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April 2010 Sri Lanka Report

Date: April 1, 2010

Sri Lanka’s election period finally came to a close with the holding of the Parliamentary elections on the 8th April. The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which is led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, won by a comfortable majority. The UPFA was only six seats short of attaining the two-thirds majority needed to change Sri Lanka’s Constitution. In contrast to the Presidential elections that were held towards the end of January, the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) commented on the low turnout of voters for the Parliamentary elections around the country. According to various reports, the average turnout was 50% nationwide, with figures dropping to as low as 10% in Jaffna.

This election victory has effectively consolidated the Rajapksas as Sri Lanka’s leading family. Later in the month, when the names of ministers and ministries were revealed, it was announced that the President’s three brothers would all occupy high office: Gotabhaya Rajapaksa will stay on as the Secretary of Defence; Basil Rajapaksa is to head the newly-created Economic Development Ministry; and Chamal Rajapaksa (the eldest brother) will be the Speaker of Parliament. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son, Namal, was also elected to Parliament.  

Two days before the elections, Parliament was reconvened for a second time to extend the emergency laws in the country for a further month. On the same day, the 6th of April, one of the Courts Martial against retired General Sarath Fonseka was adjourned for a second time, having already been adjourned on March 16th. The adjournment took place due to an outstanding case lodged with Sri Lanka’s Court of Appeal challenging the legality of the Courts Martial. The second Court Martial was also adjourned until after the opening of Parliament.

The following summarises some of the key activities of NP teams in relation to its current project areas:

Improving the Safety and Security of Local Election Monitors and Vulnerable Communities:

As mentioned above, the 8th of April was the day of Sri Lanka’s Parliamentary elections. With Election Day falling on the 8th of April, staff at NP’s field sites held meetings at the beginning of the month with local civil and governmental authorities in Eastern and Northern regions to fully explain NP’s upcoming role during the elections. Due in part to financial challenges, NP staff provided protective accompaniment to election monitors from just one of its three partner organisations: CMEV (Centre for Monitoring Election Violence).

On the day of the elections in Batticaloa District, NP accompanied five teams of locally-based CMEV election monitors. In Batticaloa town, NP accompanied CMEV monitors to 15 polling stations. Despite one or two irregularities that were reported to CMEV, the day passed off peacefully without major incident.

A few days after the elections, the Batticaloa team was visited by a local human rights defender who had stood as a TNA (Tamil National Alliance) candidate, with allegations about the use of false voting cards during the elections in Vaharai. NP staff explained that it was not NP’s role to file such complaints and referred the man to CMEV and CaFFE (Campaign for Free and Fair Elections), which were the official election monitoring organisations.

In Valaichchenai, too, Election Day remained relatively peaceful while NP staff accompanied CMEV monitors to 18 polling stations. There was one reported incident of intimidation that took place outside one of the polling stations, where several supporters of a political party allegedly harassed voters as they arrived to cast their votes. Police were alerted and, soon after arriving at the scene, the party’s supporters dispersed and left the polling station.

On the day after the elections, NP’s Valaichchenai team met with officers at the local police station to discuss incidents of violence that had occurred in the area in the lead-up to the elections. At the request of the Police, NP agreed to help facilitate channels of communication with local residents so that Police can gain a better understanding of the issues that caused the violence in order to be able to follow-up the cases up in the most sensitive and efficient way.

In Vavuniya, NP staff provided protective accompaniment to three CMEV election monitors during the course of Election Day. The monitors visited a number of sites, including the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps at Manik Farm; precincts located along the border areas, which have a mixture of Muslim, Tamil and Sinhalese populations; and resettled areas. A total of 22 polling stations were visited. The day remained calm and no violent incidents were reported. NP staff continued to monitor the general situation in the days following the election in case of any post-election incidents directed at the election monitors.

A few days later, the Vavuniya team was approached by a local CMEV monitor who had been harassed by members of a political party following his filing of a complaint in relation to an election violation during the Parliamentary elections. NP staff advised the man to report the case directly to the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission (HRC) and, at the monitor’s request, provided protective accompaniment on his visit to the HRC to lodge his complaint.

With the conclusion of both the Presidential election in January and the Parliamentary election in April, this month also heralded the termination of NPSL’s Election Project, which had begun in November 2009. Feedback received from NP’s three election monitoring partner organisations, CMEV, CaFFE and PAFFREL (People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections) as part of NP’s monitoring and evaluation process was positive. All respondents acknowledged the difficulties faced by funding challenges throughout the implementation of the project, which had led to a down-scaling in scope by the time of the April elections but all three recorded their thanks to NP for the support and commitment given them during the previous several months.

Increasing the Safety of Children Affected by Armed Conflict:

April was a relatively quiet month in terms of NP’s Child Protection (CP) work. Following last month’s decision by NPSL’s teams in Batticaloa District to phase-out its CP programmes (see Monthly Programme Report, March 2010), it leaves Vavuniya District as the primary focus for NP’s work with war-affected children. 

