Sri Lanka, a "humanitarian crisis exceeding all imaginable proportions"



Sister Placida Leenakaduwa holding a placard saying "No War" at a peace rally in Colombo, Sri Lanka, May 2006. Photo: Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai

An international ecumenical consultation has appealed to the government of Sri Lanka and the rebel movement Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to halt fighting in order to free tens of thousands of civilians trapped in a war zone in the north of the country.


In a statement released at the end of an international ecumenical consultation held in Bangalore at the beginning of April, participants expressed "deep concern over the continuously worsening humanitarian crisis in the northern parts of Sri Lanka".


Some "180,000 people are trapped in the war zone amidst shelling and crossfire, lacking basic amenities like food, medicine, shelter [and] sanitation," says the statement issued by the consultation, which was organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC) together with the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) and the South Asian Councils of Churches (SACC).


Participants at the consultation appealed "to the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to immediately stop the ongoing military operations to ensure safe passage arranged by credible and neutral agencies for those who are trapped in the war zone".


The LTTE should "facilitate safe conduct for the people who want to leave such areas and refrain from any form of forced conscription, of both children and others," the statement urges. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government is called to "allow international and national agencies to address and assist the persons in camps and in the conflict areas."


While the country faces a "humanitarian crisis exceeding all imaginable proportions," it is up to the government to initiate "talks with all concerned and also to present an outline of a political formula with a view to finding a lasting solution to the issues behind the conflict," the statement says.


"As the CCA's Asia Sunday - which will be observed this year on 15 May - will have a special focus on Sri Lanka, the consultation has called churches from all over the world to join in prayer for peace in Sri Lanka on that occasion," says WCC programme executive for Asia Dr Mathews George Chunakara.


The International Consultation on Peace, Security and Development in South Asia took place in Bangalore, India, from 30 March to 2 April 2009. It gathered some sixty participants, mostly South Asian church and ecumenical leaders, together with representatives from member churches of the WCC, the CCA and the SACC, as well as ecumenical development and relief and humanitarian aid agencies from the region, Europe and North America.


Asian churches call for US military withdrawal from Afghanistan

At a time when the United States is trying to rally North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies behind its South Asian strategy, which includes reinforcing military presence in Afghanistan with thousands of extra international, mainly US, troops, participants at the consultation have called "for the withdrawal of US-led international combat troops from Afghanistan".


They also appealed "to the international community to ensure that the resultant power vacuum may be filled by a UN-sponsored peacekeeping force with Asian forces as major players". This strategy, the statement says, "will help the country's transition towards stability".


"The overwhelming presence and reliance on 52,000-strong foreign forces in Afghanistan has created more animosity among the local people as well as in neighbouring Pakistan. This situation creates an atmosphere ripe for extremist groups to exploit the religious sentiments of ordinary people and involve them in committing more violence," the statement says.


Analyzing what they see as "one of the most volatile regions of the world," participants at the consultation stated that "South Asia has become a hotbed of the war on terror and a victim of the strategic interests of major power blocs keeping the region in constant turmoil and uncertainty".


With the "US-led war on terror" being an overall defining framework for the region's conflicts, "resentments against foreign forces" are "growing among various sectors in society, especially as they feel that peace and security in South Asia are today defined in terms of American [US] strategic interests and objectives".


The consultation condemned "all forms of terrorism both by state and non state actors in the South Asia region". It also expressed "concern over the emerging religious extremism and fundamentalism in all South Asian countries". Among the "silver linings which provide hope," the consultation's statement mentions a number of "democratic transitions and electoral processes," like those that have taken place recently in Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal.


Statement of the International Consultation on Peace, Security and Development in South Asia