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Sunday, 13 February 2011

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Lanka has building blocks for a sustainable future - Neil Buhne


Neil Buhne, Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Sri Lanka, said Sri Lanka, having ended the decades-long battle against terrorism, has all the building blocks, including an efficient administrative structure, a good education system and a dynamic private sector, for a sustainable future.

He assumed duties as the UN Chief in Sri Lanka in July 2007 at a time the Sri Lankan Government launched the military push against LTTE terrorists in the East.

Facing many challenges and criticism in assisting the Government’s humanitarian mission, Buhne said the UN had a close and very cordial relationship with the Government and the UN agencies did their best to provide relief to people fleeing war zones.

At a farewell meeting held last week, President Mahinda Rajapaksa appreciated Buhne’s cooperation as the UN Chief in Sri Lanka during the conflict.

A few hours prior to his departure from Sri Lanka to assume duties as the Chief of the Bureau of Crisis Prevention of the UN Development Program based in Geneva, in an interview with the Sunday Observer, he spoke about UN’s contribution in supporting the Sri Lankan Government to provide relief to civilians fleeing LTTE control, the UN’s responsibility in assisting people to rebuild the lives of resettled people and how fast Sri Lanka could emerge from the ashes to reach its development goals.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

“I arrived in Sri Lanka at a time the Sri Lankan Government took over the control of the Eastern Province and just liberated Thoppigala from the LTTE. There were lots of things happening in the East and the IDPs were returning in quite large numbers. While the people were still in welfare centres, soon after liberating the East, the Government had arranged elections and it was a quite complicated time. But what happened in the East was a success and the people had the chance of rebuilding their lives.

“I will come back...”

Neil Buhne last week bid adieu to Sri Lanka, which he says is a country with amazing beauty. He never dreamt that he would be posted to Sri Lanka as the Head of the UN Mission here, the day he packed his bags in 1984 after a very short stint in Sri Lanka as a junior professional officer of the UNDP.

“I had just started exploring Sri Lanka and found friends here. The next day when I returned from a trip to Adam’s Peak my boss told me that I had been posted to Sudan, where there was a severe famine. I love Sri Lanka and its people. I never thought that I would come back here. I came here for a holiday when my elder son was just 10 months old, in 1995. However, I kept following the issues in Sri Lanka”, he said.

After serving UN missions in Belarus, Pakistan, Bhutan, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, fate brought him back to Sri Lanka in 2007, which was the most crucial era in his life. Being a son of a refugee, whose wealth - the big farm, cattle and horses and a beautiful house - was reduced to zero due to World War II, his heart always had a special sympathy towards the plight of displaced civilians.

Buhne said though he bade goodbye, he always wished to return to Sri Lanka to enjoy its beauty by visiting the country’s natural wonders in an environment free of ‘too many phone calls and e-mails’ . “I will come back soon as a humble tourist to Sri Lanka and spend a great deal of time with people and nature”, he said.

He would continue to deal with Sri Lankan affairs in crisis situations from Geneva.

“We tried as best as we could to support the national effort to get the people out of the vulnerable areas. Unfortunately the recent floods destroyed their lives again. People the world over are affected most by the floods because they tend to live on lower ground as the land is expensive. Their houses are not good. They have nothing to recover. They don’t have much resources and even the community does not have the means to support them. What happened in the East so far is that the most vulnerable people have been affected. That is why it is important now to put all efforts to provide facilities for the people to get back their jobs, clean up houses and wells. The little money they have saved to start their lives have been washed away.

We tried very hard to focus on how we could help people who were caught up in a conflict. Fundamentally they are the victims of that conflict and there is a humanitarian responsibility to help people caught up in a conflict. It goes back to the 1800s when the Geneva Convention, in which the humanitarian principles came in. People in a conflict deserve humanitarian assistance.

Difficult task

It was a difficult task because there was fighting between the two sides. The LTTE, which became more and more desperate had started launching terrorist attacks, killing people in Colombo. They eventually stopped people from leaving their control. It was a terrible situation. It is a fundamental right in a conflict that the people have a right to get assistance if they want to stay and also have a right to move if they want to move. We advocated both, but the LTTE did not allow them to move during that period. At the beginning some may not have wanted to move and some wanted to move, but at the end everybody wanted to move. The UN worked with the Government as much as it could in providing access to people caught in the conflict. We worked in a balanced way. But it became difficult because the Government was concerned that the humanitarian assistance sent for civilians was being misused by the LTTE for military purposes. Everything sent in there was certified by the Commissioner General of Essential Services and other authorities.

We had a difficult situation when the conflict reached the final stages in Kilinochchi as the offices we had there had to close due to two reasons. One was the situation in which it was not safe to operate from there as fighting was getting closer and our staff who worked there was not militarily trained, but a civilian staff, not equipped or trained for such an environment.

The other reason was that the Government also said that the UN should not be there any more because it was not safe. Due to these reasons we had to leave. But, we were very concerned about the people still trapped in there. There were over 300,000, but they continued to get the assistance that they needed because we continued to supply the essential humanitarian assistance. In September 2008 with Government approval, the UN tried to convince the LTTE to meet this responsibility to let people out, but it was not successful.

