to examine this and other serious cases

have faced government interference and obstruction.113 To date no one has been held

accountable for the killings.

110 Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, “Final Report of NGO/INGO from Vanni,” November 2008. ZOA Refugee Care did not

immediately withdraw its staff, but did leave the Vanni before the expiry of the government deadline.

111 See, e.g., University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), Pawns of an Un-heroic War, Special Report No. 31, October 28,

2008.

112 See University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), Unfinished Business of the Five Students and ACF Cases – A Time to call

the Bluff, Special Report No.30, April 1, 2008.

113 Ibid; International Commission of Jurists press release, “Sri Lanka: ICJ Inquest Observer Finds Flaws in Investigation into

Killing of ACF Aid Worker,” April 23, 2007, http://www.icj.org/news.php3?id_article=4151&lang=eng.

 

Many humanitarian workers and human rights activists believe that government

security forces may have targeted the ACF workers because ACF had ignored other

forms of pressure on NGOs to withdraw from the Mutur area. Prior to the killing of

ACF staff, the Mutur offices of ZOA Refugee Care, INTERSOS, and the Nonviolent

Peaceforce had received threatening anonymous letters or had been attacked with

grenades.114

 

Defense Secretary Rajapaksa specified that he wanted to avoid a repeat of the 2006

ACF killings when he ordered the withdrawal of humanitarian staff from the Vanni,

saying, “We don’t want to get into a situation like that, so we are giving [the aid

groups] adequate notice [to withdraw].”115 The fear of a repeat of such an incident

certainly added to the haste with which the UN and NGOs withdrew from the Vanni.

However, the fear of targeted attacks against humanitarian workers was not the only

reason for the speedy withdrawal; almost immediately after the withdrawal order,

the Sri Lankan forces greatly intensified their shelling and aerial bombing of

Kilinochchi, risking the physical security of humanitarian staff.116 A humanitarian aid

worker based in Kilinochchi later described his ordeal to the BBC:

 

Day after day, the constant rumble of heavy artillery got closer and

closer. Twenty-four hours a day, my office, bedroom, kitchen and

bunker would be shaking with the thumps of shells landing. The

sensation of approaching doom was all too real with this kind of

 

 

warfare.117

 

One aid official refused to immediately withdraw from the Vanni. Giovanni Porta, the

Vanni coordinator for the Dutch aid group ZOA Refugee Care, attempted to remain in

the Vanni after the UN withdrawal, and to continue ZOA’s vitally important

humanitarian programs. Porta did exit from the Vanni prior to the government

114 Human Rights Watch, Return to War: Human Rights Under Siege, pp. 93-94; University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna),

Pawns of an Unheroic War, Special Report No. 31, October 28, 2008.

115 Ravi Nessman, “Aid Groups Ordered Out of the Vanni,” Daily Mirror (Colombo), September 8, 2008.

116 Human Rights Watch correspondence with humanitarian official, December 2, 2008, on file at Human Rights Watch.

117 “’Pain’ of Sri Lanka Aid Pullout,” BBC, September 23, 2008.

 

deadline for the withdrawal of all humanitarian staff on September 29, but Porta and

ZOA were immediately accused by the government of supporting the LTTE for his

refusal to leave earlier. Defense ministry officials falsely accused Porta of having

“joined the LTTE,” and falsely suggested that he had informed ZOA of his decision to

become “an LTTE fighter.”118 ZOA, which has humanitarian programs throughout Sri

Lanka, was threatened by government officials with closure of all of its operations if

Porta didn’t end his defiance of the government order to withdraw.119 As explained

above, Porta did leave the Vanni prior to the government’s deadline for withdrawal,

so did not in fact disobey any government orders.

 

The government’s vilification of Porta ignored that he was an experienced and wellrespected humanitarian official in the Vanni who had a reputation for being willing to

confront the LTTE on its abusive practices.120 He had his visa cancelled almost

immediately after his departure from the Vanni, forcing him to leave Sri Lanka by

October 5.121 The government’s attack on such a respected humanitarian official was

doubtlessly intended to send a strong message to the rest of the humanitarian

community.

