Prime Minister Taro Aso
1-6-1 Nagatacho, Chiyoda-ku
Tokyo, Japan 100-8968
Dear Prime Minister Taro Aso,
We are writing to you in connection with the grave and worsening humanitarian and human rights situation in northern Sri Lanka. The undersigned nongovernmental organizations call upon Japan to play a more active role in confronting the unfolding catastrophe in what may be the military endgame between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
If the world continues to look away from the suffering of civilians in Sri Lanka, as it has largely done until now, it will be a failure of historic proportions. We believe that Japan, a powerful player on the humanitarian stage and the largest international donor to Sri Lanka, has an important role to play in saving countless civilian lives, as well as to implement aid policies that ensure sustainable peace, human rights and development in Sri Lanka. It is time for Japan to show that it is prepared to shoulder its responsibilities.
Tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped in the so-called “no-fire zone,” where John Holmes, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs, warned last month of a “bloodbath.” Each of the undersigned organizations works closely in or on Sri Lanka. Our fact-gathering leaves us convinced that the need for strong action by Japan and other influential nations is more urgent than ever.
According to United Nations statistics, more than 6,000 civilians have died and over 13,000 wounded from the fighting since late January 2009. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which rarely speaks out in public, has called the situation “nothing short of catastrophic.”
The UN Human Rights Council experts dealing with summary executions, right to health, right to food and water and sanitation noted in a joint statement on 8 May that there has been a “dramatic lack of transparency and accountability.”
Philip Alston, UN expert on summary executions, noted that the Sri Lankan Government, “has yet to account for the casualties, or to provide access to the war zone for journalists and humanitarian monitors of any type.”
Both sides in this conflict have shown wanton disregard for human life in violation of international humanitarian law. The LTTE is using civilians as human shields and is forcibly preventing civilians from escaping the conflict zone.
The Sri Lankan government has also committed grave abuses, none of which are excused by its claims that it is fighting terrorism. Its forces in numerous instances have indiscriminately shelled densely populated areas, including hospitals. The government has repeatedly lied to Japan and the United Nations by denying the use of heavy weapons in the no-fire zone.
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government has refused access to the conflict-affected areas to the United Nations, impartial humanitarian and human rights organizations and the media. It should be clear that the world needs to know what is actually happening on the ground so that it can prevent abuses and help those in need.
We know that a number of humanitarian agencies share many of the concerns expressed in this letter. For the security of their staff, they are constrained from speaking out publicly on these issues.
We urge Japan to take a more robust stance on the continuing suffering of the civilian population in Sri Lanka than has hitherto been the case. We welcome reports that Yasushi Akashi, Representative of the Government of Japan, recently urged Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to make the safety of trapped civilians the top priority, and we welcome government statements reminding all parties to respect international humanitarian law.
However, much more is needed. UN Security Council resolutions have repeatedly emphasized the importance of the protection of civilians. Resolution 1674 reaffirms the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, which heads of state adopted at the 2005 World Summit. The resolution notes that the targeting of civilians and widespread violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in situations of armed conflict may constitute a threat to international peace and security.
We call upon Japan to support efforts for the Security Council to keep the situation in Sri Lanka under close and regular review and to consider the situation in Sri Lanka formally at the Security Council. Meetings in recent weeks have been held only informally in basement rooms, deliberately kept out of the Council’s main chamber, because of the reluctance of some member states. We believe this must change and formal meetings of the Security Council must be held urgently so that the Council can take the necessary measures to address the humanitarian and human rights crisis.
We urge the Council to call upon the Sri Lankan government to facilitate UN needs assessment, lifting restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian aid, and ensure access for UN agencies to all government reception and screening points. The Council should make clear that both the government and LTTE would be held accountable for their actions, and create a UN commission of inquiry to examine violations of international humanitarian law by both sides.
We urge Japan to support action at the Security Council in New York, and to support prompt consideration of the situation in Sri Lanka by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The need for action is urgent, ahead of a ministerial-level meeting at the Security Council on May 11. Japan needs to find its voice in international diplomacy as a leading rights-respecting democracy. We hope that Japan will rise to the challenge.
Human Rights Watch
Head of Amnesty International Office at the United Nations
Dr. Monica Serrano
Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
President and CEO
International Crisis Group