Red Cross: Sri Lankan war zone a "humanitarian catastrophe"

May 15, 2009

The International Committee of the Red Cross today described the Sri Lankan war zone as “an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe.”  For the third consecutive day, the ICRC has been unable to evacuate seriously wounded or ill patients and deliver desperately needed food, due to ongoing combat in the area.  The U.N. reported today that fighting between government forces and the opposition Tamil Tigers was continuing with heavy casualties in the war zone, which is about the size of Central Park in New York.  The U.N. has continued its high-level involvement; it was announced that Secretary-General’s chief of staff would be sent to Sri Lanka to try to help resolve the humanitarian situation.

Despite statements by President Obama and the UN Security Council yesterday on the crisis, neither the Sri Lankan government nor the Tigers have agreed to a pause in the fighting in order to allow civilians to leave the war zone safely and to allow aid into the area.  Instead, both the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers appeared to welcome the parts of the statements that criticized the other side without agreeing to the commitments being asked of them.  The only good news I saw was a statement by the Sri Lankan government that over 3,300 civilians had escaped from the war zone today.

The Sri Lankan government has been engaged in a military offensive to reconquer territory held by the Tigers, which has been fighting for an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.  The military has now confined the Tigers to a small pocket of land in northeastern Sri Lanka.  Trapped with the Tigers are an estimated 50,000 or more civilians, who are being used by the Tigers as human shields and not allowed to leave the conflict area.

AI has called for an international commission of inquiry to investigate violations of international law by both sides.  The British government today supported that call.

We urgently need both the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers to halt the fighting, in order to allow civilians to leave the war zone and aid to get into the area.  Both sides should understand that the world is watching and they’ll be held to account for their actions.