U.N. chief to visit Sri Lanka

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced today that he will visit Sri Lanka later this week, in part to get a first-hand look at the situation on the ground after the Government declared that its military operation against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has ended.

The May 22 – 23 visit would be to respond to the urgent need to heal the wounds of a war that has alienated the communities in the country for almost three decades, Mr. Ban told a news conference in Geneva.

“The task now facing the people of Sri Lanka is immense and requires all hands,” he said, stressing the need for progress in three critical areas: immediate humanitarian relief; reintegration and reconstruction; and a sustainable and equitable political solution. Progress on all three of these fronts must move forward in parallel – and it must begin now, he stated.

Mr. Ban’s Chief of Staff, Vijay Nambiar, is currently in the country and is engaged with relevant parties on how best to respond to the humanitarian situation of the large number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and initiate a process for early recovery and long-term reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

UN agencies are stepping up their efforts to assist the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the conflict. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that there are around 220,000 people who have already reached the IDP camps, and it is believed that another 40,000-60,000 people are on their way to the sites.

John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters yesterday that the large influx of people poses “major humanitarian challenges” in terms of providing shelter and other basic services, such as food, clean water and medical services.

“The conditions in these camps are certainly not ideal. They’re not up to international standards yet but everybody is working very hard to try to make sure that they are,” he stated.

The head of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) today called for full and unimpeded humanitarian access so that women and children can receive the assistance they need, following reports that access to some IDP camps has become restricted.

Ann M. Veneman stressed that UNICEF is committed to working with partners to provide those in the camps with essential water and sanitation, nutrition, maternal and child health care, education and protection.

Restrictions to enter the IDP sites, imposed over the weekend, are also hindering the ability of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to deliver assistance, its spokesperson said.

“Our access to the Vavuniya sites has been greatly curtailed over the past few days and this affects our ability to monitor and distribute aid to the displaced,” Ron Redmond told reporters today. “We hope this ends quickly.”

The agency has asked the Sri Lankan authorities to allocate more land for the construction of emergency shelter, water and sanitation facilities, as well as to provide public buildings in Vavuniya, Jaffna, Mannar and Kilinochchi in order to accommodate arriving IDPs.

The World Food Program (WFP), for its part, is boosting its food stocks and preparing nutritionally-rich food for women and children to meet the needs of the IDPs. The agency is already feeding 250,000 people in temporary transit camps.

In a related development, the UN Human Rights Council will hold a special session on May 25 to address the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, following a request by several of its members.

“It is hoped that the holding of this special session will contribute towards the cause of peace,” said the Council’s President, Martin Ihoeghian Uhomoibhi.

“The Human Rights Council cannot be silent when innocent civilians are caught up in armed conflicts. The international community must strive to deliver justice to victims of human rights violations wherever they occur and ensure that those found guilty of such crimes are held accountable for their actions,” he added.

Next Monday’s meeting will be the 11th special session of the Geneva-based Council, which has also held special sessions related to the occupied Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Darfur, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the global food crisis and the global economic and financial crises.

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