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FeaturesNewsIsland of Impunity: Attacks on civilians and the denial of humanitarian assistance during the last phase of the war

Island of Impunity: Attacks on civilians and the denial of humanitarian assistance during the last phase of the war


Sri Lanka’s battle theatre was sealed off from the outside world by the Sri Lankan Government.  International journalists were unable to access the war zone, and so could not directly report on the impact of the conflict on hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped inside. In early September 2008, the United Nations (UN) and international non-government organisations (INGOs) left the Vanni under intense pressure from the Sri Lankan Government. Their departure coincided with the escalation of the Government’s military campaign, which, from early January 2009, resulted in a chain of important victories against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) forces.

The UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka estimated that more than 300,000 civilians were displaced by the hostilities. The evacuation of UN agencies and INGOs contributed to an acute humanitarian crisis. Between January and May 2009, the Army declared three successive ‘No Fire Zones’ (NFZs) into which the civilian population was encouraged to move for its protection. However, the Sri Lankan Security Forces subsequently directed large-scale military attacks on these zones. This had a disastrous effect on the civilian population and, in particular, villages such as Suthanthirapuram, Puthukuddiyiruppu, Putumattalan, Ampalavanpokkanai, Karaiyamullivaikkal and Vellamullivaikkal, which were located inside or near the NFZs. The UN considered that more than 70,000 civilians might have died during the final stages of the conflict.

ICEP’s key findings

The Sri Lankan Government’s response to humanitarian crisis The Government drastically understated the total number of civilians in the NFZs. The Government disputed the much higher estimates of civilian population numbers provided by its own officials on the ground, as well as by UN agencies and INGOs, which are generally consistent with satellite imagery
analysis. On the basis of these significantly understated population figures, grossly inadequate
humanitarian assistance was provided to civilians in the NFZs. For example, on World Food
Programme calculations, the amount of food delivered in February 2009 was two percent of what was required (at [8.16] of report).

Senior Government officials were repeatedly informed of the urgent need for food and basic medical supplies. In March 2009, senior Government doctors informed their superiors:
[A]ny further delay in sending essential medicines would only cause more and more deaths of
innocent civilians. We have urged for urgent sending of drugs and dressings several times during the past weeks and, in fact, [Government officials] have promised us to send urgent medical items in the ship when it came here last time. However, we were shocked and felt very sad when we were informed by ICRC that no medicines have been handed over by the ministry officials to be taken in the ship. (Exhibit to WS-1302)

The vast bulk of urgently-requested supplies were not provided by the Government. The ICRC was consistently frustrated in its access to the conflict zone, including by artillery that exploded around its ships. Civilians died as a result of starvation. Displaced civilians lacked the most basic medical treatment as shelling of the shrinking war-zone intensified. In these circumstances, the denial of humanitarian assistance by Government and Security Forces officials may amount to the war crime of cruel treatment and the crimes against humanity of
persecution or other inhumane acts.

The Security Forces’ campaign of indiscriminate area bombardment The Government encouraged civilians to concentrate in the NFZs, where the LTTE was known to be
conducting military operations. This substantially increased the risk of heavy civilian casualties.

Extensive aerial surveillance of the Vanni and other forms of intelligence would have allowed the Security Forces to identify large numbers of civilians and protected sites in and around the NFZs.

The Government and Security Forces claimed that, from 25 February 2009, no heavy weapons were fired on the NFZs. In reality, from February to May 2009 the Security Forces increased the number of artillery and mortar batteries around, and later inside, the NFZs by at least 916% (see [16.65]).

 The Government stated that attacks were only conducted on the basis of military imperatives.
However, eye-witness accounts, satellite imagery and expert artillery analysis indicate that the Sri Lankan Army engaged in ‘indiscriminate area bombardment’ of civilian areas through the repeated, heavy and widespread use of artillery assets. Hospitals and humanitarian sites in the Vanni were repeatedly shelled by the Security Forces even though, in the vast majority of cases, these protected sites were clearly marked as such and their GPS coordinates had been provided to the relevant authorities. On several occasions, senior Army officials were contemporaneously notified that the attacks were resulting in extensive civilian deaths. At best, this resulted in a temporary abatement in fire (see, for example, at [6.62] of report).

Taking into account the SFs’ ability to plan military operations, their capacity to execute plans with advanced technology, and official statements that almost no errors occurred, attacks examined in the report appear to be deliberate. The engagement of the NFZs with indirect fire weapons (especially multiple barrel rocket launchers, mortars and air-burst munitions) indicates that the Security Forces failed to take fire-control measures that would have prevented mass civilian casualties. Such a failure suggests that civilians were intentionally, or at least recklessly, targeted. The attacks carried out on and around the NFZs, and in particular the indiscriminate attacks on the villages of Karaiyamullivaikkal and Vellamullivaikkal, and the third NFZ generally, could amount to war crimes of attacking civilians and murder, and the crimes against humanity of murder or other inhumane acts.

The LTTE’s conduct during the conflict

In grave violation of its obligations to protect the civilian population under its control, and as the hostilities intensified, the LTTE took steps to retain civilians in the war zone. One former senior LTTE member stated: When the war grew more desperate the Political Wing wanted to ensure that sufficient numbers of civilians remained in the Vanni in order to force the international community to step in and broker an agreement with the GoSL [Government of Sri Lanka] to end the war. (WS-1401 at [29])

The LTTE appears to have instituted a policy to forcibly prevent civilians from leaving the conflict zone, and this substantially increased the risk of heavy civilian casualties from Government shelling.

In some cases, witnesses report observing LTTE members shoot and kill civilians attempting to escape. The shooting by LTTE members of civilians attempting to escape the conflict zone could amount to murder as a war crime and/or a crime against humanity. At least in one case, the forcible prevention of civilians from leaving the conflict zone may amount to the war crime of taking-hostages.

The LTTE launched attacks from within the NFZs, sometimes close to civilians, hospitals and
humanitarian sites. By the end of the conflict, many LTTE members had stopped wearing uniforms and some intermingled with the civilian population. This conduct may amount to the use of human shields, and thus, the war crime of cruel treatment.
- From the report Island of Impunity

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