As you will no doubt be aware, my country, Sri Lanka, has had a very long and constructive relationship with UNHCR: we are partners in the true sense, UNHCR in Sri Lanka has supported the government and complemented our own efforts to assist the citizens of our country who have been displaced – both due to the conflict that has blotted our socio-political landscape for over two decades, and disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunami that struck our shores in December 2004, leaving chaos and sheer destruction in its aftermath. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to thank UNHCR in particular High Commissioner Guterres for his continued support.

 

Mr. Chairman, Mr. High Commissioner, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

As you will no doubt be aware, my country, Sri Lanka, has had a very long and constructive relationship with UNHCR: we are partners in the true sense, UNHCR in Sri Lanka has supported the government and complemented our own efforts to assist the citizens of our country who have been displaced – both due to the conflict that has blotted our socio-political landscape for over two decades, and disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunami that struck our shores in December 2004, leaving chaos and sheer destruction in its aftermath. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to thank UNHCR in particular High Commissioner Guterres for his continued support.

As my Ministry’s portfolio includes disaster management – both natural and manmade, we have become acutely aware that we cannot simply compartmentalise disasters. The response depends on people and the circumstances they face. Governments, who represent all the citizens of a country, are responsible for the delivery of assistance to all those in need. This function is particularly important when preparing for, responding to, and dealing with the aftermath of any disaster. When it comes to complex disasters such as the long-standing conflict in Sri Lanka, such situations result in constantly changing and fluid scenarios. Accordingly, the responses are concurrently aimed at addressing multiple phases of complex emergencies in diverse locations. On the one hand, we have put in place contingency plans for humanitarian assistance in one area – as in the north of Sri Lanka where we have established a humanitarian hub in Vavuniya – an area adjacent to the current theatre of conflict. On the other, we are responding to sporadic incidents of terrorism all over our country, to a terrorist secessionist force that has its own destructive agenda, with complete disregard for innocent civilians. These forces, through their propaganda machine, seek to create fault lines along demographic divides amongst peoples who have, for centuries, lived in relative peace and harmony. At the same time, we are also laying the foundations for peace and restoration of democracy in liberated areas, namely in the east of our country. Our government is pleased that both local and provincial level elections have taken place in the east. Elections to Provincial Councils have enabled us to commence implementing the 13th amendment to our Constitution which puts in place far-reaching measures aimed at power sharing from the centre to the periphery.

In June 2007, when the liberation of the east was taking place, we experienced a high of 180,000 IDPs today we are proud to place on record that nearly 95 per cent of these people – amounting to nearly 172,000 – have been resettled, in line with international standards, to their original places of residence. In the immediate aftermath of the liberation of the east, we as a government faced many challenges prior to the resettlement of the IDPs in the newly liberated areas. De-mining on a vast scale had to take place, subject to UN verification. Furthermore, basic infrastructure had to be provided, such as roads, electricity and water supply, and schools and hospitals which had to be repaired. Government administration had to be reinstated and law enforcement machinery put in place. Once these challenges were met, the government of Sri Lanka worked very closely with UNHCR to organise ‘go-and-see’ visits by community leaders so that sufficient information was provide d to enable them to make an informed choice. Resettlement was purely voluntary. The present challenge is to assist these people with livelihood opportunities so that resettlement is sustainable.

The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is committed to implementing an accelerated development programme for the east, which has hitherto been a relatively neglected province. We invite our international partners to assist us in these endeavours.

The government faced similar challenges in normalising the situation in Jaffna, which has an IDP population of nearly 74,000. A year ago the government took on the sole responsibility of transporting essential relief items to Jaffna by sea. I am happy to report that we have built up a three-month buffer-stock in Jaffna which will ensure the ready availability of food items.

The government has initiated the process of de-mining in the liberated areas of Mannar district and we are hopeful that expeditious resettlement will follow. The examples I have just mentioned are indicative of the government’s intentions for the Wanni and its people. Our efforts are therefore not just directed at the defeat of terrorism but at removing people from the clutches of terrorism – restoring the rule-of-law, giving people the chance to democratically elect their leaders and giving them hope of leading normal lives in the future.

My ministry is a coordinating ministry, which works very closely with the operational arm of the government spearheaded by my colleague the Minister of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services who is here with me today. Both our Ministries work very closely with a host of other government focal points ensuring a strong administrative and institutional arrangement to deal with disaster management and relief services. While the government has provided the bulk of humanitarian assistance, both our Ministries have been coordinating and operationalizing assistance provided by international humanitarian agencies, which complements the efforts of the government. Food, shelter, non-food relief items have been provided to IDPs and other conflict- affected communities. One particular mechanism that deserves mention is the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance (CCHA), which was formed in 2006 by the President to deliberate on and resolve issues relating to support and assistance for the displaced and the conflict affected. The Committee, which I chair, comprises senior public officials responsible for defence, foreign affairs, humanitarian assistance and relief and reconstruction together with representation from the co-chairs to the peace process, heads of UN agencies, including UNHCR, and the ICRC. It is a policy-making and coordinating mechanism. In a sense the role of the CCHA is to ensure that we – if I may borrow UN terminology – Deliver as One. Some of our models of best practice, such as the CCHA, which assist us in this common goal of coordination and coherence in order to ensure effective and targeted assistance, can be emulated in other countries undergoing similar situations to our own.

