Humanitarian concerns rise as war officially ends in Sri Lanka

By staff writers
May 20, 2009

With the war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers officially ending in a bloody victory for the authorities, a humanitarian crisis is unfolding and human rights groups are calling for key steps to be taken to ensure civilians and captured fighters are protected.

In particular, calls have been made today for the immediate release of three doctors who spoke out from the war zone. There are fears that they may have been mistreated by the Sri Lankan authorities for giving out information about government shelling and civilian casualties.

The doctors were last seen on Friday 15 May in a holding area at a checkpoint. They had been working for the government in the conflict zone in north-east Sri Lanka, treating the sick and wounded, until leaving the no-fire zone with around 5,000 other civilians. Their whereabouts are now unknown.

A health ministry official told reporters that the doctors had been detained by the military and turned over to the police, who were inquiring into allegations that the three had disseminated "false information".

The Sri Lankan authorities barred independent media from the war zone, so the three were frequently quoted by the press. Working from hospitals and makeshift medical centres in the war zone, they gave vivid accounts of the suffering of civilians and spoke of the continuous shelling of areas with large concentrations of civilians, despite government denials of the use of heavy artillery.

The doctors are Thurairaja Varatharajah, who is reported to have been seriously injured, Thangamuttu Sathyamurthi and V Shanmugarajah.

Meanwhile, Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia Pacific Director, declared: "The Sri Lankan government must ensure that its forces fully respect international law, including all provisions relating to protecting civilians from the effect of hostilities."

He continued: "The government should accept the surrender of any LTTE fighter who wants to surrender and treat humanely LTTE fighters who have laid down their arms. In turn, the LTTE must also protect civilians and any Sri Lankan soldier they take prisoner."

There are more than 200,000 displaced people, including approximately 80,000 children, who need relief but are also in need of protection from abuses in Sri Lanka.

Amnesty International has called on the Sri Lankan government to implement the following measures:

* To allow full access to national and international humanitarian agencies, including the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to all those in need and facilitate their operations.
* To allow immediate and unfettered access to national and international independent observers to monitor the situation and provide a safeguard against human rights violations, including torture or other ill-treatment, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances.
* To take measures to protect displaced people, including putting in place immediately a proper registration process as a key safeguard against abuses such as enforced disappearances.

Sam Zarifi added: "The international community must require the prompt deployment of international monitors to be stationed in critical locations, including registration and screening points, displacement camps and places of detention.'

Amnesty is supporting the convening of a special session of the Human Rights Council to sustain attention to the evolving situation in Sri Lanka and is calling on the United Nations for the immediate establishment of an international commission of inquiry.

Mr Zarifi explained: "The commission should investigate allegations of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by all warring parties in the course of the conflict and make recommendations on the best way to ensure full accountability."

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