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Impending humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka:
Respond to the SOS appeal of the WFP


On 20 March 2007, United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Regional Director for Asia, Tony Banbury stated that the WFP will “run out of food supplies by the end of April 2007” to feed the increasing number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Sri Lanka if the WFP does not receive new funding very soon.

 

The WFP's warning has once again brought to the fore the acute humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, particularly in Batticaloa district, due to the ensuing fighting between the Sri Lankan security forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

 

I. Impending humanitarian crisis

 

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 465,000 people have been internally displaced by the conflict in Sri Lanka, including 223,000 people who have fled their homes since April 2006. Batticaloa district in eastern Sri Lanka has been the worst affected. The WFP estimates that around 155,000 civilians have been displaced in Batticaloa including around 95,000 people who have been uprooted in the last one week.

 

Hundreds of people continue to flee from the conflict areas to comparatively safer areas.

 

There have been reports that the government of Sri Lanka has been forcibly returning the displaced people from Batticaloa to their places of origin in the Vaharai and Trincomalee areas despite serious concerns over the security situation there. More than 300 people were reportedly transported to a transit centre in Killaveddi on 12 March 2007 under pressure from the local authorities who threatened to stop assistance if they stayed in Batticaloa.

 

Although the IDP camps are highly congested and unhygienic, the immediate concern is food. In its press release of 20 March 2007, the WFP further stated that it supplied food aid sufficient only for about 60,000 out of 155,000 IDPs living in camps in Batticaloa district through the Sri Lankan government's Ministry of National Building and Development. The WFP has also distributed some 13,400 tons of food which is only sufficient to feed 300,000 people for three months in Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Mannar, Trincomalee, Ampara and Vavuniya districts.

 

The WFP's Common Humanitarian Action Plan for Sri Lanka has only received 33 percent of its required funding for food assistance with which it can feed only upto April 2007. The WFP has already suspended its Mother and Child Nutrition and school feeding programmes in some districts and suspended most food-for-work rehabilitation projects in the Indian Ocean tsunami -affected districts “in order to re-direct its limited resources towards the newly displaced”.

 

II. A reel life general vs underground general

 

Hostilities resumed in Sri Lanka since the collapse of the Geneva talks of February 2006 between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. But the conflict came to the open since August 2006 after the government began its offensive against the LTTE accusing it of stopping supply of water in the areas they control from reaching people in government-controlled areas in Trincomalee district.

 

For long the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002 signed between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE had been thrown out of the window. While both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE were responsible for violations of the CFA, the then Sri Lankan government headed by Ranil Wickremasinghe drew the first blood by managing to split Col. Karuna from the LTTE. Soon the Karuna faction became the key actor as per as the violations of the CFA were concerned.

 

Following the election of President Mahinda Rajapapkse, the situation has further deteriorated. By hunting 18 United National Party (UNP) members of parliament to its party, President Rajapakse has effectively silenced any opposition in the parliament. Presently, the hold and control of the Rajapakse family over the government and fate of Sri Lanka is complete – a feat never enjoyed by the Bandarnaike family whether it were S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Srimavo Bandarnaike or Chandrika Kumaratunga. With brother Gotabhaya Rajapakse serving as the Defence Secretary, President Rajapaske who earlier acted as a military general in a Sinhala film, “Men who die”, as the Commander-in-Chief in real life has taken command of the war.

 

It is a case of reel life general who becomes Commander-in-Chief in real life and decides to take on the Commander-in-Chief of the most dreaded guerilla group in recorded history.

 

III. Suspension of fundamental freedoms in conflict areas

 

All the parties in the conflict i.e. the government and the armed opposition groups, including the LTTE and the Karuna faction have been responsible for gross violations of human rights, including killings, abductions, enforced disappearances, recruitment of children etc. Fierce fighting between the security forces and the LTTE and aerial bombardments by the security forces in LTTE-held areas resulted in heavy destruction of properties, loss of lives, and displacement of thousands of civilians caught in the conflict. Often civilians have been killed by the security forces.

 

In war zones, all fundamental freedoms remain suspended. The government of Sri Lanka introduced a “travel pass” system in Jaffna district wherein the residents have to submit applications to their local army official through the Village Officer and the Divisional Secretary if they wanted to travel out of the district. The applicants also have to submit a surety along with their applications which will guarantee their return to Jaffna. According to official sources, nearly 40,000 residents of Jaffna district have travelled out of Jaffna since August 2006. Thousands of applicants wait for passes to escape the conflict.

 

Due to restrictions on the freedom of movement, the victims cannot even file petition before the Supreme Court based in Colombo, if any human rights violation is committed against them. Without any formal declaration of emergency, fundamental rights in the war affected areas remain absolutely suspended.

 

As the aid agencies too have been denied unrestricted access to the conflict areas, misery is all set to intensify while human rights violations continue to take place. A South Asian Darfur-like crisis is in the making and international community must intervene to bring an end to the conflict.

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