Following January’s Presidential election, in which incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa won a second term, his main political rival – retired General Sarath Fonseka – was arrested on the 8th February. By the end of the month, formal charges had yet to be brought although, at the time of his arrest, the government issued statements claiming charges would include conspiracy to overthrow the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL). The former General who since his arrest has been held at Sri Lankan Navy headquarters in Colombo, is due to be charged under the Military Act and, as such, will stand trial before a Military Tribunal. News of Fonseka’s arrest was greeted by a number of protests in Colombo, organised by various groups which included opposition party members, lawyers’ and women’s organisations.
The European Union (EU) announced that its member states had decided to suspend its Generalised System of Preferences Plus (GSP+) to Sri Lanka, due to concerns about the country’s human rights record. The suspension is not due to come into force until July 2010, giving the Sri Lankan government time to take steps to have the decision reversed.
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:
Having provided protective accompaniment for election monitors from NP’s three partner organisations: PAFFREL (People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections), CMEV (Centre for Monitoring Election Violence), and CaFFE (Campaign for Free and Fair Elections) in Batticaloa, Vavuniya and Jaffna districts during the January 26th elections, NPSL‘s regional staff and four International Protection Monitors (IPOs) spent the first half of February carrying out extensive meetings with local civil society actors to get their views both about the conduct of the Presidential elections and their expectations for the upcoming Parliamentary elections on the 8th April.
At these meetings, NP met with a variety of local community and religious leaders, Human Rights Defenders (HRDs), Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), local government leaders and officials from several political parties. There were mixed reactions as to whether the Presidential elections had been free and fair. However, the vast majority of people consulted agreed that competition will be keen leading up to the Parliamentary elections in April, leading to a possible rise in violent clashes between rival groups allied to different political parties.
In Vavuniya, CMEV reported to NP that one of their monitors had been arrested after the elections and had been detained in police custody for four days. According to the Police, he had been arrested for entering the IDP camps at Menik farm. He was released when the Commissioner of Elections intervened and clarified to the authorities that, as an election monitor, he had the right to visit the camps. NP staff visited him following his release and reassured both him and the local community that they would follow-up with return visits in order to monitor the situation.
In Vavuniya, NP received reports that most of the women in the area did not cast their votes because they did not understand the voting system.
At its Colombo headquarters, too, NPSL held several meetings with representatives from PAFFREL, CMEV, and CaFFE in order to conduct a thorough debrief about the work carried out during the Presidential elections and discuss possible further collaboration for the upcoming April elections. The feedback received from the partner organisations was positive and they were all keen that the working relationship with NP should continue. However, there was consensus among the three partners that the form of that future partnership should change, based upon the outcomes and results from the previous month’s work. By the end of February, discussions were still being held to determine NP’s role during the April elections.
Increasing the Safety of Children Affected by Armed Conflict:
In the Eastern region of the country, both NP teams in Batticaloa and Valaichchenai carried out a number of follow-ups with reintegrated families and vocational training centres (VTCs) in order to assess the current situation for those former child combatants who are preparing to return to their families and communities, and to determine ways in which NP can help to support their reintegration. NP staff held discussions at several VTCs to introduce NP’s Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping (UCP) training course (see Capacity-building section below), to which there was general agreement that such a course would indeed help to address personal security needs. Further discussions will take place, however, in order to face what is arguably a bigger challenge for these young people: the lack of economic and employment opportunities in their home communities, many of which are in fairly remote, rural locations.
In Valaichchenai, the NP team supported an officer from the Probation child welfare service, who was investigating a high-profile sexual abuse case. NP provided international presence and monitoring on two occasions: firstly, when the officer made an initial visit to the alleged victim’s community; and secondly, at a case conference that Probation attended in Batticaloa, which also included representatives from UNICEF, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Judicial Medical Officers (JMO), and the District Child Protection Unit (DCPU). Two days after this conference, NP provided accompaniment to the Probation officer, the alleged victim and her family when they attended a closed session at the Magistrate’s Court in Batticaloa, for the purpose of trying to identify the alleged attackers.
