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Sri Lanka's postwar resettlement stalls

Some 280,000 refugees remain detained, a month after fighting stopped. A national probe into war abuses was shut down this week.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 19, 2009



One month after its decisive victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels, Sri Lanka continues to grapple with the aftereffects of war.

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Among the thorniest is the fate of 280,000 displaced Tamil civilians who are living inside barbed wire in vast tent cities, unable to return home. Legal-rights advocates have challenged their detention, which Sri Lanka calls a necessary security measure while an unknown number of rebel suspects are still in the camps. More than 4,000 have reportedly surrendered.

Friction is also emerging between international aid organizations providing services in the camps and military authorities who have tightened conditions on humanitarian access. United Nations officials have been stopped from bringing in cameras and mobile phones. Vehicles of aid organizations were barred after the military said they had been used to smuggle out members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

No clear resettlement plan

Sri Lanka's government has promised to resettle the majority of the refugees by the end of the year. So far, few details have been shared with the UN, which has plenty of relevant experience in this field, says Paul Risley, a regional spokesman for the World Food Program. "The government has not put forth a clear plan for all these returns to take place within six months," he says.

Rajiva Wijesinha, an official in the disaster management ministry, says plans are being drafted and would shown with international donors. "The policy is being put down on paper ... we're planning to do the resettlement quite quickly," he says. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Wijesinha's name.]

Last week, a research organization in Colombo, the Center for Policy Alternatives, filed a lawsuit against President Mahinda Rajapaksa and other officials for violating the fundamental rights of Tamil citizens. The case alleges they are being detained on account of their ethnicity and place of origin. Mr. Wickrasinha said the Supreme Court delayed a hearing Thursday to allow more time for those named in the suit to respond.

Government rejects 'smearing'

Government officials have accused opposition politicians and nongovernmental organizations of trying to besmirch the camps as a political ploy. It has rejected criticism of conditions there, while arguing that UN agencies are at fault in some cases, such as not digging adequate latrines in suitable places.

UN officials in Sri Lanka are wary of publicly criticizing the government's handling of the refugees. Even more sensitive are claims that Sri Lankan troops indiscriminately shelled civilians caught up in the fighting during recent months, in defiance of international humanitarian law.

Mr. Rajapaksa has denied any wrongdoing but promised to look into complaints. Earlier this week, though, a presidential panel set up before the latest fighting to probe human rights abuses was shut down. Human rights groups say this shows the limits of a national inquiry. Last month the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution praising Sri Lanka's victory over terrorism, with support from China and other Asian allies.

Also unresolved: extrajudicial killings

On Tuesday, the United States nominee to be the next ambassador to Sri Lanka, Patricia Butenis, told a Senate confirmation hearing that the Sri Lankan government must reach out to the Tamil minority. Ms. Butenis, a career diplomat, vowed to press for justice in the cases of extrajudicial killings in Sri Lanka, which have shadowed the 26-year conflict.

"The focus is to have the Tamil population understand that they have a future in their own country, in a unified Sri Lanka, and that the government itself has to appreciate that and work with the international community, " she told the Senate, according to Agence France-Presse.

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