Then we managed to send food convoys of over 80 trucks to the North with the full agreement and the support of the Government. Unfortunately we could not continue to do that as one of our convoys was trapped there. We continued to try to advocate the national and international humanitarian principles followed in the conduct of a conflict. But, I am not sure that we were completely successful in achieving that. However at the same time we prepared to help people who were coming out of the battlefield. The UN agencies worked well with the relevant authorities including the Government Agent, Vavuniya and the then SF Commander Wanni and now Army Chief Lt.Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya. The Government took immediate action to accommodate them in temporary shelters such as schools and other Government buildings in Vavuniya.

Starting from April, thousands and thousands of people came in and then a massive welfare centre was set up in Menik Farm, Vavuniya to accommodate them. Anywhere in the world such a massive number of people coming out during a short period from a conflict zone is exceptional. They came out traumatised and through this joint partnership with the Government we were able to provide the basic life saving support that they needed.

UN assistance

Fundamentally people’s lives were safe, fundamentally people got things back, fundamentally they had access to health services and education. They were able to return and that is why in 2010 the priority of the UN assistance had shifted in facilitating the returning people. One way is by supporting the mine-clearing operations led by the Government with partnership by other people.

The UNDP is helping in planning, coordination and quality assurance of mine clearance. UNICEF is handling mine risk education among the people who have returned. We facilitate the IMO to transport people and provide initial food, start school and health services and we help restore water and sanitation. The UN is always working in partnership with local government authorities, which did not have the capacity to handle those coming back. Many of the local government authorities had been weak during the battle and they did not have much capacity to start their day-to-day activities.

People came back with nothing. They had to start from zero. As so many people have returned last year it is an accomplishment. As we have highlighted at the launch of the joint plan, since May 2009, there have been many improvements in the country.

The UN would like to focus more on other parts of the country as Sri Lankans have a low income and are vulnerable to problems. We have programs that operate all over the country. But when considering the nature of emergencies we have limited resources, so first we have to focus on life and death issues and later on development.

The first step in a country that comes out of a conflict is rebuilding peace. People who have been affected have to be given assistance and compassion. I hope the UN is successful in helping the Government and Sri Lankans all around the country. People, especially Muslims and Sinhalese who were chased away by the LTTE, should not be forgotten. At the end of the day everyone was affected to a certain extent.

I hope the Joint Action Plan that we put together focuses on two things: strengthening partnerships and the Government needs to take the leadership especially in a post-conflict environment. It is important for the people to feel that the Government is there to serve them because they had been affected and were living under the LTTE control for a long time. They feel that helping them is the Government’s responsibility. But the capacity is important to meet the whole exercise and needs international assistance.

When people see that the UN is involved, they think that standards and quality of services are met.

Equal footing

In the North, everything is destroyed and those who are poor and not poor are now on an equal footing due to the conflict. It is not just physical, but in a situation like this, we could see people dying, children being recruited to fight and that is traumatic.

In addition, it is very important for the people to get the chance to mix with other communities. Some of my Sri Lankan friends told me that before the conflict the Buddhist-oriented Ananda College had lots of Tamil teachers who taught English and they were very good teachers. It is a good sign that people in the South travel to Jaffna and the Jaffna people come to the South. In some schools and villages different communities live together. There was much more integration in the past and one of the saddest things is the level of integration is not as high as it used to be. There is a need to understand each other. This will help keep the country together.

For example, in Canada we have two official languages and all government documents are in English and French. Senior level officials have to speak French and need to pass a test. There are programs for people to learn French. Though people are living in English environments, they send their children to French schools because they have the advantage of learning French. Then they have lots of opportunities within Canada and also around the world.

Sri Lanka also can introduce such programs to have a better understanding among communities. The damage of the conflict is severe and people are now suffering from those effects. The military operations are over and now Sri Lanka needs to overcome the social effects, which still remain, and also economic effects.

What I have seen is that Sri Lankans are amazingly resilient to whatever happened even when the fighting was on. Good exporters and an energetic private sector are strong strings of a country and Sri Lanka is blessed with them.

The humanitarian aspects and economic development are being dealt with and they need to deal more with the social effects. People have seen buses being blown up, those who went to temples were blown up, trains were blown up and in the North their children were recruited to the LTTE and got killed in fighting.

All these were traumatic, but Sri Lankans are resilient. But the important factor is that this quality needs to be recognised.

During my last tenure in Sri Lanka, which was very short, I could not go much in the country, but this time I got the chance of going to every district.

I don't think Sri Lankans are fortunate to go to every district like me. It is a country which is growing so much physically with its rich biodiversity with amazing elephants, forests, bird life and national parks like Minneriya where hundreds of elephants roam.

And then it is the richness of the people. Despite the conflict, Sri Lanka still invests in its people. Everywhere in the country, special attention is paid to education and parents are willing to invest in their children's education. This is very important to make the society strong. The country has a good administrative structure, which many countries lack. Sri Lanka's private sector has some leading international companies. Then, infrastructure facilities, roads, bridges and ports are coming up in a big way. Now Sri Lanka has the chance of putting all those blocks together for a sustainable future for all Sri Lankans.

I think the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) is an important element in confidence building through a national process. The Government tries to draw lessons from what happened and is trying to learn those lessons for reconciliation. The UN position is to encourage reconciliation through a domestic process, but still advocates the LLRC to meet international standards.

I have a very experienced team, which comprises 80 percent Sri Lankans from around the country. One of the rewarding things is we manage to built some degree of trust and have helped the country in a modest way. But Sri Lankans have made a difference and we have acted as cabalists for Sri Lankans to build peace to have a broader, equitable development in the country. I strongly believe that the UN can achieve this."

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