Created: Wednesday, 21 August 2013
Statement by H.E. Dr. Palitha T.B. Kohona, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations
UN Security Council Open Debate
10th May, 2011, New York
Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict
“While the protection of civilians caught in conflict situations is critical, the unfortunate politicization and selectivity that characterizes this discussion has affected its credibility. The willingness to adopt wild and unsubstantiated allegations made in the media, even those disowned by senior officials of the UN, is regrettable. Such an inconsistent approach and the unambiguous tendency to target the small and the weak for the rigorous application of principle also affect post-conflict reconciliation in complex country situations. Difficult reconciliation processes that are successfully moving ahead are disrupted by insensitive external interventions.”
Let me join the previous speakers in thanking France for convening this open debate under your Presidency. I note the presentations made by the Under- Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, the Under- Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations and the Assistant Secretary- General for Human Rights.
We have followed carefully, the issues highlighted at the last Security Council debate in November 2010. As a country that faced a brutal terrorist threat for over two and a half decades, and as a country whose civilians were a constant target of this threat, until the very end, we see an overarching need to achieve more tangible differences, especially in enhancing protection on the ground, for the communities most affected by conflicts. We also emphasize that this protection task cannot be understood and addressed solely within the traditional framework, as today’s threats require us to be conscious of a multiplicity of different factors ranging from changing political realities, socio-economic factors, basic rights of individuals, the proliferation of small arms, asymmetric warfare, the sophistication of terrorists, to the complexities of disarmament. We must pay special attention to vulnerable categories such as women and children who are increasingly exploited by terrorist groups. A realistic and honest appraisal of protection issues will help us to identify gaps in the existing protection policy frameworks and guide our collective efforts at effectively addressing them in a pragmatic manner.
It must be stated categorically that Sri Lanka respects the principles underlined in the Council’s thematic resolutions since 1999. Its commitment is demonstrated in the manner in which Sri Lanka addressed civilian protection issues during the conflict with the terrorist LTTE and the speed and efficacy with which it is now addressing, post conflict issues such as IDP resettlement, rehabilitation, post-conflict reconstruction and development, and accountability and reconciliation issues.
During almost three decades of combating terrorism in our country, we took utmost care to draw a clear distinction between civilians and terrorists. Those who are intent on dismissing this effort will continue to do so. But, successive Governments had ensured a continuous supply of essential goods and services such as food, free health services and education to the Tamil civilians in the North and the East of the country over the twenty seven years of the conflict despite the control that the terrorists had over them. While allegations of infractions have emerged after the end of the conflict, these allegations were not heard until the end became abundantly clear to the terrorist LTTE. Once the end of the terrorists became obvious, a well oiled propaganda machine began to churn out reams of allegations to set the stage to continue the conflict by other means. During the conflict, Sri Lanka also engaged closely with the international community and related human rights and humanitarian mechanisms, the UN Agencies, the ICRC and local and international NGOs to facilitate the provision of the needs of civilians in terrorist controlled areas, despite the constraints imposed by logistical and security needs. This close cooperation has extended to the aftermath of the conflict, in providing for the needs of the displaced population, in their resettlement and reintegration and the reconstruction of their homes.
The nature of contemporary conflicts has posed new challenges to the approach to protect civilians in conflict situations.
Many of today’s conflicts take place within States, and involve non - State armed groups. Sri Lanka’s experience relates, in particular, to the challenges we faced in protecting civilians in the context of an internal conflict, a challenge to the State itself, involving a ruthless terrorist group, the LTTE. In Sri Lanka, the LTTE terrorist group made the Tamil civilian population a part of their military strategy. The terrorists’ brutal strategy was to create a situation inviting civilian casualties by forcing civilians to be trained in weapons and take up arms, recruiting children for combat duties, and herding thousands of civilians to form human shields and holding them hostage and by placing heavy guns in their midst, attracting retaliatory fire. Some of the children were under 12 years of age. UNICEF recorded over 5700 cases of child recruitment. They withheld food supplies sent by the Government and diverted these supplies for use by their armed cadres. The civilians being used as a human shield by the terrorist group were our own people. This strategy of the LTTE posed extraordinary operational challenges to our security forces engaged in combating this group while ensuring the protection of civilians. The Government, for its part, adopted a zero civilian casualty policy. Our troops endeavoured to distinguish between combatants and civilians and the protection and liberation of the civilians from the clutches of the terrorist group was their highest priority. Over 280,000 civilians were eventually freed.
