(New York) - The imminent departure of Norwegian-led monitors from Sri Lanka highlights the need for a UN human rights monitoring mission, Human Rights Watch said today. The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission is leaving because of the Sri Lankan government’s decision to end the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

“The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission was deeply flawed, but its monitors helped to minimize abuses against civilians,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Now the need for a UN monitoring mission is greater than ever.”

The Sri Lankan government announced its withdrawal from the ceasefire agreement on January 2, 2008, hours after a bomb attack on an army bus in the capital, Colombo, killed one soldier and three civilians, and wounded 28 others, mostly civilians. The ceasefire had largely been ignored by both the government and the armed secessionist LTTE since major new fighting broke out in mid-2006.

The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission was created under the ceasefire agreement to monitor truce violations, including killings of civilians, by the government and the LTTE. Originally consisting of about 60 monitors from five Nordic countries, the mission was scaled down to 20 monitors from Norway and 10 from Iceland in 2005 after the European Union proscribed the LTTE, which then demanded that Nordic EU members leave the mission. But even at full strength, the mission never had the appropriate mandate or capacity to play a strong protection role. Both the government and the LTTE frequently ignored its recommendations, and its monitors were often denied access to areas where serious incidents had occurred (including, for instance, to Mutur in Trincomalee district, after 17 humanitarian workers were murdered in August 2006.) Nonetheless, individual monitors often showed initiative at the local level that provided some measure of protection for those at risk.

“Civilians caught up in the fighting will have a harder time finding safety once the monitors have withdrawn,” said Pearson.

Human Rights Watch called on both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to immediately implement practical measures to protect civilians from continuing armed hostilities. The government and the LTTE should:

  • Agree to the establishment of a United Nations human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka;
  • Designate demilitarized zones as sanctuaries in conflict areas and pre-position humanitarian relief in known places of refuge;
  • Improve humanitarian access to populations at risk, including by ending unnecessary restrictions on humanitarian agencies;
  • Whenever possible, provide effective advance warning of military operations, both broadly – through loudspeakers, radio announcements or leaflets – and directly through messages to community leaders; and
  • Appoint local civilian liaison officers who are known and accessible to local communities and have sufficient rank to ensure that community concerns are heeded.