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Message of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Navi Pillay at the Human Rights Council Special
Session on the human rights situation in
Sri Lanka

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26 May 2009

I regret that I am not able to attend in person the Human Rights Council special session on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. It is appropriate that the Human Rights Council, as the premier body for the protection of human rights, should address the tragic human rights and humanitarian consequences of the conflict in that country.

The images of terrified and emaciated women, men and children fleeing the battle zone ought to be etched in our collective memory. They must spur us into action.

Since December, during the latest phase of intense fighting, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed, injured or displaced. They have seen their property and livelihoods shattered. Independent human rights monitors and the media should be given unfettered access to verify reports of serious violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law which have consistently surfaced in the course of the fighting.

Furthermore, the fate of thousands of civilians believed to have been in the conflict area, or in transit to displacement camps is still unknown. The plight of those who have already reached the camps must also be addressed with urgency. These people are in desperate need of food, water, medical help and other forms of basic assistance. Severe overcrowding is creating serious problems. Malnourishment is a pressing concern. There have already been outbreaks of contagious diseases.

Unrestricted humanitarian aid will make the difference between life, illness or even death to many, and yet access for the UN and NGOs to the IDP camps continues to be hampered. I call on the Government to ensure that unimpeded assistance promptly reaches the survivors.

I also urge the Government to expedite and correct flaws in the screening process implemented to separate LTTE combatants from the civilian population. Full access to independent monitors is crucial to ensure due process and humane treatment for detainees. Freedom of movement for the very large majority of displaced people who do not pose security threats should also be granted as soon as possible.

The Government claimed military victory over the LTTE and announced the death of senior LTTE commanders. For many years, the LTTE’s campaign of violence had terrorized Sri Lankan people of all ethnic communities and ruthlessly eliminated independent-minded Tamils who dared to dissent. I fully recognize the Government’s responsibility to protect its people against acts of this kind, but as in any comparable situation, the rules of international human rights and international humanitarian law must be upheld at all times. In no circumstances can the end justify the means employed to achieve it.

There are strong reasons to believe that both sides have grossly disregarded the fundamental principle of the inviolability of civilians. An independent and credible international investigation into recent events should be dispatched to ascertain the occurrence, nature and scale of violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law, as well as specific responsibilities.

Allegations that the LTTE purposefully prevented civilians from leaving the conflict zone, despite their suffering and the dangers that they faced, warrant close scrutiny. The LTTE has reportedly engaged in forced conscription for military purposes and located military facilities amongst civilians, effectively using them as human shields. There were even alleged cases of the LTTE firing on civilians as they sought to flee, or targeting with suicide attacks checkpoints as the IDPs left the area.

For its part, the Government reportedly used heavy artillery on the densely populated conflict zone, despite assurances that it would take precautions to protect civilians. This and the reported shelling of a hospital clinic on several occasions in the last weeks of fighting, if verified, would be of great concern. Allegations that the army may have killed LTTE members who were trying to surrender and who thus may qualify as "hors de combat," if confirmed, would constitute serious violations of the laws of war.

Establishing the facts is crucial to set the record straight regarding the conduct of all parties in the conflict.

Victims and the survivors have a right to justice and remedies. The Government has already indicated that it may grant amnesty to lower and mid-level LTTE cadres and only prosecute senior LTTE leaders. I would like to underscore that amnesties preventing accountability of individuals who may be responsible for war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity or gross violations of human rights are impermissible.

As I record this message on May 25, the Secretary-General has visited Sri Lanka. I wish to join the Secretary-General in his appeal to the Government of Sri Lanka to address the root causes, the longstanding human rights conditions, to ensure a comprehensive process of accountability for human rights violations by all concerned. A new future for the country, the prospect of meaningful reconciliation and lasting peace, where respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms can become a reality for all, hinges upon such in-depth and comprehensive approach.

Clearly the challenges of recovery and reconciliation extend beyond the conflict-affected areas to the broader political and institutional life of the country. Three decades of conflict have had a corrosive effect on public life and the rule of law. Human rights defenders and journalists have continuously faced threats and even death. The independence of important institutions, such as the national human rights commission, has been compromised. As is almost invariably the case in post-conflict situations, general trust must be rebuilt by reenergizing a human rights culture in the country.

I remain convinced that an OHCHR office with a promotion and protection mandate in Sri Lanka could play an important role in supporting the Government and in building the confidence of all stakeholders in Sri Lanka’s recovery. I urge the Human Rights Council to support the call for the international community’s help at such a critical juncture for Sri Lanka.

Thank you.