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An Independent Situationer and Roadmap for Dignified Resettlement, Reconcilliation in Sri Lanka

13 June 2010

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[A daylong People’s Convention on IDPs, Detainees and War Crimes in Sri Lanka was held in New Delhi on June 7, 2010 just before Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse’s visit to India beginning June 8. It was jointly organised by several organisations and institutions. The Convention adopted a Statement on the Sri Lankan Situation (alongwith a Roadmap for Dignified Resettlement, Reconcilliation and Durable Political Solution in Sri Lanka that was incorporated as an annexure to the Statement).]

Statement on the Sri Lankan Situation

In view of the serious situation prevailing in Sri Lanka, we call upon the civil society organisations in India and South Asia to urge the Government of Sri Lanka to immediately stop all human rights abuses in the island and to take concrete steps for a just solution to the longest ongoing ethnic problem.

Since the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse is visiting New Delhi on June 8, 2010, as concerned citizens from across South Asia, it is imperative that we place this visit within a context. It is a little more than a year since the ‘war’ was declared to be officially over by the Rajapakse Government. The reality of Sri Lanka today is multi-faceted. The following are some of its most worrying features:

1. There have been an unaccounted number of deaths of civilians in the last phase of the war, beginning in 2006, due to aerial bombing and artillery attacks. Estimates range from 7700 to 22,000, and this is without counting those who died due to deprivation of food and nourishment, lack of basic amenities leading to disease and adverse weather conditions.

2. Vanni, parts of the East and the Jaffna peninsula have suffered massive war damage and are now in dire need of a well-planned, well-implemented “recovery programme” that should include new infrastructure and the re-establishment of basic services.

3. Over 300,000 people have been displaced, of whom around 63,000 are still in restricted camps, controlled by the military.

4. As of January 15, 2010 there were over 10,833 surrendered persons and detainees in 14 special camps. Out of these 1878 were girls. But these numbers are only from those camps that are known. There are some ‘reformation centres’ which are known to only some officials. The fate of these detainees is most deplorable. The ICRC, which was supposed to ensure the transparent screening of these detainees, was told to stop this work.

5. Displaced people in thousands have been sent back to the war devastated areas that lack basic amenities or any means for them to reconstruct their lives such as markets or small business opportunities or any means to pursue cultivation or any other trade.

6. The whole country continues to face the heavy-handed presence of the military, which has been granted police powers. The draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) continues to be in force along with emergency regulations. All of this provides unhindered powers to the security forces which in turn are used to intimidate and harm citizens. Needless to mention, there remains a continued heavy presence of the military in the North and East, in schools among other places.

7. Parts of the country such as Vanni, the East and Jaffna are still entirely under the control of the security forces with various civil positions in government still being held by military personnel.

8. Paramilitary groups continue to operate in collaboration with the military, especially in the Jaffna peninsula, the East and in some IDP camps.

9. Lack of a system for family members to be able to even find out if they have lost near and dear ones.

10. Often unidentified and a disputed number of youth, who could number from 9400 to 14,000, continue to be kept under detention for suspected LTTE activities. Their personal details are kept under wraps making it impossible to verify the accusation and provide them any legal assistance.

11. Complete curbing of the freedom of press by restricting the mobility of journalists in camps and war affected areas and a constant concern of threat to journalists given the past history which has led to, among other things, self-censorship.

Role of India

There is no dearth of evidence to tell us that India and China were both involved in making available weapons and surveillance mechanisms to the Sri Lankan Government. This association is not new. In the so-called post-war scenario, the Indian Government, among others, is involved in a range of development projects in Sri Lanka, including in the war-torn areas that go against the interests of the people of Sri Lanka, especially those in the North and East. A range of business deals have been made between India and Sri Lanka, from setting up oil plants in so-called “Special Economic Zones” (SEZs) to building highways and flyovers. India, as it did during the ‘official war’, is not asking the Sri Lankan Government for the maintenance of the most basic human rights standards while providing assistance on a large scale. Minimum standards of ensuring equity and justice are not being observed, such as demanding that development projects not add to the problem of internal displacement, that resettlement be completed before alternate land uses are contemplated in full consultation with those who stand to be affected.. We believe that the “market” cannot be the sole determinant of economic relations between the two countries, as long as Sri Lanka fails to provide conditions of equity and justice for all its people, including though not exclusively limited to, its ethnic minorities.

