ĎHumanitarian concerns uppermostí
The Government is sending supplies to an
estimated 250,000 as we donít want to take any chances. There are
stories about malnutrition and under-nourishment. One has to only look
at these people who are coming out of the LTTE held areas to see that
there is absolutely no indication that the people are starving
Q: The LTTE is engaged in a do or die battle. They are targeting
military forces from the No Fire Zone. This is a testing period for the
Government Forces. Are you confident that in the coming days you can
hold on to your international human rights obligations?
There is no ambiguity in that. We are very conscious of our
international humanitarian obligations, the laws of this country and
constitutional rights. You may not be aware that our soldiers carry in
their pockets a booklet on IHL-International Humanitarian Law.
Manjula Fernando interviews
Disaster Management and
Human Rights Minister
We have HR focal points in the three armed Forces to directly report
to the respective Commanders. They undergo specialized training in HR.
Ours is a highly professional army. There is no room for any deviation
from the bottom line requirement that civilians will not and cannot be
targeted in the process of engaging the enemy.
This is also why we are taking such a long time to liberate this very
very small area . We have liberated a vast stretch of land in a very
short period. Liberating a 20 sq kms could be done in a matter of 48
hours, I would say, with the kind of strength that we have. The fact
that we are not using long range weapons, aerial bombardments means that
it has to be fought, man-to-man, door-to-door, street-to-street.
We are basically inching our way forward and as a result the army is
suffering very heavy casualties. There is no alternative to this. And we
are confident that we will complete the job very soon.
Q: The High Commissioner for Human Rights Navaneethan Pillay and
the HRW have also accused the LTTE of keeping civilians as a human
shield. Are you satisfied with the international pressure on the LTTE to
release them ?
Whilst we welcome such statements we expect much more from the
international community. The real issue, in that as long as the LTTE is
allowed to forcibly keep these civilians, the problem will grow and make
it more difficult to be corrected.
It is important to use consistent and concerted pressure and also not
to do or say anything which would strengthen the LTTE. We need to bring
immense pressure on the LTTE continuously on a daily basis to release
But looking at it realistically I donít think the LTTE will succumb
to these pressures. I donít think they care a pittance about what the
international community thinks and feels. But they may care about what
the Tamil diaspora will think and feel because that is their life blood.
I would advocate a strategy of working through the Tamil diaspora to
bring pressure on the LTTE to let go these civilians. Unfortunately this
has not happened so far. It is pretty obvious that this is not part of
the agenda of the Tamil diaspora when you look at the demonstrations
taking place in Toronto, Geneva, Washington, London or Brussels. I did
not see anyone in these demonstrations calling on the LTTE to let go of
There are laws in these countries which prohibit fund raising
activities for LTTE in particular and its glorification in some
instances. I think as much as pressuring Sri Lanka to behave properly,
these countries who have listed LTTE as a terrorist organisation should
turn the search light inward to do what is possible to ensure that this
kind of open glorification of a ruthless terrorist organisation is not
Q: According to Government data, how many civilians are still
trapped in the No Fire Zone?
No one has been able to count how many civilians are actually there.
But I can tell you that this is nothing close to the figure that has
been quoted internationally, from the aerial images and information from
the civilians who crossed over and also going by the very small extent
of land, 20sq km in which these people are held hostage. I donít want to
go officially on the numbers.
What we do is send in more supplies than the numbers what we actually
believe there are. The LTTE is also taking these supplies and there was
a mass rebellion against the LTTE over this recently.
Q: For how many people do you send in supplies?
According to Mr.Basil Rajapaksa the Government is sending supplies to
an estimated 250,000 as we donít want to take any chances. There are
stories about malnutrition and under-nourishment.
One has to only look at these people who are coming out of the LTTE
held areas to see that there is absolutely no indication that the people
are starving. The important thing is not the numbers. The important
thing is that we need to get these civilians out. We are working very
hard to ensure they are brought to safe areas as soon as possible.
Q: UN Humanitarian Chief Sir. John Holmes on Thursday said the UN
called for a Humanitarian Pause to get the trapped civilians freed. How
do you respond to this?
This is nothing new, it is a reiteration of what the UN had been
saying. No one can force us in our objective of releasing the civilians
from the clutches of terrorism. No country can be asked to live with
terrorism. What they say is to ensure that civilians are not harmed in
any way while doing that . We have assured that ours is a humanitarian
operation. There is absolutely no compromise on our part in ensuring the
safety of civilians.
Q: The operations in the North have reached a decisive phase. How
do you view any international intervention to halt or delay military
action at this point?
If the Sri Lankan issue is brought before the Security Council, it
could only send a message to the LTTE that they could continue to hold
these civilians hostage and commit the gruesome human rights violations
only a ruthless terrorist organisation can commit. The LTTE is now on
the verge of being eliminated.
International community must understand this and support us in this
endeavour. It is also important that whoever comments on Sri Lanka must
get their facts and figures correct. Because coming out with innuendos
and half truths and speculation will only make the task of the LTTE much
Q: The Sri Lankan issue is a hot topic at the UN Security Council.
What is the current situation?
The current situation is that, there was another briefing outside the
Security Council last week. It was more of an information sharing and
updating and clarification of events in Sri Lanka for interested
These kinds of regular briefings should be held in Colombo and not in
New York. We have representatives of the five permanent members (of the
Security Council) in Colombo and also India and Japan. We are willing to
sit down with them on a regular basis with all Government focal points.
Any misinformation and disinformation can be corrected then and there.
LTTE propaganda machinery is extremely effective. The on going
situation is consistently distorted and misinterpreted in the most
effective way. We are willing to listen to the international community
provided that these suggestions are constructive and practical and do
not compromise security concerns. Holmes wrote to the President
suggesting some improvements on how we receive the civilians and how to
look after them in camps.
We studied his recommendations and held discussions with Presidential
Advisor Basil Rajapaksa MP and Minister Rishad Badiudeen. We found some
of the recommendations (e.g. there should be no military presence inside
the camp) are already in place.
The camp management has been taken over by the Ministry of
Resettlement. The military presence was there during VVIP visits due to
security reasons. Despite performing a great job the Army was removed,
since it was felt their presence could be intimidating.
We will continue to give access to the UN and INGOs in complementing
efforts of the Government. Several local NGOs also met Basil Rajapaksa
and expressed their interest to help. This request is also under
Another, issue is the freedom of movement. We have already
established two old people centres, in a Hindu temple and a Christian
Church to give these old people who donít have relatives to stay until
resettlement takes place. Registration is continuing.
When issuing IDs are completed, civilians would be allowed freedom of
movement. But there will always be follow-up checks to ensure that there
is no infiltration by the LTTE. This is not an easy request to
implement, but we are willing to progressively look at it without
compromising the security objective.
Q: Setting up of Model Villages have begun. The international
donors, funding this project opposed the idea to resettle the Vanni
civilians in their respective homelands after three years?
We have never said three years, that is once again a big
misunderstanding. What we said was that we would like to resettle these
civilians without taking any short cuts. We canít just resettle them in
their villages before the environment is made secure for them to go
back. It is essential to de-mine the land which had been heavily mined
by the LTTE before they withdrew.
Infrastructure, other services and amenities have to be restored.
Finally the people themselves must agree to return and resettle. We
cannot force them to go back. We believe the majority of these people
could be resettled before the end of the year. That is the Governmentís
objective. We are working hard towards this.