26 March 2009 : Briefing on the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka by John Holmes , UN

Full text of John Holmes brief to the UN Council:
Briefing on the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka John Holmes, Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator 26 March 2009
Thank you, Mr. President, for this opportunity to brief members of the Council about the current humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka. I also welcome the presence of the Permanent Representative of the Government of Sri Lanka.

Mr. President, since I briefed the Council on 27 February, the humanitarian situation in northern Sri Lanka, or the Vanni, has unfortunately deteriorated further. The Government security forces have continued their advance in the present combat area, so that the front line in some places is reportedly only a few hundred metres away from the coastal ‘no-fire zone’ declared by the Government. Meanwhile, the LTTE continue to reject the Government’s call to lay down their arms and let the civilian population leave, and have significantly stepped-up forced recruitment and forced labour of civilians.

Mr. President, the most pressing concern remains the safety and security of the large number of civilians trapped in what is now a very small area indeed – not much more than fourteen square kilometers. Our most recent estimate is that there are approximately 150,000 to 190,000 civilians squeezed into this area, whereas the Government continue to estimate that the number is less than 70,000. Some 200 UN and NGO staff and dependents remain with the displaced population in the ‘no-fire zone’, although others have been evacuated by the International Red Cross. We have received reports that at least two UN staff, three dependents and eleven NGO staff have been subject to forced recruitment by the LTTE in recent weeks.

Our information suggests that the civilian casualties continue to be tragically and unacceptably high, even if we are not in a position to verify the exact numbers. We believe that on average several dozens of people have been killed everyday in February and March, and inevitably larger numbers injured, with many of these casualties occurring in the ‘no-fire zone’. In recent days, as population density has increased further, risks from both heavy and light weapons fire have also increased.

The Government have promised on several occasions to refrain from using heavy weapons and to uphold a ‘zero civilian casualty’ policy. However, there are continuing reports of shelling from both sides, including inside the ‘no-fire zone’, where the LTTE seems to have set up firing positions.

Mr. President, risks from malnutrition and disease are also growing rapidly, not least for the thousands of children still in the area. Humanitarian access to deliver relief items for the civilian population remains limited to the sea route. Food shipments virtually stopped during February, with only 150 metric tons of food reaching the trapped civilians. From 1 to 17 March, 1,080 metric tons of food have been delivered by boat. This is a significant improvement but nothing like enough. The WFP is pushing for a larger delivery, totaling 1,000 metric tons, and we hope this will be shipped by the end of this week.

Health services are now concentrated at three makeshift medical points inside the ‘no-fire zone’. According to the information available to us, approximately 5,000 individuals are reporting daily to each medical point. However, due to the limited medical supplies available, treatment is limited to first aid and triage. There are increasing reports of minor injuries that result in amputations due to inability to treat them. Acute respiratory infections, diarrhea, chicken pox and scabies have been reported. Four shipments of medical supplies were made since 18 February, with the largest on 22 March. Unfortunately, the quantities are still far from enough, and key needs such as anesthetic are still not included.

Heavy rains from 8 to 11 March made conditions even worse, as large areas inside the ‘no-fire zone’ were flooded and many temporary shelters damaged. This, together with virtually non-existent sanitation facilities, is exposing the population to serious threats of disease. The situation with regard to clean water is equally worrying, with the 500 functioning wells sufficient to cover no more than one fifth of estimated needs. In order to address these urgent needs, the Humanitarian Country Team is working with the Government to include basic items such as chlorine tablets, tarpaulins and emergency health kits in the relief shipments, in addition to food and medicine.

The International Red Cross continue to evacuate by sea severely wounded and sick people, including pregnant women. Approximately 300 to 400 persons can be evacuated by each ship, out of which about 200 people are usually patients and the rest family members. There have been twelve evacuations between 11 February and 23 March, which have brought out a total of 4,128 people. Demand for evacuation exceeds current capacity, reinforcing the need to increase the frequency of evacuation ships.