During the war and after, India has proactively provided complete impunity to the Sri Lankan Government by never speaking openly against human rights violations and on occasion even actively supporting them, as in the United Nations and other multilateral forums. While the benchmarks established by the Indian Government in human rights standards maybe far from adequate, it does have the responsibility and influence in the South Asian region to impress upon other nations the need to uphold some basic values of democracy and rights. India failed to perform this role yet again in the recently concluded SAARC Conference of Heads of State and Government in Thimpu. It was only the Maldivian President who at this Summit stressed the need for a regional human rights mechanism for South Asia.

Primary Issues

1. Demand that the Indian Government cease to provide all support to the Sri Lankan Government, financial and diplomatic, unless the above issues are substantively addressed and a process is initiated to maintain a standard of democracy, freedom and rights in Sri Lanka.

2. A holistic, pragmatic “recovery programme” for the war-devastated regions of the country, which would be discussed and approved in parliament and would be provided with a credible level of with a budgetary support, equal to the magnitude of the task. This programme should be monitored by allocation, have a parliamentary select committee, and be implemented through provincial council administrations in the North-East, that would address all issues of

(i) the affected people in the North, in the Vanni and the East, including widows, orphaned children and ex- combatants, in resettling them in their own villages or in places of their choice,

(ii) Southern war victims in border villages,

(iii) disabled soldiers, the war widows and the parents/dependents of those missing in action.

3. Demilitarising of the whole society within a stipulated, short time frame that would immediately dis-band all para military groups and establish law and order in the whole society;

4. Re constituting of the most recently appointed (May 17) Presidential Commission on “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation” as a South Asian Commission on Reconciliation and Reparation in Sri Lanka, with a mandate discussed and approved in Sri Lankan Parliament.

5. Campaigning to implement the Maldivian President’s proposal of establishing a regional human rights mechanism for South Asia as an independent commission with judicial provisions and a mandate covering all SAARC countries, to be ratified by a special SAARC session.

6. Pressurise the Sri Lankan Government to put in place the 17th Amendment and also a political solution in line with the demands of various communities in Sri Lanka.

7. Demand a transparent and speedy screening of detainees. Even one year after the war, many thousands of young men and women are detained separately from the IDP camps as suspected rebels. It is reported that many of them are shifted to southern Sri Lanka where they have no access to any one and do not know the language. This would deny the family members the opportunity to meet them as they were doing while they were in the detention centres in the north. Among these many are child soldiers and some are pregnant or lactating women. The basic rights of the detainees, and the special needs of the women, must be taken care of. The GoSL should identify a humanitarian agency and give the task to oversee the screening, reformation and reunion with their family.

8. Ensure that affected populations have unhindered freedom of movement within the country. The movement of the people of north to any other part of the country is heavily restricted due to heavy militarisation. The freedom to move is important if these people who have lost all in the war are to attempt to reconstruct in terms of livelihood, education, health care, social obligations and so on.

9. Humanitarian agencies need to have the freedom to move around and work in the country as per needs. The living condition of the returnees, IDPs and detainees is appalling. Citing security concerns, the GoSL is still not allowing aid agencies to visit or work in the returnee area. The Presidential Task Force (PTF) instead of enabling the humanitarian agencies to assist the people is becoming a stumbling block.

10. Setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Committee is becoming a clear need. Over the last three decades, especially in the last phase of the war, both the government and the LTTE were engaged in the violation of the rights of the civilians. Hence, it is demanded that the Sri Lankan Government with the active participation of civil society and in collaboration with the United Nations, constitute an independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission which would go into the excesses committed both by the Government and the LTTE. The commission should be tasked with completing its inquiries and recommendations within a specified period of time and should ensure accountability for any crime.