NP’s efforts to encourage child protection organisations to carry out awareness-raising programmes continued this month. The Valaichchenai team met with Probation to discuss the need for programmes among isolated communities – areas that are particularly vulnerable to cases of sexual violence - and what supports NP could provide. Along the same lines, UNICEF requested NP’s presence at their sponsored child rights awareness programme, which was held in the same village where the alleged sexual assault (referenced above) had taken place. Those attending the event, besides UNICEF and NP, included local Child Rights Promoting Officers (CRPO), and representatives from Sarvodaya, Valaichchenai Police, local government officials and community members. Building bridges, facilitating coordination and collaboration, and supporting relationships among all the stakeholders have been important elements of NP’s long-term child protection efforts in the District.
Capacity-building for Individuals and Community-based Organisations to Engage in Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping at the Community Level:
“You have taught us very clearly to work with confidence”
(Participant from NP’s two-day Introductory UCP Training)
February proved to be a very busy and exciting month for the Capacity-Building Programme team as they carried out the first introductory training in Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping (UCP) for community leaders in the Batticaloa district. The two-day training was held on the 13th and 14th February at the Divisional Secretariat Office in Chenkalady, which was identified as a central location for the twenty participants, fourteen of whom were women.
During the first two weeks of the month, two of NPSL’s national staff members visited participants in their communities in order to get them thinking about the training, work out logistics, and answer any questions they may have. During these meetings, participants shared their enthusiasm for the upcoming training; how important they felt it was to be able to gain experiential knowledge as to how they themselves could improve their own safety; and what kind of mechanisms were available to them for support.
The goal of the training was to introduce community leaders to the background, principles and core strategies of UCP. This included engaging participants in activities and exercises which would allow them to map out risks to their safety and help them identify - based on strategies learned at the training - where they could play a role in reducing those risks, and what support they would need from others.
Over the course of the two days, NP also welcomed two visitors who had been invited to observe the training. These were two local government officials: the Coordinator for International NGOs in Batticaloa district and the Assistant District Coordinator for Confidence-Building and Stabilisation Measures.
The training proved to be a great success. During the closing exercise every participant took a turn to stand up and thank one another for all that had been shared, and expressed their gratitude to everyone who taught them something new and who gave them the confidence to voice their concerns and share their experiences. Ultimately, all twenty participants expressed their desire to be part of the next training so that they may become community UCP team members and over 85% maintained that they now felt more confident to engage in dialogue with others, including those from different ethnic communities, whenever tensions or conflict arose.
Towards the end of the month, NPSL began carrying out follow-up visits with the community leaders and each community has selected two out of the four original participants to attend the next stage in the process, the upcoming Training-of-Trainers (ToT), which is due to be held towards the end of March.
Improving the Safety and Security of Local Human Rights Defenders (HRDs):
In Vavuniya, the focus throughout February was on assisting local communities to access appropriate mechanisms and resources in order to address their human rights and personal security needs. To that end, NP accompanied two HRDs from Mannar district to a meeting with the Coordinator of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) in Vavuniya, to whom they described the current situation in Mannar and requested regular HRC visits to the region. Two days after this initial meeting, NP accompanied the HRC Coordinator to a meeting held at the Divisional Secretary’s office in Mannar, where he met with three local HRDs, the Committee for Disappearances, and families who had lost relatives. During the meeting, several people filed cases concerning disappearances with the HRC Coordinator so that investigations could be started. It was also agreed that the Coordinator would make monthly visits to Mannar to follow-up on these, and other similar, cases.
Also in Vavuniya, NP monitored two areas where there are newly resettled villages, populated by former Muslim and Tamil IDPs. In both areas, land rights issues have been causing inter-communal tensions; in an effort to de-escalate these tensions and reduce the potential for inter-ethnic violence, NP facilitated contact between the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), the Land Commission and the affected families and communities so that the returnees can follow-up their respective claims with the appropriate authorities.
