Background Briefing

I. Protecting Populations in Battle Zones

The August 2006 fighting in Mutur in Trincomalee district and on the Jaffna peninsula caused preventable loss of civilian life. Civilians who were unable to find refuge away from the fighting and were trapped in the battle zone were put at grave risk. In many instances, the suddenness of military operations, obstacles to movement by the combatants, and the practical difficulties and costs of leaving their home and possessions deterred families from leaving conflict areas.

The Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE have obligations under international law to minimize the risk of civilians being caught on the battlefield. The Geneva Conventions encourage parties to an internal armed conflict to reach special agreements to expand the conventions’ applicability.5

A. Pre-position food and other necessities in areas of refuge

Frequent clashes between government forces and the LTTE on Mannar Island since December 2005 have caused the largely Catholic Tamil community in the town of Pesalai to repeatedly seek refuge at the Church of Our Lady of Victories. On June 15, LTTE cadres had briefly hidden in the church after attacking a police sentry post. Two days later, a naval clash between the Sri Lankan navy and LTTE Sea Tigers in the sea just off Pesalai generated concerns that the fighting would spread to the shore. About 2000 to 3000 people went to the church for protection, closing the windows and doors for safety and to reduce damage to the church should further fighting occur.

On June 17, a group of armed men, believed to be Sri Lankan navy personnel because of their blue T-shirts (known as “military civvies”), fired randomly at homes in the vicinity of the church. 6 One of the armed men, with his face covered, set his gun on a stand and fired at the crowded church for about ten minutes. While those inside the church cowered for safety, a grenade bounced off the outside church wall and exploded. Another assailant dropped a second grenade through a church window that had been improperly shut; the explosion killed an elderly woman and caused serious shrapnel injuries to four others. The resulting stampede in the church left another forty persons injured. Human rights groups later investigating the scene found numerous bullet holes in the church’s main doors and in its outside and inside walls.

The community was so traumatized by the attack (and the summary execution of five fishermen on the beach nearby) that eleven days after the incident, about 200 people had moved into the church indefinitely and another 2,000 people were spending nights there (so-called night refugees). Because dry food was delivered immediately after the incident and people went home during the day, there was no immediate food crisis. However, the people staying at the church faced serious shortages of sanitation facilities and water.7

During emergencies in Sri Lanka, known places of refuge, typically religious centers and schools, depend upon the distribution of humanitarian assistance from the government and international relief organizations. In practice, the emergency situation itself may make the provision of assistance difficult if not impossible. Safely storing non-perishable food, water, sanitation facilities and other necessities in advance of emergencies would provide the local population at risk a humanitarian reserve before relief can arrive.

Recommendation 1:  Known places of refuge should be provided ahead of an emergency with dry food, water, additional toilet facilities and other necessities to assist at-risk persons until humanitarian assistance can arrive.

B. Provide effective warnings of impending military operations

On July 27 the Sri Lankan armed forces launched a major assault towards Mavil Aru waterway. For the offensive, they pulled troops from the town of Mutur, on the southern bank of Koddiyar Bay across from Trincomalee, weakening its defenses. At around 11:30 p.m. on August 1, the LTTE cut off power to Mutur. Four hours later, on the morning of August 2, the local LTTE political leader Elilan telephoned Karim Moulavi, a Muslim community leader in Mutur, and informed him that in about an hour the LTTE was going to begin its attack for control of the town. “We are about to start,” Elilan reportedly said. Karim Moulavi wanted to inform the public of the impending fighting through the mosque loudspeaker, but because the electricity had been cut, was unable to do so. He asked for more time to allow the population to get to safety, but the LTTE refused. When the LTTE began shelling military camps in and around the town, the residents fled to schools and religious centers inside the town. The ensuing fighting in the town (see below) resulted in more than one hundred civilian casualties.8

International humanitarian law requires that so long as circumstances permit, warring parties must give “effective advance warning” of attacks that may affect the civilian population. Civilians who do not evacuate following warnings are still fully protected by international law. Thus, even after warnings have been given, attacking forces must still take all feasible precautions to avoid loss of civilian life and property. This includes canceling an attack when it becomes apparent that the target is civilian or that the civilian loss would be disproportionate to the expected military gain. 9

Recommendation 2: The Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE should whenever possible provide effective advance warning of military operations, both broadly through loudspeakers, radio announcements or leaflets, and through direct messages to community leaders.

C. Improve civil-military liaisons

In the days before the summary execution of the 17 ACF aid workers in Mutur, their family members living in Trincomalee sought to notify the armed forces that the aid workers remained trapped in the town during the fighting. However, the relatives knew of no one they could contact in the armed forces whom they could be confident would relay their concerns to the appropriate military commanders in the field.10 

The need for better civilian-military communications was recognized after the December 2004 tsunami. The government created Civil-Military Liaison Committees to establish regular communications between the civilian community and the military and facilitate the passage of humanitarian relief during periods of emergency. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that these committees or military civil affairs officers have played a significant role in protecting civilians during the recent hostilities.

Recommendation 3: The Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE should appoint local civilian liaison officers who are known and accessible to a wide range of community leaders and have sufficient rank or clout within their respective forces to ensure that information they receive from at-risk communities gets directed to and is acted upon by the appropriate commanders in the field.