11. A durable long term political solution needs to be worked upon by the Sri Lankan Government. It should take steps to normalise life in war-affected areas and address the longstanding and legitimate grievances of Tamil and Muslim ethnic groups. This would include re-establishing the primacy of the civilian administration over the military in the North, reducing high security zones, establishing a meaningful process of consultation with Tamil and Muslim leaders on development plans for the north and east, enforcing the language equality provisions of the constitution and maximising the devolution of powers already granted to provincial councils under the thirteenth amendment. Along with these, it should work towards a lasting political solution for all the communities of the island.

As concerned citizens from across South Asia it is significant that we condemn the Sri Lankan and Indian governments whose various policies and diplomatic choices go against the interests of the people of Sri Lanka, especially those directly affected by the war.

Annexure

A Roadmap for Dignified Resettlement, Reconciliation and Durable Political Solution in Sri Lanka

***An Appeal to the Government of India for Advocacy with the President of Sri Lanka on his Visit

The long and bitter civil war is over in Sri Lanka, but discrimination and subjugation of the Tamil and Muslim ethnic communities go on unabated. Over 30 years of armed conflict between the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has led to the multiple displacements of thousands of civilians, besides deaths, injuries, disability, destruction and loss of livelihood.

In July 2007, GoSL launched a series of military operations to regain territory held by the LTTE in the Northern Province. The intensification of hostilities since September 2008, especially in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts, led to an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, displacing thousands of civilians in Northern Sri Lanka. On May 19, 2009, the GoSL declared that the war with LTTE is over.

While the war might have been over for the GoSL, but for the affected people, their suffering, subjugation and uncertain future has become much more real now. By May 2009, over 278,090 were displaced and dumped in 20 camps. The government called them welfare centres while the humanitarian agencies called them ‘open prisons’. The majority of IDPs have had to relocate themselves numerous times to flee the fighting and have spent more than a year without sufficient food, shelter or medical care. It was reported that over 29,035 people were released from the camps into host families and elders’ homes as of December 2009. About 1984 were in hospitals and special care centres. A conservative estimate of the dead in the last phase of the war is 20,000. But some would put it at 70,000 though the GoSL maintains that it is only 1200. Even if it is 1200 it is a crime against humanity.

As on April 29, 2009, over 214,227 people have been released and returned to Vavuniya, Mannar, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Ampara, Polonnaruwa and Kandy. But more than 76,568 IDPs are staying in the camps. Some of the reasons as summed up by various agents are as follows: due to lack of shelter, provisions, livelihood and infrastructure many IDPs have not opted for return to their place of origin or choice; due to the fear that if they return home, the fate of their children who are detained as former rebels would not be known to them.

As on January 15, 2010 there were over 10,833 surrendees and detainees in 14 special camps. Out of these 1878 were girls. But these numbers are only from those camps that are known. There are some ‘reformation centres’ which are known to only some officials. The fate of these detainees is most deplorable. The ICRC, which was supposed to ensure the transparent screening of these detainees, was told to stop this work. It is also reported that around 9400 were taken as prisoners out of which nearly 1400 are handicapped. There are no reports about the future of these prisoners and who would try them and how they would be tried.

Though the government has promised to resettle the IDPs, in many cases they were taken by the Army and simply left to their fate in their places. Though from May to December 2009, the GoSL kept on arguing that the delay in sending back the people was because of lack of infrastructure, when people actually returned in December there was nothing in their old towns except signs of devastation. Many of their houses had been razed to the ground, especially in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. To add insult to injury, the GoSL seems to have been busy with constructing Army and police check points and camps than building roads, cleaning wells, reconstructing hospitals, schools, markets etc. With no shelter and other basic amenities, the people are left to fend for themselves. What is further disturbing is that the humanitarian aid agencies are not permitted to assist the people in their efforts to restart their lives.

We are aware that the Government of India (GoI) is serious about early, speedy and dignified resettlement of the IDPs and has been insisting upon this with the GoSL in this regard. In this context, we, representatives of the civil society in India, request the GoI to use its goodwill and good offices to press the GoSL to ensure its war-affected citizens’ basic human rights, emergency health and medical care, dignified resettlement, reconciliation and durable political solution. In the interest of human rights, good governance and broader regional human security, we hereby request the Government of India to encourage the Government of Sri Lanka to implement a “Dignified Resettlement, Reconciliation and Durable Political Solution in Sri Lanka”.