NP staff attended a meeting to support the initiative of a local NGO in its attempts to address the protection and welfare needs of children. This initial meeting was conducted as a plenary discussion to explore some of the key issues faced by war-affected children in the North. The aim is to gather national and international NGOs to work in collaboration with Sri Lankan governmental authorities and so increase the capacity of official mechanisms in dealing with the issues identified.

NPSL staff provided protective presence in a village one day after a nine-year-old child was killed during an attempted robbery at her family’s home by four alleged members of a non-state armed group in Vavuniya. The girl’s father was not at home at the time of the attack but her mother, who was present, was also wounded in the attack. With NP’s encouragement and assistance, the family reported the case to Police, who subsequently arrested the alleged perpetrators. NP’s Vavuniya team plans to follow-up this case with regular visits to the family and they will also liaise with the Probation service regarding the possible provision of counselling and psychological support for the victim’s two younger siblings.   

The team also followed–up on the case from last month concerning the Indian mining company that had commandeered a school in a village near Vavuniya. When NP visited the school, they found that the mining company had already vacated some of the classrooms, which were now being used for teaching purposes. NP was told that the company intend to fully evacuate the premises by the end of the month.

Capacity-building for Individuals and Community-based Organisations to Engage in Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping at the Community Level:

During the first half of the month, NP staff spent their time preparing for the first community-led Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping (UCP) training which was held over two days on the 24-25 April. As part of these preparations, NP conducted a session with the four community leaders who had participated in NP’s Training-of-Trainers (ToT) in March, to give them an opportunity to practice some of the sessions they would be leading for fellow community members and to have any questions answered before the actual training began.

The community-led training brought together a total of twenty people from two communities: Thanamunai and Marapalam in the Chenkalady division in Batticaloa District. They included a mixture of Burghers, Hindus, and Tamil-Christians, chosen specifically because of already-existing tensions between these communities in the area. Participants were eager and motivated and shared in their evaluations that they now felt they had a better idea of the protection actors present in their districts and the role they played. At the same time, they expressed a strong desire to have more knowledge about Sri Lankan law, human rights, clarity around personal security and dealing with community conflict. These are ways in which NP can link its Capacity-Building programme to its networks of human rights defenders (HRDs) who, in the future, can go out and provide trainings and information to unarmed civilian peacekeeping (UCP) teams as they begin to develop so that they feel better prepared to take on such a role in their communities.

During the end-of-training role-play, one of the participants who played the role of a member of a Muslim community commented on how doing this made her realise what Muslim communities must have felt during the war, and what they had undergone. She maintained that this experience had given her a new lens with which to view other communities. Overall, the two-day community-led training was a huge success and participants went away looking forward to creating UCP teams in their villages.

Following the training, two ToT participants from the Kithul community were asked to come and meet with the Officer in Charge (OIC) at the local police station; they requested NP to accompany them as they were worried about being able to communicate clearly the UCP training beyond their own experience. Two of NP’s national staff members accompanied the participants and were able to provide translation from Tamil to Sinhala. The meeting with the OIC was very successful. He was very enthusiastic about the UCP training, recognising it as a way to reduce inter-communal tensions and prevent violent outbreaks in the area. He also stressed how important it is to create links between local communities and the Police and acknowledged the challenges he faces in building trust with local populations and knowing what security issues they face. At the end of the meeting, the OIC gave contact information to the UCP participants and explained how they could directly follow-up with the Police authorities if and when security issues arise. 

The community-led training marked the end of the pilot project, which began in November 2009 in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). NPSL is currently looking at options to extend funding for this project in order to complete all of the community-level trainings, oversee the implementation of UCP teams in each village, and introduce the project to other vulnerable areas in Batticaloa District.                     

Improving the Safety and Security of Local Human Rights Defenders (HRDs):

In Batticaloa District, NP staff conducted a one-day field visit to monitor a community of resettled IDPs at the request of three HRDs from a local NGO who are providing counselling support to community members. Around 366 families resettled in the area after the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) recaptured it from the LTTE in September 2007. According to the HRDs, since resettlement, there have been a high number of abductions allegedly carried out by different armed groups and there have also been a handful of murders by persons unknown. Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) has encouraged locals to file complaints pertaining to these cases but the locals themselves reported to NP that they were scared they would compromise their safety if they were to do so. 

In addition to providing protective accompaniment to CMEV election monitors on Election Day, one staff member from NP’s Vavuniya team provided accompaniment to a local HRD who wanted to monitor the general situation in and around polling stations so as to be able to update local NGOs. NP accompanied the HRD to 27 polling stations and the day passed off quietly with no major incidents.

