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UN expert extremely concerned about situation of displaced in Sri Lanka

15 May 2009

GENEVA -- The UN Representative on Internally Displaced is extremely concerned about civilians forced to stay in the conflict zone as well as continued confinement of internally displaced persons to camps.

“At least 50,000 internally displaced civilians remain trapped in the conflict zone, with their lives exposed to great danger and without access to sufficient humanitarian assistance. The LTTE prevents them from leaving the area and has placed military installations close to civilians. The Government has also been using heavy weapons, including mortars, in the conflict zone over the last few days. This combination of factors must have resulted in unacceptably high numbers of civilian casualties,” Walter Kälin, Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, said today, highlighting that the civilians are trapped in a conflict zone that is no larger than four square kilometres. He drew attention to a statement of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) indicating that heavy fighting on 12 May 2009 had made it impossible for the ICRC to evacuate wounded and sick people from the conflict zone and to deliver food to the entrapped civilians. “I call on the LTTE to let the remaining civilians go and both sides to agree to humanitarian pauses for that purpose as well as to allow humanitarian access to bring in much needed food and medicines and evacuate the wounded,” Kälin demanded.

Recalling both parties’ obligations under international humanitarian law, Kälin said “Even if one party to the conflict is deliberately using civilians as human shields, the other party is still prohibited from carrying out attacks that are indiscriminate in their consequences or result in a disproportional loss of civilian life.”

Kälin also expressed concern about the living conditions in camps for internally displaced persons, which remain dire. He noted that the influx of an additional 110,000 internally displaced during the last ten days of April is posing additional challenges for the Government and its humanitarian partners: “Ensuring adequate humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons is first and foremost a Government responsibility, especially since the Government decided to intern them in camps, citing security concerns.” The Government continues to hold more than 194,000 internally displaced persons who escaped the fighting in temporary camps.

Kälin stressed the need to screen and register the displaced without any further delay, and to restore the freedom of movement for the very large majority among them who do not pose security threats. “Prolonged internment of such persons would not only amount to arbitrary detention but it also aggravates the humanitarian situation needlessly,” he said. While he welcomed the news that, as of 28 April 2009, 1,252 people had been released from the camps -- mostly elderly, mentally disabled and other vulnerable persons -- he expressed concern that some elderly people had died from starvation or malnutrition in the camps, and called on the Government to release immediately all vulnerable persons still in the camps along with, where necessary, their care givers.

Walter Kälin, Professor of Law in Bern (Switzerland), has been the Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons since 2004. He carried out a visit to Sri Lanka from 2-6 April 2009 at the invitation of the Government. For more information, contact Mr. Jan Hessbruegge: tel.: +41 22 917 9192; e-mail: idp@ohchr.org