 

The Sri Lankan government was correct in stating that, “as the UN and INGOs

[international nongovernmental organizations] are working in the Vanni at the

[government’s] invitation, the Government has an obligation to ensure the safety and

security of all those working there.”122 However, the claim by the authorities that the

withdrawal of humanitarian organizations was necessary for the safety of their staff

seems hollow given that the ICRC and the locally-based CARITAS workers of the

Catholic Church were allowed to continue operations in the Vanni and have not had

any significant security incidents since the withdrawal.123 The UN and humanitarian

 

118 “INGO Kingpin with Italian passport joins LTTE as fighter,” The Island, September 28, 2008.

119 Human Rights Watch interview with humanitarian official, Colombo, October 8, 2008.

120 Ibid; Human Rights Watch interview with humanitarian official, Vavuniya, October 16, 2008.

121 “Foreign Aid Worker Asked to Leave Sri Lanka,” Xinhua, October 1, 2008; Human Rights Watch interview with humanitarian

official, Colombo, October 8, 2008.

122 Statement of Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe, Ministry of Disaster

Management and Human Rights press release, “UN, INGOs to relocate humanitarian operations to Vavuniya,” September 9,

2008.

123 International Committee of the Red Cross press release, “ICRC continues humanitarian work in LTTE-controlled area,”

September 19, 2008.

 

agencies work in many conflicts around the world where their security is at greater

threat than in the Vanni region.

 

The UN has also shown that it is able to operate in the complex humanitarian

environment of the Vanni should the government allow it to do so. At least seven UN

food convoys and one interagency UN assessment mission have gone into the Vanni

since the withdrawal, with only minor problems (one food convoy had to return after

shelling broke out on its route, but managed to reach the area the next day).

Humanitarian organizations have similar capacity and experience. Hence, the

security of the UN and NGOs themselves is not the main obstacle to continuing

humanitarian operations in the Vanni, but rather the government’s order to the UN

and NGOs to withdraw.

 

 

Instead of striving to provide a secure climate for humanitarian assistance, Sri

Lankan civilian and military officials and pro-government newspapers have

intensified their verbal attacks on the humanitarian community. Humanitarian

organizations, particularly those that engage in advocacy and raise human rights

concerns, are frequently accused of being pro-LTTE and supporting terrorism,

charges that put the physical security of their staff at risk.

 

 

For example, on November 21 and 23, 2008, the Lanka newspaper published a series

of articles falsely claiming that humanitarian agencies had constructed a bunker

system in Kilinochchi for the LTTE (the bunkers, at all UN and NGO offices, had been

constructed for the safety of the staff), and had supplied the LTTE with funds,

vehicles, and communications equipment.124 On November 21, several Sri Lankan

newspapers quoted Defense Secretary Rajapaksa as stating that he would expel all

international NGOs from Sri Lanka if he could: “If I can, I will ban all NGOs [from]

coming to Sri Lanka, and also turn back those [who are] already here. None of these

NGOs have done anything for the northern people[.]”125 The government has also

asked several prominent humanitarian organizations to end their operations in Sri

 

124 “The Inside Story of the NGO Operation to Protect Tiger Power in Kilinochchi,” Lanka, November 21, 2008; “Here is the

NGO Operation to Protect Kilinochchi: Secret Bunkers in NGO offices for the safety of the Tigers,” Lanka, November 23, 2008.

125 “All NGOs other than the UN and ICRC should be banned: Defense Secretary,” Divaina, November 21, 2008; “If I have the

power, I will ban all NGOs in Lanka except ICRC and UN Agencies,” Virakesari, November 21, 2008.

