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Freedom of movement for a quarter of a million displaced, UN Representative discusses with Sri Lankan government




GENEVA (29 September 2009) --“Restoration of freedom of movement for more than 250,000 internally displaced persons held in closed camps in Northern Sri Lanka is becoming a matter of urgency, and I remain very concerned about the very slow pace of releases,” the Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Walter Kaelin, highlighted at the end of a three-day return visit to Sri Lanka.

During his recent visit the Representative followed up on the discussions of Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs, B. Lynn Pascoe, with the Government of Sri Lanka t in order to explore how the protection of the human rights of the displaced could be strengthened and the present delays in camp releases addressed.

“I continue to welcome the Government’s stated intention that 70–80% of the displaced shall be allowed to return by the end of the year. In this regard, I was impressed by the Government’s massive demining and reconstruction efforts that I witnessed in the Mannar rice bowl,” he said.

“It is imperative to immediately take all measures necessary to decongest the overcrowded camps in Northern Sri Lanka with their difficult and risky living conditions. The IDPs should be allowed to leave these camps and return voluntarily and in freedom, safety and dignity to their homes. If this is not possible in the near future, the displaced must be allowed to stay with host families or in open transit sites,” the Representative said. “This is particularly important as the monsoon season is approaching. The camps, which were set up to respond to an immediate emergency, are not equipped to deal with heavy rains. The expected flooding of low-lying areas in the upcoming weeks is likely to cause serious threats to health and life,” Kaelin added. The Representative, while appreciating that his interlocutors in the Government shared these goals, called upon the Government to translate its commitments into action without further delay.

“Restoration of freedom of movement is important to gain the confidence of the Tamil community and enable the building of a sustainable peace,” the Representative said. He added: “In this context an incident reported by the Sri Lankan Army on 26 September involving the use of firearms to control a group of internally displaced persons trying to move from one camp zone to another that resulted in injuries to two persons raises serious human rights issues. It also underscores how interning people in large and overcrowded camps not built for prolonged stays is in itself a factor detrimental to security.”

According to international law, legitimate and imperative security concerns may justify the internment of civilians during the height of a conflict, but it must not last longer than absolutely necessary to respond to these security concerns. Internment decisions must further be made on an individual rather than a group basis. Those who are not released must be informed about the reasons on an individual basis and be given a genuine opportunity to have this decision reviewed by an independent body.

In light of these standards and the need to properly balance security concerns with the rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), the Representative urged the Government again to take prompt action. “I acknowledge the scope of the task that the Government confronted at the end of the military operations in May, but also observe the passage of time and the vast improvement of the security situation. Given these factors, immediate and substantial progress in restoring freedom of movement for the displaced is an imperative if Sri Lanka is to respect the rights of its citizens and comply with its commitments and obligations under international law,” he emphasized.

To address obstacles to the Government’s stated goal of decongesting these camps and allow for the return to their homes of the large majority of displaced families who do not pose a security threat, the Representative made several concrete suggestions.

First, he called for an improvement of the screening procedures: “I remain particularly concerned about the slow pace of identifying those in the camps who do not pose a threat to security and the lack of transparent criteria in this regard. Such persons must not be subjected to renewed confinement and screening in districts of return. Only their immediate release from the camps will comply with the international law standards to which Sri Lanka has freely subscribed,” the Representative emphasized.

Second, he recommended to pursue in parallel different options: returning displaced persons to their homes, releasing IDPs – in particular persons with special needs and their families - to host families, and establishing open relief centres in transit areas for those with nowhere else to go. “Legitimate security concerns can be addressed by other control measures than keeping people in closed camps,” Kaelin added.

The Representative recalled the importance of ensuring IDPs’ and humanitarian workers’ access to information. Information is essential to enable the displaced to learn about the fate of family members who are still separated from their relatives or were taken away for rehabilitation purposes, to assess their own situation in the camps, and to make an informed decision about their future. The right to voluntary return in safety and dignity, which is recognized by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, also demands that those returning are properly informed about the modalities of the return process and the situation in home areas -- including through the “go and see” visits envisaged by the Government, which are welcomed by the Representative.

Close and constructive cooperation and information sharing between the Government and humanitarian and development actors are the most promising ways to address these challenges in the coming weeks. The Representative also welcomed the readiness of donors to support all measures allowing IDPs to find a durable solution to their displacement. In this context, he highlighted that continued international support for humanitarian demining in areas of return is critical.

Finally, the Representative recalled the fate of those IDPs, including many Muslims, who have been displaced 20 or more years ago, and the need to include them into reconstruction programmes. “Finding durable solutions for all of Sri Lanka’s displaced in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement must remain the ultimate goal of the Government,” Walter Kaelin concluded.

During his visit to Sri Lanka (23-26 September), the Representative consulted with the Senior Advisor to the President and Chairman of the Presidential Task Force, Hon. Basil Rajapakse; the Minister of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services, Mr. Rishard Bathiudeen; the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, Mr. Mahinda Samarasinghe and the Ministry’s Secretary, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha; the Attorney General, Mohan Pieris; the Commander for the Vanni, Major-General Kamal Gunaratne; the Government Agent for Vavuniya, Mrs. P.M.S. Charles and other civilian and military representatives of the Government. He also spoke with heads of United Nations agencies and other humanitarian organizations and with civil society representatives. Apart from Colombo, Mr Kaelin visited Mannar district and met with IDPs at Menik Farm in Vavunyia.