Sri Lanka: situation of civilians nothing short of catastrophic

21-04-2009 Press Briefing

At a press conference in Geneva on 21 April, the ICRC's director of operations, Pierre Krähenbühl, described the situation in the north-east of Sri Lanka as "dramatic". He explicitly warned that government forces and fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) must take immediate action to prevent further mass casualties among civilians.


ICRC director of operations Pierre Krähenbühl    

Mr Krähenbühl opened his address by saying that he could not recall in recent years a situation as painful and extreme as the one affecting the civilians in the Vanni, where sustained and intense fighting has raged for the past three months.

" The hostilities are now taking place in a very narrow stretch of land along the eastern coastline of Sri Lanka. And within that narrow stretch, which had been declared a'no-fire zone'by th e government, tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped. At present we put their estimate at 50,000, " Mr Krähenbühl explained, adding that the ICRC was extremely worried about their welfare.

He stressed that civilians in the combat zones faced extreme insecurity, owing to the final military showdown in this area. " They have repeatedly been prevented from leaving the area by the LTTE and are exposed at every turn to consequences of the hostilities between the government and the LTTE. "

He went on to say: " One only needs to imagine: thousands of children, women and men stranded in the very midst of the combat zone. Every rocket or mortar fired is wounding or killing civilians. "

The number of wounded people has been very high since mid-January. The ICRC official confirmed that the institution had, since February, evacuated by ferry 10,000 civilians from the Vanni, 60% of whom were injured. Many others are seriously ill and living in deplorable conditions, Mr Krähenbühl added.

" In view of the current heightened emergency, we intend to increase our ferry rotations, again to evacuate the most seriously injured as well as to bring in more assistance. " Over the past weeks, the ICRC has managed to deliver food and medical supplies to civilians in the combat zone, albeit in insufficient quantities.

 Fear of further suffering  

" Essentially, none of the civilians’ basic needs are met at present, and the fear of epidemics, malnutrition and increased deaths due to lack of treatment is growing by the day " , he warned.

Civilians have also fled from the " no-fire zone " to government-controlled areas. According to Mr Krähenbühl, the ICRC can confirm that 10,000 civilians have arrived in Omanthai since last Sat urday and more than 3,000 in Jaffna. The Sri Lankan army talks of 25,000–30,000 people who have fled the conflict zone, in addition to the over 60,000 who had previously left the Vanni.

" Those who left in past days and hours are totally devastated after months of exposure to the fighting and after the loss of close relatives and property. They face much uncertainty about their future, personal security and family members left behind in the combat zone, who may well be missing, " Mr Krähenbühl underlined.

" In this context, the ICRC considers the present situation to be nothing short of catastrophic”, he said. Fighting has in recent days killed or wounded hundreds of civilians who have only minimal access to medical care. " We believe that there are well in excess of 1,000 wounded people requiring urgent treatment or evacuation from the combat zone, " Mr Krähenbühl emphasized.

 Reminding both parties of their obligations under international humanitarian law  

" We are very worried that the final offensive in the area by government forces against LTTE fighters could lead to a further dramatic increase in the number of civilian casualties. "

The ICRC has in recent months repeatedly reminded both parties of their obligation to comply with international humanitarian law in all circumstances. It has submitted specific observations and findings to both the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE.

" Today, in the current context, which is exceptional in that combat is occurring in a very densely populated area, extreme and equally exceptional precautions must be taken to avoid, or in any event, minimize civilian casualties, " Mr Krähenbühl reiterated.

" The LTTE must keep its fighters and other military resources well away from places where civilians are concentrated, and specifically and urgently allow civilians who want to leave the area to do so safely, " he said.

As for government forces, " they have a specific responsibility to ensure that the methods and means of warfare they employ make it possible to clearly distinguish at all times between civilians and civilian objects, on the one hand, and military objectives, on the other. " Mr Krähenbühl added that he was particularly concerned about the impact on civilians of using weapons such as artillery.

 Direct assistance to the stranded population badly needed  

He explained that direct assistance in terms of food, water, hygiene and medical care to the trapped and stranded population was badly needed, deploring that " so far they have clearly not been granted the level of care and attention that was required. "

Over the past months, the ICRC has also reminded the parties of the prohibition on attacking persons hors de combat (in other words, those no longer participating in hostilities) and of the obligation to treat captured combatants humanely.

While reiterating that the fate and security of people trapped inside the combat zone was the ICRC's immediate priority, Mr Krähenbühl stressed that the situation of people who had managed to seek refuge in government-controlled zones was not to be forgotten. He explained that access to transit camps as well as hospitals and medical facilities, where displaced people are sheltered, was essential in order to provide independent and direct assistance and protection to those in need.

He concluded by stressing that the ICRC had continued to work inside the Vanni throughout this period under very precarious and dangerous circumstances. " Two of our national staff members there have died as a result of the intense conflict going on. A further 80 are currently present and in part active in the Vanni at this point. We are very concerned about their security and that of their families. "