Sri Lanka: Time for action by the UN

September 15, 2009

The UN Human Rights Council started its twelfth regular session in Geneva today.  I’m hoping that this time, unlike last May, we’ll see the Council take some effective action to protect the human rights of the displaced civilians in Sri Lanka.

In her statement today to the Council, Navanethem Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, had the following to say of the displaced civilians in Sri Lanka:

“In Sri Lanka, internally displaced presons are effectively detained under conditions of internment.  Humanitarian agencies’ access to these camps remains restricted, and the mandates of relief agencies are increasingly coming under threat.”

In response to the High Commissioner’s statement, Mahinda Samarasinghe, the Sri Lankan Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, told the Council that the internally displaced civilians would be allowed to leave the camps once they were screened to ensure that they weren’t members of the opposition Tamil Tigers.  The Minister gave no timeframe for when this screening might be completed.  So far, 6,490 people are reported to have been released from the camps, out of a total population of about 265,000.

Unfortunately for the Sri Lankan government, arbitrary detention of the displaced civilians isn’t allowed under international law – specifically, the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.  The Principles do say that if in “exceptional circumstances” it is “absolutely necessary” to confine internally displaced civilians in a camp, such confinement can’t “last longer than required by the circumstances” (see Principle 12(2)).  The Sri Lankan government claims that members of the Tigers may be hidden among the civilians and that if these members of the Tigers were released, they could resume attacks.  If the Sri Lankan government’s logic were correct, the government would be equally justified in rounding up the entire Tamil population throughout the country, and detaining them all until they could prove they weren’t members of the Tigers.  The internally displaced civilians shouldn’t have to prove their innocence to win the freedom of movement they’re entitled to.

I hope the UN Human Rights Council takes up again the situation in Sri Lanka and gets the Sri Lankan government to release the internally displaced civilians from the camps as soon as possible.

It was also reported today that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was sending the UN’s political chief, B. Lynn Pascoe, to Sri Lanka tomorrow for talks with the Sri Lankan government, including on the issue of getting the internally displaced civilians released from the camps.  Even if the UN Human Rights Council doesn’t act, I hope the Secretary-General is able to get the displaced civilians released soon.