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Human Rights Council: Sri Lanka Session Should Focus on Displaced

Humanitarian Emergency and Rights Concerns are the Priority

(Geneva) - The United Nations Human Rights Council should use its special session on May 26, 2009, to seek commitments from the Sri Lankan government to address the country's disastrous humanitarian situation, Human Rights Watch said today.

"By holding a special session, the Human Rights Council is acknowledging that respect for human rights is just as essential after a conflict ends," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Although the fighting has stopped, the humanitarian situation is still alarming and real improvements are needed now."

The Sri Lankan government's recent victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) signals an end to the devastating 25-year-long war in Sri Lanka. But the end of the fighting came at a terrible cost in civilian lives and suffering for which both Sri Lankan government forces and the LTTE bear responsibility, Human Rights Watch said.

Some 300,000 civilians displaced by the fighting remain intensely vulnerable. Government restrictions on humanitarian access to government detention camps and to the wounded who remain in the conflict area has worsened the already serious conditions. 

"The Human Rights Council should send a clear message that all displaced persons need access to relief and protection without discrimination," said Adams. 

The Human Rights Council should push for full protection of internally displaced persons and their fundamental rights to liberty and freedom of movement, Human Rights Watch said. The council also should press the Sri Lankan government to give humanitarian organizations, the media, and human rights organizations full access to areas from which they were barred during the fighting. And the council should seek specific commitments by the Sri Lankan government to address continuing human rights violations, particularly those faced by the country's Tamil minority.  

Human Rights Watch received many credible reports of violations of the laws of war by both the LTTE and Sri Lankan government forces during the recent fighting. This includes the LTTE's use of civilians as human shields and child soldiers, and the Sri Lankan government's indiscriminate shelling of densely populated areas, including hospitals. These allegations demand an impartial investigation.  

Human Rights Watch called on the Human Rights Council and its member states to concentrate its discussions on May 26 on four urgent needs: 

  • Urgently ensuring humanitarian access to internally displaced persons who are being held in closed camps or remain in the battle zone;
  • Addressing the rights to liberty and freedom of movement of civilians placed in government detention camps and basic human rights protections for persons the government suspects of being LTTE members;
  • Stopping all forms of harassment, intimidation, and threats against human rights defenders and journalists exposing past or present abuses; and
  • Creating an impartial international commission of inquiry to investigate and make recommendations for accountability of all sides for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law that occurred during the recent fighting.

"Sri Lanka's Manik Farm Camp complex now holds the dubious distinction of being the largest displaced persons camp in the world," said Adams. "The Human Rights Council should express its outrage that this camp is run by the military, its residents cannot leave, and that government restrictions on access by aid groups are putting lives in danger."

Human Rights Watch expressed special concern for the fate of displaced medical personnel who provided care to the wounded in the only operating field hospital in the war zone until they too were forced to flee. Apparently because they spoke out about government shelling of the conflict zone, the government has placed these doctors in custody in Colombo and accused them of disseminating false information. The Human Rights Council should call for their immediate release.

Human Rights Watch urged the Human Rights Council to press the Sri Lankan government to take all necessary steps to ensure the safety of all civilians and alleged LTTE fighters taken into custody. This includes registering and providing public information about all persons who have been in LTTE-controlled areas, allowing international humanitarian agencies to participate in processing, and lifting the bans on humanitarian organizations and the media from the camps and conflict area. Those detained under the emergency or other laws should have prompt access to family members and legal counsel. The council should make it clear that government security precautions never justify enforced disappearances.

"The special session is an excellent opportunity for Sri Lanka to address the post-conflict situation in the right way," said Adams. "The Human Rights Council and the Sri Lankan government should not waste it."

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