In Vavuniya, NP organised and facilitated a one-day workshop training on UN Special Procedures for thirteen human rights defenders (five of whom were women), from Vavuniya and Mannar Districts. The workshop was arranged following last month’s training for NPSL’s field-based staff in Colombo (see Monthly Programme Report, March 2010). The training was led by the same Colombo-based HRD from the Law and Society Trust (LST), who provided the training in Colombo. Following the training, the HRDs requested that NP facilitate monthly meetings at its office in Vavuniya so that all participants can gather on a regular basis and build a support network as they begin to implement what they had learned. The first such meeting is scheduled to take place on the 22 May. Also, arrangements have been made to hold a similar training in Batticaloa District on the 4th May – again, facilitated by NP and conducted by the Law and Society Trust.

As part of NP’s partnership agreement with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), a member of the Vavuniya team spent four days during the month working at the local HRC office to help document 170 cases of disappearances and abductions that occurred in Vavuniya District during November 2009. In this way, NP helps to support Sri Lankan governmental mechanisms in implementing their human rights and peace-building work.

NP staff attended a forum hosted by the Society for Gender-Based Violence (SGBV), to discuss gender issues affecting women in Vavauniya District. Problems range from a high number of domestic violence cases, especially among the IDPs still living in Manik Farm, to an alarmingly high number of suicides among returnees in the Vanni area. The forum was attended by staff from a cross-section of local and international NGOs. One area of concern acknowledged by all those present is the restrictions on access for NGO staff to the Vanni, resulting in a lack of humanitarian aid reaching the most vulnerable communities.

The Vavuniya team met with one of the HRDs that attended the UN Special Procedures training on the 28th April. He is a Parish Priest who is newly-arrived in a rural area of Vavuniya District. The area suffered a high number of disappearances and killings during the war so, at the Priest’s request, NPSL is offering technical assistance as he begins the task of recording and documenting the cases with a view to following-up with official state mechanisms for further investigation.

On the 27th April, as part of NP’s collaboration with the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), NPSL staff conducted a one-day workshop on filing human rights violations in Sri Lanka, as part of its Human Rights and Human Security Programme for HRDs from the Manthai West division – a newly resettled area - in Vavuniya District. The workshop was held at the Divisional Secretariat’s office hall and it was planned to coincide with the monthly visit by the Human Rights Commission to Mannar District. NP staff provided accompaniment to the HRC’s Investigating Officer from Vavuniya to Mannar.

As part of its role to support local Sri Lankan NGOs to carry out their work, NP staff met with members from the Institute of Human Rights (IHR), who are currently conducting a needs-assessment in Vavuniya District with the aim of providing welfare support and assistance to civilians in IDP centres, rehabilitation centres and resettlement areas. NP Vavuniya staff also provided protective accompaniment to two Colombo-based HRDs who were investigating a couple of cases in the Vavuniya area.

In Colombo, NP staff continued to provide daily protective presence at the Sri Lankan offices of an international organisation, which had begun towards the end of February (see Monthly Programme Report, February 2010). Presence continued only until the day before the Parliamentary elections. Election Day was a national holiday and was followed shortly thereafter by two days of national holidays to celebrate the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year, so all Sri Lankan offices were closed. During this first week of the month, NP carried out a thorough risk assessment in conjunction with the organisation’s staff and also discussed with them the implementation of the standard operating procedures (SOPs) and contingency plans that had been developed at the end of the NP-led security training with the organisation the previous month (see Monthly Programme Report, March 2010). The risk-assessment indicated that the direct risk level facing staff had sufficiently decreased, so daily protective presence was not resumed after the holidays.

As for the Head of the above-mentioned organisation, the overnight accompaniments at his home were scaled-down to nightly visibility visits to his home and surrounding area. Just prior to the elections, he left Sri Lanka for ten days to attend a conference; NPSL provided protective accompaniment to the airport in Colombo before his departure and, upon his return, accompanied him home from the airport. Staff from NP’s HRD Unit carried out a personal risk-assessment with him once he had returned to Sri Lanka; it was decided to stop the daily accompaniments and nightly visibility visits as the threats against him had decreased significantly. NP staff made it clear, however, that they would be ready to respond in case of an emergency request.

Two staff members from NP’s HRD Unit made a field trip to Vavuniya in the North of the country. Primarily, the reason for the visit was to oversee the UN Special Procedures training that was conducted on the 28th April. During the two days that they were in the district, however, the NP staff took the opportunity to meet with a few civil society and governmental actors in order to obtain first-hand information about the security and human rights situation in the area. One of their meetings, with the UN’s OCHA, revealed that following the release of the majority of IDPs from Manik Farm, there were currently around 50-60,000 IDPs still resident in the camps waiting to be released and resettled.

NPSL received a request from staff at a Colombo-based media organisation to examine their security needs and discuss the possibility of NP providing protective presence at their office throughout the night leading up to the Parliamentary elections. Following a security analysis, it was decided that full protective presence was not required; instead, if there were an emergency, NP staff would be on hand to respond immediately. In the event, the media staff were able to carry out their normal work without interference or threats and NP met with them again on them on the morning after Election Day and also carried out a brief monitoring visit to their office the day after that.

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