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
22nd November, 2010, New York
Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict

The multidimensional revitalization programme being implemented
in the country is now laying the foundations for fostering justice, security and opportunity for all. The culture of respect for
human rights and humanitarian standards will be revitalized
in this progression, ensuring further consolidation of the
protection principle in our law and society.

Mr. President,

let me at the outset, join the previous speakers in thanking you for
convening this timely debate on a matter that increasingly demands the focused attention of the international community. I would also like to thank the Secretary-General, the Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Director General of the ICRC  for their helpful briefings.

We welcome the Secretary General’s emphasis on the need to achieve a more tangible difference in the protection of civilians most affected by conflicts. In this context, we would like to propose that where satisfactory and successful experiences exist with regard to the care and protection of civilians, including in post conflict situations, best practices from such country cases be compiled as an annex to the Secretary General’s future reports on this theme.

While encouraging non-state actors to adhere to the principles of international humanitarian law to better ensure the protection of civilians is a laudable objective, this may prove to be a double edged sword, as it could also confer unintended legitimacy to the violent perpetrators of terrorism and to terrorist groups. This may pose a political dilemma for legitimate Governments fighting terrorist groups to protect their sovereignty, territorial integrity and, in many cases, their cherished democratic way of life, and may add a further confusing element to ongoing conflicts.

My own country, Sri Lanka has, despite the brutal onslaught unleashed by a terrorist group for over twenty seven years, designed to undermine it economically and its ability to function effectively as a state, taken determined measures to establish a credible national human rights framework through a range of domestic legislative and administrative measures which are fiercely enforced by the courts. The legislation gives expression  to seven core human rights treaties and other related international instruments, including the four Geneva Conventions to which Sri Lanka is a party. Sri Lanka respects and firmly identifies with the principles underlined in the UN Security Council’s thematic resolutions since 1999. It will continue to strengthen its human rights framework as the security situation improves further. Sri Lanka's commitment is illustrated by the manner in which broad civilian protection issues were addressed during the conflict and the speed and efficacy with which it is now confronting the challenges of IDP resettlement, rehabilitation of former LTTE combatants and child soldiers, post –conflict reconstruction and development, and accountability and reconciliation issues. Even the cynics will have to acknowledge the professional commitment with which the Government has approached these issues.

Sri Lanka’s decision to engage the LTTE terrorists militarily in 2006 followed the LTTE’s arrogant refusal to return to peace negotiations and their persistent resort to unbridled terrorism. The massive toll on civilian lives, public assets, religious and world heritage sites, vital economic assets and the immense suffering of civilians, could no longer be tolerated by a responsible and democratically elected Government. As has been repeatedly emphasized, our military engagement  with the LTTE was clearly based on a well defined distinction between the terrorists and the Tamil civilians and its goal was a humanitarian rescue operation to relieve approximately 300,000 civilians held as a human shield and a bargaining chip by the terrorists. The LTTE were not averse to locating heavy weapons amidst these innocent civilians. The Government policy of zero civilian casualties had a deep impact the country’s professional armed services which were trained in humanitarian standards by the ICRC.  Over 7000 injured and their cadres were evacuated by the ICRC to government hospitals. It paid the expected dividends as thousands of Tamil civilians fled to government controlled areas once the LTTE lost its coercive hold on them and all were fed, clothed, sheltered and otherwise cared for in camps prepared in advance to receive them.

Based on thousands of years of religious and cultural conditioning,
this humanitarian impulse is deeply embedded in Sri Lankan society and the State. Successive Governments had ensured a continuous flow of essential goods and services, such as free health and education facilities to Tamil civilians under the control of the LTTE, including for pregnant women and children in the North and the East, for over the twenty seven years of this conflict. During this period, Sri Lanka engaged closely with the international community and related human rights and humanitarian organizations, United Nations agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and local and
international non-governmental organizations to facilitate the provision of the needs of civilians in terrorist controlled areas, despite the constraints imposed by security needs.

Pivotal to civilian protection is the partnership, based on trust, that was established between UN agencies and other humanitarian actors on the ground. Trust is the first casualty of any subtle politicization or an assumption of a judgementative approach by external entities which would invariably upset the delicate balance between the parties in such situations. Therefore, it is imperative that humanitarian agencies and their workers carry out their work based on the principles of neutrality and impartiality, that they conform to national laws, that their activities match the identified policy priorities of host Governments and that they are cognizant of local political, cultural and social sensitivities. No one size fits all and experience and expertise gained elsewhere may not fit a given situation on the ground. A tendency to grandstand or be paternalistic will invariably have negative consequences. Public perceptions matter enormously, particularly where public opinion influences political dynamics, and where the public is literate and politically conscious, and public order and political stability are critical. Therefore, neutrality, impartiality, sensitivity and trust assume a seminal importance in such contexts.

