With Parliamentary elections due to take place in early April, campaigning was the main highlight of the month. Media sources confirmed that this campaign saw the highest number of candidates running for election in Sri Lanka’s history – 34 recognised political parties, 310 independent groups and 7,537 individual candidates altogether. Newly re-elected President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was seeking another resounding endorsement both for himself and his ruling party, the UPFA (United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance) with much speculation surrounding the issue of whether the party would win the two-thirds majority needed for the President to make changes to the Constitution.
Towards the end of the month, campaigning around the country became increasingly intense leading, in some places, to reports of election violence, much of it caused by intra-party disputes where two or more candidates were competing for seats. Furthermore, complaints were made throughout the month to the office of the Elections Commissioner about the high number of candidate ‘cut-outs’ and posters in view around the country, which is in violation of election laws. In a newsletter released by the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), the Executive Director of election-monitoring organisation PaFFREL (People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections) stated that during a one-day survey conducted on March 15, monitors came across cut-outs and banners in 2,600 places.
Alongside the build-up in electioneering, the case against retired General Sarath Fonseka continued. Fonseka remained in custody at Sri Lankan Naval Headquarters in Colombo awaiting Court Martial. Two Charge Sheets containing five charges in total were made against him: engaging in politics while still in uniform and contravention of military procurement procedures. Two Military Tribunals were established – one for each Charge Sheet. The first session of one Tribunal took place on March 16 and the case was adjourned until 6 April, two days before the elections. The second Tribunal, held on 17 March was similarly adjourned when it was decided in the interests of transparency to appoint different judges from the first Tribunal. For his part, General Fonseka filed a petition before the Supreme Court claiming that both his arrest (on 8 February 2010), and the two Courts Martial were illegal. The case continues.
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:
March was an active month for the Election Project as NP staff began preparing to provide protective support to local election monitors for the Parliamentary elections, due to be held on the 8th April. Given the feedback that NP had received from various stakeholders in February that an increase in violence was expected in the run-up to the April elections, NPSL continued to hold similar community-based discussions at its field sites in Batticaloa, Valaichchenai and Vavuniya with community and religious leaders, and representatives from local government departments so as to raise awareness of NP’s role during the election.
Meetings also took place in all NPSL field sites and the capital Colombo with members from NP’s three monitoring organisations PAFFREL (People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections), CMEV (Centre for Monitoring Election Violence), and CaFFE (Campaign for Free and Fair Elections). The concern about violent unrest was echoed by the spokesman for one of the monitoring organisations, who told NP that he expects the Batticaloa District and resettled areas in Vavuniya District to be potential hotspots in the coming election period. In response, NPSL strategized response measures and operating procedures with all three organisations in case of violent outbreaks.
The Coordinator of NP’s Elections Project submitted a final report to the Sri Lankan Election Commissioner, detailing the work NP had carried out during the Presidential elections in January. At the same time, NP informed the Commissioner of the final part of NP’s Election Project and its plans to provide similar support to election monitors on Election Day in April.
Increasing the Safety of Children Affected by Armed Conflict:
In Batticaloa District, both the Batticaloa and Valaichchenai teams held meetings with local vocational training centres (VTCs) to inform them that NP will be phasing-out its Child Protection programmes in the Eastern region of Sri Lanka. This decision was reached after NPSL carried out an extensive needs-assessment in the area, which showed that there has been a marked decrease in protection needs for conflict-affected children in the East since the war ended in May of last year. In their discussions with the VTCs, however, both NP teams made it clear that they will respond to any emergency requests for protection should the need arise.
The needs-assessment highlighted that for many former child-combatants and other conflict-affected children, the main challenge they face as part of their reintegration process is economic. In many cases, there is a lack of employment opportunities for these young people when they return to their home communities. For this reason, NPSL staff are beginning to utilise its established networks in the area to refer former combatants who have returned to their communities and seek livelihood support to UNICEF and its partner organisations that facilitate livelihood-support schemes for former child combatants.
Despite the relative lack of new Child Protection cases in the East, follow-ups continue. During March, the Valaichchenai team carried out follow-ups for four ex-cadres, all of whom have completed their two-year VTC courses. Three have returned home although a lack of jobs in their villages is a cause for concern for their families. However, they are not facing threats to their security. The fourth case, however, concerns a young adult who, after his departure from a VTC, joined a local armed group due to severe intimidation by the group against the boy’s family. NPSL has referred his case to UNICEF in the hope that they can advocate for his release from the group but, as the boy has now turned 18, he is legally an adult and may not be protected by Child Protection provisions, despite the fact that he was originally recruited as a child.
