Internal Displacement in Sri Lanka

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

November 16, 2006

Excerpts from Interview by Shakuntala Perera

Q: How do you see the general situation of the displaced in the Asian region as a humanitarian concern?

A: I would say that the difference varies from country to country. But Sri Lanka has been the country that has suffered immensely from the situation of the internally displaced given the long-standing war. …

Q: [In dealing with internal displacement,] isn’t sovereignty a cause for concern as opposed to seeing it mainly as a regional issue…?

A: Well primarily it is a national problem so the government of the country has the prime responsibility. However governments often don’t exercise the responsibility and sometimes do not have the will to address the problems in their countries and invariably there’s a spilling over borders of these problems. When there is internal displacement in Sri Lanka you are going to have refugee overflows into India. It doesn’t stay contained. So the government has the responsibility, but displacement also very easily becomes a regional issue that draws in international attention…

Q: Looking at it as a national issue how do you see the government of Sri Lanka handling the situation of the displaced right now?

A: There are a lot of protection issues for the internally displaced in Sri Lanka. There are issues of abductions and executions on both sides. There are restrictions on humanitarian organizations and NGOs and their access. There have been reports of government restricting NGO actions and questioning giving so much access to NGOs and international agencies. It is also true that a number of NGOs in Sri Lanka have not behaved very well. But, the vast majority are certainly very well intentioned and do want to play a role in helping the displaced populations. I would say that there are enough reports coming out of forced returns and return to unsafe areas and sometimes with the involvement of security forces and government officials. The abductions and extra judicial killings have been on both sides and these reports and the growing number of displaced and growing restrictions on the activities on NGOs and attacks in the press doesn’t look well for how the displaced are to be dealt with. It really is a question of the government living up to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement… It’s a matter of following international standards for the treatment and protection of IDPs. If the government applies international standards it would be an important step. If it invites the Representative of the Secretary General on the Human Rights of the Internally Displaced, Dr. Walter Kälin to Sri Lanka and works with him, it would augur well for the government. I think the Sri Lankan government has the opportunity to play a constructive role as a country dealing with IDPs.

Q: But when dealing with terrorist organizations’ like the LTTE which use civilians as a human shield during offensives or prevent the aid from going to the displaced, how can governments play that role effectively?

A: It’s difficult when countries are divided on ethnic lines. It’s not an easy matter to get insurgents or governments to observe international standards… The Guiding Principles apply to both sides. Local groups like the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) have held workshops with the LTTE and brought these standards in to the areas of concern. The ICRC also works with non-state actors to make them realize that they are also responsible and not just governments. The other possibility is for a lot of publicity to focus on their activities…

Q: You speak of international agencies but the popular perception is that they don’t do enough or that their role is questionable in countries like Sri Lanka?

A: When there are a large number of people in great need and governments are not doing enough there is a tendency to look to international agencies to fill that gap. The international organizations sometimes don’t have the resources to meet those needs… They are caught in a very difficult situation in a civil war because their mandates are to help civilians and people in need whatever side they are on. They have to play a proactive role with both the government and the other side. They need to reach people in the other side as well and sometimes governments restrict them. So it’s very difficult. They can sometimes be more proactive and play a stronger advocacy role than they do. They fear being restricted and being asked to leave a country. It’s hard for them to go too far. At the same time, they have to play a principled role.

Q: You speak of a principled role they have to play and earlier mentioned the bad behavior of some NGOs. The issue is a serious concern in Sri Lanka where a Parliamentary Select Committee looks into the activities of NGOs currently. How do you see this situation?

A: There have been reports of NGOs operating particularly in relation to the Tsunami where they were incompetent… the government is justified in looking into who is coming into the country and their bonafides. There is justification for expecting them to be principled. But at the same time a government can go too far and restrict their action in preventing them from going to places where they are really needed. Sometimes that effort at regulation can be a pretext for restricting NGOs from doing their job effectively…

Q: Where do you see the priorities of the present government in this regard?

A: …I’d like to hear what the Representative of the Secretary-General has to say on his proposed visit to Sri Lanka. At the same time there are concerns about human rights and the government must address them…