Press Conference on Sri Lanka

26 May 2009

Press Conference on Sri Lanka

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



Two top United Nations officials briefed correspondents at Headquarters today on the Secretary-General’s recent trip to Sri Lanka and the steps that the United Nations will be taking to aid the country’s reconstruction and reconciliation.

John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, who accompanied the Secretary-General on his weekend visit to a major camp for displaced persons in Sri Lanka, briefed reporters via telephone, while B. Lynn Pasco, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, spoke at Headquarters.

Mr. Holmes told reporters that President Mahinda Rajapaksa and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had released a joint communiqué stressing, among other things, the need to protect the well-being of citizens displaced by fighting between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), known also as the Tamil Tigers.  (See Press Release SG/2151)

An estimated 300,000 people had fled the conflict zone, according to Mr. Holmes.  While in Sri Lanka, the Secretary-General had visited the Manik Farm campsite for displaced persons, including one area that had been settled for some time, as well as another area known as “Zone 4”, where the most recently displaced were just arriving.

He said the Secretary-General had been able to talk to people at the camp in a “very helpful way”.

“He was able to see for himself that, while a lot has been done in terms of providing basic services, there’s still a long way to go in areas like shelter, and that a lot of the tents are still overcrowded.  There’s a lot more land needed, a lot more tents need to go up,” he said, explaining that parts of the camp needed water and sanitation facilities, and that a sufficient variety of food must now be delivered to its residents.  “The basic conditions of life are being met, but there’s quite a lot of progress to go.”

In his talks with the Sri Lankan authorities, Mr. Holmes said, the Secretary-General had raised the issues of resettlement, reconstruction and reintegration, which, as a prelude, would require political reconciliation between Sri Lanka’s Sinhala and Tamil communities.  The Secretary-General had brought up the question of a United Nations role in facilitating those activities.

“In general, his attitude was, with the end of the main conflict with the LTTE, there was a unique opportunity which needs to be seized, and he wanted to help to make sure it was seized,” said Mr. Holmes.

The meeting between the Secretary-General, President Rajapaksa and other senior Sri Lankan officials had taken place in the city of Kandy, where the Secretary-General had also raised the issue of unimpeded access to the camps, Mr. Holmes said.  The Government was currently restricting the access of large vehicles to the camps, such as off-road vehicles favoured by United Nations agencies and other non-governmental organizations working in the area.

Discussions on those and other well-known issues -- such as the overly military nature of camps, the need for more rapid progress in areas like screening and registration, more freedom of movement, and family reunification -- would be continuing for some time, he explained.

Enabling displaced persons to return to their homes was important to the process of rebuilding the people’s confidence in their Government, he added, explaining that the Government aimed to return displaced persons to their places of origin by the end of the year, though there was also talk of an ambitious plan to do it within 180 days.  But, mines and unexploded ordinances must be cleared before people could go home.

“The Secretary-General made clear that we were very ready to help with that,” he said.  “The main point, and the Secretary-General reiterated this at all junctures of his visit, is that people need to be able to go home as quickly as possible, because that provides the best basis for political reconciliation.”

Mr. Holmes said the Secretary-General and his team had flown over the conflict zone, where tens of thousands of civilians had been trapped in the final days of fighting.  “As we saw when we flew over the valley […] the whole area has been emptied of its population.”

Responding to one reporter, he said he was unaware that citizens were being forcibly rounded up in the style of concentration camps, but said he understood that, as Government forces advanced into the Vanni district with the LTTE, the surrounding population was forced to retreat.  As a result, it was “possible that some of the people who were not actually in the conflict zone were encouraged or taken to the camps”.  At the same time, the United Nations was conscious of the need for Sri Lankan displacement camps to meet international standards, but that it was also aware that raising those standards took time.

“There are certainly some cases of malnutrition amongst children, particularly amongst the group that came out right at the end of the conflict, who have been though the most appalling circumstances,” he said.  “But I don’t think people are dying because the conditions are not good enough, although we want to improve them.”

Mr. Pascoe added that the job of reconstruction and political reconciliation fell to the Sri Lankan Government, with avenues for the outside world to contribute, and that the main goal was to prevent past difficulties from recurring.  “It’s important for all parts of Sri Lankan society to be integrated together, to be working together, as we move into the future,” he said.

Asked how the United Nations planned to ensure accountability for possible human rights abuses, Mr. Pascoe stressed the importance of moving at a deliberate pace.  “I think it is premature to say who, when, where and how will actually be doing the process.  Obviously, the Human Rights Council has talked on this.  [United Nations Human Rights Commissioner] Navi Pillay has raised the question.  But we’re not at the stage where we can say how this process will go forward.”

Mr. Pascoe explained that issues on who would approach the Tamil side for talks were yet “to be worked out”.  He noted that some Members of Parliament were aligned to LTTE, but did not elaborate on what their role would be, or how broad a group would conduct the reconciliation process.

According to Mr. Holmes, the Secretary-General had also broached the issue of three doctors who had been working in the conflict zone and who were now believed to be in detention.

Mr. Pascoe added that the issue of child combatants was dealt with extensively in the joint communiqué.

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