March 23, 2009

International Monetary Fund
700 19th Street NW
Washington, DC 20431

Re: Sri Lanka Emergency Support Loan

Dear Executive Directors:

We are writing regarding Sri Lanka's request to the International Monetary Fund for a US$1.9 billion emergency support loan to cover the costs of immediate government functions and to pay for post-conflict resettlement.

Based on our recent field research on the humanitarian situation in the northern Vanni area, we are deeply concerned that an emergency support loan for post-conflict resettlement will not achieve its intended objectives unless the Sri Lankan government takes serious steps to safeguard the rights of internally displaced persons and ensure an effective humanitarian response to the immediate conflict and post-conflict situations.

As you may be aware, the current humanitarian situation in the Vanni is dire. Since early January 2009, civilian casualties in the fighting between government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have skyrocketed. More than 2,800 civilians are believed to have been killed and another 7,000 wounded in the past two months alone. Approximately a quarter of a million people have been displaced by the recent fighting, of which some 35,000 are now at government centers.

According to a March 13 statement by the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, Navi Pillay: "Certain actions being undertaken by the Sri Lankan military and by the LTTE may 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." On March 17 the Sri Lanka delegation head of the International Committee of the Red Cross stated: "The humanitarian situation is deteriorating by the day. Many of these people are forced to shelter in trenches. They are in considerable physical danger."

Human Rights Watch has reported extensively on laws of war violations by both government forces and the LTTE during the recent fighting. The LTTE has unlawfully prevented civilians from fleeing to safer areas and deployed their forces amid the population. Government forces continue to fire artillery indiscriminately into areas they have declared to be safe zones. Both sides have resisted calls from intergovernmental bodies and states to permit a humanitarian evacuation of the population.

We have also raised concerns regarding the treatment of internally displaced persons, which has direct relevance to the post-conflict resettlement for which the government is seeking funding. The plight of internally displaced persons has been exacerbated by the Sri Lankan government's decision in September 2008 to order most humanitarian agencies out of the Vanni. The government's own efforts to bring in food, medical supplies, and other relief with a minimal role for the United Nations have been insufficient. Internally displaced persons who escape LTTE territory to what they hope is safety within government-controlled areas have been placed in "welfare centers" that are effectively detention camps. All internally displaced persons who cross to the government side, including entire families, are sent to internment centers, which are military-controlled, barbed-wire camps where there are no rights to liberty and freedom of movement. Humanitarian agencies have tenuous access, but do so at the risk of supporting a long-term detention program for civilians fleeing a war.

We also have serious doubts that the government will honor its pledge to allow the vast majority of internally displaced persons to return to their homes by the end of the year, or to resettle in other areas of their choosing. Long-term displacement of civilians has been a major problem throughout the 25-year-long civil conflict in Sri Lanka. Besides the thousands who have remained refugees abroad, many internally displaced persons have simply not been permitted to return home or resettle; for instance, many Muslims forced to flee their homes to escape fighting in 1990 remain in "welfare centers" to this very day.

The Sri Lankan government says that the aim of the IMF loan is to "continue with the resettlement, rehabilitation and reconstruction work in the Northern Province, and the continued rapid development of the Eastern Province," which it considers essential "not only to uplift the living standards of the people in the areas affected by the decades long conflict, but also to successfully implement the government's efforts to bring a sustainable solution to the conflict."

Unfortunately, the government's current policies and practices are counterproductive to the intended goal of the IMF loan. First, the government's continuing disregard for the rights and well-being of civilians in the Vanni, who are almost entirely ethnic Tamil, erodes the trust of the Tamil population generally, making post-conflict stability and a lasting political settlement less likely. Manifestations of this disregard can be found in the government's preventing humanitarian access to the Vanni, continuing indiscriminate shelling of civilians trapped by the LTTE, and the indefinite detention civilians in camps.

Second, successful resettlement, reconstruction, and rehabilitation is conditioned upon the government respecting and facilitating the right of internally displaced persons to return to their homes. The government's apparent distrust of the displaced population, evidenced by the tight military control over camps and even hospitals, and past practices raise serious questions about the government's intentions with regards to returns.

Human Rights Watch believes that unless the government addresses these basic concerns, the emergency funds sought will not achieve their intended humanitarian purpose. To ensure that funds provided are not wasted or misapplied, appropriate safeguards should be put into place. These would include, as set out below, immediate steps to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, and longer term safeguards attached to the post-conflict reconstruction that this loan will support.

Human Rights Watch calls on both parties to the conflict in Sri Lanka to abide by international humanitarian law and take urgent measures to permit the humanitarian evacuation of civilians from the conflict area in the Vanni. Specifically, the Sri Lankan government should immediately take the following steps to alleviate the humanitarian crisis:

  • Rescind the order of September 15, 2008, restricting international humanitarian agencies from conducting relief operations in the Vanni.
  • Ensure that camps for displaced personsin the northrespect the basic rights of those residing there.The camps should be under civilian authority, residents shouldenjoy the right tofreedom of movement due all Sri Lankan citizens, and impartial humanitarian agencies should have access to the centers without unnecessary restrictions.

The Sri Lankan government should also adopt the following longer term measures to address post-conflict reconstruction. Consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the Sri Lankan government should:

  • Establish conditions that would allow internally displaced persons to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity to their places of residence, or be allowed to resettle elsewhere in the country. The government should ensure the full participation of displaced persons in the planning and management of their return.
  • Assist internally displaced persons in the recovery of their property and possessions, and, when this is not possible, assist in obtaining appropriate compensation or other redress.
  • Grant and facilitate the participation of international humanitarian organizations in assisting internally displaced persons in their return or resettlement.

We appreciate your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Brad Adams

Executive Director
Asia Division

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