(New York) - A Sri Lankan government statement that it is not responsible for the safety of civilians who remain in areas controlled by the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) indicates an appalling disregard for the well-being of the civilian population and is contrary to international law, Human Rights Watch said today. There are continuing reports of high civilian casualties in the fighting between government forces and the LTTE in the Mullaittivu district of the northern Vanni area.
A Ministry of Defense statement issued on February 2, 2009, states: "While the Security Forces accept all responsibility to ensure the safety and protection of civilians in the Safety Zones, they are unable to give such an assurance to those who remain outside these zones. Therefore, the government, with full responsibility, urges all civilians to come to the Safety Zones; and also states that as civilians who do not heed this call will be among LTTE cadres, the Security Forces will not be able to accept responsibility for their safety."
"The Sri Lankan government knows full well that the civilians caught up in the current fighting are dangerously trapped," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government shows callous indifference by saying civilians should not expect the government to consider their safety and security."
Under the laws of war applicable to the fighting in Sri Lanka, parties to a conflict must take all feasible precautions during military operations to minimize loss of civilian life. Disregarding the distinction between civilians and combatants, as the government statement suggests, violates a fundamental principle of the laws of war. Combatants who order or conduct deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians are responsible for war crimes.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and local health workers have expressed considerable concern over civilian deaths and injuries from artillery shelling. The ICRC reported that over the past weekend, the hospital in LTTE-controlled Puthukkudiyiruppu, known as PTK, was hit three times by artillery during a 24-hour period, causing at least nine deaths and numerous injuries. The hospital was struck a fourth time on February 2, killing three people and wounding 10, resulting in the hospital's partial evacuation.
Under the laws of war, hospitals are strictly protected from attack unless they are being used for military purposes and ample warning is provided. Because the Sri Lankan government has denied independent journalists and human rights monitors access to the area, Human Rights Watch has not been able to conduct its own field investigations into the conduct of hostilities by government forces and the LTTE.
Human Rights Watch also reiterated its deep concerns that the LTTE was placing civilians at grave risk by preventing them from leaving conflict zones. The political leader of the LTTE, B. Nadesan, recently told the media: "Of course our people can move wherever they want." However Nadesan's assertion was not borne out by reports from sources on the ground, Human Rights Watch said. Civilians in LTTE-controlled areas have consistently been prevented from fleeing the battle zone to reach safer areas under government control.
The laws of war require a party to an armed conflict to remove civilians from areas where they are deploying their military forces. Combatants who deliberately use civilians as "human shields" to deter attacks on their forces are responsible for war crimes (http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2008/12/15/trapped-and-mistreated-0 ).
Human Rights Watch again called on the Sri Lankan government to stop detaining civilians who manage to flee LTTE-controlled areas, including entire families, in government camps, and to permit them to move in with relatives and host families. Both sides should permit impartial humanitarian agencies to have full access to the population at risk (http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2008/12/22/besieged-displaced-and-detained ).
"Laws-of-war violations by one side never justify violations by the other," said Adams. "The government and the LTTE appear to be holding a perverse contest to determine who can show the least concern for civilian protection."