 

Lanka and leave the country, and have increasingly refused visas to foreign aid

workers.126 On several occasions, government officials have intimidated

humanitarian agencies to prevent them from publicizing critical information, in one

case pressuring UNHCR to call off an NGO presentation to the donor community on                                                                                                                                                               an extensive Vanni household study.127 In such a climate of intimidation and threats to their operations, humanitarian actors are reluctant to carry out any kind of public

advocacy on the fate of the Vanni’s displaced population.

Humanitarian impact of the UN/NGO withdrawal

The government-ordered humanitarian withdrawal from the Vanni is having a serious impact on the remaining population. As already discussed above, there is some controversy over the total number of displaced persons currently in the Vanni, with the most reliable estimates in the region of 230,000 to 300,000, about 70 percent of

the present civilian population in the area. The remaining local (non-displaced)

population living in LTTE-controlled areas of the Vanni faces almost identical security

concerns and humanitarian problems, so the total affected population—displaced

and non-displaced—is well over 300,000, even by conservative estimates. Many of

the displaced have been displaced since March 2008, and have had to move as

many as 10 times since then because of shifting frontlines. They are increasingly in

need of food aid, shelter, medical assistance, and other essential services.

Government authorities have stated repeatedly that in the absence of humanitarian

agencies present in the Vanni, the government itself will assume primary

responsibility for the humanitarian needs of the war-affected population, even

though that population is in LTTE-controlled territory.128

 

126 On December 2, the defense ministry reportedly refused to renew the visa of Guy Rhodes, the coordinator of the SOLIDAR

NGO consortium. “Chief of SOLIDAR SL ordered to leave,” Divaina, December 2, 2008. Ironically, Rhodes had presented a

paper entitled “INGO Operational Constraints in the Vanni” in February 2008, focusing on issues such as visa restrictions

imposed by the defense ministry. On November 30, the Sunday Times newspaper reported that the Sri Lankan authorities had

decided to ask three INGOs—the Norwegian Peoples Aid, the Norwegian-Swedish FORUT, and the Dutch ZOA—to cease their

operations in Sri Lanka for their “poor record.” All three affected organizations had prominent operations in the Vanni. Leon

Berenger, “3 INGOs to be sent home,” Sunday Times (Colombo), November 30, 2008.

127 Human Rights Watch interview with humanitarian official, Colombo, October 10, 2008.

128 Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights press release, “UN, INGOs to relocate humanitarian operations to

Vavuniya,” September 9, 2008.

 

Under international humanitarian law, the government is indeed responsible for

meeting the humanitarian needs of the war-affected population. Parties to an

internal armed conflict must allow humanitarian relief to reach civilian populations

that are in need of food, medicine, and other items essential to their survival.129 If the

government is unable to fully meet this obligation, they must allow the humanitarian

community to do so on their behalf. Parties to a conflict must ensure the freedom of

movement of impartial humanitarian relief personnel—only in cases of military

necessity may their activities or movements be temporarily restricted.130

 

 

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provide authoritative standards

on the obligations of governments to internally displaced persons. Under the

principles, the authorities are to provide displaced persons “at a minimum” with

safe access to essential food and potable water, basic shelter and housing,

appropriate clothing, and essential medical services and sanitation.131 Many of these

needs are not currently being met in the Vanni, as documented above.

 

According to Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights Mahinda

Samarasinghe, the government intends to distribute food through its network of

Government Agents and District Secretaries, using the existing Multipurpose

Cooperative Society (MPCS) stores to distribute the rations.132

 

 

However, this approach ignores the fact that prior to the departure of the

humanitarian organizations from the Vanni, government officials administered the

distribution system, but NGOs and their local staff carried the actual distribution of

most items.133 Further, the capacity of the government to assume primary

responsibility for humanitarian delivery in the Vanni—again, a capacity the

government did not assume prior to the September 2008 humanitarian withdrawal—

has been further weakened by the large number of government officials who

129 See ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rule 55.

130 ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rule 56, citing the First Additional Protocol of 1977 to the 1949 Geneva

Conventions, article 71(3), which is viewed as reflective of customary law.

