Press Conference by United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator on Humanitarian Situation in Sri Lanka

18 May 2009

Press Conference by United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator on Humanitarian Situation in Sri Lanka

18 May 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York




As the Government of Sri Lanka declared an end to military operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes today urged the authorities to ensure safe transit for and speedy processing of thousands of war-dazed civilians fleeing the conflict zone.

“The situation is volatile and confused”, in the wake of the fighting, he said at a Headquarters press conference.  While the end of the Government offensive and the clearing of all civilians from the mile-long strip of land ravaged by intense fighting since January were cause for relief, there was concern nevertheless about the 40,000 to 60,000 people headed to Manik Farm and other transit camps in and around Vavuniya, many of them believed to be sick or injured.

With some 220,000 people already packed into ill-equipped camps for internally displaced persons, he said, a new influx could pose “further humanitarian challenges” in terms of the Government’s ability to provide adequate shelter, medical care, clean water and other basic services.  The Government—run camps were not yet up to international standards and a “major effort” was under way to erect more tents and provide more land.

Mr. Holmes, who is also Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said the Government had promised to maintain freedom of movement within the camps and was making an effort to ensure the rapid processing and distribution of identification cards.  While it was to be hoped that the authorities would stand by their word, positive movement on issues concerning the civilian character of the camps, such as family reunification, would continue to be very important, especially now that the Government had called an end to the fighting.

“These people have been through hell in the past few days and weeks,” he said.  It was now crucial to ensure the safety and security of civilians so that the reconciliation and resettlement process could begin and “some of the wounds can continue to be healed”.  Hopefully, civilians could return to their homes as quickly as possible.  The Government had said that 80 per cent of those displaced by the fighting would be re-settled in their homes by the end of 2009, an “ambitious” target, especially in light of the significant amount of mine clearance, removal of unexploded ordnance and reconstruction required.  “Still, it’s early days and we want the process to move quickly so that reconciliation can start […] if we can help with, including more talks with the Government, of course, we are willing to do so.”

Asked what Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hoped to achieve if he followed through with a proposed visit to the region, Mr. Holmes said that, while such a trip had not been confirmed, Mr. Ban would most likely want to visit Vavuniya to demonstrate his sympathy and solidarity with the people in camps.  It would also be important for the Secretary-General to open talks with the Government about the way forward, what could be done to heal wounds and the “legacy of bitterness” that might be left behind by the fighting.

Responding to a question about wider United Nations follow-up, the Under-Secretary-General said it would be useful to be able to confirm that no civilians remained in the conflict zone, as per Government assurances to the world body.  “Since we have had no access to the area, there might be some value in confirming it.”

While the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) had no reason to doubt the Government’s claim, he said, it was concerned about the plight of civilians, especially as the area of combat had continued to shrink over the past few weeks and days.  “And clearly, whenever access is denied to people in need, we are concerned.”  OCHA was very concerned about reports from inside the conflict zone about injured civilians, and hoped the Government was doing all it could to take care of them, as it had vowed to.  “Promises have been made [by the Government] regarding access that were never fulfilled.”

It was difficult to gain access to some areas because of the intensity of the fighting, he continued.  In the meantime, OCHA and other United Nations agencies would focus on both immediate and long-term recovery, while remaining mindful of the need to examine other issues.  Indeed, there were plenty of areas where the United Nations could help, providing political conditions were sound.

Asked how a post-conflict inquiry, such as the European Union had called for, would help, he said there was no denying that “many of the things we asked for and said were ignored, so because of the importance of access and respect for humanitarian law, it would help to have the maximum light shed on these types of things”

Providing an update on the “volatile and rapidly changing” situation in and around Pakistan’s Swat Valley, the Emergency Relief Coordinator said 1.4 million people had been displaced in recent weeks, in addition to 550,000 already displaced by earlier fighting.  Some 15 to 20 per cent of a population estimated at 2.1 million people had been registered with the Government and were dispersed in some 24 camps altogether.  Most people were with host families, host communities or “somewhere else”, and United Nations agencies were scaling up their efforts to help Governments address “large-scale humanitarian needs”.

* *** *

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