Besieged, Displaced, and Detained
The Plight of Civilians in Sri Lanka’s Vanni Region
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- Besieged, Displaced, and Detained
- The Plight of Civilians in Sri Lanka’s Vanni Region
- Map of Sri Lanka …………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 1
- Note on Methodology………………………………………………………………………………………………4
- 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
- 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
- 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
Map of Sri Lanka
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.
- This report details the Sri Lankan government’s responsibility for the plight of
- displaced civilians in the Vanni, focusing on the humanitarian crisis created by
- sweeping government restrictions on humanitarian access and the government’s
- policy of indefinitely detaining virtually all civilians fleeing from LTTE-controlled areasin military-guarded camps.
- 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.
- 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.
- While the government claims the withdrawal of UN and humanitarian agency staff
- 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.
- Virtually all Vanni residents are ethnic Tamils who have relatives—by choice or compulsion—in the LTTE.
- 3 When displaced persons from the Vanni began arriving in Jaffna district in November 2008, the Sri Lankan authorities
- 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,
- 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
- Background: Return to War
- By mid-2006, the 2002 ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lankan government and
- the LTTE was in tatters, as major military operations by both sides resumed in the
- country’s north and east. Initial fighting occurred in the northern Jaffna peninsula
- 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.
- As government forces advanced, the LTTE withdrew to fortified positions in the
- jungles east of the A9 highway. With most of western Vanni under government
- control, Sri Lankan forces converged on the LTTE administrative headquarters of
- 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.
- 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-
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 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. 18.104.22.168.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
61 The prison also houses a large number of persons who have sought protective custody fearing threats from the LTTE or the
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
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
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
- 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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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,
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
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.