Today in Sri Lanka, 78 NGOs, including local NGOs, and 11 UN agencies are working in partnership with the Government on rehabilitation, resettlement and reconstruction programmes in the Northern Province.   The NGOs have registered with the NGO Secretariat and have linked themselves with a line ministry to provide identified and needed services according to national policy priorities and programme norms. Where necessary, the process would also mandate NGOs signing a MOU with a particular Line Ministry that would include the scope of their work, geographic locality, subject matter etc. Security concerns remaining following this long drawn out conflict may pose irritations at times.  But these are not systemic. The services provided by these NGOs are genuinely appreciated by the communities they serve and by the Government. However, it is important to remember that for a country that overcame the disastrous consequences of the tsunami in a very short space of three years, largely through its own efforts, there is little that an international NGO can provide by way of expertise or skills in the current context.

Sri Lanka takes the policy view that establishing parallel services to those of the government by NGOs which are not sustainable, cannot have long term benefits for the welfare of the people. NGOs must have the capacity to deliver programmes and self generated funding to work with the government on prioritized policy areas and activities.

The need to streamline processes related NGO activity in Sri Lanka
was influenced by the experience of NGO involvement following the December 2004 tsunami. The massive influx of INGOs following this unprecedented disaster, dubbed by the national press as the “second tsunami”, overwhelmed the country’s administrative apparatus, the economy at the local and national levels, the transport framework as imported SUVs jostled for road space, and skewed Government policy and programmatic focus. The subsequent report card on the work accomplished by most NGOs in the tsunami recovery phase revealed that many lacked funds and capacity to respond to the scale of the needs in the recovery phase and that the overall work of a majority of the NGOs lacked effective coordination and programme coherence leading to a lack of responsible use and management of resources and programme outcomes.

The Post- conflict needs and requirements are even more complex and sensitive than the needs in the aftermath of the tsunami. Sri Lanka does not fancy being converted into a laboratory for an NGO industry nor a testing ground for post conflict theories nor prime learning grounds for those seeking internships.

With the streamlining of these processes and greater cooperation from the NGOs and INGOs, Sri Lanka looks forward to a new era of constructive relationship building and mutual understanding with humanitarian worker community.

As has been highlighted by delegations at the last debate, the protection of civilians must necessarily be seen as a cross-cutting endeavour.  Protection concerns should also be addressed through an appropriate linkage between peacekeeping and peace-building, as well as through preventive activities related to the root causes of conflict. In the long term, strong institutions, economic growth and social inclusion are indispensable pillars of protection.

Sri Lanka has adopted a human rights based approach to recovery from the conflict and the strengthening of democratic governance with key focus areas for reform and revitalization. We have within a space of fifteen months since the end of the conflict, massively scaled down the provisions of the Emergency Regulations, over 70% of the emergency regulations having been repealed in the last few months, returned more than ninety percent of the IDPs to their own villages, a success story that is difficult to match from elsewhere, continued to rebuild basic infrastructure in the former conflict affected areas, including hundreds of schools, roads, irrigation canals, clinics and houses, address the needs of war widows, successfully rehabilitated and reintegrated 667 former LTTE, child combatants, treating them as victims rather than as criminals, reunited over 12,000 persons with their families, and vastly  improved the security and mobility of people across the length and breadth of the country. In keeping with the recognition that it is first and foremost the responsibility of States to address any infringements of international standards to which we firmly subscribe, the Government has established a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission with broad national acceptance and a wide mandate to address reconciliation and confidence building issues and accelerated the country’s economic growth which will benefit all our communities.

If indeed the objective of our various established collective approaches and engagements is to institutionalize an abiding appreciation for the promotion and protection of civilians, then countries that emerge from violent political convulsions must necessarily be allowed the space to begin to restore and revitalize their own frameworks of rights and freedoms, especially where there is manifest political will to do so. Assistance, must meet the requirements of the recipient and not the pre conceived determinations of those providing it.

The Sri Lankan society, one that has experienced two violent youth insurgencies and a 27 year terrorist onslaught during the critical part of its development trajectory, is one that is now coming to its own gradually. Sri Lanka as a State Party to seven core human rights treaties and other related international instruments in the area of international humanitarian law, including the four Geneva Conventions, is deeply committed to the principles underpinning such instruments. The multidimensional revitalization programme being implemented in the country is now laying the foundations for fostering justice, security and opportunity for all. The culture of respect for human rights and humanitarian standards will be revitalized in this progression, ensuring further consolidation of the protection principle in our law and society.

I thank you, Mr. President.

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