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Geneva and Colombo, 27 December 2007 – “Sri Lanka, with the crucial support of the international community, has not only rehabilitated the majority of victims of the 2004 tsunami, but also made considerable efforts to assist those displaced since the escalation of hostilities in 2006. Indeed, the majority of the more than 220,000 persons who had to flee their homes in the Eastern Province between April 2006 and March 2007 have returned, been provided with transitional shelter, and are beginning to regain their former lives. While I appreciate what has been achieved, targeted measures in line with international human rights standards and the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in the areas of security, livelihoods, and humanitarian access are essential if these returns are to be sustainable in both the near and long-term.” This is the key conclusion of the Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Walter Kälin, following an eight-day mission to the island.

Upon invitation of the Government of Sri Lanka, Mr. Kälin conducted his mission from 14 to 21 December. In addition to meeting with ministers, government officials, members of civil society and the international community in Colombo, the Representative visited areas in Puttalam, Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts. The Representative regretted that he was unable to visit Kilinochchi to discuss humanitarian and protection concerns with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In the regions visited, he met with internally displaced persons (IDPs) and returnees, community and religious leaders, government agents and local security commanders, members of local and international non-governmental organizations and United Nations agencies.

The Representative stressed the primary responsibility of the Government of Sri Lanka for protecting and assisting IDPs, a responsibility that includes facilitating the conditions that enable durable solutions for the displaced. In this regard, he noted the complexity of the problem of internal displacement in Sri Lanka. In addition to recent conflict-induced displacement of the past 24 months, in Puttalam for example, northern Muslims have remained in displacement for 17 years. Situations of protracted displacement also exist in Vavuniya and Jaffna, and smaller numbers of tsunami IDPs remain in the Eastern Province. In addition, fresh displacement is occurring in Mannar and other parts of the North.

Despite the diversity of circumstances, Mr. Kälin identified several key issues affecting all of the IDP and returnee communities with whom he met. The predominant concern among IDPs is physical security. The Representative was struck by a pervasive sense of fear and uncertainty among those he spoke. Sources of insecurity are varied, but include the following: continued incursions and attacks by the LTTE; disappearances, abductions and looting; threats and attacks upon individuals by irregular and armed groups such as the Tamil Makkal Viduthalaip Puligal (TMVP), including infiltration of camps at night; incomplete or delayed mine-clearance; approaches used by security forces in response to security incidents, including roundups, methods to identify suspects, and detention of individuals without proper notification of family members of the reasons for and location of the individual’s detention; challenges of civilian police to respond adequately and in a timely manner to security incidents and threats against IDPs; and limitations on IDPs’ and returnees’ freedom of movement based on screening and documentation of their place of origin. While clearly acknowledging legitimate security concerns and the responsibility of the State to address these concerns, the Representative observed that whole communities felt under suspicion and at risk, often due to identification of their place of origin in formerly LTTE-controlled areas. When debriefing the Government, the Representative noted and strongly welcomed important confidence-building measures, such as efforts to recruit local and Tamil-speaking civilian police and the appointment of civil-military liaison officers. Furthermore, he noted the importance of restoring confidence between the different ethnic communities in return areas.

Access to livelihoods is a second major concern of IDPs and returnees. “At times there is a tension between the security imperative and the humanitarian imperative, and the key is in finding the optimal balance which allows people to live in both dignity and safety,” the Representative observed. Mr. Kälin found that significant restrictions remain, and he encouraged authorities to continue their efforts to restore full access to livelihoods. Some restrictions are imposed by the authorities, such as limitations on access to fields or fishing grounds. Others are related to insecurity, such as risk of attack or abduction from paddy fields and harassment at checkpoints. The Representative also noted that targeted programmes to enhance livelihood opportunities, such as the provision of seeds and tools, were not consistently coordinated at the time of return. Nor did he learn of any livelihood opportunities provided to IDPs remaining in camps in the East. He was particularly concerned about the precarious situation of widows and other female-headed households.

