Kandy, Sri Lanka

23 May 2009

Secretary-General's press conference in Sri Lanka

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

I am pleased to be in Sri Lanka at this defining moment in your history.

And I thank you and your government for your very warm welcome.

I have just had a good meeting with His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka.

We discussed many issues, including how to address Sri Lanka's immediate humanitarian needs, and how to promote national reconciliation.

I also discussed these matters with Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama of Sri Lanka. The challenges facing the government are huge and I appreciate their leadership at this crucially important time.

As you know, I spent most of today visiting the IDP camp at Manik Farm and over-flying the former combat zone.

It was a very sobering visit –very sad and very moving.

I saw for myself the circumstances in which the survivors find themselves, and the suffering they have experienced.

Many have lost members of their family. Many were sick or injured. Most have lost their homes, belongings and livelihoods.

Some gave me letters, telling me how hard life is in the camps.

“We don't have enough food,” one said –rice, cooking oil, sugar.

'I cannot get out of the camp for emergency medical care,” said another.

They are worried about reuniting their families, educating their children, returning to their homes and communities.

The government is doing its utmost. I commend its tremendous efforts.

But? the government lacks resources. There is a wide gap between what is needed and what is available.

That is why I am here.

The long conflict is over. Now is the time to heal –for all Sri Lankans to unite for a just and lasting peace.

We must help seize this opportunity.

First, we must help the government meet urgent humanitarian needs.

To do so effectively, I have told the President and Foreign Minister that the UN and other international humanitarian agencies need immediate and unimpeded access to the camps.

Issues of over-crowding must be addressed. So must the needs of special groups, such as children, pregnant women and the elderly.

Second, rehabilitation, reconstruction, reintegration and resettlement.

I have urged the government to return people to their homes as soon as possible. In this regard, I welcome the government's announced plan to return 80 percent of the IDPs by the end of the year.

I also strongly urged to government to expedite screening and registration processes, as well as make it easier for families to reunite and allow people more freedom of movement in and out of the camps.

De-mining is a top priority, and I have offered the UN's expertise and full assistance in this area.

Third, and most importantly for Sri Lanka's future, I have most strenuously urged the government to initiate a political process of accommodation, dialogue and reconciliation.

Sri Lankans of every ethnic and religious identity –Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims –must enjoy equal justice, economic opportunity and security under the law, as President Rajapaksa declared in his recent address to Parliament.

The government should undertake certain confidence-building measures to clearly and unmistakably signal its good intentions in addressing root causes of Tamil and Muslim grievances.

Full transparency and respect for legal due process and human rights are essential.

If issues of reconciliation and social inclusion are not dealt with, history could repeat itself. There is danger of social disruption and even renewed violence.

Looking ahead, I would emphasize that international partnership is key to Sri Lanka's future.

The world is watching and ready to help.

All the measures I have just discussed must be taken in parallel and should be undertaken immediately.

The more open, transparent and proactive the government is in meeting these challenges, taking account of the concerns of the international community, the brighter Sri Lanka's future will be.

Finally, we will issue a joint statement at the conclusion of my visit.

Thank you.

Q: Can you describe what you saw when you flew over the war zone today?

SG: As I was flying over the country, I was first of all thinking that the fighting must have been very severe. I was thinking of all the civilian people who were forcibly trapped in such very limited space on the beach without much shelter. That was most inhuman - the suffering they must have had. My heart goes out to those people who were finally rescued, but quite of number a people were killed or lost their lives. I was very sad about that. Now as I have seen, first and foremost, we must clear all these landmines which must have been planted there, otherwise it will be very difficult for the Government to resettle those displaced persons. That is why the first priority for the United Nations and the international community is to help the Government clear these mines. We will try to organize demining.

Q: Sir, when you were in New York, you said that there was a bloodbath in Sri Lanka do you still believe that there was a bloodbath in Sri Lanka?

SG: I myself did not mention that particular word. I want to make that quite clear. You should know that many people have lost their lives in the course of military fighting. That was very sad, very unfortunate and, in a sense, an unacceptable situation where many civilians have lost their lives. I have been repeatedly urging the Government, at the same time the LTTE, that they should not keep these civilians as a human shield. The Government should refrain, be extremely careful and refrain from using heavy weaponry. That was my consistent message. Now that fighting is over after three decades, I am relieved. But what is important at this time is that the Government should do all they can to heal the wounds and unite without regard to ethnicity and religious identity. That is why I am here. The whole international community is ready to cooperate.

Q: Will the UN be allowed to work in the area?

SG: I have United Nations humanitarian agencies, and there are ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) and many other international humanitarian agency workers. They should be given unimpeded access and freedom of movement within the camp. That is what I have asked the Foreign Minister and the President, and I was assured that the leaders of the Sri Lankan Government will make sure [of this].