In a parade and an air and sea display of military power at a seaside park in the capital of Colombo on the 4 th of February, Sri Lanka celebrated 59 years of independence from Portuguese, Dutch and then British rule between 1505 and 1948.
In a politically turbulent month, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the government and the UNP was torn apart by the main opposition party after it was compromised by the ‘cross over' of 18 UNP MP members who have joined the government. To accommodate the defectors, new ministerial posts were created, resulting in a jumbo cabinet of 54 Ministers, the largest in the world today. During the international donor conference that was held in Galle at the end of January, Western powers, including the United States, were urging Sri Lanka's government to commit to a political settlement with the LTTE, potentially holding back sums of aid if no progress is made.
Also at the international level, 38 US congress members called upon President Bush to appoint a special envoy to Sri Lanka who would also monitor the human rights situation. In a further development, the UN Secretary-General called for ‘targeted measures' against the LTTE and Karuna for their continued involvement in child recruitment. The Government joined 60 other countries that approved the so-called Paris Commitments to end the use of child soldiers.
Gradually, the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) has arrived in Sri Lanka. Its support secretariat also has been established. Already the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) has started the preparations on the 15 human rights cases it was charged by the President to investigate. Another serious concern is the number of disappearances in Sri Lanka. According the latest statistics every five hours one person in Sri Lanka disappears.
The Work of the NP Teams
The Jaffna district remains under marshal law. Human rights organizations and defenders report they are facing increased threats. NPSL's role is to provide proactive international presence to a number of national partners which allows them to carry on with their work to receive complaints, file cases, raise awareness and do advocacy. NPSL in Jaffna is also getting more visits by families whose relatives and children have disappeared. NPSL has been requested to provide presence and interact with families affected to determine how to reduce vulnerability and build capacity for community response.
Over 75,000 Tamil people are currently staying in IDP camps in Batticaloa district due to the recent fighting. Forced recruitment into armed groups, including of children is also reported to have increased. Local authorities and the military in the Trincomalee district wish to see the IDPs to return to their original villages but many families fear to do so. Safety and security of IDPs including their safe return have been monitored by NPSL teams on a number of occasions.
Peoples' livelihood continued to get interrupted. Fishermen are experiencing great difficulties due to the restrictions imposed on fishing times and boats. After a series of meetings with the fishing societies, the peace committee members, religious leaders and the Navy, NPSL has begun to serve as an impartial catalyst to connect the actors so they can identify a local solution to the imposed fishing ban that is having such a negative impact on people's livelihoods from all three communities in the area.
NPSL has established closer relationships with several human rights organizations in Trincomalee. These have agreed to conduct training programmes for NPSL partners that have expressed interest, but also for Peace Committee members in Mutur. The presence of NPSL personnel in meetings and through accompaniments so far allowed sensitive issues to be raised, partners to get connected to training programs and families to receive (legal) support.
In Valaichchenai, NP often serves as a safe meeting space for mothers and families who wish to share experiences and relevant information and decide on possible action and self-advocacy. The team intends to facilitate all the interested families together for a larger gathering in February. Safe places for youth at risk continue to be requested. The team has been able to facilitate the enrollment of a number of youth to a vocational training center where they would follow a year long residential program. NPSL will continue to serve as link for other youth and the centers which are serving them.
The LTTE has reportedly not given up its influence in the region, and appears to be competing with the Karuna group for control and influence. A claymore mine attack at the Eastern University was followed by the request of a religious leader for NPSL Batti to provide international presence after the attack to increase the safety and confidence of staff and students.
NPSL continues to be heavily involved in addressing the problem of continuing reports of child abductions. Several meetings with families affected were held during which information about the pledges and guidelines on child rights by TMVP and LTTE was shared. This prompted several families to write letters addressed to the groups, and others sought the support of UNICEF. NPSL has started to receive requests by the families to be present when they visit the offices of the TMVP.
NPSL has started several new partnerships with CIDA, Christian Aid and PWRDF and is currently finalizing a new project proposal with UNICEF.
Report written by Christine Schweitzer (Programme Director)