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SRI LANKA: U.N. Urges Focus on Relief and Reconciliation

Ben Case

UNITED NATIONS, May 26 2009 (IPS) - A United Nations team including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon returned from a trip to Sri Lanka Tuesday, where they met with government leaders and inspected the battered conflict zones and refugee camps.

The focus of the trip was on the camps for internally displaced people, who currently number at least 300,000. The camps have received a massive influx since the government declared victory May 16 against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which had been fighting to secede for 25 years.

“We need to make sure that the needs of the people in camps are being addressed as well as possible right now,” said U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes.

According to the team, tents are overcrowded, and immediate attention is needed on water and sanitation. Provision of food is meeting the basic human requirements, but just barely.

“Conditions in the camps are not up to U.N. standards, but we expect to see progress,” said Holmes.

Holmes and other spokespeople were hesitant to discuss actual numbers of casualties in refugee camps.

One of the biggest issues in the camps continues to be access of U.N. and other aid workers to the refugees. While aid workers now have unrestricted access, their vehicles do not.

Lynn Pasco, under-secretary-general for political affairs, who was on the team, struggled to explain the rationale behind the vehicle restriction, but it appears there are varying objections, from the dust and pollution generated by U.N. trucks to unconfirmed allegations that aid vehicles have been used to illegally smuggle people out of the camps.

“The question is how many vehicles are allowed and under what circumstances, but relief workers can’t do their jobs properly without unrestricted vehicle access,” added Holmes.

There are proposals to use bicycles or motorbikes as an alternative to address dust and pollution problems, but the team declined to comment on their viability.

There are further allegations by local people that the government is using refugee camps to detain and screen people from outside conflict zones for LTTE involvement, and some aid workers have claimed that Tamil children have been abducted from camps by pro-government forces.

Holmes argued that people from outside the conflict zone weren’t being detained because “the whole area was a conflict zone” but did not elaborate. “For the moment we are giving the government the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

Pasco also said that there is “no hard evidence” of ongoing government disappearing or abuse of Tamil children.

However, both Pasco and Holmes expressed concern that the camps were over-militarised.

According to Pasco, the primary concern for the U.N. is the speed with which people are able to return to their homes. The set goal of the U.N. is for 80 percent of internally displaced people to be able to return home by the end of the year, but optimistic government projections put it at 100 percent return within 180 days.

The talks between Ban and Sri Lankan government officials were aimed at defining the role the U.N. will take in wrapping up the 25-year civil war and the reconciliation process that will need to follow.

“On the political side, it’s very clear that while the military part is over, we still have relief and reconciliation,” Pasco said. “This will take time and be led by the Sri Lankan government, but there are ways for international community to take part.”

The U.N. team also checked on the status of aid workers and journalists recently detained by the government, saying most had been released. Three war-zone doctors are still being held under accusations of disseminating false casualty information to the press.

Some have criticised the location of the talks in Kandy, home to historically and religiously significant Buddhist sites, as symbolically demonstrating U.N. support for the Buddhist government against the primarily Hindu Tamil opposition, but U.N. spokespeople were quick to deny this.

“It is important for all parts of Sri Lankan society to be integrated together and work together in the future,” said Pasco.

The U.N. Human Rights Council is convening a special session next week to investigate violations of international human rights law by both the government and LTTE.

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