January 26th marked Sri Lanka's Presidential elections, which had been called by the Government in November of last year. After an acrimonious campaign between the two principal contenders, incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and retired General Sarath Fonseka, Mahinda Rajapaksa won by a comfortable majority. For Nonviolent Peaceforce, it was an intense month as it carried out a number of activities in the final run-up to the elections as well as providing support for our local election monitoring partner organisations during and after the elections. These activities are detailed below:
Improving the Safety and Security of Local Election Monitors and Vulnerable Communities:
NPSL continued the work already begun in December 2009 with its three election monitoring partner organisations - PAFFREL (People's Action for Free and Fair Elections), CaFFE (Campaign for Free and Fair Elections) and CMEV (Centre for Monitoring Election Violence). One week before the elections, NPSL organised a joint meeting with the monitoring organisations to strategise how best to coordinate activities on Election Day itself.
Four International Protection Officers (IPOs) arrived in Sri Lanka to join existing international and national NPSL staff on the Election Observer Protection project, which was carried out in Batticaloa, Vavuniya, and Jaffna.
In the Batticaloa district, NPSL accompanied CMEV and CaFFE monitors in Batticaloa itself as well as Valaichchenai. In Batticaloa, NPSL accompanied CMEV and CaFFE monitors to thirty-five polling stations while, in neighbouring Valaichchenai, twenty polling stations were visited. There were no reports of violent incidents, although in Valachchenai NPSL provided protective accompaniment to one of the monitors who reported being subjected to threatening behaviour by a member of one of the contesting parties earlier in the day.
In Vavuniya, where the majority of voters were Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) still living in IDP camps in Manik Farm, NPSL accompanied election monitors to a total of twenty-four polling stations. There were no violent incidents but a few election irregularities were reported, including some IDPs being told they would not be allowed to vote with their temporary registration cards. Following intervention by election monitors, however, they were allowed to do so. In addition, some monitors commented to NPSL international protection officers (IPOs) that there were too few polling stations to cater for the total number of voters (9 polling stations for 16,000 people), which resulted in many voters having to queue for hours. And in their post-election report, CaFFE listed a 'lack of transport facilities' to bring IDPs from the camps to the polling stations, which resulted in a number of people being unable to cast their votes.
In Jaffna, the turnout by voters was reported to be low and voting remained calm throughout the day. Consequently, NPSL was not requested to provide accompaniment for election monitors in the northern peninsula.
NPSL received positive feedback and appreciation from both CMEV and CaFFE for the support given in carrying out their activities and they expressed a desire that the working relationship with NPSL continue, in light of the upcoming Parliamentary elections, which are scheduled to take place on the 8th April.
Increasing the Safety of Children Affected by Armed Conflict:
In the Batticaloa district, NP teams provided several accompaniments to officers from the Probation child welfare service in carrying out their work in high-profile abuse cases. NP also provided support by helping the families concerned to utilise the appropriate government mechanisms for follow-up in such cases. The teams also offered emergency support to six newly-reintegrated families in conjunction with local authorities and carried out four follow-ups on other similar cases by providing protective presence and referring the families to Probation and other relevant authorities in order to increase their safety and security.
In the same Batticaloa district, NP attracted the attention of local divisional authorities, who have invited NP to become part of a government-facilitated workshop to draft a new vocational education work plan at the district level. At the same time, in its efforts to provide sustainable emergency-response procedures for vulnerable communities, NPSL has been working in collaboration with Probation and encouraging them to conduct awareness-raising programmes on child protection issues at the community level.
In Vavuniya, NP provided protective accompaniment to 04 former LTTE cadres from the Remand Prison to rehabilitation centres on request by the local Government Agent (GA) and Child Rights Promoting Officers. In addition, NP staff in Vavuniya attended regular Child Protection (CP) meetings in order to share information about children affected by armed conflict and work with other CP agencies to create a safe and productive environment for children in the local district.
Capacity-building for Individuals and Community-based Organisations to Engage in Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping at the Community Level:
For those people engaged with NP's Capacity-building programme, the entire focus throughout January was on preparing for the first two-day introductory Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping (UCP) training. With support from the UNDP, the training will be conducted in February for twenty community leaders from Chenkalady and Kiran districts in Eastern Sri Lanka.
NPSL field team members from Batticaloa and Valaichchenai visited the intended training participants to explain in more detail about the UCP programme and what it was hoped participants would gain from being involved in the process. Baseline surveys were conducted to get an idea of how community members saw their own security; learn what security issues were present in their villages; and who they thought should be responsible for maintaining security. NP then used the information received from the communities to tailor certain aspects of the training so as to ensure it will be as effective and useful for the participants as possible.
During the carrying out of the baseline surveys, all the participants responded that they welcomed the UCP programme as they had never received training like this before and they felt sure it would be beneficial for them as a way to deal effectively with their own security issues.
Improving the Safety and Security of Local Human Rights Defenders (HRDs):
In the run-up to the Presidential elections, the HRD unit in Colombo received a number of requests from journalists and media organisations for protective presence and accompaniments. A total number of thirty-three HRDs in Colombo were assisted in this way and NPSL also helped two HRDs to formulate and implement their own security plans.
The HRD Project staff organised several security workshops for media organisations in Colombo along with members from the Human Rights Commission (HRC) in order to examine the security situation of HRDs and civilians in Sri Lanka as a means to improve their own security and that of their colleagues and employees.
The HRD unit also established links with four regional and international organisations in order to improve NPSL's protection network. The four organisations are: Frontline, Reporters Without Borders, Forum Asia and Swiss Radio, based in Delhi.
Future plans include supporting HRDs to travel to remote areas of the country where former IDPs are resettled in order for them to safely carry out their activities to raise awareness of human rights. Another NPSL-facilitated forum will be organised in Colombo, following on from the successful forum held in December 2009. Monthly meetings will be held in Colombo to bring together HRDs from the North and East as well as the capital in order to share information and build security networks among them. And the Colombo-based staff plan to build and strengthen good working relationships with Members of Parliament (MPs), police and military personnel, and other government officials to improve NPSL's core network at all levels of Sri Lankan society.