The CCHA has been instrumental is facilitating humanitarian relief to conflict effected persons. As you may be aware, recently due to concerns around the safety and security of all humanitarian workers, the government of Sri Lanka asked all humanitarian agencies to relocate from uncleared parts of the Wanni to Vavuniya where we have established a humanitarian hub to assist IDPs. Last week a convoy of 51 trucks carrying 650 metric tonnes of food was sent to the Wanni, this food was sent to warehouses in four locations to the east of Kilinochchi – where the majority of displaced civilians are concentrated. The convoy was accompanied by seven UN international staff who observed the initial distribution. All trucks were sealed at WFP premises at the logistics hub in Vavuniya in the presence of the Sri Lanka Army in order to facilitate speedy movement of the trucks through the Omanthai checkpoint. Another 75 trucks will transport essential food items over the next few days. This will be an on-going strategy. The government has committed itself to sending a convoy of trucks into uncleared areas of the Wanni every week until the target of 5,000 metric tones of supplies, which represents roughly two to three months buffer stocks, is met. This is to ensure uninterrupted supplies in the districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaittivu. At the moment our priority is to ensure food supply. Other non-food items will also be sent in the ensuing weeks. All this is in addition to the 15-20 trucks sent per-day, which transport consumer goods and supplies to the Wanni, including food items, animal feed, fertilizer and kerosene.

The government has therefore put in place contingency plans, which includes maintaining stocks of emergency food supplies, to assist those in need, wherever they may be located. This strategy has ensured that there would be no food shortages in the Wanni. Our President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, recently outlined the Government’s policy in relation to IDPs at the UN General Assembly in New York. He said: “Our Government has also sought and received the cooperation of the United Nations, ICRC and other agencies to help us in providing humanitarian assistance to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and other affected civilians.”

President Rajapaksa added that the Government “continues this humanitarian policy even today although we know that the terrorists seize a good proportion of these humanitarian supplies. Our supplies are not confined to food; they extend to medicines, and all other essentials as well as schools and hospitals, with teachers, doctors, nurses, and all other essential staff. This is not all, the government also purchases the paddy and other foodstuffs produced in those areas. I do not think there is any country in the world where there is a government that provides such humanitarian assistance to terrorists that attack it. Our government considers the supply of humanitarian relief to its people as its prime responsibility.”

Aside from assisting IDPs who have immediate humanitarian needs, the government is also committed to finding durable solutions for protracted conflict-affected IDPs, some 300,000 persons. Only two weeks ago, my Ministry, with the assistance of UNHCR and with the participation of the Ministry of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services, among other focal points in governments, organized a National Consultation aimed at facilitating discussion and laying the foundations for the development a national policy and action plan to address the needs of the protracted internally displaced persons. This conference was organised as a follow-up to the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of IDPs, Professor Walter Kaelin’s visit to Sri Lanka in December 2007. Professor Kaelin, who was also invited to the National Consultation as keynote speaker, stated that the initiative was timely, as it provides an opportunity to look towards a better future for the protracted caseload of IDPs.

What must be stressed is that we acknowledge the problems we have in our country, but at the same time we are attempting to resolve them and deal with them based on a holistic view. We are also willing to take up recommendations that are made in the spirit of open and constructive dialogue.

Another initiative that my Ministry has spearheaded, again with the assistance of UNHCR, is a comprehensive strategy on confidence building and stabilisation measures for conflict-affected communities. The inspiration for this project was provided by High Commissioner Guterres when he visited Sri Lanka in 2006. I am pleased to report that this strategy was formulated in close consultation with all stakeholders with the facilitation of UNCHR. Operationalized since late 2007, these measures will ensure sustainability of return/ resettlement by restoring confidence amongst and between former displaced and host communities. In the east, where large-scale resettlement of nearly 180,000 IDPs has taken place, our focus is on economic recovery, safety and security, livelihood development and infrastructure.

This year is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. We must instil the value that the UDHR and the rights enshrined in it belong to us all – it is not the domain of the rich and the privileged but applies equally to us all regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender or geographical location.  In essence what we must remember is that in relation to IDPs – we are not talking about mere figures and abstract statistics but real people with real everyday problems and struggles, on top of this their displacement leaves them in state of vulnerability and desperation. We need to initially assist these people with humanitarian emergency relief and then later, ensure early recovery and, eventually, sustainable development. This highlights the interlinked goals of security, development and human rights; it is only when we view these three critical areas in a holistic manner will we be able to guarantee lasting peace and prosperity in our country: our people deserve nothing less.

Thank you.

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