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The Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders, Hina Jilani; the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, arbitrary and summary executions, Philip Alston, and the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, issued the following statement today:

We are shocked and alarmed by the recent escalation of violence in Sri Lanka which has culminated in the brutal killing of 17 humanitarian workers of the NGO Action Contre la Faim on Sunday, 6 August, and the car bomb blast in Colombo on 8 August killing two civilians, including a three-year old child.

The deliberate targeting of humanitarian workers is a serious violation of the basic principles of international human rights and humanitarian law and the Declaration of Human Rights Defenders. Humanitarian workers serve every day as implementing partners for UN agencies. They deliver and distribute food, water, medicine, clothing and other material assistance. They provide medical care and psychological support for victims of sexual violence and other trauma. They help transport people when they are ready to return home. Humanitarian workers are, without question, human rights defenders who help people stay alive during times of conflict. Without them, especially in times of conflict, many more civilians would be vulnerable to violations of their civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights such as their right to life, physical integrity, liberty, food, health and adequate housing. In the face of that reality, the responsibility of the Government to extend effective protection to humanitarian workers is heightened.

We urge the Government to ensure immediate and independent investigations are carried out into these killings and that the perpetrators of these despicable acts are brought to justice. We therefore welcome the Government’s strong condemnation of the murders, its promise to conduct such an investigation expeditiously and its request to the Government of Australia to send a forensic expert who will assist the Sri Lankan special investigations team, a request the Australian Government has agreed to. The vigorous independent investigation into the killings of the 17 humanitarian workers is vital not only to bring the perpetrators to justice, but to restore confidence to humanitarian workers and the populations they serve. We also urge the Government to render the findings of its investigation public as soon as it is completed. An investigation, however independent, impartial and professional, whose results remain covered by secrecy is of little use.

The on-going wave of fighting between Sri Lankan Government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) has only served to strain an already precarious ceasefire agreement.

The recent spike in fighting is also related to the closing of sluice gates of a water reservoir south of the eastern Muslim-dominated town of Muttur, halting the water supply to vast areas of farm land in government controlled territory, and thus threatening the livelihoods of the farmers in the area. We welcome the recent reopening of the sluice gates.

The Independent Experts further express concern over the disproportionate effects the current fighting has had on the Muslim population in Muttur town and surrounding region. It is reported that this latest escalation has created a climate of fear making life intolerable for the affected communities. According to the most recent reports, more than 50,000 out of the 63,690 inhabitants of the district have fled their homes and villages. A large proportion of those displaced are part of the Muslim community. The Independent Experts appeal to those involved in the fighting to ensure that all civilians are granted immediate protection and that humanitarian agencies are granted access to the conflict-affected areas to deliver assistance to the civilian population. Civilians and humanitarian workers need guarantees of security and access as well as a meaningful commitment by both the Government and the LTTE.

We strongly urge the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to immediately halt the violence, the deliberate targeting of civilians and promptly return to negotiations to solve this current impasse.