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Canadian groups call for humanitarian aid in northern Sri Lanka

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On Jarvis street south of Dundas in a low rise building inside the second floor boardroom of the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture, a non-profit organization which aids survivors to overcome the lasting effects of torture and war, Canadians Concerned about Sri Lanka, a broad coalition of community, labour and academics who came together last month in response to the humanitarian crisis, announces the launch of their newly formed coalition that is hoping to push the Canadian government and international bodies to compel the Sri Lankan government to treat all its citizens equally and in a just manner.

It’s been reported that over 20,000 people have died as a result of the civil war in the last few months and over 300,000 internally displaced people (IDP) are being held in internment camps in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Even though the war is over, inside the camps people live in overcrowded conditions with an acute shortage of necessities like food, drinking water, and sanitation. For those trapped inside the camps, where an estimated 60,000 injured refugees and 120,000 child refugees are being held, there is no freedom of movement or communication with those on the outside.

Aid organizations are prevented from full access to the camps, which they say is necessary to provide much needed assistance and relief. Neutral observers and independent media are severely restricted in their efforts to monitor and report on the situation. Recent statements by aid groups lead the newly formed coalition to believe that the situation is rapidly deteriorating. The International Red Cross, for example, made a rare statement on the government imposed restrictions, calling the humanitarian crisis nothing short of catastrophic. Here at home, there is growing concern among the Canadian Tamil community and other Canadians about the situation facing IDP’s in the camps. 

Last year, the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture served 260 Sri Lanka clients, who accessed their services for the first time. The Centre is well aware of the collective trauma that Sri Lankans have experienced and are experiencing now, especially the children who are the silent victims, unable to speak for themselves. In addition to the trauma and the displacement, families are being separated.

There were also the indiscriminate arterial and aerial attacks by Sri Lankan forces in the dying months of the war against civilians and civilian objects, particularly hospitals, that clearly contravened international humanitarian law. Numerous credible reports confirmed that the Sri Lankan army used illegal cluster bombs in safe zones, resulting in high civilian casualties. At the same time, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) forcibly recruited thousands of soldiers, including children, over the last several years and deliberately prevented citizens under its control from fleeing the war zone.

Canadian Academics for Tamil Rights pointed out that violations of the law of war by one side to a conflict do not justify violations by the opposing side and they do not permit the indiscriminate use of force by the Sri Lankan forces in response. “Outrageous violations of human rights and evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the last few months of the war deserve prosecution.”

Earlier this month in a report entitled Twenty Years of Make Believe. Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry, Amnesty International says: “Impunity has long been the rule in this country where violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law are concerned, because successive governments wanted it that way. State agents have intervened directly in some cases to eliminate witnesses through bribes, threats, harassment, intimidation and violence, including murder, to discourage police investigations, and to mislead the public.

“Officials and other influential people have taken full advantage of significant flaws and inefficiencies in Sri Lanka’s justice system to prevent prosecutions. Lack of consistent recognition by the courts of the principle of “command responsibility” has greatly exacerbated the problem by allowing those with the most influence and seniority to misuse their powers and take advantage of flaws in the existing system.”

Canadians Concerned about Sri Lanka (CCSL) has outlined several goals that need to be fulfilled in order to bring about a lasting peace in that country, the most important being the demand for full access for independent observers and international media to all the camps, delivery of food and humanitarian supplies to refugee camps, and an expedited process for refugees to Canada for family reunification and for the protection and care of children affected by the war.

On May 21, Lawrence Cannon, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, issued a joint statement with Bev Oda, Minister of International Cooperation, “calling for the government of Sri Lanka to allow unhindered humanitarian access; ensure that humanitarian assistance is provided to affected populations in accordance with international humanitarian principles; facilitate the freedom of movement for internally displaced persons and voluntary return of these persons to their homes in safety and with dignity as soon as possible; and move forward with immediate steps toward an inclusive political solution.”

“Of course the question in front of us now is how do we take the principles and translate them into realities,” says John Cartwright, President, Toronto & York Region Labour Council at Tuesday’s press conference. “Especially around the issue of expediting family reunification and the plight of children in relation to the government of Canada.”

 On behalf of the CCSL, Cartwright promises that the coalition will speak to the Canadian government about its commitments and lobby other foreign governments, particularly of non-aligned nations that have supported Sri Lanka recently, demanding that they stand up for human rights in the face of this crisis and use their political influence with Sri Lanka to bring about a just and long term solution to the many years of turmoil in that country.

When asked by a reporter about Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney’s decision to fast-track immigration applications of those in war-torn Sri Lanka who want to join their relatives in Canada, Franciso Rico-Martinez, former president of the Canadian Council of Refugees rises and says, “They put criteria for the fast track that are impossible to meet.”

The person being sponsored, for example, has to be able to contact the embassy in Colombo to undergo medical exams, security checks and interviews. Yet the Canadian government is doing little to deal with the internal barriers facing applicants who are trying to visit Colombo or to assist sponsors trying to locate their relatives in Sri Lanka. Without special measures to deal with the situation in Sri Lanka that would bring at-risk refugees to Canada under a government sponsored program (as opposed to family sponsorship), few will make it to Canada.

“The response from Mr. Kenney is a joke,” says Rico-Martinez. “And it’s exactly the joke he always makes when a refugee community is in problems. They don’t respond; they ignore. And they try to look like they’re responding but it’s a joke."

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