7 April 2009
COLOMBO - The Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Walter Kälin, expressed urgent concerns today for the lives of over 100,000 civilians trapped in the 14-square kilometre area of the Vanni declared by the Government of Sri Lanka as a no-fire zone. He spoke at the end of a 4-day visit to Sri Lanka.
“I am deeply concerned for the lives of over 100,000 civilians trapped in the 14-square kilometre area of the Vanni declared by the Government of Sri Lanka as a no-fire zone. Large numbers of civilians already have been killed or wounded. Following reports that LTTE fighters now have been pushed almost entirely into this zone, many more are at risk of losing their lives. I urgently repeat my call to the LTTE to allow all civilians under its control to leave this zone and to seek safety elsewhere. I also call on the Government of Sri Lanka to scrupulously respect the no-fire zone for as long as a civilian population remains within it. Moreover, I believe that a series of humanitarian pauses must be initiated immediately to allow civilians to leave and humanitarian actors to provide life-saving relief to the remaining population,” Mr. Kälin said.
During his visit to Sri Lanka, the Representative consulted with the Special Advisor to the President, the HQ Vanni Security Forces Commander, the Minister of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services, the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, the Attorney General, the Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordination of the Peace Process, other civilian and military representatives of the Government and heads of UN agencies. Outside Colombo he visited the Omanthai checkpoint and met internally displaced persons (IDPs) at transit sites and camps in and around Vavunyia.
Noting that more than 52,000 displaced persons have arrived in Vavuniya since November, the Representative welcomed the Government’s acknowledgement of its responsibility to protect and assist these persons, and he recognized measures already taken in this regard. He concluded, however, that extraordinary efforts will be required of the Government, the United Nations, non-governmental organizations and donors, acting in cooperation, to successfully meet the humanitarian needs of this population, as well as those of the tens of thousands expected to arrive in the coming weeks and months. This included supplementing Vavuniya’s already over-stretched resources to meet basic humanitarian needs and alleviating the overcrowding of the Vavuniya transit sites. In this regard, he requested the Government to further facilitate unhindered access for humanitarian agencies and organizations to all IDP sites. He further stressed that the civilian character of IDP sites must be respected by removing military personnel to the periphery and restoring civilian policing and administration.
The Representative welcomed the Government’s receptivity to relieve the pressure on Vavuniya’s resources by transferring some IDPs closer to their homes in other districts. The Representative was encouraged by assurances of the Government that it will now take additional measures to promote family reunification, including the imminent opening of family visiting centres at the camps and the provision of an office to UNHCR and the Ministry of Social Services at Omanthai checkpoint. Such facilities and access will allow them to assess special needs and vulnerabilities of new arrivals and to collect information and requests for family reunification directly from the IDPs.
The Representative recalled that while civilians may be briefly interned in camps on general but imperative grounds of security, soon following an acute emergency any restrictions remaining upon freedom of movement must be justified on an individual rather than group basis. He expressed concern particularly for IDPs displaced from the Vanni in March 2008 and yet remaining interned in two Mannar camps more than one year later. The Representative observed that some recently displaced may wish to remain in the camps for the time-being, but stressed that a procedure with clear and objective criteria to allow for freedom of movement must be developed, communicated to IDPs and implemented without delay.
The Representative welcomed the Government’s assurances that it will promptly develop criteria and procedures to speed the release of many more IDPs from the camps, particularly those with vulnerabilities, such as people with disabilities, unaccompanied and separated children, and single or widowed mothers with small children. Immediate release of persons with special needs and those posing no security threat who may seek shelter with host families will respond to international human rights standards and help ease congestion in transit sites. While a few hundred elderly IDPs (over the age of 60) have been released, many more remain among the 57,000 in the camps, unaware of procedures by which they may obtain review and release. Others need assistance in locating their relatives outside. The Representative called on the Government to immediately release the staff of United Nations agencies and NGOs, and their families.
Furthermore the Representative was reassured by the Government’s commitment that it will undertake all necessary measures to facilitate the prompt and sustainable return of IDPs to their communities of origin.
The Representative welcomed the Government’s commitment to devise an action plan endorsing fundamental principles and indicating clear benchmarks, criteria and timetables for security screening of IDPs; registering them in order to enhance their freedom of movement; and facilitating return. He looked forward to supporting the Government and the international community in developing such a plan of action to resolve the present displacement crisis and protect the rights of IDPs in accordance with international standards. Such a plan surely will be instrumental in building the confidence among all Sri Lankan citizens and restoring the trust among affected Tamil populations that will be prerequisites to consolidate a lasting peace.
Walter Kaelin, professor of law at the University of Bern (Switzerland), has been the Representative of the Secretary General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced People since 2004.
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