Press Conference by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes, on Recent Trip to Sri Lanka

23 November 2009

Press Conference by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes, on Recent Trip to Sri Lanka

23 November 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs,

Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes, on Recent Trip to Sri Lanka

Nearly six months after Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war came to an end, the Government planned to close all camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) by the end of January 2010, with some 1,000 to 3,000 people returning home daily, John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said today at a Headquarters press briefing.

Recently back from a three-day trip to Sri Lanka, Mr. Holmes said he had spent two days in the north, first at Jaffna, where he visited a camp for internally displaced persons and met with colleagues from the Peace and Reconciliation Committee, as well as the region’s Bishop.  Next, he had visited Vavuniya, where the main Menik Farm camp is located, as well as the nearby Mannar region, where many displaced people were returning home.  His third day had been spent in Colombo, where he had met with the President, Foreign Minister, Disaster Management Minister, Secretary of Defence and ministers of parliament from the Tamil National Alliance.

The release of persons from the camps was being conducted at a fast pace, he said.  For example, at Menik Farm, the number of people had dropped to less than half of what it was at the end of hostilities -- some 135,000, versus 280,000.  “That’s good news,” he said, adding that there were also plans to return 30,000 to an area around Kilinochi, starting 1 December.  People were being given a package of 25,000 rupees and roofing materials, among other items, to rebuild their houses and lives.

Among other signs of progress, he said the main north-south “A9” road would re-open, with cars free to move in both directions.  That would be especially important for people in Jaffna, whose movement had been restricted for some time.  He also hoped the numbers of high-security zones and soldiers in the streets would be reduced in time.

Still, there were problems to resolve, he said, such as what would happen to people whose areas were not yet suitable for their return.  His Office was keen to support the reconciliation process and focus on the presidential elections, slated for mid-January.  Similarly, focus should be kept on accountability for violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law.  The President had appointed a committee of experts to look into such allegations, contained in a United States Congressional report.

Taking questions, first on concerns about the quality of the returns, Mr. Holmes said he would have wanted more consultations with the internally displaced persons, in line with the guiding principles for their treatment.  He also would have wanted to have “go and see” visits to understand the conditions of an area before people were returned.

In terms of the package given to people, he said that the United Nations had participated, along with the Sri Lankan and Indian Governments.  The 25,000 rupees had come from Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Food Programme (EFP) were also helping displaced persons, many of whom were farmers or fisherman whose needs would continue for at least another six months.

Asked about how many people would not be able to return because their home areas had not been cleared of mines, he conceded that it would be hard to provide an exact answer.  The mine clearance would continue.  Some areas had been cleared and others had been marked to ensure that people did not accidentally wander into them.  Humanitarian organizations believed that, even at the end of January, there might be a “residual caseload” of 20,000 to 30,000 people whose areas of origin would not be ready for their return. The key issue, however, was whether people had free movement.  There was no reason why they could not stay in the camps until their areas had the services to receive them.

Responding to a query about efforts to promote reconciliation, he said there had been dialogue between the Government and the Tamil National Alliance party.  A delegation from that party had recently visited the Menik camp and was “reasonably positive” about what they had seen and about the returns process.  The Government was also reaching out to the diaspora to attract investment.  The combination of decisions to allow people out of the camps, to let them move and to open the main north-south road would instil some confidence.  Questions about constitutional amendments and the degree of autonomy that would be given to Tamil areas would be clarified after the presidential and parliamentary elections.

Asked whether United Nations humanitarian agencies had been given total freedom of movement, Mr. Holmes replied that they had full access to the Menik Farm and other camps.  There were no problems moving around Jaffna, except in areas contaminated by mines.  They did not have free access in the Wanni area in Mannar, formerly held by the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE).  However, he emphasized that any limits on access were determined more by security requirements than a ban on movement.

As to whether people would need a pass to leave the camps, he said details about the process were still being clarified, but he had not heard that they would need a pass.  They would need to sign out, and if they came back, sign in again. They could go out for days at a time.  They could perhaps leave altogether, which was an issue under discussion.

Asked about reports that non-governmental organizations working the Mannar area had been asked to suspend their work, Mr. Holmes said that, previously, they had not been able to work in the areas of return –- in the Wanni area.  That was a point he had raised with the Government, and it was now clear that they would be allowed to work there, particularly in cooperation with local non-governmental organizations.

Responding to a query about whether there was a connection between the slate of announcements and the upcoming elections, he said that it was hard to say.  The United Nations had been pressing the issues for a long time.  As to the role of domestic politics, he did not know.

Asked about the living conditions in Mannar, he said that people were being resettled.  Their houses had been effectively destroyed and they were living in fairly rudimentary structures, which was why they were being given timber.  They appeared to believe that such conditions provided a better option than staying in the camps.

He said that in the area he had visited, people -– including 260 children -- were back at one particular school after two years.  Basic services were being provided, sometimes by mobile clinics, as the original clinics and hospitals were not yet open.  Work continued and conditions were not perfect.  There were concerns, for example, about the availability for ambulances and night-time services.  However, “not everything can be done at once,” he added.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.