Mr. Kälin felt that increased information sharing and consultation by the Government with both the IDPs themselves and the international community and agencies would substantially contribute to reduce the prevailing sense of insecurity and facilitate reintegration in areas of return. For example, complete and timely communication on arrests and detention, as required by international human rights standards, can reduce feelings of fear and helplessness among IDPs and returnees. Clear communication well in advance of returns – about options, entitlements and the process of return – will allow IDPs to make voluntary and informed choices. At present, information about housing and land in high security zones and areas under exclusive control of the security forces, as well as compensation for their loss or limitation, is lacking. Yet relevant information is essential to enable IDPs to exercise control of their futures. Increased transparency – in the form of better communication and coordination in advance of returns between the Government and international agencies and humanitarian NGOs – would significantly improve the timeliness and adequacy of the humanitarian response to displacement.

The Representative further concluded that while many organizations enjoy full humanitarian access to areas of return, others do not. While again serious and legitimate security concerns may occasionally dictate temporary restrictions on access, such restrictions should be the exception and not the rule. Furthermore, when decisions on access are taken at the central level, these decisions are at times not communicated to officers on the ground, such that agencies continue to experience practical obstacles and cumbersome procedures in obtaining required clearance. The Representative noted that non-governmental organizations focusing on protection and human security, rather than providing material assistance, often face additional challenges. “Better access for agencies and NGOs working on protection would improve confidence among IDP populations because these agencies can identify and promptly facilitate the local resolution of individual concerns,” the Representative observed. At the same time, he expressed concerns about cases of threats, abductions and killings of humanitarian workers, searches of United Nations’ vehicles and staff, looting of humanitarian assets, and slow response by police authorities in some cases.

Concerning over 300,000 persons estimated to be living in internal displacement since the 1980s and 1990s, the Representative stressed that allowing the displaced to lead normal lives, with decent housing and full access to livelihoods and services on the one hand, and preservation of their right to opt for eventual return and their property rights on the other, are not mutually exclusive. He was encouraged by the recognition of many government officials that finding durable solutions for those in protracted situations, in particular the northern Muslims, must now become a priority for the Government and the international community.

Reflecting upon recent experience with displacement and returns in the East, the Representative urged all relevant actors to find peaceful solutions to spare the population from new displacement in other parts of the country and, in the absence of such solutions, to consider the following:

(1) that when displacement is unavoidable for the safety of civilians, safe exit routes be available to them, consistent with international humanitarian law;
(2) that both military and civil actors be prepared to receive the displaced in conditions of safety and dignity, and that contingency plans be in place; and
(3) that when conditions allow for return or relocation of the displaced, key international human rights standards as articulated in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement must be followed to ensure that the choice among solutions is truly voluntary and informed, is sustainable, and is carried out in safety and dignity.

Mr. Kälin expressed his appreciation for the Government’s cooperation and support in the conduct of his mission, noting the imperative of full respect of the principle that independent experts be able to consult in confidence with individuals, communities and civil society. The Representative particularly appreciated facilitation of the visit by the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. He was encouraged by the willingness of government officials to acknowledge existing problems in the response to internal displacement and the protection of IDPs, as well as their readiness to take up his recommendations on key issues. In this regard, he underscored his desire to continue his cooperation with the Government, and particularly offered to assist with efforts to find durable solutions for those in protracted displacement.

“Finding sustainable solutions will not only allow IDPs and returnees to fully enjoy their human rights, but also crucially contribute to restoring stability in the country. Significant efforts in this area will be an important step towards durable peace in Sri Lanka,” the Representative suggested at the end of his visit. Consistent with the terms of his mandate, he will prepare a formal and public report, containing recommendations for all relevant actors, for submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Mr. Kälin was appointed to the post of Representative in 2004 at the recommendation of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. In carrying out his mandate, he assesses, every year, the implementation of the human rights of internally displaced persons. Since his appointment, he has carried out several visits and country missions, including most recently to Sri Lanka, the Central African Republic, Azerbaijan and Côte d’Ivoire. For more information on the mandate please go to http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/idp/index.htm

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