Also in Batticaloa District, the government’s Probation service, which is concerned with children’s welfare, has requested NP to support them with presence as they carry out their Child Rights Awareness programme in remote, rural areas. And UNICEF formally invited NP to join their UNSCR case management scheme. The scheme is concerned with the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1612, pertaining to protecting conflict-affected children including, specifically, protecting children from recruitment as child combatants. This is an endorsement of NP’s protection work in the region as only a few government agencies and non-governmental organisations, such as the NCPA (National Child Protection Authority), HRC, and Save the Children (SCiSL), are invited to attend the meetings.
Regarding NP’s Child Protection work in the North of the country, the Commissioner General for Probation and Child Care has granted approval to NP to operate Child Protection activities in the entire Vavuniya District in collaboration with Child Rights Promoting Officers (CRPOs).
On request from the Government Agent (GA) in Vavuniya, NPSL accompanied 10 ex-cadres to several rehabilitation centres after their release from the Remand Prison. Also, NP staff monitored the security of, and provided protective presence to, Muslim residents from five villages, whose local school had been commandeered by a mining company as its headquarters. Having identified their key protection needs, NP liaised with community leaders in referring them to appropriate government mechanisms to help resolve the issue. Following NP’s intervention in this further example of a UNSCR 1612 violation of children’s rights, the building was handed back to the local education department for educational purposes.
By way of strengthening its relationship with government authorities, NP attended a presentation at the Ministry of Child Development to lend support to the rehabilitation programmes contained within Children Associated with Armed Groups, which is an initiative included in an Action Plan drawn up by the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. The presentation was accepted by the Ministry’s board members and a working group has been formed to determine future collaborative activities, which will be implemented throughout Vavuniya District.
Capacity-building for Individuals and Community-based Organisations to Engage in Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping at the Community Level:
March began with follow-up visits to the community leaders who participated in the Introductory Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping (UCP) training in Chenkalady, Batticaloa District in February. NP staff were very encouraged to learn of several participants who felt sufficiently empowered following the training that, for the first time, they proactively engaged with local government authorities in following-up human rights cases and set about raising awareness of security issues in their community.
Firstly, two female participants requested NP’s accompaniment to go to the local office of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) in Batticaloa to report four cases from their village: the arbitrary arrest and detention of two men, and two cases of disappearance. On instruction from the HRC, the women wrote and submitted a letter about the two men in detention, after which time officials from the Commission went to the prison where the men were being held. The HRC is continuing to advocate on behalf of the men with senior-level government authorities and have reported to the women that they expect them to be released within the next four months.
In the second instance, participants who were eager to put what they had learned from the NP training into practice, put up safety and security signs around their village with messages such as cautioning people not to walk in wooded areas alone at night. Having recently suffered a case of alleged sexual violence by a Sri Lankan Army (SLA) soldier on a young girl in their community, some of the signs carried messages of how such acts are a violation of children’s rights and need to be reported.
And thirdly, two UCP participants were provided with protective accompaniment by NP when they visited the HRC to file a complaint about alleged harassment and threats they and others in their village had been receiving from Sri Lankan Army (SLA) personnel stationed in the area. The HRC confirmed they will follow-up their case by meeting the local Military Commander and pass on their concerns.
NPSL staff, meanwhile, spent much of the month translating the UCP trainers’ manual into Tamil in preparation for the second phase of the UCP programme, the Community Training-of-Trainers (ToT), which was held from March 27th-30th in Valaichchenai. Each community selected two out of the initial four participants from the introductory training to attend the ToT, resulting in a total of ten participants (eight female and two male). These participants exhibited great enthusiasm and energy during the four-day training and engaged fully in mapping-out the next steps of the process; designing potential standard operating procedures (SOPs) and contingency plans; and facilitating sessions as practice for when they train others from their community in UCP.
At the end of the four days, participants shared that this training had been particularly beneficial for them as they were able to learn not only from NPSL but also from the stories and experiences of other participants. They also expressed an intention to form a network to support one another in carrying out this work.
In their written evaluations, all participants shared that they now feel they can effectively in engage in UCP using the skills and knowledge they have gained through the training, and they all feel confident to speak and meet with others in their communities, including members from other ethnic groups or backgrounds if and when conflict arises. Furthermore, all ten participants are ready and willing to create UCP teams in their communities and are looking for NPSL support as they begin doing training and develop their skills in advocacy.
In April, NPSL will complete the pilot project by implementing the first community-level training, which will bring together members from two communities who will receive the introductory UCP training from individuals who participated in the ToT. NPSL will provide coaching and resource support to ensure that facilitators and participants are able to fully engage and develop a strong foundation for implementing UCP in their communities.
Improving the Safety and Security of Local Human Rights Defenders (HRDs):
The NP team in Batticaloa provided protective accompaniment for a civilian who has been receiving threats from an armed group since November 2009. He went to the office of Child Rights Promoting Officers (CRPO) to seek help in securing safe relocation for himself and his family. Advised by the CRPO Commissioner that they could offer assistance only to his wife and child, NP staff helped the man to prepare a contingency plan to safeguard his own safety. The team also held contingency planning meetings with two human rights defenders (HRDs), one of whom is standing as a candidate in the upcoming Parliamentary elections.