131 UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, principle 18.

132 Government of Sri Lanka press release, “Relocation of NGOs and INGOs will not stop relief activities—Minister

Samarasinghe,” September 16, 2008.

133 Human Rights Watch interview with humanitarian official, Colombo, October 8, 2008.

 

 

themselves have been forced to flee the conflict in the Vanni. A mid-October UN

assessment mission found, for example, that eight of the 16 Grama Sevaka (GS)

officers responsible for registering displaced persons in Tharmapuram had fled the

area, even though there were still more than 84,000 displaced persons in the

Tharmapuram area.134

 

 

The Sri Lankan authorities, even assuming the best of motives, simply do not have

the capacity to meet the immediate and long-term needs of hundreds of thousands

of displaced persons in the Vanni. There are serious concerns that Sri Lanka lacks

the capacity to handle a possible humanitarian crisis of this scale on its own. Walter

Kälin, the representative of the UN secretary-general on the human rights of

internally displaced persons, noted in his May 2008 report that the government of

Sri Lanka relies heavily on international organizations to supply food and non-food

humanitarian assistance, and that most immediate emergency assistance is

provided by international agencies and NGOs.135 Prior to the closing of the Vanni,

international agencies had provided significant aid and programming to assist

victims of the ongoing conflict there. Similarly, in other parts of Sri Lanka,

international agencies have performed a vital role in assisting civilians at risk.

 

 

To date, the Sri Lankan government has not demonstrated that it has the capacity to

cover the whole range of assistance needed by the civilian population in the Vanni.

In particular, the provision of water and sanitation facilities in IDP camps,

supplementary feeding, and distribution of non-food items are areas of assistance

historically borne by UN agencies and international NGOs. Other areas, such as

protection and extra care of vulnerable groups such as separated children, victims of

trauma, the elderly, and nursing and pregnant women, are also fields where

international actors have specialized expertise.

 

 

There are important mitigating factors, including the continuing presence of the ICRC

and Caritas, as well as continued presence of more than 300 local staff of the UN and

134 Presentation on UN interagency assessment mission of October 17-18, 2008, on file with Human Rights Watch.

135 United Nations Human Rights Council, “Report of the Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of

Internallly Displaced Persons, Walter Kälin, Mission to Sri Lanka (14 to 21 December 2007),” May 21, 2008, UN Doc.

A/HRC/Add.4.

 

international humanitarian agencies in the Vanni, working as “volunteers” under the

direction of the Government Agents.136 These “volunteers” are UN and INGO national

staff whom the LTTE did not allow to leave with the rest of the humanitarian

community at the time of the government-ordered withdrawal. With their agencies

absent, they are now at greater risk of forced LTTE recruitment and other abuses, and

are in part now working for the Government Agents’ offices as “volunteers” as a

limited form of protection against these risks.

 

 

For many of the “volunteers,” their situation is fraught with contradictions and

challenges; as former employees of non-governmental organizations, they now find

themselves working for the government, and are unable to coordinate their work with

their former UN and NGO supervisors. Many INGO and UN officials who were allowed

to leave the Vanni were devastated by the experience of having to abandon their

long-time local staff, and are deeply worried about their long-term security. But with

the Sri Lankan authorities refusing to allow humanitarian and UN agencies to

operate in the Vanni, or to recognize the status of the national workers as

humanitarian workers, those left behind in the Vanni had no choice but to go seek

safety by “volunteering” to work for the Government Agents.137

 

 

These ad-hoc mechanisms are not a substitute for a multi-sectoral humanitarian

operation addressing the food, medical, shelter, water and sanitation, education,

and other needs of the population. Further, during the fighting in eastern Sri Lanka in

2006 and 2007, the government was not prepared to meet the needs of the waraffected

population and the UN and humanitarian NGOs provided the vast majority

of humanitarian assistance. It is not at all clear that the government has since

developed the capacity and resources to provide assistance on the scale currently

required in the Vanni.

