Efforts to rouse concern about conditions at the welfare centres are understandable in sympathizers of the LTTE agenda seeking to bring Sri Lanka into disrepute. What is astonishing is that a panel appointed by the UN Secretary General should have followed this line, while ignoring the clear evidence provided by the UN itself about the tremendous efforts of the Sri Lankan government to provide relief. It would seem that the panel had not bothered to look into UN records, else they would have known that the UN Resident Coordinator wrote that –
With regard to specifics
The concerns expressed by the panel include claims that the whole process was illegal. Ignored are the reports of the UN Special Representative on the Rights of the Displaced, who was invited three times to Sri Lanka to advise on the relief programmes. He made clear the parameters under which limitations could be placed on the freedom of movement of the displaced, and the government, through gradual expansion of the categories released and then through rapid returns, did its best, subject to security concerns as well as the need to demine and ensure basic infrastructure, to follow his advice with regard to time frames.
Concern was also expressed that access for humanitarian agencies was denied. This was nonsense as is apparent from the continuous activity of several Non-Governmental Organizations as well as UN agencies in the centres. However access was provided only in terms of specific aid projects, which irritated agencies which had seen themselves as decision makers rather than supporters of government intervention. The best comment on this was provided by the Deputy Head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, Steve Ray, who told me before he left that the international community in Sri Lanka had not understood the situation, since many aid workers came from situations in Africa where government involvement was minimal.
It is symptomatic of the patronizing approach of some individuals that they claimed access was denied when there were restrictions on the number of large vehicles that were chugging around and raising dust on a daily basis. The assumption was that they should have privileges which Sri Lankans did not enjoy, and they were clearly unwilling to walk as local officials and the beneficiaries had to.
The related concern, that government did not permit consultation in private, is also absurd, because it is obvious that in such large centres such communication cannot be prevented. Government was well aware as to what was happening, as I made clear in my responses to what Anna Pelosi and her ilk were up to. The account by Gordon Weiss of the networks developed by some UN officials indicates how private communication took place, while the reports that are available indicate how little that was negative was found.
Concerns were expressed that medical facilities were inadequate and that psycho-social support was not available. This is absurd. Though providing services to nearly 300,000 persons was not easy, hospitals and clinics were immediately in place in each zone. Threatened epidemics never happened, with for instance expensive treatment in the form of antiviral drugs being provided when chickenpox threatened. Incidentally it should be noted, given allegations with regard to conditions in the No Fire Zone, that records of the children who got away show that they were being immunized even in the second week of May 2009. The fact that these records survived makes clear the care with which government treated its citizens, wherever they were. Nutritional Centres were established in all welfare villagers, for the elderly as well as children and pregnant women, and therapeutic feeding drastically reduced malnutrition figures, as noted by the UN. Acute malnutrition was halved to 4% in three months, and stunting went down from 30% to 12%.
Even in the emergency phase, the number of deaths per day was 0.7 per 10,000, which became less than 0.5 per day in June, which is the baseline emergency threshold level for the region. Of the 573 deaths in May and June, 322 were of persons aged over 60. By July the figure was down to 0.15 and by August it stabilized at less than 0.1 whereas the ordinary baseline figure is 0.25 normally.
Despite traumas undergone, there were only four suicides in the first few months, and psychosocial support was provided from the start. A mental health unit was established in April and a consultant psychiatrist appointed in May, to visit all welfare villages and conduct clinics. Psychiatric social workers came up from the rest of the country on rotation, with support not only from WHO and IOM but also citizens’ (including individual) initiatives.
General concerns about conditions are accompanied by the statement that they improved because of protest from the international community. This is nonsense. The protests were from Sri Lankans, given the shoddy standards of some international agencies. For instance the appalling small white tents provided by the UN could not be rejected because they were brought in a hurry, but they compared badly with the shelters built by government or with the tall blue tents provided through Chinese assistance. The leisure centres we were promised to make up for the shoddy tents were late in coming up, with the lame excuse from the head of UNHCR who had assured me about them that these were a UNICEF responsibility, and UNICEF was much slower than UNHCR in responding to emergency situations.
Toilets built by international agencies were a mess because of refusal to abide by Sri Lankan standards, and we had to fight hard to get proper drainage systems in place. It was the Disaster Management Centre that ensured proper drainage when the monsoon was threatening, whereas the overpaid UN Shelter Consultant, Chris Dixon, was blathering on about possible fire hazards.
The ineffectiveness of the man, whose salary took a massive chunk of funds intended to benefit Sri Lankan people, is apparent from his defence of plywood pits. When it was pointed out that the gully suckers would suck out the bottom, Chris Dixon declared that operators had been told to stop sucking half way. The image of these operators judging the correct moment to stop, waiting as long as possible – since otherwise their machines would have to make even more journeys down narrow and vulnerable roads – and then cursing when they misjudged, as plywood and shit splayed out over the latrines, belongs in a novel by William Burroughs, not in the real world of suffering human beings.
It is such wastage that the UN should investigate rather than persecuting the senior UN officials who worked together with the government to swiftly alleviate the lot of the Sri Lankans who had suffered while being kept hostage by the LTTE. It is tragic that the panel appointed by the Secretary General should criticize those officials in line with a strange political agenda, instead of contributing to improving the services the UN offers to people in distress.