(London) - The Commonwealth and its members should use their combined diplomatic influence to press the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to cease attacks that violate the laws of war and end the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka's northern Vanni region, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) and Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG). A two-day holiday pause in military operations was not long enough to address the desperate situation of trapped civilians.

Fighting reportedly has resumed in the tiny government-declared "no-fire zone" still in the control of LTTE forces, where the approximately 100,000 civilians remaining are at grave risk. LTTE forces have prevented civilians from leaving the area, while government forces have repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled the no-fire zone. More than 3,000 civilians have reportedly been killed and many more wounded during the fighting since January.

"With the United Nations warning that there could be a potential ‘bloodbath,' the CMAG needs to assert itself to protect the civilians trapped in the fighting in a member country," said Maja Daruwalla, executive director of CHRI. "It should not stay silent during this mounting tragedy."

Both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE deny they are violating the laws of war. However, there is credible information that the LTTE is preventing civilians from leaving the conflict area and shooting at those that try to escape. Displaced persons who have managed to flee the fighting have been placed in detention camps by the Sri Lankan government, where they are denied freedom of movement. The government has said that it will improve access to the camps by relatives and allow some to leave after screening for LTTE combatants, but to date only a few hundred elderly have been allowed to leave. There are allegations that an unknown number of people with alleged LTTE ties have been taken into government custody, leading to fears of enforced disappearances.

The Sri Lankan government has refused to allow independent observers and journalists into conflict zones so that there is a lack of accurate and timely information about the situation of the trapped civilians. It has also barred most humanitarian agencies from the conflict area in northern Sri Lanka, citing security concerns, leading to severe shortfalls in humanitarian assistance. There have been repeated allegations of threats and intimidation against Sri Lankan journalists and human rights workers.

"The Commonwealth harms itself when it stays silent during a crisis in a member state," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Abuses by the Tamil Tigers should not deter it from pressing the Sri Lankan government to uphold the Commonwealth's fundamental principles."

In the Harare Commonwealth Declaration, 1991, Commonwealth Heads of Government pledged to protect and promote fundamental human rights and to support "the United Nations and other international institutions in the world's search for peace."

Calling upon CMAG to protect the fundamental principles of the Commonwealth, CHRI and Human Rights Watch urged it to:

  • Seek assurances that civilians are given the highest protections, and that international humanitarian law is being complied with in full.
  • Call upon the Sri Lankan government to cease attacks that violate the laws of war, including artillery bombardment and aerial bombing that does not discriminate between military targets and civilians, or that causes expected harm to civilians and civilian objects disproportionate to the anticipated military gain. Violations of the laws of war by the LTTE do not justify attacks by government security forces in violation of the law.
  • Call upon the LTTE to stop using civilians as "human shields," take all feasible steps to avoid placing military targets near civilians, stop preventing civilians from leaving areas under its control, respect and facilitate the right to freedom of movement of civilians, including their right to move to government-controlled territory for safety, and end all deliberate attacks on civilians, such as those seeking to flee LTTE-controlled areas.
  • State its concern for the trapped civilians, call upon both parties to facilitate the immediate creation of humanitarian corridors to allow trapped civilians to escape and offer neutral assistance to ensure safe evacuation of civilians, as well as to provide aid for humanitarian camps for relocated civilians.
  • Consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, ensure that camps for displaced personsrespect the basic rights of residents.The camps should be under civilian authority, residents shouldhave thefreedom of movement due all Sri Lankan citizens, and impartial humanitarian agencies should have access to the centers without unnecessary restrictions.
  • Call upon the Sri Lankan government to allow independent observers, including journalists, access to conflict zones so that accurate and timely information about the situation of civilians in such areas is publicly available.
  • Call upon the government to lift immediately the September 2008 order barring humanitarian agencies from the conflict area in northern Sri Lanka and allow humanitarian agencies to return to assist at-risk individuals and reach all civilians in need. Restrictions on relief should be made on a case-by-case basis and only when there is a specific and justifiable security reason for the restriction. Refusals for valid security reasons should only be for as long as necessary and should not block legitimate humanitarian assistance.
  • Call upon the government to ensure that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are able to perform their work without arbitrary government interference. Regulation of NGO activities should comply with international standards, be transparent, and follow clearly defined procedures. Registration should ultimately facilitate the work of NGOs and should neither disrupt legitimate NGO activities nor put NGO workers at risk.
  • Strongly urge all CMAG members to act on the crisis in Sri Lanka collectively as a positive way to engage the crisis and such situations in the future, while also giving full adherence to the Harare Declaration among the Commonwealth's membership.

To read the letter from Human Rights Watch and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, please visit: