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Sri Lanka’s IDP issue blown out of proportion

[Sunday Observer.lk, Saturday, 26 September 2009 20:48 No Comment]

z_p06-SriLanka1 The latest buzzword today is obviously IDP. Many are not aware of or fail to acknowledge that globally, there are 11.4 million refugees and 26 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), according to the latest estimates from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

It is little Sri Lanka that has to bear the brunt of accusations for the manner it is looking after the IDPs. The IDP issue is currently the main topic that allows the UN and western forces and their allies to stampede upon Sri Lanka with varied accusations. It would be interesting what their next modus operandi will be once the IDPs are all resettled. But past experiences will predict that strategists must already be planning out how else to ensnare Sri Lanka. The simple question remains, if the Government had no care for the fate of these IDPs , why should Government be spending over rupees 1.4 billion to 1.8 billion per month to feed and maintain these innocent civilians in welfare centres?

Globally there are 11.4m refugees and 26.4m IDPs according to UNHCR. Darfur crisis affected 4.2m people and displaced 2m in 2004 today 448,889 people are still living as IDPs. In Chad, where 700,000 have had to flee fighting more than 185,000 people are displaced and living in camps. In Congo, around 1.36m are displaced with 45,000 dying each month from poverty related causes and other diseases. The lives of innocent in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of US-led strikes will reveal even more gruesome stories.

As of 22 May 09 there were 288,938 persons at welfare camps in the North of Sri Lanka. None of the above countries or any other including Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans were able to resettle 40,000 within three months of ending the conflict and none of these conflict ridden countries can boast of having ended a conflict which means that these IDP or refugee figures globally are likely to escalate at any given time.

Moreover, all resettlements of the displaced in Sri Lanka are tied to programs that provide each family with 25,000 rupees to rebuild their houses, free seed paddy to start their livelihood and free food for 6 months – even the poverty stricken others throughout the rest of Sri Lanka are not given such facilities. A Samurdhi recipient gets only Rs.100 per month.

It is now 60 years since the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is obvious that despite the reduction in conflicts, there is a steep rise in IDPs. This could be the new strategy of the Western powers whereby they would not have to commit their soldiers and lose popularity at home by outsourcing fighters and transporting them from country to country to create problems within countries and uprooting divisions internally. This would allow Western powers to shrug conspiracy theories of direct links to terror and their own involvement while giving them the right to question the welfare of human beings who now belong to a group called IDPs.

This strategy is being backed further by the UN which has even appointed a Special Rappoteur on Human Rights of IDPs. Fantastic strategy to adopt – these nations could then decide which countries they could force entry upon (military intervention even) and which they could ignore – the case of the Balkans becomes a perfect example where the conflict was created by outsourced jihad fundamentalists but the western powers divided Yugoslavia and created an independent Kosovo that would serve their vested interests – unfortunately nothing much was done to the IDPs of this region and nothing will be done either. The irony was that the allied forces and NATO descended on Yugoslavia using the IDP as a tool but little has been done to address their needs and nothing very much is taking place in Iraq or Afghanistan either.

It was in 2004 September that then Secretary General Kofi Annan invited Walter Kalin, a professor of Law at Bern University, Switzerland to take on the role of his Representative on Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons – a role to be supported by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Walter Kalin’s predecessor was Dr. Francis Deng, whose title did not have “human rights”.

* When there is a person designated by the UN for IDPs and their “human rights” why did Sri Lanka have to bear the diplomatic niceties of so many other UN envoys over the past several months asking to be shown how we are looking after our own people? Shouldn’t Walter Kalin have been the first to arrive in Sri Lanka no sooner the IDPs started life in Government controlled camps?*

The UN Commission on Human Rights in 1992 acknowledged that internal displacement was a serious human rights problem, yet there was no treaty for their rights and no provision in a human rights convention guaranteeing their rights. Yet, despite the mandate nothing has been done in Iraq where there are 4.2 refugees and IDPs or Afghanistan since 2002 but there is unprecedented clamour about IDPs in Sri Lanka who is signatory of the Guiding Principles.

Ultimate defeat

Perhaps this is the very reason why where one aspect of the guiding principle identifies the relevance for UN peace keeping and thus the concerns made by Sri Lankans of a foreign intervention. How can a foreign peace keeping force provide the answers to returning IDPs back to their homes? Over 230,000 Afghans are still homeless since 2002 despite an increasing number of foreign forces in Afghanistan.

But, little Sri Lanka home to what the FBI has described as the world’s deadliest terror outfit and one that was banned in 33 nations is surprisingly having plenty of powerful countries even those that banned it attempt to stall its ultimate defeat. This may sound strange to anyone who believes and accepts that the US, UK and the EU are strongly in favour of eliminating terror. Why would they then attempt to even create a scenario pushing for a deal that would give amnesty to the fighters and safe passage of the LTTE tiger leaderships to an unknown destination in Europe?

Sri Lanka was inundated with foreign dignitaries on the guise of desiring to know the situation of the ordinary Tamils caught up amidst the fighting. Not many voices rose out or laboured to free these people while they were kept as “human shields” but no sooner they were saved and given shelter, food and other essentials the world decides to send countless more envoys to see the living conditions of these people. How they lived earlier in fear is of no relevance to them it seems.

The facts are very clear – in just over three months the Government has managed to resettle over 40,000 to their homes or homes of relatives. All these are taking place as efforts continue to de-mine areas which were under LTTE control. Over 400 Sri Lanka Army personnel, seven INGOs and some Indian units have undertaken this task. Defence scholar James Clad of the National Defense University noted in a recent terrorism seminar at George Washington University that, “no one in the world clears mines more quickly than the Sri Lankans.”

The Government has spent $2.5m to purchase five Slovakian de-mining machines.

Would a Government unconcerned about the IDP welfare have done such a purchase? It must be pointed out that while much uproar transpired for the right of these IDPs to go to their relatives when the Government did announce that relatives could sign up and accept the IDP relatives – Only 2000 came forward. Contrary to what is promoted internationally 53 NGOs have access to these welfare centres and these centres have primary health centres, mobile health clinics, mobile labs, doctors, nurses and ambulances. All critics are kindly asked to check such facilities available to IDPs in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and conflict areas of Africa before accusing Sri Lanka. Lynn Pascoe who was appointed Under Secretary of the UN for Political Affairs in Feb 2007 took almost a year to visit Iraq to assess the situation there.

Iraq may have had problems pre-US invasion but not to the extent it is suffering as a result of US invasion having to deal with the largest humanitarian and displacement crisis where millions of Iraqis have either fled their homes, gone to other countries or living in constant fear. All Iraqis now agree that Saddam Hussein’s era was not half as bad as the present predicament.

There are 1.5m Iraqi refugees living in Syria, Jordan and other neighbouring countries and 2.7 million IDPs in Iraq itself by June 2008 uprooted from their homes since the US invasion in 2003). These IDPs had been displaced during 3 phases 1.6m in February 2006 during sectarian violence including multinational military operations, 190,000 during the general violence from 2003 to 2005 & 1.2m as a result of Saddam Hussein’s “Arabization” of Kurdish areas.

Most of these have little access to food rations and are unemployed and live in squalor. The Govt of Iraq has access to large sums of money but it has done nothing to address these humanitarian needs which have been taken over by Shiite and Sunni militias who now monopolize the delivery of food, oil, electricity and money. The dangers of this exercise only time will tell.

The International Organization for Migration in its bi-annual report says “This is not a call for the U.S. to “do more”, to send more troops, or to alter its strategy for withdrawal from Iraq. These problems weren’t solved or even materially addressed during the “surge”, and slowing down withdrawals wouldn’t make the slightest difference”.

The situation in Iraq where 4.2 million Iraqis are either living as refugees in other countries or displaced within Iraq arose directly as a result of US invasion in 2003 – therefore it becomes a moral right of the US and allies to see that the people of Iraq are taken care of & the “non-committal UNO” to ensure that the expensive foreign trips made by their UN envoys are not subject to diplomatic niceties and no pressure exerted upon the larger western nations for their violation of human rights of innocent people.

Makeshift shacks

Afghanistan became the next target of the US and allies no sooner 9/11 occurred, before investigations even started or concluded Afghanistan was attacked and today thousands of Afghans live in fear or are homeless.

*At least 235,000 people are living in formal IDP camps since 2002 *while large numbers live in makeshift shacks, mud huts with almost no sanitary, water or toilet facilities. A makeshift mud hut in the outskirts of Kabul has over 4500 IDPs who had abandoned their homes due to aerial strikes.

All of Afghan IDPs have to suffer the severe cold and there have been unconfirmed reports of some IDPs even selling their children to survive & feed the rest of their children. We can recall the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka wherein amongst the kind hearted there were many who “stole” children to be used as domestics and it was taking to consideration this live example that the Government decided to have a stricter screening process for the IDPs in the camps in the North.

* It is to be noted that since 2002 with a figure of 235,000 IDPs the Afghan Govt and the UNHCR has still not confirmed the accurate date on the IDPs or profiled each completely.*

Therefore, Sri Lanka deserves more praise than it is currently getting.

Media has gone overboard with false accusations some even implying that the people are being kept in “concentration camps” these accusers should then explain why the Government would spend SLR9m per month for the people’s welfare, provide healthcare and medical equipment and other mobile services which even facilitated issuing of National Identity Cards (in collaboration with UNDP), provide artificial limbs, hold GCE O/L and A/L examinations and even provide additional teaching to train them ahead of the exams, even provide vocational training to enable them to start a means of livelihood once they leave the camps, provide wheelchairs, crutches, white canes and Braille slates as well as housing hundreds of elders into elders homes as no relatives have thus far come forward to undertake to care for them.

Why would the Government also arrange with the Bank of Ceylon to establish five banking units inside the welfare camps where 5000 IDPs had been able to deposit Rs. 100m in just two months and 21,000 had even opened new accounts? But, amidst these numbers there are large numbers who belong to the Mahavir families of LTTE fighters & it must be posing a task to have them accept that the LTTE killer force that provided them a better means of living amongst their own is now no more and the screening of these people is lengthy and time consuming.

UN agencies themselves will vouch for the difficulty in processing people in the Balkans and Afghanistan and that exercise is still not complete.

We all agree that life in a camp is not and would never be as comfortable as living in one’s home – nevertheless we must remember that these people did not jump from the frying pan into the fire – it is actually the other way round. Would it have suited them to continue to live as “human shields” of the LTTE? If the Government a year after the LTTE defeat continues to keep these people in these camps then there is all the reason to question why – but as of present when over 40,000 have been resettled within just three months of eliminating a terror outfit that reigned for almost 3 decades a little breather must be given and Sri Lanka deserves not to be chided in this manner when the West has yet to show a victory in terrorism despite having two key weapons at their disposal – the sophisticated machinery and the skills in negotiating settlements.

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