 

 

Forcing out expatriate humanitarian organizations in the Vanni may also have

removed one of the best means of providing some measure of protection from

abuses by LTTE and government forces. Protection officials from the UN and

humanitarian agencies played a valuable role documenting abuses and advocating,

136Human Rights Watch communication with humanitarian official, October 10, 2008.

137 Internal draft report on humanitarian volunteers operating in the Vanni, on file with Human Rights Watch.

 

 

often quietly, for an end to abuses by both the LTTE and the government security

forces, particularly in trying to end forced child recruitment by the LTTE. As one

international aid worker commented to the BBC, discussing the local protests that

briefly delayed the withdrawal of the humanitarian community from Kilinochchi:

 

 

The demonstrators were so polite and respectful to us. They were not

angry, they were desperate. They understood that we needed to end

our operations, and told us that they would manage themselves with

shelter and water. It was the prospect of our physical departure that

terrified them. With no international presence and no witness to the

conflict, they believed that many atrocities would occur and no one

would see this.138

 

 

Since the withdrawal of the UN and humanitarian presence from the Vanni, such

protection monitoring, limited as it was, has virtually disappeared. Protection

officials say that they have little idea about what is happening in the Vanni today,

particularly regarding abuses against the civilian population by the LTTE.

 

 

By forcing the UN and humanitarian agencies to withdraw from the Vanni, the

government has virtually shut the door on direct, independent reporting on abuses

committed by all sides in the conflict (the ICRC operates on the basis of strict

confidentiality). The absence of an international humanitarian presence stops any

independent checks on the abuse of LTTE influence in the distribution of aid, or the

politicization of aid distribution (for example, by using food aid to direct the

movement of displaced persons).139

 

 

The restrictions on independent reporting from the Vanni are so severe that no

foreign journalist has gained independent, unrestricted access to the Vanni since the

conflict intensified in January 2007, in stark contrast with most other conflicts in the

world. Monitoring and reporting of human rights abuses and violations of the laws of

138 “‘Pain’ of Sri Lanka pull-out,” BBC, September 23, 2008.

139 Human Rights Watch interview with humanitarian official, Colombo, October 8, 2008.

 

war are fundamental to ensuring the protection of the civilian population in times of

conflict.

 

 

The order to the UN and humanitarian agencies to withdraw from the Vanni appears

to be based on the over-optimistic beliefs of Sri Lankan government officials that

they would capture the LTTE administrative headquarters of Kilinochchi almost

immediately, and score a decisive victory over the LTTE throughout the Vanni soon

thereafter. For this reason, the withdrawal order was characterized as a temporary

measure to allow the government to finish its offensive. President Mahinda

Rajapaksa told journalists on September 16 that the withdrawal order was “a shortterm

measure. Very soon [the humanitarians] can go back,” adding that he was

confident that his army could “crush” the LTTE.140

 

 

However, the government optimism has not been borne out; two months of heavy

fighting later, the LTTE remains in control of Kilinochchi, and the Sri Lankan security

forces are likely to face a drawn-out counterinsurgency operation in the LTTE jungle

strongholds of Mulaitivu even if Kilinochchi falls. At the time of writing, three months

after the government order, no humanitarian organizations have been allowed back

to the Vanni and there is no sign that the government plans to change its stance. The

order to withdraw the humanitarian community needs to be rescinded.

 

140 C. Bryson Hull, “Sri Lanka says aid workers to return to north soon,” Reuters, September 16, 2008.

 

  1. Recommendations

To the Government of Sri Lanka

 

• Immediately lift the September 2008 order barring humanitarian agencies from

the Vanni conflict area in northern Sri Lanka and allow humanitarian agencies

to return to assist at-risk individuals and reach all civilians in need. Restrictions

on relief should only be made on a case-by-case basis and only when there is a

specific and justifiable security reason for the restriction. Refusals for valid

security reasons should only be for as long as necessary and should not block

legitimate humanitarian assistance.

