The year 2008 brought devastation for Sri Lankan minorities, particularly Tamils, with fierce fighting between government forces and Tamil Tiger (LTTE) rebels. Through the year the military captured several of the Tigers' strongholds in northern Sri Lanka and at the time of writing the rebels were reportedly confined to a 25 sq km patch, having lost all their major bases.

As the fighting intensified towards the end of 2008, civilian casualties began to rise. The military was responsible for some attacks on civilian targets, including schools and camps for the displaced. Civilians trapped in the fighting were attacked and killed by the Tigers and forced to leave their homes. The Tigers also began to forcibly recruit and to use civilians as human shields.

In January 2009 aid agencies and human rights organizations began to raise the alarm over the severe threat to human life as a result of the displacement of civilians. At the time of writing, more than 200,000 people had been forced by the Tigers to stay in the tiny strip of land under their control. In some instances, the Tigers even shot at civilians attempting to escape. The military and air force pursued an aggressive offensive, at times showing little regard for civilian casualties. There were also several instances when the military shelled unilaterally created safe zones, killing scores of people.

The reports coming out of the north are sketchy because the media and NGOs have little or no access to these areas. Based on reports from local aid workers and hospital staff, an average of 15-20 people have been killed each day in January and February 2009, many of them children. The last proper food convoy reached the area on 29 January 2009 and on 7 March the UN said the first starvation casualties had been reported. Western governments, the UN, Japan, the US and India were all exerting severe pressure on the government and LTTE to take the necessary precautions to limit civilian casualties and to respect humanitarian laws. International human rights groups warned that some of the incidents could constitute war crimes. The Indian government called for a humanitarian ceasefire in February to enable civilians to leave the area, and the US government had reportedly offered to help evacuate civilians. At the time of writing neither the government nor the LTTE had agreed to the ceasefire, putting the lives of several thousand ethnic minority Tamils in severe jeopardy.

Climate of impunity

This humanitarian catastrophe came amidst a severe deterioration of human rights through 2008. During the year there were several extra-judicial killings, disappearances and abductions of ethnic minority Tamils. State forces, Tamil Tigers and paramilitaries working with the Sri Lankan government have all been accused of the violations.

Minorities have also been targeted by the government in its counter-terrorism operations. The Sri Lankan forces conducted several search operations in minority neighbourhoods resulting in the arrest and detention of large numbers of Tamils. Stop-and-search operations across the capital and other cities also put Tamils under threat.

There were also killings and attacks on civil society, human rights defenders and the media. J.S. Tissanayagam, one of Sri Lanka's most prominent Tamil journalists, was arrested in March 2008 and after months in custody was charged under anti-terrorism laws. Iqbal Athas, a Sri Lankan Muslim and the country's best-known defence correspondent, is under constant threat and has had to leave the country on several occasions. At least two minority journalists were killed in 2008, while several others were attacked and abducted. In January 2009 Lasantha Wickrematunge, one of the country's best-known investigative journalists, was shot dead by a gang of masked men on a main road in Colombo close to a military checkpoint. Wickrematunge was an ethnic Sinhalese but a minority Christian who was a known sympathizer of Tamils and critical of the government's military strategy.

Sri Lankan civil society leaders, particularly human rights defenders, are constantly arrested, detained, questioned and threatened. This has brought about a climate of extreme fear, while there is impunity for the perpetrators. In September 2008 Sri Lanka's respected head of the armed forces Lt-General Sarath Fonseka told a Canadian newspaper that he believed the country belonged to the majority Sinhalese people. Neither the government or the ruling party denounced the comments. There was also no public outcry by Tamil or Muslim minority leaders in Sri Lanka, an indication of the severe levels of fear and suppression minorities are subject to.

The education of several thousand children in northern Sri Lanka has been disrupted as a result of the fighting. In January 2009 UNICEF appealed to the Tamil Tigers to enable civilians, including nearly 75,000 children, to leave the war-zone for safer areas. The UN agency said that the education of at least 30,000 children had been disrupted and 154 schools forced to close or relocate.

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