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Urgent international scrutiny needed in Sri Lanka, say UN Human Rights Experts


8 May 2009


GENEVA - Mr. Philip Alston, Mr. Anand Grover, Mr. Olivier De Schutter and Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Human Rights Council experts dealing with summary executions, right to health, right to food and water and sanitation, released today the following statement:

The current humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka gives cause for deep concern, not only in terms of the number of civilians who have been and continue to be killed, but because of a dramatic lack of transparency and accountability. “There is good reason to believe that thousands of civilians have been killed in the past three months alone, and yet the Sri Lankan Government has yet to account for the casualties, or to provide access to the war zone for journalists and humanitarian monitors of any type”, said Philip Alston, the UN expert on summary executions.

The continuing catastrophic situation of civilians in Sri Lanka trapped in the midst of fighting between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE, in an area measuring less than 10 sq km, must be immediately addressed. “These civilians do not have sufficient access to food, essential medical supplies or services and safe water and sanitation. Even if they do escape death or injury at the hands of the hostile parties, their continued presence in this area without access to these basic rights is an effective death sentence,” declared the Experts of the UN Human Rights Council. “The safety of civilians, including their safe passage out of the conflict zone, must be prioritized by all actors involved” said the Experts. While many thousands of civilians have now left this area, the Experts maintained their concern about the safety of more than 50,000 estimated by the UN to still remain.

Shipments of food and medicine to the “no fire zone” have been grossly insufficient over the past month and the Government has reportedly delayed or denied timely shipment of life saving medicines as well as to chlorine tablets. “As a result of the blackout on independent information sources, it is impossible to verify any of the Government’s claims as to the number of casualties to date or as to the steps that it says it is taking in order to minimize the further killing of innocent civilians, and ensure delivery of humanitarian assistance”, said the Experts.

“When people manage to escape, they reportedly continue to face scant supplies, entirely insufficient access to adequate medical treatment and severely overcrowded hospitals, providing no relief to the horrors they had been living,” remarked Anand Grover, the UN expert on the right to health. “Access to food has also been hampered by arduous and lengthy registration procedures for the internally displaced persons; the desperation and chaos witnessed in some cases show that the situation is critical,” said Olivier De Schutter, the UN expert on the right to food. Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN expert on water and sanitation, also expressed concern about “water shortages reported at Omanthai and at most of the transit sites as well as inadequate sanitation facilities, which put the health and lives of the population at further risk.” The Government must take urgent measures with the assistance of the international community to ensure that security concerns do not result in unjustifiable suffering.

The Experts called upon the Sri Lankan Government to provide convincing evidence to the international community that it is respecting its obligations under human rights and international humanitarian law. It is also clear that the LTTE, for its part, has acted in flagrant violation of the applicable norms by preventing civilians from leaving the conflict area and having reportedly shot and killed those trying to flee. "There is an urgent need to establish an international commission of inquiry to document the events of recent months and to monitor ongoing developments." The Experts called upon the UN Human Rights Council to establish such a commission, as a matter of urgency, to address the critical situation in Sri Lanka, and demand full respect for all human rights. Any such inquiry should study the conduct of all sides to the conflict.

Mr. Philip Alston was appointed Special Rapporteur in 2004 by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The Commission first decided to appoint a Special Rapporteur to examine questions relevant to summary or arbitrary executions in 1982. Mr. Alston is Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University School of Law.

Mr. Anand Grover was appointed Special Rapporteur in 2008 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. The UN first decided to appoint a Special Rapporteur to examine questions relevant to the right to health in 2002. Mr. Grover is currently the Director of the Lawyers Collective HIV/AIDS in India.

Mr. Olivier De Schutter was appointed Special Rapporteur in 2008 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. The UN first decided to appoint a Special Rapporteur to examine questions relevant to the right to food in 2000. He is currently Professor of International Human Rights Law at the Catholic University of Louvain.

Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque began her work as Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation in November 2008, as the first Independent Expert on this mandate. She currently works as a senior legal adviser at the Office for Documentation and Comparative Law (an independent institution under the Portuguese Prosecutor General's Office) in the area of human rights.

All four experts serve in an independent capacity and addresses issues under their mandates in all countries. Further information on their mandate may be found at www.ohchr.org