 

• Immediately end the arbitrary and indefinite detention of civilians displaced by

recent fighting at the Kalimoddai, Sirunkandal, and Menik Farm camps in

northern Sri Lanka, or at other proposed camps in Sri Lanka.

• Make public the names of all persons detained by the military and police under

Emergency Regulations and other laws, and provide those detained prompt

access to their families and legal counsel.

 

• Instruct security forces to respect and protect humanitarian aid personnel and

their facilities, supplies, and transportation. Personnel who commit abuses

against humanitarian organizations and their staff should be disciplined or

criminally prosecuted as appropriate.

 

• Ensure that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are able to perform their

work without arbitrary government interference: regulation of NGO activities

should comply with international standards, be transparent, and follow clearly

defined procedures. Registration should ultimately facilitate the work of NGOs

and should neither disrupt legitimate NGO activities nor put NGO workers at

risk.

 

• Allow independent observers, including journalists, access to conflict zones so

that accurate and timely information about the situation of civilians in such

areas is publicly available.

 

• Work with donor governments to establish an international human rights

monitoring mission under United Nations auspices to monitor violations of

human rights and international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict.

 

 

To the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) (see our report Trapped

and Mistreated for additional recommendations)

 

• Stop preventing civilians from leaving areas under LTTE control. Respect the

right to freedom of movement of civilians, including the right of civilians to

move to government-controlled territory for safety.

 

• Provide humanitarian agencies and UN agencies safe and unhindered access to

areas under LTTE-control, and guarantee the security of all humanitarian and

UN workers, including Vanni residents working as humanitarian or UN staff.

 

To the co-chairs of the Tokyo Donors’ Conference (Japan, the European

Union, Norway, and the United States) and the World Bank, India, the

United Kingdom, and the United Nations

 

• Speak out publicly, as well as privately, on the situation in the Vanni and other

human rights concerns in Sri Lanka. Insist that the government adhere to its

international legal obligations on human rights and humanitarian matters.

 

• Urge the government to withdraw its September 2008 order and allow

humanitarian agencies access to the Vanni so that they can provide urgent

humanitarian assistance and help provide civilian protection.

 

• Urge the government to ensure the protection of displaced persons, regardless

of ethnicity, and end arbitrary detention. The government should be pressed to

follow the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which provide that

consistent with the right to liberty, internally displaced persons “shall not be

interned in or confined to a camp.”

 

• Urge the government to allow the UN and its agencies to conduct a strategic,

long-term needs assessment of displaced civilians in the north and permit a

follow-up program to implement these needs.

 

• Press the government to allow independent observers, including journalists,

access to conflict zones so that accurate and timely information about the

situation of civilians in such areas is publicly available.

• Work with the Sri Lankan government to establish an international human

rights monitoring mission under United Nations auspices to monitor violations

of human rights and international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict.

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

The report was researched and written by the Emergencies Division of Human Rights Watch, and was edited by Brad Adams, Executive Director of the Asia Division; Charu Lata Hogg, South Asia researcher; James Ross, Legal and Policy Director; and Joe Saunders, Deputy Program Director.

 

Human Rights Watch thanks all the courageous individuals who agreed to cooperate with its research in Sri Lanka. We admire their heroic efforts to alleviate the suffering of the civilian population of the Vanni. Many of the persons we interviewed for this report spoke of their personal frustration in not being able to speak out more forcefully about the abuses they witnessed because of the hostility of the Sri Lankan authorities and the LTTE to criticism of their practices. We hope this report gives a voice to the concerns of the humanitarian and protection community in Sri Lanka, and that it will result in greater humanitarian access and better protection of the

human rights of the civilian population of the Vanni.

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