Press Conference on Situation in Sri Lanka

22 April 2009

Press Conference on Situation in Sri Lanka

22 April 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York



Representatives of four non-governmental organizations today called on the United Nations to speak out on the situation in northern Sri Lanka and urged the Security Council to take up the matter under the concept of “responsibility to protect”.

Speaking at a Headquarters press conference where they discussed the situation in and around the “no-fire zone” in northern Sri Lanka -– where Government forces are poised to overrun positions held by rebel fighters of the Liberation of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) -– were Joseph Cornelius Donnelly of Caritas Internationalis; Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch; Robert Templer of the International Crisis Group; and Nimmi Gowrinathan of Operation USA.  James Traub of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect was available to answer questions.  The press conference was sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Denmark to the United Nations.

Mr. Templer warned that the end of LTTE would not mean an end to extremism.  The conflict had been going on for decades and there was a resurgence of Tamil nationalism.  The Tamil diaspora was also being radicalized, as was evident from the number of demonstrations, suicides and hunger strikes occurring around the world.  The United Nations had been mostly absent from the political process in Sri Lanka, but had a significant presence in dealing with the question of child soldiers, internally displaced persons and other issues.

He said the Organization’s response had been hindered by the indifference of most Member States, who had been caught up in the language of the “war on terrorism”.  Both sides were in violation of international humanitarian law, but neither was being called to account, and there had been no response from the Security Council, which was a major disappointment.  The United Nations was also hindered by the fact that it had both a political and humanitarian role to play and had been trying to maintain humanitarian access.  Both the Government and LTTE had a responsibility to protect the very large numbers of civilians caught up in the fighting, and a much firmer response was needed from the United Nations.

Ms. Neistat said all information and numbers from the conflict zone were hard to verify, but that there was contact with people on the ground.  It was unacceptable that the Government was successfully blocking any information from the area.  Journalists had been attacked, killed and denied access, but it was clear that the situation was dire.  The Sri Lanka army had entered the no-fire zone and there were reports of heavy shelling.  Medial facilities were not available and, although the Government had said there were 50,000 civilians in the zone, it had also stated that 40,000 had escaped at the beginning of April and later on that 60,000 had escaped.  The conflicting figures were alarming as the Government could now claim that the remaining civilians were LTTE supporters.

She said that, despite denials, Government forces were indiscriminately shelling the area and there was no doubt that the rebels were forcing civilians to stay in the area and using them as human shields.  Escapees were being placed in what could only be called internment camps, where screening procedures lacked transparency.  Despite being present, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was not allowed to talk to the displaced, of whom more than 100,000 were now in Government-controlled camps.  A message should be sent that the Government would not get away with its indiscriminate attacks and that both sides were committing war crimes in gross violation of international law.  An international commission of inquiry was needed.

Mr. Donnelly said that, while fear was not the normal state of a civilized people, the fear in the no-fire zone had reached terrifying dimensions.  Although Caritas Internationalis had appealed for $2.5 million to respond to the crisis, no amount of money would make any difference without a cessation of hostilities.  The situation was urgent and desperate, with people dying every day, including children, and fears of an impending bloodbath.  People were also dying from starvation and, due to a lack of any medical provisions, from simple medical conditions.  It was deeply alarming that the international community had not placed the crisis at the top of its agenda and urged the Security Council to take action.

Ms. Gowrinathan said that, because of displacement, families were being separated, with men placed in one camp and women in another.  From the camps, it took four weeks to reach a hospital and, in order to do so, women had to leave their children behind.  Sexual violence was rampant, although non-governmental organizations had been forbidden from discussing it.  Another issue of concern was the rising number of paramilitary groups, which were more paid bandits than rebel groups.

She said post-conflict reconstruction funds had been funnelled through the Government and non-governmental organizations, therefore, had to work through the Ministry of Defence.  Local civil society had been destroyed through Government intimidation aimed at ensuring there would be no grass-roots organizations to work with in a post-conflict environment.  The Government had also removed doctors in the no-fire zone from its payroll and made them understand that they would face dire consequences if they talked about the situation.

Asked about the limitations hindering the United Nations and the invocation of the “responsibility to protect”, Mr. Traub wondered what kind of crisis the concept of “responsibility to protect” had been created for if not the one in Sri Lanka.  If the excuse of “fighting terrorism” was not valid, the question was why the Security Council had not invoked the principle of “responsibility to protect” whereby the issue would automatically become part of its agenda.

Within the Council, countries such as the Russian Federation, China, Viet Nam, Turkey, Japan and Libya had resisted efforts to place the situation on the Council’s agenda, he said.  More importantly, however, there had not been a strong push from other States in favour of taking up the situation.  Only France seemed to be active in that regard.  The premise of the “responsibility to protect” was to act preventively, while the United Nations was always inclined to act reactively when bodies started to pile up.

Article 99 of the United Nations Charter gave the Secretary-General the power to bring the issue to the Council’s attention, although that did not mean it would be placed on the agenda, he said.  The Secretary-General had engaged in intensive telephone diplomacy and should get credit for the two-day “humanitarian pause”, inadequate as it had been.  When placed in a situation where it must make an “agonizing choice” between speaking out and maintaining humanitarian access, the Organization tended to choose access.  In the present case, the result was that it had not spoken out and had not gotten the access it needed.

Ms. Gowrinathan added that other countries had “bought into” Sri Lanka’s public relations push for the language of the “war on terror”.  It was hard for non-governmental organizations and others to combat the Government’s $100 million public relations machine.

Asked whether the United States had done enough in pushing the issue, Ms. Neistat said it had done more than anybody else, not only within the United Nations, but also bilaterally.  However, it had failed to coordinate its efforts with those of Japan, the largest donor to Sri Lanka, and the European Union.  It was not too late for the Council to take action.  There was no bloodbath yet, although that could come in a matter of days or even hours.  The Government was moving into the no-fire zone and engagement now could save hundreds of lives.

Regarding the bailout package that Sri Lanka had requested from the International Monetary Fund, she said the fact that it had not been awarded yet was a “victory”.  Even though the Fund could not attach human rights requirements to its loans, Governments had to vote approval for the package.  In that way, they could send a strong message to the Sri Lankan Government.

Asked why the United Nations seemed unwilling to provide numbers, participants said the Government was exerting pressure on the Organization not to release any figures by threatening to cut off humanitarian access.  Also, too few journalists had pressured it to release figures.  Although the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) claimed it was difficult to verify the number of casualties and injured, it had done so in other comparable situations. 

Non-governmental organizations and United Nations staff on the ground were not happy with the Organization’s decisions, she said, adding that it was strange that Chef de Cabinet Vijay Nambiar had not met with humanitarian staff during his visit to Sri Lanka.

As for the Government’s announcement of amnesty, Mr. Templer said its offer of amnesty for lower and middle level LTTE had not been very clear and there were no international guarantees, making that scenario unlikely.

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