UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said yesterday she was deeply concerned by reports of the rapidly deteriorating conditions facing a quarter of a million civilians trapped in the conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka.
There have been many reports of Sri Lanka Army (SLA) troops shelling and firing into ‘safe areas’ to which they have directed Tamil civilians.
Pillay also expressed concern at the highly restricted access to the Vanni region for aid agencies and impartial outside observers, including journalists and human rights monitors.
She said: ‘The perilous situation of civilians after many months of fighting, multiple displacements and heavy rains and flooding is extremely worrying.’
Pillay added: ‘The lack of access for independent monitors, humanitarian workers and the media only adds to concerns that the situation may be even worse than we realise.’
She also condemned the fact that safe zones promised by the Colombo government have subsequently been subjected to bombardment leading to civilian casualties.
She said: ‘People trying to flee the conflict areas are reported to have either been prevented from doing so, or to have been arbitrarily detained in special centres.’
She continued: ‘It is also urgent that civilians in the north can find safe shelter, away from the fighting.’
Pillay noted that along with the Secretary-General and other heads of UN agencies, she had already expressed her concerns directly to the Government of Sri Lanka.
She stressed: ‘We are all seriously alarmed by the situation, as are many of the NGOs and other organisations operating in Sri Lanka.’
Pillay said the conflict had reached a critical stage: ‘While the government has made military gains on one hand, the rule of law has been undermined on the other.
‘The killing of the prominent newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge earlier this month was the latest blow to the free expression of dissent in Sri Lanka.
‘The searing article he wrote prophesying his own murder is an extraordinary indictment of a system corrupted by more than two decades of bloody internal conflict.’
The UN High Commissioner observed there had not been any successful investigations or prosecutions of political killings, disappearances and other violations committed in recent years.
Pillay said: ‘It is the government’s duty to provide safety to all Sri Lanka’s citizens, whatever their ethnic origin or political views.
‘That means not only protecting civilians during military operations in the north, but also ensuring space for journalists and human rights defenders to seek out the truth and expose abuses.’
Pillay added that ‘a strenuous effort needs to be made to tackle the core problems that have fuelled this conflict for a quarter of a century, in order to bring peace and prosperity and restore fundamental rights and freedoms for all Sri Lankans in all parts of the country.’