This roadmap broadly covers issues of rights, dignity, human security, resettlement, governance, reconciliation and durable political solution. We demand that the GoSL discuss this roadmap in the Parliament to ensure transparency and accountability. It is recommended that its implementation, including financial allocation, management and monitoring and evaluation, be done transparently. We demand that the GoSL seeks the support of the UN agencies, ICRC and international humanitarian agencies to support the implementation of this roadmap. This roadmap has to be implemented by agencies that are sensitive to the issues of the war affected people and experienced in humanitarian relief and development work, obviously not the armed forces. Besides, there should be a committee of eminent persons from South Asia to monitor and assess the progress of the implementation of the objectives. A similar proposal has already come from the Secretary of United Nations.

As members of civil society and civil rights groups, we are willing to work with the GoI in this process. Some of the salient features of the suggested roadmap could be:

***I. Resettlement, Relief and Rehabilitation

1. Dignified Resettlement: It is fundamental that the government respects the right of the IDPs, both Tamils and Muslims, for dignified return to their place of origin or place of choice and be resettled with adequate support. This is imperative to avoid more suffering of the people who were subjected to discrimination due to ethnic reasons and suffering due to war. Irrespective of the war being over a year ago, there has not been substantial work done to rehabilitate the IDPs and the returnees. There are many who have been subjected to multiple displacement during the last 30 years. The GoSL should make public a plan for return and resettlement of IDPs and returnees at the earliest and make this plan operational in collaboration with humanitarian aid agencies.

2. Right to minimum standard of relief: The living conditions of the returnees, the IDPs, those in detention centres, the amputees and wounded are deplorable. In the same way the orphans and widows are also subjected to untold misery. There are also people who were subjected to psychological torture and need special care. Till the time these people are able to restart their livelihood and rebuild their lives, it is the responsibility of the GoSL to provide them relief. The GoSL and the humanitarian agencies should follow the Sphere Standards for food, nutrition, water, clothing, sanitation, medicine and other basic needs, including temporary shelters to all the affected people. This is all the more crucial before and during the monsoon season which usually is very heavy in the northern Sri Lanka.

3. Health care, food security, shelter, psychosocial care and the care of the disabled, amputees etc: The war affected people have survived protracted conflict and war, and its aftermath including impoverishment, and immense pain and agony. Most of the survivors did not have the opportunity to mourn for the dead. Many are injured or disabled. Hence, it is important to put in place an emergency health care system with well-trained, committed personnel to take care of all aspects their physical, mental and psychosocial health. If this is not done at the earliest, the wounds would remain unhealed and greater crisis may follow.

4. Livelihood options: It is a welcome sign that the restrictions imposed on the people in terms of livelihood are lifted in some places. This has enabled people to restart their economic activities or search for new options. But this is not the case everywhere. The Agricultural and Fisheries Department did a survey about the possibilities of restarting some of these. But no serious outcome is seen. It is also reported that the shops and food joints are run by the armed forces in the resettled areas. This should be done away with and people should be enabled to carry out their economic activities. The GoSL should initiate livelihood options for the war affected population in general and those with various disabilities, special programmes for livelihood.

***II. Civil and Human Rights

1. Transparent and Speedy Screening of Detaines: Even one year after the war, many thousands of young men and women are detained separately from the IDP camps as suspected rebels. Right from the day the war was over, humanitarian agencies have been demanding for transparent and speedy screening of these people. It is reported that many of them are shifted to southern Sri Lanka where they have no access to anyone and the language is totally different. This would deny the parents the opportunity to meet them as they were doing while they were in the detention centres in the north. Among these many are child soldiers and some are pregnant or lactating women. The basic rights of the detainees, and the special needs of the women, must be taken care of. The GoSL should allow access to International Committee of the Red Cross and legal representation according to international norms.

