Background Briefing


The resumption of major military operations between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) since April 2006 has placed civilians at greater risk than at any time since the signing of the 2002 ceasefire agreement.1 Violations of international humanitarian law, including indiscriminate attacks and summary executions, have resulted in numerous preventable civilian deaths and injuries.

Humanitarian aid is not reaching those at risk. Neither the government nor the LTTE has ensured that humanitarian relief is going to the hundreds of thousands of people who have been forced to flee their homes or otherwise require assistance. Aid workers have been targets of attack, threatening an exodus by international humanitarian organizations.

The human rights abuses that characterized the ceasefire period—politically motivated assassinations and “disappearances”—have become more frequent. And rising communal violence between Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims has been exploited rather than dampened by the government and the LTTE. Impunity for even the most serious crimes remains the norm.

This briefing paper makes 34 recommendations to the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE in seven subject areas, addressing various civilian protection concerns. Each recommendation is grounded in a fact-based assessment of the conduct of the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE since the resumption of major hostilities in April, with the aim of inducing both parties to adopt specific measures to ensure better protection for the country’s civilian population.

Since Sri Lanka’s civil war began more than two decades ago, civilians have borne the brunt of the losses and hardship. In the short period since the renewal of major fighting, both sides appear to have given little attention to keeping civilians from harm. Both the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE have repeatedly violated the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement, though neither party has formally disavowed it. While the peace process established by the agreement is in shambles, its mechanisms remain in place. The massive harm inflicted on the civilian population in the short period since major hostilities resumed should give pause to each side before initiating new military operations.

There is a wide gap between the practice of the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE and the requirements of international law. The civil war in Sri Lanka is governed by international humanitarian treaty law and customary law applicable during non-international armed conflicts.2

In violation of this law, the Sri Lankan armed forces have engaged in indiscriminate shelling and aerial bombing, attacking targets with disregard to the expected harm caused to civilians. At least 19 young women and girls (the LTTE have claimed 51) died in an August bombing raid in LTTE-controlled territory where the evidence indicates that there was no genuine military target. The security forces have summarily executed persons in their control and are believed responsible for a number of “disappearances.”

The LTTE has directly targeted civilians with Claymore mines and suicide bombers, summarily executed persons in its custody, and in at least one instance used civilians as shields and blocked water to a civilian population. The LTTE’s landmine attack in June on a bus in Anuradhapura killed 67 civilians, including many children.

Outside the immediate battlefield both sides have acted in a manner that has increased the risk to civilians under their control. In April, government security forces stood by for two hours while a Sinhalese mob burned Tamil homes and shops in Trincomalee. The military is providing weapons but little training to civilian “home guards,” who readily become targets for LTTE attacks. The LTTE imposes mandatory military and civil defense training on a large scale to civilians in areas it controls, and arms civilians to fill checkpoints and sentry posts, dangerously blurring the line between combatants and civilians. Despite widespread international criticism, the LTTE still recruits children to be soldiers in its forces. So has the breakaway faction of the LTTE under Colonel Karuna, which is increasingly linked to the government forces; since June the Karuna group has abducted more than 100 children in Batticaloa district for its forces.

The renewal of major fighting has resulted in several hundred thousand people, including more than 220,000 persons displaced from their homes throughout the north and east, requiring humanitarian assistance. Neither the government nor the LTTE has acted to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches these populations at risk. Government efforts to provide aid have been slow and cumbersome, while the Ministry of Defense (MoD) has placed unnecessary obstacles in the way of humanitarian agencies, including new registration requirements that appear designed more to discourage humanitarian action in the north and east than regulate it. Even after the end of major fighting in Jaffna, the government and the LTTE have continued to hinder humanitarian assistance from reaching the peninsula.

Local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) face increasing hazards in their work. Harassment, threats and violence are becoming a common occurrence for aid workers in the north and east, threatening the delivery of much needed aid. The execution-style killings in August of 17 Sri Lankan aid workers from the international organization Action Contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger, ACF) has forced many international NGOs to reconsider their Sri Lankan operations, now needed as much as ever.