Mr. President, there are continuing reports that the LTTE is making every attempt to hold the remaining civilian population hostage, including firing on those fleeing, limiting fishing and sabotaging boats that might be used to escape. Nevertheless, some 45,000 people have managed to escape since late January, including over 5,000 in the past week, as the Sri Lankan forces’ frontline has approached the no-fire zone. To accommodate and look after those fleeing, the UN and NGOs are working closely with the Government, particularly in the area around Vavuniya, on reception arrangements. Given the current flow of arrivals and potential for tens of thousands more, there is an urgent need to step-up this reception capacity further.

Given this dire humanitarian situation, the United Nations has continued to intensify its engagement with all concerned. The Secretary-General has repeatedly called for the conflict to be brought to a speedy end without further loss of civilian life, and for a temporary cessation of hostilities to allow civilians to leave the conflict zone. In particular, the Secretary-General has called on the LTTE to remove weapons and fighters from areas of civilian concentration, to allow the civilian population to leave freely, to cooperate in all humanitarian efforts, and to cease immediately forced recruitment, in particular of children. I have echoed these calls, as has the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. We have also called on the Government of Sri Lanka to do more to avoid civilian casualties and to respect fully international humanitarian law. It is high time for all these calls to be fully heeded.

Since my own visit to Sri Lanka one month ago, the Secretary-General and I have maintained close contact with the Government to remind them of our deep concerns, and to follow up the assurances that were given. In particular, we remain very anxious to ensure that IDP treatment is fully in line with international standards and principles, including the need for transparent screening and registration processes, the removal of the military presence from inside the camps, freedom of movement for the IDPs, and commitments to ensure their speediest possible return to their places of origin. We urgently need to see practical progress in these areas.

Mr. President, a number of attempts are being made to persuade the LTTE to do more to stop further suffering of the civilian population, particularly by allowing them rapid safe passage, as part of a peaceful end to this tragic situation. I strongly urge the LTTE to show genuine readiness to cooperate with these efforts. It is also important for the Government of Sri Lanka to continue to show flexibility, for example, to make clear in both word and deed not only that the safety and security of all civilians will be guaranteed once they reach Government controlled areas, but also that all those laying down their arms will be treated fully in accordance with the rule of law.

Meanwhile the presence of international actors, in particular UNHCR and ICRC, to ensure transparent screening and registration processes, and to monitor the movement and condition of IDPs at all stages, is essential. Access by the media to the camps would also improve confidence. Additional confidence building measures are also needed both domestically and internationally, not least further meaningful steps by the Government of Sri Lanka to show their seriousness in addressing the underlying causes of the conflict, for example through showing readiness to introduce a genuine devolution of power and stronger action to protect minority rights.

Mr. President, in my previous briefing to the Council, I emphasized the importance of the international community closely monitoring the situation, and speaking with one voice in favor of humanitarian action. Today, my key messages remain the same, but with even greater urgency. What we need now are concrete and immediate steps towards saving the lives and mitigating the suffering of the trapped civilian population. More aid, and real humanitarian access to those in the trapped areas, for example through a short cessation of hostilities, would be such steps. These could help to create a situation where agreement would become possible on a suspension of hostilities to allow the civilian population to leave and a peaceful end to the conflict. Otherwise, each day will see dozens more civilians die, and more and more suffering from injuries, malnutrition and disease. And the risk of an even more tragic and bloody conclusion to this conflict will also continue to grow day by day.

Mr. President, I therefore urge members of the Council to continue to follow the desperate humanitarian situation in northern Sri Lanka with very close concern, and to keep up the international pressure in favor of steps such as those I have outlined and a speedy and peaceful end of the conflict. In particular, I call on all who can exert any direct or indirect influence on the LTTE, for example through the Tamil diaspora, to use that influence now to persuade them to give people the choice to leave, and to stop forced recruitment and the use of civilians as human shields. I also appeal again to the Government of Sri Lanka to refrain from actions that threaten civilian safety, to be ready to take any steps which would increase the possibility of the civilians being able to leave the current danger zone safely, and to refrain from any final assault which could lead to the bloodbath we are all so desperate to avoid.

Thank you for your attention.