Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today witnessed firsthand the plight of some of the 300,000 people uprooted by the conflict between the Sri Lankan Government and Tamil rebels, during what he described as a “very sobering” visit to one of the major displacement camps.
“I saw for myself the circumstances in which the survivors find themselves, and the suffering they have experienced,” Mr. Ban told a news conference later in the day, following his visit to Menik Farm.
The Secretary-General arrived in the South Asian nation last night, following the Government's announcement last week that its military operation against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had ended and that all civilians had left the conflict zone.
“The long conflict is over. Now is the time to heal – for all Sri Lankans to unit for a just and lasting peace. We must help seize this opportunity,” stated Mr. Ban, who also had a chance to see the former conflict zone as he flew by helicopter over the tiny pocket of land along the north-east coastline.
Speaking about his visit to Menik Farm, he said that many of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) that he met with had lost family members, many were sick or injured, and most had lost their homes, belongings and livelihoods. Some even gave him letters, telling him how hard life is in the camps.
While the Government is doing its utmost, it lacks resources, he stated. “There is a wide gap between what is needed and what is available.”
Mr. Ban discussed how to address Sri Lanka's immediate humanitarian needs, and how to promote national reconciliation, during meetings with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, as well as with Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama.
The first priority, he stressed, is to 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.”
Additionally, Mr. Ban said he urged the Government to return people to their homes as soon as possible, and in this regard welcomed its announced plan to return 80 per cent of the IDPs by the end of the year.
The Government was also urged to expedite screening and registration processes, and make it easier for families to reunite and to allow people more freedom of movement in and out of the camps.
The Secretary-General also called on 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 also undertake certain confidence-building measures to “clearly and unmistakably” signal its good intentions in addressing root causes of Tamil and Muslim grievances, he said, warning that if issues of reconciliation and social inclusion are not dealt with, history could repeat itself.
Following his visit to Sri Lanka, Mr. Ban heads to Copenhagen, where he will address the opening of the World Business Summit on Climate Change.