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Mar-15-2009 01:26printcomments

Sri Lanka: Possible War Crimes

Government forces and rebels may both be guilty – UN rights chief.

Injured civilian fleeing combat zone in the Vanni pocket is carried ashore by Sri Lankan Navy personnel
Injured civilian fleeing combat zone in the Vanni pocket is carried ashore by Sri Lankan Navy personnel. UN Photo

(GENEVA) - The top United Nations human rights official today deplored the mounting deaths and injuries of civilians due to the “bitter” conflict in northern Sri Lanka between Government forces and a rebel group, pointing out that some moves by both sides could amount to war crimes.

High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that certain actions undertaken by the Sri Lankan military and by the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) could constitute violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

“We need to know more about what is going on, but we know enough to be sure that the situation is absolutely desperate,” she said. “The world today is ever-sensitive about such acts that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Although there is a Government-designated ‘no-fire’ zone for civilians in the Vanni region, repeated shelling has continued inside these areas, according to information made available to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

Last week, the UN humanitarian wing said that that the conflict zone has shrank from 300 square kilometres to nearly 58 square kilometres in February, with many civilians – the UN puts their number at between 150,000 and 180,000 – taking refuge in a new 14-square kilometre ‘no-fire zone.’

Other areas where civilians are sheltering have been hit, and OHCHR noted reports that over 2,800 people may have been killed and 7,000 others injured – many in the no-fire zones – since 20 January. Many children are believed to be among the casualties, with hundreds having lost their lives and over 1,000 hurt.

“The current level of civilian casualties is truly shocking, and there are legitimate fears that the loss of life may reach catastrophic levels if the fighting continues this way,” Ms. Pillay said, adding that “very little attention is being focused on this bitter conflict.”

The LTTE is believed to be continuing to hold civilians as human shields and shooting those trying to leave their control. Further, they are reportedly forcibly recruiting civilians, including children, as soldiers.

“The brutal and inhuman treatment of civilians by the LTTE is utterly reprehensible, and should be examined to see if it constitutes war crimes,” the High Commissioner said.

Limited amount of food and essential medial supplies to treat victims are leading to further deteriorating humanitarian conditions.

Ms. Pillay called on both the Government and the LTTE to immediately halt the fighting to allow all civilians to evacuate the conflict zone, urging Sri Lankan authorities to give UN and other independent agencies full access to accurately assess conditions.

Last week, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly deplored the mounting civilian death and stressed the urgent need for the end of clashes.

In a statement issued by his spokesperson, Mr. Ban repeated his call to the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE to “suspend hostilities for the purposes of allowing civilians to leave the conflict zone, and allowing immediate humanitarian access to them.”

He appealed to the LTTE to take its weapons and fighters out of areas where there are many civilians, cooperate in humanitarian efforts and instantly end recruiting children, some as young as 13 years of age, as soldiers. In addition, he urged the Government to begin “serious” efforts to resolve the underlying causes of the conflict.


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