We'll believe it when we see it!

November 25, 2009

I finally have good news to report:  the Sri Lankan government announced this past Saturday that the displaced civilians unlawfully trapped in internment camps will be free to come and go as of December 1Amnesty International has been calling for this for the past several months in our “Unlock the Camps!” campaign.

However, while the government announcement and a Sri Lankan newspaper article said that the civilians were being given total freedom of movement as of Dec. 1, other accounts of the government’s announcement have been less positive.  Another Sri Lankan government report referred to the civilians being allowed freedom of movement only within the region of the camps, while the BBC and Oxfam spoke of civilians just being granted day passes to leave the camps temporarily (and a day-pass system had been announced last September by the Sri Lankan government).   U.N. Under-Secretary General John Holmes said yesterday that the civilians could leave the camps for days at a time, but it was still being discussed whether they could leave the camps permanently.   Human Rights Watch today said that some of the displaced civilians have been told by the government that they won’t be released on Dec. 1 but instead moved to other detention camps.

So, while I want to be optimistic and hope that the Sri Lankan government will actually let all the displaced civilians leave the camps if they wish as of Dec. 1, here it’s a case of “seeing is believing.”

And there are some sobering facts to keep in mind, even as the civilians are let out of the camps:

  • Lack of information:  Many of the civilians haven’t received any information about the choices available to them once they are freed.  How can they be expected to decide whether to return to their home villages or to resettle in another part of the country if they don’t know what resources will be available to them once they arrive?
  • Humanitarian assistance: It’s extremely important that the displaced civilians get the help they need in resettling, especially food, water and shelter as they re-establish their homes.
  • Incommunicado detention:  Around 12,000 persons (including children) suspected of links to the Tamil Tiger rebels are being held by the government without charge in incommunicado detention,  separately from the displaced civilians.  If the Human Rights Watch report is right, this number could increase dramatically next week.  All these detainees should be promptly charged with a recognizable criminal offense and given fair trials in civilian courts, or else released.

I really hope that next week I won’t be writing about how the government announcement has not been implemented as we all hope, or turns out to be something less than promised.  We’ll be watching.