With the ceasefire all but officially collapsed, human rights abuses have dangerously increased. Sri Lankan security forces are believed to be responsible for a number of serious incidents in 2006, including the summary execution of five Tamil students in Trincomalee in January, the “disappearance” of eight young men from a Hindu temple in Jaffna in May and the execution-style slaying of five Tamil fishermen on Mannar Island in June.

Since the start of the ceasefire in 2002, the LTTE has been implicated in more than 200 targeted killings, mostly of Tamils viewed as being political opponents. Attackers believed to be LTTE cadres shot and killed eight Sinhalese men in April, including three sixteen-year-old boys, while they worked in their paddy fields outside of Kalyanapura village in Trincomalee district. An LTTE car bombing on August 8 in Colombo injured a Tamil former member of parliament and killed a bodyguard and a three-year-old child. On August 12, suspected LTTE gunmen shot and killed Kethesh Loganathan, the highly respected Tamil deputy head of the government’s Peace Secretariat at his home in Colombo.

As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions Philip Alston stated in April, “The current impasse in negotiations is no excuse for either side not taking immediate steps to end political killings and protect human rights. The dangerous escalation of the conflict in recent days is a direct consequence of killings being allowed to run unchecked.”3

Impunity for perpetrators of human rights abuses remains the greatest obstacle to ending the vicious cycle of murder and reprisal in Sri Lanka. The government has frequently initiated investigations into alleged rights violations by government security forces, but rarely have these investigations led to prosecutions, let alone convictions. A particular impediment has been the failure of the government to institute meaningful witness protection, which would encourage witnesses to politically motivated crimes to come forward. President Mahinda Rajapakse’s effective immobilization of the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission and the Police Commission because of an ostensible constitutional dispute weakens two important arms for accountability.

More than 65,000 people are believed to have died during two decades of civil war in Sri Lanka, most of them civilians. UN Security Council Resolution 1674 (2006) on the protection of civilians in armed conflict reaffirms that “parties to armed conflict bear the primary responsibility to take all feasible steps to ensure the protection of affected civilians.”4 This briefing paper assesses recent conduct of hostilities by both the government and the LTTE, identifying areas in which they have failed to meet this responsibility. We then offer concrete, practicable recommendations in each area that, if implemented would provide stronger protection to civilians. The examples provided in each section are not intended to be comprehensive, but rather illustrative of the particular issue of concern.

The recommendations in this briefing are the product of Human Rights Watch’s experience in conflict settings around the world, many years monitoring the situation in Sri Lanka, and a two-week visit to Sri Lanka in August 2006. During this most recent  visit, Human Rights Watch met with Sri Lankan and foreign human rights advocates, humanitarian aid workers, policy analysts, government officials, diplomats and academics. This briefing paper also draws on fact-finding reports by Sri Lankan human rights monitors, policy papers by Sri Lankan and international agencies, official documents, and follow-up research where possible.

Major Recommendations

Human Rights Watch urges the Sri Lankan government and armed forces and the LTTE to:

  1. Agree to designate demilitarized zones as sanctuaries in conflict areas and pre-position humanitarian relief in known places of refuge.
  2. Ensure the protection of displaced persons, regardless of ethnicity, and end forced returns.
  3. Ensure adherence to international law by all senior commanders and lower-ranking personnel and hold violators accountable.
  4. Improve humanitarian access to populations at risk, including by ending unnecessary governmental restrictions on humanitarian workers.
  5. End threats, harassment and violence against non-governmental organizations and their staff.
  6. Support inter-ethnic networks to reduce the likelihood of communal violence.
  7. Agree to the establishment of a United Nations human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka.

1 The Agreement on a Ceasefire between the Government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, signed on February 21, 2002, had the stated objective to “find a negotiated solution to the ongoing ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.” The agreement set up modalities of the ceasefire, measures to restore normalcy, and the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission. The agreement can be accessed at

2 Sri Lanka is a state party to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. While it is not party to the Protocol Additional of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I) or the Protocol Additional of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II), most of their provisions are considered reflective of customary international law. An authoritative study of customary international humanitarian law is the two-volume International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Customary International Humanitarian Law (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

3 “UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions calls for urgent measures to end political killings and to strengthen protection for human rights in Sri Lanka,,” UN Press Release, April 27, 2006,

4 United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1674 (2006), S/RES/1674, April 28, 2006.