The statement by Amnesty International (AI) issued on Wednesday, 19 November, entitled "Sri Lankan Government Must Act Now to Protect 300,000 Displaced" is unfortunately yet another attempt to distort the factual situation pertaining to the conditions in which civilians in the north of Sri Lanka find themselves at present. Regrettably, AI has failed to present an objective analysis of the challenges and successes of the Sri Lankan Government in addressing the needs of Sri Lankan persons affected by the conflict. The AI account is littered with misleading innuendo compounded by outright falsehood and, upon a holistic reading of their report, it becomes clear that the intent of the report is to present a skewed picture unfavourable to the lawfully elected and popularly mandated Government of Sri Lanka.
The statement, in its very title, implies that there are 300,000 persons displaced in the Wanni. This exaggerated figure is called into question by the figure of 230,000 mentioned later in the very same report as being registered for the receipt of food assistance. Indeed, the nett figure of displaced persons (displaced after April 2006) for the Districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu is jointly estimated by UNCHR and Government agencies to be 207,000 (estimated numbers as at end-September announced in November). The AI statement also implies that WFP is the only source of food for persons in areas of the Wanni which are yet to be cleared of the unlawful presence of the LTTE (uncleared areas). This is totally misleading and does not convey the true picture of the extent and scope of food assistance sent to the uncleared areas.
The statement only refers to 3 convoys sent by the WFP which conducts these relief operations in close coordination with the Ministry of Nation Building and Estate Infrastructure Development. Since 02 October, the WFP has sent in 6 convoys into uncleared areas - the latest being today (21 November). The amount of food sent to the uncleared areas in a 6 to 7 week period exceeds 240 truckloads delivering 3,500 MT under this Emergency Food Delivery Programme. The AI statement, however, does not mention relief items sourced by the Government and delivered directly through the Government Agents/District Secretaries as special food relief amounting to over 700MT during this period, to complement the WFP supplies and build up buffer stocks. Neither does it mention the almost daily consignments of consumer items including food, textiles and kerosene that are dispatched for sale to consumers in uncleared areas through Government retail outlets. These supplies, over a 28 month period, which are being consigned by the Commissioner-General for Essential Services, amount to nearly 11,000 MT delivered by over 8,000 truckloads. The GA convoy that left Vavuniya today included 106,000 litres of kerosene and 126 MT of food supplies as a continuation of this initiative. The AI statement also displays its acute lack of awareness of realities in these areas by completely ignoring the supply of nearly 1,400 MT for the fourth quarter of 2008, of food supplies to Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu Districts by the Ministry of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services. These supplies are specifically targeted at IDPs in a situation of protracted displacement (i.e. those displaced before April 2006).
The UN, who were facilitated by the Government of Sri Lanka to conduct a multi-agency assessment of needs in mid-October have noted that the food supply situation is satisfactory in terms of total calories supplied. The also concluded that medical and educational services are being adequately supplied and serviced by Government. Indeed the UN noted that despite relocation of some medical facilities, all necessary supplies of medicines have been dispatched by the Medical Supplies Division of the Ministry of Health, based on the requirements of regional health authorities. Supplies for all four quarters of 2008 have been dispatched based on annual projected needs by District health authorities. Furthermore, supplementary supplies including anti-venom and anti-malaria medical supplies have been dispatched upon request. In contrast the AI statements hint of a dire situation and epidemics which the UN has found no evidence of. As to the "acute shortage of safe drinking water" the UN assessment mission found no such evidence although it noted improvements were possible. The Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance at its 25th Meeting today (21 November) took a decision to facilitate the transport of large water tanks, with the assistance of UNICEF, to be used primarily in schools for the benefit of IDPs and schoolchildren.
Another canard repeatedly used by interested parties with an anti-Government of Sri Lanka agenda is that there is inadequate shelter. AI appears to be no exception. Indeed their curiously worded sentence: "Many families are living in the open under makeshift shelters", is evidence of the illogic and antipathy of these parties. If persons are living in shelters - makeshift or otherwise - how could they possibly be in the "open"? The AI's disingenuous approach is typified by their omission of mentioning that many IDPs are housed in schools and other Government buildings. The UN mission did identify shelter as one area in which greater attention is needed and the Chair of the CCHA, the Minister for Disaster Management and Human Rights, requested the UN and Government agencies to further discuss the recommendations in the report and take all possible steps to address the concerns including shelter, water and sanitation. The cavalier dismissal of the Government's proposal to transport woven coconut or palm-fronds (cadjan) for use as shelter material is also indicative of AI's total unfamiliarity with local conditions. Cadjan has been used by Sri Lankans in every part of the nation as shelter materials for centuries. Logistical challenges in transporting these materials are currently being discussed by Government and its international partners. It should also be noted that these materials could be sourced locally generating income and supporting livelihoods, are environmentally friendly and biodegradable.
With regard to international monitoring that AI stridently calls for, it appears that the organization is unaware or is wilfully disregarding the presence of international personnel who have accompanied the consignments of food to uncleared areas. Whilst purveying photographs of doubtful provenance which creates the worst possible impression of the situation AI should take pains to access and study photographic evidence prepared by WFP which were widely disseminated last week showing local and international cooperation in the transport of food supplies. The Government is fully cognizant of the need to monitor distribution to forestall diversion of food and other humanitarian supplies by the LTTE for its own uses. It is working with its international partners to strengthen these measures. Despite being aware of the LTTE appropriating some of these supplies meant for the ordinary people for years, Sri Lankan Governments have consistently supplied its people in these areas with essential goods and services.
The AI statement does make mention of the LTTE's intransigence in allowing the captive populace of the uncleared areas to leave for their safety and in the interests of their own welfare. The Government has prepared a site in Vavuniya away from the theatre of armed conflict and is prepared to offer all Sri Lankan civilians who seek refuge there the full gamut of services including food, shelter, sanitation and all other services. It is the LTTE that is violating the rights of these innocent civilians by denying them the freedom of movement and the right to physical safety and security. This is the most gross violation of all. Instead of falsely accusing the Government of failing in its duty to protect civilians, it would be much more productive to put pressure on the LTTE to release all civilian noncombatants held in the uncleared areas and to permit them to seek avenues of safety and security offered by the Government. AI would better serve the interests of the civilians that they purport to espouse, by calling on all relevant parties to enable these persons to seek safety.