2. Ensure the Free Movement of the Affected Population: Due to heavy militarisation, the movement of the people of the north is restricted totally. Since the people have lost everything in the war, it is important that they have the freedom to move about freely to ensure their livelihood, education, health care, social obligations etc. This has to be done at the earliest so as to ensure a decent and dignified life of the people.

3. Free Movement of Humanitarian Agencies: The living condition of the returnees, IDPs and detainees is appalling. Still under the pretext of security concerns, the GoSL is not allowing the aid agencies to visit or work in the returnee area. The Presidential Task Force (PTF), instead of enabling the humanitarian agencies to assist the people, is becoming a stumbling block. The international community, the UN agencies, the global civil rights activists should get immediate access to returnee areas and detention centres.

4. Free Access to Media: The media has been barred from the conflict zones and IDP camps, resettlement areas except for selective, conducted tours. So the world does not know the plight of the war-affected people. Detention centres are totally barred from the visits of the media. Lasantha Wickrematunge of the Sunday Leader wrote before being killed that “in the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed.” In the interest of human rights protection, given free access to resettlement areas, camps, hospitals, detention centres and other places where the war-affected people live – right now.

5. Land and Personal Documentation: Land and documentation remain major issues in areas of return and is likely to become a major source of disputes at the community level. Albeit most of the returnees seem to have returned to their land, the possession of proper titles, particularly land deeds, is a challenge, including as a result of loss or destruction of documentation. Personal documentation is another critical gap, due to non-possession or to the widespread destruction of documents amongst the returning population. Whereas local authorities are aware of the gaps and are ready to invest efforts (for example, collection of applications, liaison with the district registrars) they will need to be supported with logistical and technical means to reach the communities (for example, mobile legal/documentation clinics). The GoSL seems to be busy in unearthing the documents and arms of the rebels that it does not invest in this dire need of the people.

6. Sri Lankan Refugees Returning From India: So far in 2010, over 800 persons have returned from India and been assisted with their reintegration through the provision of non-food items. Among these returnees were over 500 individuals whose return was facilitated by the UNHCR. Many more returns are foreseen later in the year. But the GoSL has not announced any plan for the resettlement and rehabilitation of these people. It is demanded that the GoSL make public a package for those refugees who return from India.

***III. Damage Control

1. Human Audit, Damage Assessment and Compensation: The war in Sri Lanka has caused great damage to all aspects of life – physical, material, religious, social and mental dimensions. But there is no assessment of the number of deaths, injuries or damages and losses so far. It is necessary for compensatory action on different fronts, including for land and buildings and farms taken over or damaged by the government or its armed forces. Hence, it is demanded that the GoSL should undertake a human audit covering the dead, the wounded, the amputated and the disappeared as well as assess the damage—material, resources, documents—so as to present a true picture of the losses. It should lead to a process to provide just compensation for the losses.

2. Speedy Demining: As of July 31, 2009, a total of 490 square kilometres had been cleared of mines and released. All demining organisations were working in the north to facilitate the government’s plan to resettle the majority of IDPs by the end of 2009. But this is not completed. It is also reported that the GoSL has not done much in this line. There is an urgent need to conduct comprehensive assessments to identify freshly contaminated areas in the north, especially in the districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaittivu where areas had not been released for demining or surveys up to July 2009. It is time that the GoSL seriously undertakes demining task with other agencies and ensures the resettlement of the people.

3. Damage Control: Most of the war affected people are suffering due to fear, suspicion and betrayal. In a situation which is extremely depressing and devastating, fear is normal. But due to the extensively destructive nature of the conflict and war, suspicion and betrayal also have become common among the people. The Sri Lankan Army, using this opportunity, turns some people as informers. Some of these people, due to pressure or benefit, betray the people who like them have suffered due to the war. The GoSL is called upon to direct its Army not to engage in this dehumanising act but work with the local administration for gathering information.

***IV. Governance

1. Right to Governance by Civil Administration: The entire northeast of Sri Lanka has been brought under military rule. While the security concerns can be understood, total militaraisation of an entire area that is of an ethnic community creates a sense of fear, suspicion and mental agony. The prompt re-establishment of fully functioning civilian institutions in returnee areas able to offer essential protection-related services remains critical. The GOSL should immediately come out with total demilitarisation of the northeast and hand over the governance to the civil administration. If this is not done, there is going to be scope for crisis and conflict.