The NP team in Batticaloa organised and facilitated a meeting in Ampara with the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) as part of its initiative to help build the capacity of Sri Lankan human rights organisations by offering human resource support. A partnership agreement is already in place between NP and CHA and, according to its terms, the Batticaloa team will second one of its staff members to CHA-Ampara on a part-time basis to assist them as they develop their rights-based work.
The Batticaloa team also provided accompaniment to an HRD when he participated in several meetings over a three-day period to de-escalate, and ultimately resolve, a conflict that had developed in one of the border communities between local Tamil and Muslim populations. After discussions involving local community and religious leaders, police, and local community members, the matter was peacefully resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
Despite staff shortages throughout the month, NP’s Jaffna team provided protective accompaniment to one of NPSL’s Colombo-based HRDs to allow them to carry out their work in several remote and isolated areas of Jaffna, Mannar, and Trincomalee. In this way, NP aims to support HRDs in a sustainable way to help build their own capacity and confidence in carrying out their legitimate activities.
In the wake of the Presidential elections, NPSL’s HRD Unit in Colombo received a number of requests for protective presence and accompaniment – on an almost daily basis at the beginning of the month. These requests came primarily from journalists and media organisations that had been subjected to increasing levels of intimidation and harassment during and after the election period. In total, the HRD Unit offered protective support to 19 HRDs, which included providing 9 protective presences and 8 protective accompaniments. Primarily, the presences were conducted at HRDs’ offices so that they could continue to carry out their work in safety, while the accompaniments included cases of direct protection for HRDs in their homes or when relocating to safer locations and, on several occasions, when HRDs reported their cases to human rights agencies.
NPSL conducted a two-day presence at the offices of a media organisation which, just days before, had been forced to cease operating. At the time of the presence, work had resumed and was continuing as normal but the organisation’s director had started receiving a high number of threatening telephone calls and had requested NP’s assistance in drawing-up contingency plans to ensure his and his staff’s safety. After the two days, during which time no major incident occurred, the director decided that daily NP presence was no longer necessary. However, the HRD Unit continued to stay in regular telephone contact with staff members over the following several days and also continued to provide support for the director and his family as they prepared contingency plans to ensure their continued safety.
NP also provided accompaniment for the wife of a disappeared journalist when she met with the Human Rights Commission (HRC) and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to lodge details of her husband’s case so that investigations into his disappearance could be started. And in the case of another journalist who was subjected to threats to her safety during and after the Presidential elections, NPSL helped her to develop her own security network in order to significantly reduce the risks to her personal safety.
Towards the end of the month, NP was approached by the head of the Colombo-based branch of an international organisation, expressing concerns about staff safety following unsubstantiated media reports implicating them in anti-government activity. NPSL responded by providing daily protective presence at the organisation’s offices as well as daily protective accompaniment to the Executive Director. In March, the HRD Unit plans to carry out risk assessments and conduct a security training for all staff members.
In addition to these direct protection activities, the HRD Unit organised and facilitated a round-table meeting at NPSL’s headquarters to gather together HRDs from around the country and representatives from Colombo’s diplomatic corps. The meeting was held in order to allow those attending to share information about the current human rights situation in Sri Lanka. NPSL plans to facilitate similar meetings on a monthly basis, with the aim of establishing and maintaining a broad network of embassy staff and HRDs so that together they can begin to strategise support and security measures, and contingency plans to ensure the safety of HRDs.
The HRD Unit also facilitated another in its series of Guest Forums; a professor from Colombo University’s Law Faculty gave a presentation entitled ‘International Law and Non-State Actors.’ And, having arranged for the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders to be translated into Sinhalese and Tamil, respectively, NPSL started to distribute them among Sri Lankan HRDs.