Expressing deep concern for over a quarter million Sri Lankans who remain forcibly confined to overcrowded displacement camps after fleeing a Government military offensive against Tamil separatist rebels, a United Nations independent expert today urged authorities to accelerate their release.
“Restoration of freedom of movement for more than 250,000 internally displaced persons [IDPs] held in closed camps in northern Sri Lanka is becoming a matter of urgency,” said Walter Kälin, the Secretary-General’s Representative on the human rights of IDPs.
The IDPs have been restricted to the camps at least since May when the Government declared an end to its military operation against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), concluding more than two decades of fighting.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also stressed today that further evidence for the need to move forward is unnecessary.
“Just this past weekend, a confrontation took place between IDPs and Sri Lankan security forces in the Menik Farms camps. Two children were shot and wounded,” Mr. Ban told reporters in New York.
Mr. Ban, who met with Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake yesterday, added that “the Government has re-affirmed its commitment to allow displaced persons to return to their homes by January next year.”
After wrapping a three-day visit to Sri Lanka on Saturday, Mr. Kälin said he remained “very concerned about the very slow pace of releases.”
Mr. Kälin underscored the importance of allowing IDPs to leave the camps – either to return home, to stay with host families or move to open transit sites – as the monsoon season is fast approaching.
“The camps, which were set up to respond to an immediate emergency, are not equipped to deal with heavy rains,” he said. “The expected flooding of low-lying areas in the upcoming weeks is likely to cause serious threats to health and life.”
During his recent visit the Representative met with the Government of Sri Lanka to explore how the protection of the human rights of the displaced could be strengthened and the present delays in camp releases addressed.
“I continue to welcome the Government’s stated intention that 70 to 80 per cent of the displaced shall be allowed to return by the end of the year,” he said, stressing that it “is imperative to immediately take all measures necessary to decongest the overcrowded camps in northern Sri Lanka with their difficult and risky living conditions.”
In addition, restoring freedom of movement is important to gain the confidence of the Tamil community and enable the building of a sustainable peace, he said.
Mr. Kälin noted that international law allows for internment during the height of conflict if legitimate and imperative security concerns exist, but it must not last longer than absolutely necessary to respond to those security concerns. Internment decisions must further be made on an individual rather than a group basis.
In light of these standards and the need to properly balance security concerns with the rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), Mr. Kälin urged the Government to take prompt action. “I acknowledge the scope of the task that the Government confronted at the end of the military operations in May, but also observe the passage of time and the vast improvement of the security situation.”