In this context, the challenges posed by terrorism in many parts of the world today may necessitate a re-evaluation of the rules of military engagement. Much of the rules of war are based on the presumption that the parties to a conflict are conventional armies of responsible states engaging other state parties. But terrorists disregard these laws and principles as they wage asymmetric warfare. They mingle with and use civilians to achieve their goals. Whether it is one human being that is held as a human shield or many, the fact remains that theirs is an inhumane strategy that existing International Humanitarian Law has not adequately factored in. Once again, the practical realities based on the experiences of Member States must be seriously looked at instead of a theoretical application of one size fits all humanitarian framework. One size does not fit all, and the complex Sri Lankan experience seems to demonstrate that reality.
There is a need to recognize the fundamental role of the State in civilian protection. In the first instance, the role of Governments in civilian protection should be respected as it is their primary responsibility to protect their own citizens. The UN and the humanitarian agencies must support and assist Governments and in doing so be sensitive to ground realities, including respect for the sovereignty of States. External elements cannot be readily substituted for the State. This is consistent with the Charter of the United Nations. Access for humanitarian personnel must be respected but one cannot disregard the State’s responsibility to ensure the safety and security of humanitarian personnel. Terrorists do not distinguish between military and humanitarian personnel. The assumption that civilians can best be protected and cared for only by civilian humanitarian workers from outside the country and specific INGOs which originate from particular regions of the world contradicts the fundamental contemporary norm of respecting the sovereign equality of States.
While the protection of civilians caught in conflict situations is critical, the unfortunate politicization and selectivity that characterizes this discussion has affected its credibility. The willingness to adopt wild and unsubstantiated allegations made in the media, even those disowned by senior officials of the UN, is regrettable. Such an inconsistent approach and the unambiguous tendency to target the small and the weak for the rigorous application of principle also affect post-conflict reconciliation in complex country situations. Difficult reconciliation processes that are successfully moving ahead are disrupted by insensitive external interventions.
An inevitable consequence of armed conflict is internal displacement. Internal displacement globally is on the rise. There are over 27 Million IDP’s worldwide according to UN reports. The State has the primary responsibility not only to provide for the welfare of displaced civilians in terms of food, clothing, medical care and shelter, but also to ensure their safety, in keeping with the provisions of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Sri Lanka has succeeded in returning over 95% of the internally displaced to their villages and towns in a short period of under eighteen months, a success that is hard to match elsewhere. Psycho-social counselling is being provided. Elections have been held at the national and local levels to return democratic governance to all parts of the country.
Sri Lanka has adopted a human rights based approach to recovery from the conflict and the strengthening of democratic governance. We have within a space of two years, massively scaled down the provisions of the Emergency Regulations, over 80% of the emergency regulations having been repealed.
The biggest constraint to a faster resettlement has been the clearance of uncharted mine fields laid by the terrorist group in civilian areas, farmlands and roads. It is estimated that the terrorist group laid around 1.5 million landmines. We continue to rebuild basic infrastructure in the former conflict-affected areas, including hundreds of schools, roads, irrigation canals, clinics and houses. The needs of over 80,000 war widows are being addressed, and Sri Lanka has successfully rehabilitated and reintegrated over 6500 former combatants, including 667 former LTTE child combatants, treating them as victims rather than as criminals, over 17,000 persons have been reunited with their families, and vastly improved the security and mobility of people across the length and breadth of the country. This, Mr. President, is by any standard, a success story for any post-conflict country.
In keeping with the recognition that it is first and foremost the responsibility of States to address infractions of the law, and with a view to initiating a long term healing process, the Government has established a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to address reconciliation and confidence building issues, including accountability.
My delegation hopes that the Council discussion on the protection of civilians will facilitate practical outcomes based on ground realities. It is for this reason that my delegation has sought to share our experience, and for all of us to invest greater efforts in preventing conflicts and their recurrence and to respond practically and proportionately to situations affecting civilian populations. It is also our view that punishing the past does not ensure a guilt free future.
Thank you, Mr. President.