Background Briefing

III. Ensuring Humanitarian Access

The major military operations in the Jaffna peninsula in August 2006 highlighted the civilian population’s precarious access to humanitarian assistance. During the ten days of fighting, all land, sea and air routes (except for military helicopters) were cut between Jaffna and the mainland. Many residents of Jaffna town, accustomed to past fighting and blockades, stored food for such an emergency. Many others, particularly in the outlying areas closer to the fighting, may not have had the means to do so. Water, medicines and fuel supplies sharply dwindled during this period. Telephone services, including both land lines and cell phones, and electricity were sporadic to non-existent. An estimated 40,000 people fled their homes for greater security elsewhere in the peninsula. While many went to the usual religious centers and schools, there were reports that people who had sought refuge in LTTE-controlled areas were spending the night outdoors.

Neither the Sri Lankan government nor the LTTE took adequate measures to ensure that the civilian population in Jaffna had proper access to food, water and medicine. To our knowledge, no serious effort was made by either side to open for humanitarian convoys the main Jaffna-Kandy (A9) road from the mainland to the peninsula, which goes through LTTE-controlled territory. The government showed little sense of urgency in sending a cargo ship with humanitarian aid to Jaffna. And when the fighting largely ended, the armed forces issued a statement on casualties suffered by combatants, both government and the LTTE, but provided no information on civilian losses. To date, the number of civilians who were killed or wounded during this period of heavy fighting remains unknown.

The humanitarian situation in Jaffna has improved since major combat operations ended, but remains precarious. There is little indication that the government has made shipping aid to Jaffna a priority. Humanitarian agencies have expressed concern that many humanitarian problems persist but that access to populations at risk remains difficult.

A. End unnecessary interference with humanitarian access

During the fighting in Trincomalee district in July and August, humanitarian agencies had particular difficulty getting access to displaced persons in Kantale and other areas. On several occasions reported to Human Rights Watch, aid convoys were forcibly blocked or delayed in villages, typically by large crowds believed to be organized by local community leaders or ultra-nationalist Sinhalese politicians who did not want the aid to reach another ethnic group.27

In mid-August, some 35,000 people, primarily Tamils fleeing fighting in Trincomalee district, moved into Batticaloa district. The Sri Lankan military subsequently closed the checkpoints and provided only sporadic access to a very few agencies to access the civilian population in LTTE-controlled areas. By the end of August, only the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross were given permission to provide assistance to the civilian population in the LTTE areas, and then only in direct collaboration with local government officials. Humanitarian agencies estimated that approximately 200,000 permanent residents of Batticaloa district plus about 25,000 displaced persons from outside the district were no longer accessible to the humanitarian agencies. The checkpoints also prevented civilians from crossing into government controlled areas, keeping farmers from taking produce to markets and denying those needing medical care access to hospitals. At the same time, the LTTE tried to prevent displaced persons from going into government-controlled areas by announcing that they were going to shell army positions. As a result some displaced persons later walked through the jungle to reach Valaichchenai on the coast north of Batticaloa town.28

International humanitarian law requires parties to a conflict to allow and assist impartial humanitarian agencies to supply food, medical supplies and other essentials to civilians at risk. The parties must consent to allowing relief operations to take place, but they may not refuse such consent on arbitrary grounds. They can take steps to control the content and delivery of humanitarian aid, such as to ensure that consignments do not include weapons. However, deliberately impeding relief supplies is prohibited.29

Recommendation 11: The Sri Lankan government and armed forces and the LTTE should communicate more closely with UN aid agencies and other humanitarian organizations to improve access to populations in conflict areas.

Recommendation 12: The Sri Lankan government and armed forces and the LTTE should instruct civilian officials and military commanders in the field to allow all humanitarian convoys access to civilians and only refuse access when a specific security reason requires otherwise. Refusals for valid security reasons should only be for as long as necessary, and may delay but should not block legitimate humanitarian assistance.

B. End threats and violence against NGO workers

Serious threats and violence against NGO workers have impaired the delivery of humanitarian assistance and compelled the United Nations and international NGOs to consider suspending operations in Sri Lanka.30

The execution-style slaying of 17 ACF aid workers in Mutur in early August (see below) was only the most horrific act of violence directed at NGOs in 2006. On May 21, unidentified persons threw grenades at the compounds of three international groups, Inter SOS, ZOA, and the Nonviolent Peaceforce. One international staffer from the Nonviolent Peaceforce and two local passersby were injured in the attack on the Nonviolent Peaceforce office.

There have also been several killings of local relief agency staff in recent months in which the responsibility and motives are unclear. On May 15 unknown gunmen shot and killed Jeyaruban Gnanapragasam, who worked for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Vavuniya town. Unknown gunmen shot dead Nagarasa Thavaranjitham, a 23-year-old woman who worked with the Sri Lanka Red Cross on August 20 in Cheddikulam, Vavuniya district. Unknown gunmen shot dead P. Lesley Julian, who worked for the UN Office for Project Services on August 24 in Thambiluvil, Amparai district.

