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Statement by Hon Mahinda Samarasinghe, Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights of Sri Lanka- on 30 August 2006 at the Launch of the Common Humanitarian Action Plan for Sri Lanka from -September to December, 2006

Mr. Chairman

Distinguished delegates and

representatives of UN and International Organizations

I am in Switzerland to make a presentation at the Conference on International Disaster Reduction which is being held in Davos.  Having received an invitation from UNDP, I am also pleased on this same occasion to be able to make a statement at today’s launch of the Common Humanitarian Action Plan for Sri Lanka and to present some perspectives from the Government of Sri Lanka.

You would, I think all appreciate the special challenges posed in Sri Lanka as a country affected both by conflict and by unprecedented natural disasters such as the tsunami of December, 2004.

As a result of our experience, disaster management has now become a national priority for the Government with the creation of my Ministry and the development of national early warning systems, closely linked with international early warning systems. The issues of coordination have become important, to avoid duplication and reduce overheads, thus promoting better utilization of resources. 

The Ministry of Nation Building and Development, Ministry of Relief Services, the Office of the Governor of the North and East Provinces, and Government Agents play the pivotal role in the provision of humanitarian assistance to those affected by conflict, including IDPs. In this regard, my Ministry, the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, serves as the main contact and national coordinating point for all local and international players, and has been holding regular meetings to discuss issues pertaining to the provision of humanitarian assistance to IDPs.  I chair these meetings, in my capacity as Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, as well as the national coordinator on humanitarian assistance in terms of the mandate given to me by H.E. the President.

These meetings are attended by representatives of key government Ministries and agencies, District Secretaries, UN agencies, INGOs and NGOs.  In addition, I have established coordinating committees at the district level in Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Jaffna which meet regularly under the leadership of the respective District Secretaries.  These committees, consisting of representatives from the Ministries of Disaster Management and Human Rights; Disaster Relief Services; and Resettlement and the UN focal point at the District level, UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, Oxfam, some INGOs and NGOs, identify the needs of displaced persons and coordinate humanitarian assistance for them as soon as the need arises.  We have together been able to iron out many problems affecting delivery.

Throughout the long period of violence initiated by the LTTE, the Government of Sri Lanka has maintained a consistent policy of unhindered humanitarian access to LTTE dominated areas even though it was well known that the LTTE was appropriating a substantial part of the essential services worth multi-billion rupees.  Sri Lanka is a unique example of a Member State, which has consistently funded even during the years of conflict, the entire provincial administration, hospitals and schools and development aid projects in the North and East including in areas dominated by the LTTE.   

In the case of the internally displaced persons, the Government has always taken the lead through its own administrative structures and budget resources in meeting their humanitarian needs with the assistance of local civil society and UN and international organizations including UNHCR and ICRC which have a presence in the North and East since many years.  A Commissioner General for Essential Services has been appointed by the Government who is supervising and coordinating the supply of essential items to the people in conflict affected areas including IDPs.  Most recently, a ship under ICRC flag carrying 1500 metric tons of essential items supplied by the Government and WFP including medical items for the Jaffna government hospital reached the North and distribution has commenced.  A report by the Commissioner General on the availability and supply of essential items in the North and East has also been made available in this room to address any concerns in this regard.

You would have noted that the Common Humanitarian Action Plan speaks of some 200,000 IDPs.  I must clarify that IDPs statistics are changing almost on a daily basis as the situation evolves.  For example, about 350 families have now returned to their original places in Mutur area in the Eastern province as the security situation in the area has improved and the Government has reinstalled electricity and water supplies damaged by LTTE artillery. 

While the Government takes the lead in the coordination and provision of humanitarian assistance to the affected population, the Government considers the UNHCR as its key partner, in the provision of humanitarian assistance to the IDPs.  The UNHCR has been playing this role for many years and it is the wish of the Government to continue to work with UNHCR in this regard.  We were pleased to receive in Sri Lanka in July the visit of High Commissioner Guterres, who offered wise counsel on a complicated political situation.  We look forward to working closely with UNHCR in developing the Confidence Building Measures that they have proposed even as OCHA will by mutual agreement phase out its presence in Sri Lanka by the end of 2006.

The Common Humanitarian Action Plan refers to an “open warfare in the North and East causing grave humanitarian consequences” (para 1 of the Executive Summary).  In this regard, I would like to emphasize that there is no such “open warfare” being conducted in Sri Lanka. Action by the security forces has been clearly aimed at preventing or responding to LTTE offensive activities and I would like to emphasize here that the Government has not initiated any offensive operations in breach of the ceasefire.  The President of Sri Lanka has reiterated many a time the Government’s continuing commitment to the ceasefire. He has also restated that the Government still awaits the LTTE to return to talks any time, on both ceasefire and substantive matters.  The President has also indicated that the Government will seriously consider any initiative incorporating a clear and explicit commitment to a comprehensive and verifiable cessation of hostilities to be made by the LTTE leader.

