The Elders – a group of eminent global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela – have made a direct appeal to the President of Sri Lanka to protect the rights of civilians displaced after the government’s defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May.
Six months since the end of the war, the Elders have written to President Rajapaksa to say they are “deeply worried” about the humanitarian situation faced by the largely Tamil civilian population who fled fighting in the north of the country, and warn that this could squander hopes for national reconciliation.
Chair of The Elders, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, signed the letter on behalf of his fellow Elders, Martti Ahtisaari, Kofi Annan, Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, Gro Brundtland, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Jimmy Carter, Graça Machel and Mary Robinson.
The Elders say in their letter to the President that the continued confinement of approximately 135, 000 internally displaced people is a “clear violation of international law” and that these people are being denied basic human rights, including the right to liberty and freedom of movement.
The Elders welcome the government’s announcement that those still confined in closed camps will now be given the freedom to move in and out of the camps until they are able to return to their homes. The Elders also call for humanitarian agencies to be granted the unimpeded access to the camps required to conduct critical humanitarian and human rights work such as providing health care, legal aid, and helping to reunite families.
While the number of people released from government-run camps has increased in recent weeks, and the government has pledged to release the remaining 135,000 by the end of January, the Elders also relayed their serious concerns about the way in which the Sri Lankan government is attempting to meet its resettlement objectives. They are particularly concerned that the UNHCR, the International Committee of the Red Cross and national and international NGOs have had too limited a role in monitoring the movement of people, and have not had access to all the areas where people have been returned. Equally worrying are reports that some of those released have been placed in new, closed camps in their district of origin by local authorities. Some are reported to be facing further screening to determine whether they have any links to the LTTE.
Donors have vital role to play
The Elders have also written to Sri Lanka’s major donors, regional governments, international financial institutions, the UN Secretary-General and heads of relevant UN agencies, asking them to use their influence with the Sri Lankan government to ensure that basic conditions for equitable, inclusive and “conflict sensitive” development are put in place in the northern and eastern regions of the country.
The international community could also contribute towards the long-term stability of Sri Lanka by encouraging a credible war crimes investigation process; the disbanding of pro-government militias; a reduced role in decision-making by (and spending on) the military; the opening of space for minority parties and opposition parties; allowing the media and NGOs to operate freely; and meaningful consultation with affected populations in the north and east.
With presidential elections expected in January, donors should also use their influence to encourage the government of Sri Lanka to commit to basic democratic governance and prudent economic policy.
Elders’ chair, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said:
“No sustainable peace is possible without trust. Having won a military victory, the Sri Lankan government must not squander its gains. It has an obligation to serve all Sri Lanka’s citizens – including the Tamil and other minority communities.
“Sri Lanka needs wise, far-sighted and determined leadership to help end the divisions of the past and achieve genuine reconciliation, peace and dignity, to the benefit of all of Sri Lanka’s people.”
Former UN envoy and member of The Elders, Lakhdar Brahimi, said:
“While we welcome the government’s recent efforts to accelerate the return of displaced people after the end of this brutal war, the returns must be conducted in a way that does not undermine prospects for a durable peace.
“Donors have a vital role to play in pressing the Sri Lankan government to not only get people out of the camps, but to do so in a way that will enhance, not undermine, stability.”
Their fellow Elder and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson said:
“The basic human right to move freely must be respected. Innocent people should not be detained indefinitely in closed camps. To do so is a violation of international law. The opportunity must not be lost to establish a lasting framework that protects and enhances the human rights of all Sri Lankans.”