United Nations Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Internal Displacement
Consultations on Peace and Security Dimensions of Internal Displacement
Statement by H.E. Mohan Peiris,
Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations
Thursday, 11 March 2021 (virtual)
I thank the Secretariat and the Group of Friends of the high-level panel for organizing this very important consultation. I also thank the briefers for their insightful presentations. Let me try and present a slightly different slant. It would appear, from what I heard, that we are reconciled to the fact that we will continue to manage conflict followed by internal displacement, as a matter of life. We have accepted it as a matter of course. It will perhaps never end. We will successfully mitigate the agony that will flow from conflict and displacement. We are virtually becoming specialists in managing displacement. Is it then the case, I ask, that we are ready to hand over this legacy to future generations in breach of that trust to hand over to them a better planet.
Co-Chairs, the issues of forced displacement, refugees, IDPs and the consequences for host communities are indeed issues that pull at our heartstrings and require very delicate and sensitive solutions. It is not only a humanitarian challenge but a development challenge, particularly as 4 out of 5 of the world’s refugees and IDPs live in developing countries.
The questions that have been put forward for discussion today are laudable, but my question is how do we deal with non-state actors? How do we impress on them the importance of having respect for the displaced? How can we ensure that such groups will abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law? What is the message we send them, Mr. Chairman? How do we hold them responsible for reparation? Instead they are seen to roam the world freely raising funds for their causes without any discouragement by our own Member States.
Now it has been Sri Lanka’s experience, this is not a practically feasible expectation from such groups. We are fooling ourselves if we think that we are going to have responsible responses from these groups. As most of you would be aware, the people of Sri Lanka experienced nearly three decades of brutal separatist terrorism. During that time, a ruthless group of non-state actors used civilians as pawns, the displaced persons as pawns, over and over again, to pursue their bloody and destructive agenda of creating a separate state in the country. This group built up an aggressive, extensive global network, a support network that enabled them to raise millions of dollars in funds in foreign jurisdictions. With over 25,000 cadres and formidable arsenal at its disposal and through its use of terrorism, other tactics and its capability to fight a conventional war, the non-state actor was a deadly foe. What then is the answer? The answer is that the governments should not give safe haven to these terror groups. Because to do so for whatever the reason maybe would be to encourage them and that has an impact on the displacement of persons in those conflict areas. Civilians were used as human shields; forcibly recruited as their cadres and suicide bombers, children were recruited as child soldiers; civilians were used as workers to construct defences for them and for a variety of other tasks during that dark period. No one was safe from their brutality, particularly those from their own ethnic group.
In fact, when the Sri Lankan armed forces commenced the humanitarian operation to liberate innocent civilians in the Northern and Eastern provinces of the country from this group of non-state actors, these civilians were virtually held hostage by this group. They were being used as human shields. As such a parallel operation had to be launched to ensure the safety of civilians who were either rescued or who escaped from this group. These people came without fear to the safety provided by the Sri Lankan armed forces. Viable civil and military coordination, immediate casualty response, evacuation to hospitals and preparation of secure villages with health and other basic facilities to shelter IDPs gave hope to these civilians for a new life in a safe and secure environment. Medicine, food, water, sanitation facilities and clothes were all provided by the Government. The registering of the IDPs was done with assistance from the ICRC and other UN agencies including the UNHCR. Civilians were identified and separated from the cadres of the non-state armed group and were sent for rehabilitation programmes.
The Government of Sri Lanka established at that time, a special Ministry for Rehabilitation and Resettlement, this is one thing that we can impart, and a National Policy on Durable Solutions for Displaced and Persons Affected by the Conflict was developed. The Policy guaranteed the rights of the displaced and aimed to promote measures to address their immediate, medium and long-term protection and assistance needs, with a view to facilitating durable solutions to their displacement. It delineated the roles and responsibilities of relevant government institutions and their national and international partners, describing the challenges that should addressed as a matter of urgency and set out a process for monitoring the implementation of the Policy as well as providing for redress through grievance mechanisms. Luckily for Sri Lanka, we have been able to resettle all of the IDPs.
Mr. Chairman, a major challenge faced by long-term IDPs and refugees is the risk of losing their land title to secondary occupiers due to ‘prescription’ – i.e. the loss of legal entitlement to one’s land due to the adverse possession of such land by another party over a period of 10 years. Therefore, the law was amended, and a Special Provisions Act was introduced, providing special legal provisions to be made in respect of persons who were unable to pursue their rights in court for the recovery of any immovable property including land due to the conflict.
Due to time constraints, I will not go into further details, but I believe that there must be overall support for Governments that have tried their best to deal with these sensitive issues created by groups of non-state actors, and have delivered results. Democratically elected representatives are best placed to design local mechanisms as solutions to these complex problems. They are in touch with the people and have received the mandate to resolve these issues. The UN and other agencies should support these initiatives. The imposition of time frames and conditions does little to assist these processes and we must remember that a one-size fits all policy does not work. Despite the accusations of a few of our “friends” in the international community, the majority would agree that Sri Lanka has delivered on our promises. Sri Lanka has delivered on providing solutions to the grievances faced by the people and we will continue to keep delivering.
To answer the question circulated with the concept note – “Do you believe there is value in pursuing national policy frameworks for the protection of civilians that seek to prevent displacement risks?” The answer is ‘yes’, vis-à-vis Governments, the answer is perhaps God as far as what is the response going to be as far as non-state actors are concerned. If so what would be required for countries for more systematically adopt and implement such policies? I say that there can never be a firm systematic policy because there is no systematic behavior on the part of non-state actors. That is a fact of life. What are the improvements of reducing displacement risks during military operations? We need to avoid military operations as much as we can, in other words we must try to address the fundamental issues rather than take measures to cure the disease, I think we need to deal with the symptoms of the disease and I would ask governments from the lessons that we have learnt, we must try and avoid conflicts at any cost. We must walk that extra mile, share our resources, look after our people by simply resorting to the principle of responsible government, of constitutional economics so that everybody in our countries will be entitled to a decent, dignified life as members of one human family.