We have noted that the Common Humanitarian Action Plan has referred to the killing of 17 ACF workers (paragraph 2 of the Executive Summary).  In this regard, I would like to inform you that the investigations into the alleged killing have made progress and exhumation of two bodies are expected to be carried out in the near future.  An Australian team of Forensic pathologists are assisting our investigators  to unveil the truth.

Although it is not mentioned in the Common Humanitarian Action Plan, as in the case of the killing of 17 ACF workers, the Government is equally concerned about the recent alleged killing of a large number of Muslims by the LTTE.  The law enforcement agencies are facing difficulties in their investigation into this incident as it has taken place in the areas dominated by LTTE, which has prevented access to those areas.

With regard to “insufficient and irregular access” for humanitarian organizations that has been referred to in the Common Humanitarian Action Plan (paragraph 2 of the Executive Summary), I would like to inform that a number of high level meetings have taken place between senior government officials and representatives of international humanitarian organizations aimed at addressing the difficulties faced by humanitarian organizations with regard to access and other related issues.  These issues are also taken up at regular meetings of IDP coordination meetings conducted under my chairmanship.  As a result, I hope that the difficulties faced by humanitarian organizations with regard to access to conflict affected areas could be addressed effectively while also taking into consideration essential security considerations prevailing in those areas.

With regard to the reference in the Common Humanitarian action Plan to so called “worrying signs of human rights violations enacted with impunity”, I should like to mention that all possible measures are being taken to safeguard the rights of all communities living in Sri Lanka and the Government of Sri Lanka does not condone impunity.   It was for this purpose that the President of Sri Lanka for the first time created a Cabinet portfolio to deal with disaster management and human rights, which I hold at present.

Pursuant to my appointment as the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, the Permanent Standing Committee on Human Rights was convened and a number of important decisions with regard to the further promotion and protection of human rights taken at that meeting are now being implemented through the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Human Rights, which I chair.  Periodic reports on the progress of investigations into a large number of alleged human rights violations are submitted by the law enforcement authorities at regular meetings of the Inter-ministerial Committee on Human Rights.  In the near future, my Ministry will take action to keep the general public and other concerned parties informed of action taken by law enforcement authorities with regard to the progress of these investigations by posting regular updates on my Ministry’s website which is now being put into place.

With regard to “enhanced monitoring, reporting and investigation into the violations of human rights through increased participation of international community and enlarged space for national civil society”, as stated in the Common Humanitarian Action Plan (paragraph 3, page 4), I would like to state that when it comes to monitoring, reporting and investigation, the Government of Sri Lanka believes in building capacity of existing independent statutory bodies and other national institutions established as a part of the national human rights protection system to undertake the tasks of monitoring, reporting and investigation in a viable and effective manner.  At the meeting of the Standing Committee on Human Rights held in May this year, the urgent need to further strengthening and building capacity of these national institutions was stressed.

With regard to the reference made in the Action Plan concerning “enlarged space for national civil society” (paragraph 3, page 4), I would like to mention that soon after I was appointed as the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, I set up an Advisory Group for my Ministry comprising of senior members of a cross section of NGOs and civil society organizations involved in the promotion and protection of human rights in Sri Lanka.  I have found that the regular interactions with these representatives are extremely useful in carrying out my mandate as the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights.  Representatives of the civil society have also been appointed to several sub-committees of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Human Rights, particularly concerning the implementation of treaty body recommendations.  The civil society members have also joined Government officials in conducting unannounced visits to police stations in order to ascertain whether police stations comply with regulations concerning arrest and detention of suspects.  This healthy relationship between the civil society and the Government agencies will continue under my guidance.

With regard to the presence of the OHCHR, I would like to mention that the Government would continue to work with the Senior Human Rights Advisor to the UN Country Team in strengthening national human rights capacity bearing in mind our strong belief and commitment in the capacity building and further strengthening of existing independent statutory bodies and national institutions established as a part of the national human rights protection system.

You would have noted that the Common Humanitarian Action Plan offers three scenarios for the future of the conflict in Sri Lanka.  Let me say that from the perspective of the Government there is only one scenario:  that is for a peaceful solution to the North East issue and we urge all of you to press the LTTE to return to talks on the Ceasefire and substantive matters. 

I conclude by thanking OCHA and UNDP for taking the lead in organizing this meeting. On behalf of the Government I thank also most sincerely the donor community for supporting the efforts of the Government and the UN Country Team in Sri Lanka to meet the needs of the people affected by the conflict.

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