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SRI LANKA: U.N. Probes Civilian Deaths as Guns Fall Silent

Sherazad Hamit

UNITED NATIONS, May 22 2009 (IPS) - The Sri Lankan government, which has claimed military victory against a 26-year-old brutal insurgency in the country’s northern and eastern provinces, will be battling charges of violating humanitarian law at a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva next week.

A rash of similar charges has also been made against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which unsuccessfully fought for a separate nation state in Sri Lanka.

The warring parties are accused of killing, wittingly or unwittingly, thousands of civilians, including women and children, despite several appeals by the United Nations and international humanitarian organisations to observe a no-fire zone in the conflict areas.

The move to penalise both the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE has been initiated primarily by the European Union.

The special session, scheduled to take place May 26, is being convened at the request of 17 of the 47 members of the HRC, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland and Britain.

“It is hoped that the holding of this special session will contribute towards the cause of peace,” HRC president Martin Ihoeghian Uhomoibhi was quoted as saying,

The HRC has had only 10 previous special sessions relating to, among others, Palestine, Lebanon, Darfur, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

According to a statement by the Geneva-based U.N. Watch released Friday, Sri Lanka has “preempted scrutiny” by the Human Rights Council by submitting its own resolution, supported by 12 allies, that praises the South Asian nation for winning the war against a “terrorist group” and calls for funding by the international community.

The text, titled “Assistance to Sri Lanka in the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights”, has been co-signed by Indonesia, China, Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Bahrain, the Philippines, Cuba, Egypt, Nicaragua and Bolivia.

Meanwhile, several international human rights and humanitarian agencies are raising concerns about restricted access to civilians and the government’s insistence on a limited international role.

Around 60,000 to 80,000 civilians, reportedly the last of those trapped within the conflict zone, have been making their way to the checkpoints and camps at Vavuniya and Manik Farm over the last several days.

The U.N. and international aid groups have been granted limited access to the areas in and around the conflict zone, leaving them unable to confirm the status of the internally displaced not already in camps and to deliver much needed assistance.

“We hope all civilians are out of the conflict zone. It is hard to be absolutely sure,” said U.N. under-secretary-general John Holmes, the world body’s chief humanitarian coordinator.

“Whenever access is denied we are concerned. There were promises made that were never fulfilled. I think our main concern is to help the people who have got out,” he told reporters Wednesday.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Red Cross have been receiving civilians and monitoring their processing into camps. The World Food Programme has also set up feeding tents to tend to the malnourished as soon as they arrive.

At least 220,000 civilians have already reached the camps in Vavuniya and Manik Farm, both of which have been receiving the latest influx of the internally displaced. The sheer numbers of civilians and the speed of their arrival have put an even greater strain on the health, sanitation, and water systems, described by the UNHCR as sub-standard.

By the end of the week, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) is expected to have grown to more 250,000, said Ann Veneman, executive director of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, which is building latrines, bathing facilities and nutritional centres for the malnourished.

The UNHCR has erected over 25,000 shelters and plans on 10,000 more to speed up decongestion in the major camps. However, the agency continues to face restrictions to entering IDP sites imposed by authorities, hindering its ability to deliver assistance to those unable to reach camps, U.N. officials say.

The Sri Lankan government has vowed that up to 80 percent will be resettled by the end of 2009 – a target Holes called “ambitious” in light of the magnitude of the crisis.

He stressed that reconstruction and de-mining had to take place quickly in order to prevent the issue being used as a pretext for preventing the displaced from returning to their homes.

In addition to mobilising humanitarian assistance efforts and facilitating a political reconciliation process, Holmes urged the government to provide relief workers with full and unconditional access to civilians, and to expedite the screening and separation of former combatants from civilians.

The separation of former combatants and sympathisers from the civilian population has become a particularly sensitive issue following reports that three Tamil doctors working for Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) were recently interrogated at Omanthai and have yet to be released.

In response to these reports, Holmes reminded the government that “these are people who have performed heroically and deserve every praise and care.”

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