Extremist Muslim groups and the LTTE appear to have been behind threats against women NGO workers in the east in April. Leaflets were circulated in Tamil and Muslim areas telling women not to work for non-governmental organizations. The leaflets claim that such women are sexually harassed and have become promiscuous, leading to their participation in pornographic videos and an increase in the number of abortions. A leaflet widely circulated in Batticaloa and Ampara districts and attributed to a women’s organization linked to the LTTE, told women to stop working for non-governmental organizations by April 15 or “your future life may be endangered.” Pro-LTTE parliamentarians said that they did not wish to ban women from working for NGOs so long as they behaved according to Tamil culture. After the dissemination of the leaflets, many women NGO workers and their families in the east remained fearful for their security.31

International humanitarian law provides humanitarian relief workers, as well as their buildings, vehicles and supplies, special protections against attack.32

Recommendation 13: The Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE should use all available means to instruct their forces to respect and protect humanitarian aid personnel, their facilities, supplies and their transportation. Personnel who commit abuses against humanitarian organizations and their staff should be held criminally accountable.

C. End unnecessary restrictions on and harassment of NGOs

All international aid agencies, including the many that had begun working in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, have had to register with the Ministry of Social Welfare. The government announced that the changing security situation required that international aid workers must also register with the Ministry of Defense—initially requiring that all expatriate staff be registered by August 31.

According to the MoD spokesman, the government was entitled to know which international NGOs were working in the troubled north and east, what assets they had, and whether their expatriate staff had valid work permits.33 While states may require international NGOs and their staff to register with the government, as the Ministry of Social Welfare had been doing, the application of the new MoD registration requirements appears intended mostly to discourage international NGOs—many of which have long been in Sri Lanka—from working in the north and east. While the registration is only for individual work permits, and no institutional registration is required, the work permit procedure includes submitting detailed information on the organization’s activities, areas of work, funding sources and budget (UN workers are exempt from these requirements). On September 4, the government announced that foreign nationals applying for visas to work as aid workers would have to produce security clearance certificates from the authorities of their home countries, a process that seems designed to discourage NGO humanitarian activity.34

Work permits are for a maximum of one to six months, and so far the authorization is only for Colombo and the south. While the Ministry of Defense says this does not preclude travel to other areas, the registration rules do not permit work in the north and east. Human Rights Watch is unaware of any individuals receiving a work permit for those areas.

Humanitarian organizations, including UN agencies, have had particular difficulty gaining access to LTTE-controlled areas to provide relief. Military checkpoints have routinely imposed registration requirements beyond those required by the Ministry of Defense, demanding that the NGOs and their vehicles, instead of just their expatriate staff, be registered with the MoD. They have also demanded that local NGO workers be registered, which is also not required, and threatened them with arrest when they failed to provide such documentation. The military has used these non-existent requirements to turn away NGOs at checkpoints and prevent them from providing assistance. On August 8 the Ministry of Defense issued a letter addressing the above problems at checkpoints with the intention of correcting them.35

The new registration requirements have proven to be extremely disruptive of humanitarian activities during a period of great humanitarian need. The government denies that the new requirements, imposed suddenly and apparently without careful planning, were a form of harassment of international NGOs.36 The Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) has criticized the government for placing obstacles that have hampered effective and efficient delivery of humanitarian assistance in the path of aid agencies. The CPA found that government-imposed restrictions, including delays in issuing work permits and travel restrictions in both government and LTTE controlled areas, created “a climate of confusion” that constrained the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Relief agencies have drawn a connection between these registration difficulties and harassment and threats to which their staff members in the field have been subjected.37

International humanitarian law provides that parties to a conflict must ensure the freedom of movement of authorized humanitarian relief personnel. Authorization cannot be refused arbitrarily and only in the case of imperative military necessity may their movements be temporarily restricted.38

Recommendation 14: While the Sri Lankan government may regulate NGO activities, it should do so in a manner that is in accordance with international standards, is transparent and provides clearly defined procedures. Registration should ultimately facilitate the work of NGOs. It should neither disrupt legitimate NGO activities nor put NGO workers at risk.

27 Human Rights Watch interview, Colombo, August 16, 2006.

28 Human Rights Watch interview, Colombo, August 14, 2006.

29 ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rule 55, citing Protocol I, article 70(2) and Protocol II, citing article 18(2).

30 See “U.N. threatens to halt Sri Lanka work after aid killings,” Reuters, August 31, 2006. UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland told the media in New York after the murder of 17 Sri Lankan aid workers in Mutur that “We have no independent information ourselves in the UN, but I say we cannot continue in this area unless people will be held accountable for the execution of 17 of our colleagues.”  Ibid.

31 “Threat Against Women Organizers in Sri Lanka,” Tamil Week, May 2006, reprinted in The South Asian, May 21, 2006.

32 ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rules 31 and 32, citing Protocol II, article 18.

33 See P.K. Balachandran, “UN suspends relief aid to Sri Lanka,” Hindustan Times (New Delhi), August 31, 2006.

34 See “Government to double check credentials of NGO workers,” Daily Mirror (Colombo), September 5, 2006.

35 See Ministry of Defense, Public Security, Law & Order, “Issue of Work Permits to Expatriates attached to NGOO,” August 29, 2006 (copy on file at Human Rights Watch).

36 See P.K. Balachandran, “UN suspends relief aid to Sri Lanka,” Hindustan Times (New Delhi), August 31, 2006.

37 See Centre for Policy Alternatives, “Statement on Space for Humanitarian Work: Issues of Safety, Access and Restrictions,” August 18, 2006,

38 ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rule 56, citing Protocol I, article 71(3) and Protocol II, article 18(2).