(in English and French)
David Miliband: We’ve just come from a meeting where eight members of the Security Council were able to meet with UN officials and humanitarian non-governmental organisations about the situation in Sri Lanka. We discussed the crisis inside the so-called "no-fire zone" in the far North-East of the country and the situation in the IDP camps.
The reports that we’ve had would be shocking to anyone who has not followed this conflict over the last few months. The situation in the so-called "no-fire zone" is appalling in its humanitarian distress. It involves up to 50,000 people according to some NGO estimates, even up to 100,000 according to some other groups, crammed into an area of some three square kilometres - smaller than Central Park. There is no question that civilian life is being lost on a large scale. The rise in violence over the weekend has claimed hundreds of civilian lives.
We have also heard reports from credible and serious organisations, who choose their words carefully, that there has been the use of heavy artillery into the North-East of the country and affecting civilians in the so-called "no-fire zone". We are determined to follow this up with the Sri-Lankan authorities as a matter of the utmost urgency since it goes directly contrary to the commitments that were made to Mr. Kouchner and I when we were in Sri Lanka.
In respect to the situation in the IDP camps, this remains a major concern. There is enormous strain on the civilians in the IDP camps. There is insufficient access, either by humanitarian organisations, or by the UN.
We were also told about the continuing denial of visas and of other permits for access around the country. We believe that access is absolutely vital for UN and NGOs, but also for journalists if there is to be proper witness to the situation that afflicts civilians in the country.
It is also important to say that there is no doubt to anyone’s mind that the LTTE are preventing civilians from leaving the no-fire zone, consistent with their own murderous behaviour in the past.
It’s also important that I say, on behalf of myself and the three European colleagues on the Security Council that we have no doubt at all that the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka is something that the Security Council should address.
Michael Spindelegger: Just to add to what David Miliband has said, I think that we are all shocked by the news that we have heard today from the NGOs and from OCHA. From the Austrian point of view, we are very much concerned by the situation today. I would just like to announce three points:
First: we should ask the government of Sri Lanka to protect their people, because it is an obligation. In the framework of the United Nations, they have to protect the life of their people. They have to try to get them out from the fire soon.
Second: we have to concentrate in this moment on the situation in the camps. As we have heard, this is a really shocking situation and we should ask the government of Sri Lanka to let in the camps independent monitors to find out what is really going on in these camps.
Third: we all have to have a look to the future. What could be the political solution? We must draw the attention to this point of view because it will not end with the military action, we have to think about the situation afterwards.
Bernard Kouchner: Yes, we went there with David. It was really impossible to tolerate. So what is the issue ? What can give to the civilian populations?
I will speak in French now - I support all that has been said by my two colleagues.
Qu’est-qu’on peut faire ? Est-ce que l’opinion publique va réagir ou non ? Nous, de notre côté, les trois ministres, et je suis sûr les vingt-sept ministres de l’Union européenne - nous avons demandé à nos collègues ici de faire quelque chose de politiquement fort. Je pense que nous devons essayer d’attirer l’attention du Conseil de sécurité et peut-être, à ce niveau, d’avoir une réaction.
For the rest, David Miliband said very clearly the five points, and the sixth point was demining. We were ready to help the people there, and to help the Sri Lankan government and the people to demine.
Access to this upper part for UN agencies, for NGOs with projects, giving food, giving medical supplies - yes we were in agreement with the President himself, Mr. Rajapaksa, but so what now? Are we waiting, all of us, for the end of the bombing? For the end of any life, not only suffering, but any life in this pocket? I’m calling on you [the press], because you are our friends, to draw the attention of the international community to this part of the world.
(What are your options now? Are you going to try to force this onto the agenda of the UN Security Council to remind countries they have a responsibility to protect?)
Bernard Kouchner: We are ready to talk to other colleagues, and there is a special place right now to speak to them and to tell them what we have seen, and how we suffer for doing nothing.
(What are the reasons of those who are against action in the Security Council? Who are they and what are they saying?)
David Miliband: That is something that you’ll have to ask others. The three of us can speak for ourselves, others can speak for themselves. We are clear that this is an issue that the UN Security Council should address. It involves major civilian loss of life and distress. It does have ramifications for the region. And it involves the word of a member of the United Nations not to use heavy weaponry in the pursuit of its goals to suppress a terrorist organisation. Those are fundamental issues that we, as European members of the Security Council, do believe belongs here.
(We heard this morning by Minister Miliband about the issue of the IMF loans, and whether it is a good idea to disburse that loan in the current circumstances. Perhaps Minister Kouchner and His Excellency from Austria could comment on this - whether it is expedient at this moment to allow that money to go to Sri Lanka?)
Bernard Kouchner: Yes we know about this problem. And we want public opinion and, of course, the people in charge at the International Monetary Fund, to consider the situation. Do we have any other way? And please do not think that we are not aware of the whole story, the sad story of the 26-year war, and the role of the LTTE. But we are all shocked, more than shocked; we cannot bear the way the people in this particular place are suffering and dying.
Michael Spindelegger: I would really like to underline what Mr. Bernard Kouchner said. He is very right. It is a very sad story. We have to continue talking with our colleagues.
(On the EU and Sri Lanka. There is this tariff treatment on textiles from Sri Lanka called the GSP Plus which ran out in December and is supposed to be subject to some kind of human rights investigation. Are you aware of that? What other leverage, if you can’t get a Council meeting, do you have to stop the killing of civilians in Sri Lanka?)
David Miliband: I think that Sri Lanka does not want to isolate itself from the international community. The fact that Sri Lanka is dependent in part on trade with the European Union is obviously significant, and the fact that it wants preferential trade treatment with the European Union is obviously significant. At every stage, Europe’s responsibilities are to uphold European values as well as to advance the economic interests. That is why the human rights aspect of the discussion are being taken so seriously by the European Commission at this stage.
Bernard Kouchner : Yes, Benita Ferrero-Waldner was in charge of it, she went to Sri Lanka several times.
(On a l’impression en vous écoutant qu’on touche les limites du Conseil de sécurité. Comment pourrait-on faire pour qu’il soit un peu plus efficace ? C’est terrible ce que vous dites.)
Bernard Kouchner : Oui Madame, c’est terrible ce que je dis et c’est terrible ce dont ils souffrent, vous avez raison. Mais on ne va pas aborder le problème politique du Conseil de sécurité tout de suite - il y a vraiment une urgence. Il y a d’autres urgences de par le monde, mais à chaque fois nous sommes quelques uns à nous indigner. Peut être que l’indignation est un début de réforme, je ne sais pas.
(A last word in French?)
Bernard Kouchner: J’aime beaucoup l’Union européenne lorsqu’elle est représentée par trois personnes qui se penchent sur le sort des pauvres Sri Lankais et des Tamouls qui sont bloqués. J’aime cette Union. J’aime aussi que les 27 prennent leurs responsabilités. Mais nous ne sommes pas seuls au monde et nous devons convaincre.