Beyond its direct protection work, the Batticaloa team facilitated a meeting in conjunction with the local branch of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) to bring together HRDs from several local NGOs and recently returned internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the northern Vanni area. Commonly-identified issues of concern raised at the meeting included arbitrary arrests, discrimination from some local government authorities and cases of sexual abuse. Those present informed NP that they are interested in forming committees to engage directly with local civil and security authorities so as to be able to tackle these issues together.
Also with a focus on IDPs in the area, NPSL staff attended an inter-organisational meeting called by the Government Agent (GA) in Batticaloa to discuss both the livelihood needs of Vanni returnees and local IDPs and how best to address them. Statistics presented at the meeting claimed that out of approximately 2,000 returned families, only 357 have so far received livelihood support. This meeting was especially helpful for NP as staff will be able to refer people seeking livelihood support to the appropriate authority or agency.
As part of NP’s efforts to engage Sri Lankan armed forces in human rights discourse, the Batticaloa team met with the local Sri Lankan Army (SLA) Commander to discuss logistics for a proposed one-day human rights awareness training for thirty men under his command.
In Valaichchenai, NPSL accompanied an HRD to the Police where he filed a complaint about threats he had received. NP staff then assisted him to conduct a risk analysis of his situation and prepare a contingency plan to try to ensure his continued safety. As part of his contingency plan, the man travelled to Colombo to meet with Colombo-based HRDs as well as NGOs, representatives from the European Union (EU) Mission and diplomatic staff.
NP acted as a link in establishing security networks for local HRDs in Batticaloa District when, at the request of the EU Mission in Colombo, NP staff in Valaichchenai put the EU in touch with the HRDs. Following this initiative, the EU extended invitations to all NP-supported HRDs in Valaichchenai to meet with them in Colombo.
Local peacebuilding and security networks were also strengthened when the Valaichchenai team organised and facilitated two meetings that brought together local religious leaders from Hindu, Christian and Muslim faiths and representatives from local trade unions from the Tamil and Muslim communities. The participants used the meetings to analyse the current security situation in their region, discuss ways in which to prevent election-related conflict in the area, and strengthen their network as a means to prevent potential inter-communal conflict in the future.
In Mannar, NPSL’s Vavuniya team organised and facilitated a one-day training workshop on human rights at the office of partner organisation Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA). The workshop was attended by eighteen participants from different sectors and organisations within the district. The training is in collaboration with CHA as part of NP’s Human Rights and Human Security initiative.
In Colombo, staff from NPSL’s Human Rights Defenders Unit (HRDU) continued to provide daily protective presence at the Sri Lankan branch of an international organisation working on issues such as human rights, corruption and freedom of expression so as to ensure that staff were able to continue their work in a safe environment. Daily presence had begun towards the end of February and, based on several assessments carried out throughout March it continued every day for the whole month. In addition, daily protective accompaniment was provided for the head of the organisation throughout March along with overnight protective presence at his house for a couple of weeks following an increase in the threat level against him.
In order to build the capacity of the organisation’s staff members to be able to address their own security risks, members from NP’s HRD Unit collaborated with them in carrying out a security assessment of their work premises and conducted a one-day security training for all staff members. The training covered such topics as risk assessment and mitigation, threat identification and reduction, contingency planning and developing individual security plans. Feedback from the organisation’s staff was positive: they confirmed that they felt more empowered to deal with the potential risks they face. Following the training, the organisation’s Security Coordinators requested NP’s expertise in drawing up standard operating procedures (SOPs) and contingency plans for members of staff.
In addition to this case, NPSL staff provided two accompaniments to the wife of a journalist who has been missing for more than two months as she pursues in her ongoing quest for information. One accompaniment took place when she visited the US Embassy and the other when she attended an enquiry into her husband’s case at the Human Rights Commission (HRC). No information on her husband’s whereabouts was presented.
Upon a request from the European Union (EU) Mission, NPSL helped facilitate a forum that gathered together HRDs from Colombo as well as the North and East of the country to allow them to give feedback to the EU delegation, diplomats and United Nations (UN) representatives concerning the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences Plus (GSP+) (see first section of NPSL’s February 2010 Programme Report).
Within NPSL, the HRD Unit organised a one-day training for all NP’s HRD staff from its four field offices around the country. The training, which looked at the reporting of human rights violations according to UN Special Procedures, was led by a Colombo-based HRD who works with the Law and Society Trust (LST). NP is not a reporting organisation and will not be utilising these procedures directly but the aim is that with the requisite knowledge, NP staff based in more remote areas of the country can help build the capacity of local HRDs to do so.
With NPSL staff members from the North and East in Colombo, the HRD unit took the opportunity to organise and facilitate a meeting with representatives from the diplomatic corps, the UN and local NGOs to share information regarding the security and human rights situation in the respective regions.