D. Designate demilitarized zones in conflict areas

When heavy fighting erupted on the Jaffna peninsula in mid-August, about 500 families in Mannar district to the south sought refuge at the church in Madhu., Sri Lanka’s holiest Roman Catholic shrine. The permanent homes surrounding the church were reportedly fully occupied by displaced persons and about 75 families erected tents in the surrounding area.11 The Madhu church has frequently been a place of refuge during fighting, but without always providing real safety. During heavy fighting in 1999, some 20,000 people sought protection in the vicinity of the church. The bishop of Mannar demanded that the Sri Lankan army vacate the church area, where it had begun constructing bunkers, to maintain it as a demilitarized zone. On November 20, 1999, the LTTE shelled the church a couple of hours after about 300 Sri Lankan army soldiers had entered the shrine compound during a military advance, killing about three dozen civilians who had taken shelter in the chapel and injuring some 60 others.12

It has long been the practice in Sri Lanka for populations fearing imminent military attack or other violence to seek shelter within their community at a local religious center or school, usually one representing their particular ethnic group. Having the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE designate such places as demilitarized zones—and honor those commitments—would allow these areas to provide civilians greater protection.

International humanitarian law provides for the creation of demilitarized zones, which are areas agreed upon by the parties to a conflict that cannot be occupied or used for military purposes. Attacking a demilitarized zone is a violation of international humanitarian law.13

Recommendation 4: The Sri Lankan government and the LTTE should agree to and recognize demilitarized areas in accordance with international law. The location of demilitarized zones and other safe places of refuge should be disseminated to local commanders, with the recognition that there may be additional places of refuge that still must be protected from attack because of their civilian character.

E. Keep communication channels open

During the major fighting in Jaffna district in August, local religious and community leaders had great difficulty contacting military commanders from both the government and the LTTE, hindering efforts to get food, water and medicines to the general population. Non-governmental organizations complained that the military did not respond to phone calls, faxes or emails. The telephone system, both land lines and cell phones, was not functioning for more than a week. The government reportedly blocked the mobile networks to prevent the LTTE from using them to better target their attacks. For local leaders overseeing the security of civilians in religious centers and schools, being able to contact military commanders on both sides to alert them to the presence of civilians and their emergency concerns can be vital for survival.

Recommendation 5: Religious and community leaders in demilitarized zones and other known places of refuge should be able to contact, directly if possible, local military commanders on both sides.

F. Provide trauma counseling to communities enduring violence

The psychological impact of armed combat or serious rights abuses can affect communities long after the incidents occur. Human rights groups investigating abuses in Pesalai on Mannar Island (see above, Sec. I.A.) were told by church and community members of the population’s need for counseling to address the trauma experienced. Children in the community, for instance, were unwilling to attend school, not only because of fear of new fighting and harassment at military checkpoints (one of the largest schools was next to a military camp), but because they were simply unable to concentrate on their studies.14

Recommendation 6: The Sri Lankan government should provide or facilitate trauma counseling to communities affected by armed hostilities or serious human rights abuses. The LTTE should facilitate sponsored trauma counseling in LTTE-controlled areas.

Recommendation 7: In the event of continued hostilities, the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE should seek to reach a special agreement in accordance with the Geneva Conventions to implement the recommendations above on the protection of civilians in the battle zone.

5 Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 states: “The Parties to the conflict should further endeavor to bring into force, by means of special agreements, all or part of the other provisions of the present Convention.”

6 The Sri Lankan military blamed the LTTE for the attack. See Ministry of Defense, Media Center for National Security, “LTTE Attack on Police Post and Navy Successfully Retaliated,” June 17, 2006,

7 See INFORM and Centre for Policy Alternatives, “Report of a Fact Finding Mission to Pesalai, June 28, 2006,” pp. 1-5. One of the conclusions of the report is that “[s]ince the experiences of the past point to the fact that the vulnerability of the people of Pesalai remains very high, equipping the church to cope with sudden influxes of large numbers of people is an important point to be considered.”  Similar concerns exist in many other places in Sri Lanka.

8 Human Rights Watch interview, Colombo, August 23, 2006 (Human Rights Watch has omitted all names of persons interviewed in this report for security reasons); see also, University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) (UTHR(J)), “Hubris and Humanitarian Catastrophe,” Special Report No. 22, August  23, 2006,

9 See ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rules 19 & 20, citing Protocol I, articles 57(2)(c) and 57(2)(b). International humanitarian law also prohibits “acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population.” Statements calling for the evacuation of areas that are not genuine warnings, but are primarily intended to cause panic among residents or compel them to leave their homes for reasons other than their safety, would fall under this prohibition. See Ibid., rule 2, citing Protocol II, article 13(2). This prohibition does not attempt to address the effects of lawful attacks, which ordinarily cause fear, but rather those threats or attacks on civilians that have this specific purpose.

10 Human Rights Watch interview, Colombo, August 17, 2006.

11 See “ Travel restrictions strictly enforced as fighting continues,” Daily Mirror (Colombo), August 19, 2006.

12 See British Refugee Council, Sri Lanka Monitor, March 1999; UTHR(J), “The Scent of Danger,” Information Bulletin No. 22, January 30, 2000,

13 ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rule 36, citing Protocol I, article 60, which provides a blueprint for the terms of an agreement establishing a demilitarized zone.

14 See INFORM, CPA, “Report of a Fact Finding Mission to Pesalai,” p. 6.