2. Demilitarisation of North-East: It is reported that the police and the Army checkposts and centres have sprung up in different parts of the North-East. This has reduced the mobility of the citizens who are trying to rebuild their lives after a devastating war. In some places, Buddhist Viharas are also constructed. This would once again lead to discrimination and subjugation, resulting in crisis and conflict. The GoSL should, as a matter of urgency, stop militarisation of the northeast and ensure that the governance of the area is undertaken by the local administration. This would ensure normalcy in the area.

3. Transparent and Accountable Spending of Aid: Many countries, international financial organisations and donor agencies have given or are in the process of giving huge amount of money in the name of developing the northeastern region of Sri Lanka. For example, the Indian Government has given over 5000 million rupees as humanitarian assistance. The USA has given more than 19 million USD. Many more countries and humanitarian agencies have given money to the GoSL. It is demanded that all funds and assistance be channelled to a single relief, rehabilitation and resettlement programme that is monitored by a competent International Agency of eminent persons.

4. Respect the Demographic and Cultural Patterns: There are concerns that the ‘development’ as it is going on after the war in the northeast Sri Lanka would change the demographic patterns with the minorities losing their space to Sinhala immigrants. On the other hand, the detainees are being brought to Sinhala areas. This would deny them access to communication and movement. The GoSL should desist from this plan and continue to maintain the ethnic, cultural and demographic composition that existed before the war.

5. Ensure Rule of Law: The Sri Lankan Government should take meaningful steps to re-establish the rule of law for all Sri Lankans. Particular measures would include ending emergency rule and abolishing the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979, establishing the Constitutional Council and independent commissions (especially for police and human rights), ensuring the independence of the Election Commission, depoliticising the judiciary, ending the routine practice of police torture and prosecuting members of the security forces and paramilitaries against whom there is credible evidence of human rights violations.

***V. Durable Political Solution

1. Truth and Reconciliation Committee: It is becoming clear that both the GoSL and LTTE committed war crimes. Over the last three decades, especially in the last phase of the war, both the government and LTTE were engaged in the violation of the rights of the civilians. Hence, it is demanded that in collaboration with the United Nations constitute an independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission which would go into the excesses committed both by the government and the LTTE within a specified period of time and ensure accountability for any crime.

2. Durable Political Solution: The Sri Lankan Government should take steps to normalise life in the war-affected areas and address the longstanding and legitimate grievances of Tamil and Muslim ethnic groups. This would include re-establishing the primacy of the civilian administration over the military in the north, reducing high security zones, establishing a meaningful process of consultation with Tamil and Muslim leaders on development plans for the north and east, enforcing the language equality provisions of the Constitution and maximising the devolution of powers already granted to provincial councils under the Thirteenth Amendment. Along with these, work towards a lasting political solution for all the communities of the island.

This roadmap gives only a glimpse of the urgent and important tasks to be undertaken by the GoSL. There are many other issues that need to be addressed by the GoSL. This roadmap is to set the process moving so as to work on the other issues in course of time.

Finally, there is a sense among some that the war is over and things are okay in Sri Lanka. Some are of the view that since the war is over and normalcy is returning to Sri Lanka the Sri Lankan refugees in India will soon return back to Sri Lanka. Both these assumptions are not based on reality. Those who visited Sri Lanka or have been following what has been unfolding there after the war are well aware of the continued discrimination, violation of the rights of the Tamil and Muslim ethnic communities, denial of fundamental freedom and rights, uncertain future etc. As has been repeatedly argued in the past, what happened in the name of the war on terror is nothing but war crimes and crime against humanity. It is this ‘success’ on the war on terror which is the underlying factor in the full fledged war in central India, where the tribals are being victimised in the name of counter insurgency on the Maoists. Hence, it is not just the issue of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka but it is the question of human rights of all in South Asia. Hence, the civil society of India along with the civil society of South Asia calls for transparent and accountable implementation of the roadmap for the reconstruction of Sri Lanka.