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May 2010 Sri Lanka Report

Date: May 1, 2010

May marked the first anniversary since the end of the 26-year long civil war in Sri Lanka. One year ago, in May 2009, the Sri Lankan government (GoSL) achieved an overwhelming military victory against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Remembrance services were held around the country but military parades that were due to take place in Colombo had to be postponed due to heavy monsoon rains.

Following a two-day debate in Parliament, the GoSL announced it would relax the country’s emergency laws. The current laws were enacted in August 2005 after Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister was killed, allegedly by the LTTE. Since the war ended in 2009, however, the laws have continued to be extended every month. Although there are no plans to remove the emergency regulations altogether, the Attorney General, Mohan Peiris, said that relaxation of the laws would include the removal of media monitors, the reduction of detention to three months, and applying civil law wherever appropriate.

On 3 May, External Affairs Minister, G. L. Peiris, announced that President Mahinda Rajapaksa would be issuing a full pardon to journalist J.S. Tissainayagam, who had been convicted in August 2009 to twenty years ‘rigorous imprisonment’ under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Tissainayagam, whose case became internationally-known, was the first person to have been tried and convicted under the PTA. The announcement was made to coincide with World Press Freedom Day.

As for the work of NP’s Sri Lanka project, the following summarises some of the key activities of NP teams in relation to its current project areas:

Increasing the Safety of Children Affected by Armed Conflict:

In Batticaloa District, NPSL staff conducted a field trip to Manmunai West to visit one of the government-run vocational training centres (VTC), set up to offer vocational training to children affected by armed conflict as part of the government’s rehabilitation and reintegration programme. Several problems were identified by the trainers there, including the low number of children attending courses – despite the courses being free - due to a lack of transport facilities to bring them to the centre. In a separate meeting, NP staff discussed these issues with a local NGO, PPCC (Professional Psychological Counselling Centre), and plans are now under way for NP to facilitate a meeting between PPCC, Child Rights Protection Officers (CRPOs) and staff at the office of the local Divisional Secretary so that, together, they can try to address these issues and encourage more children to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the VTC.

In Vavuniya, NP followed-up on the case last month of the killing of a nine-year old girl by alleged members of an armed group (see Monthly Programme Report April 2010). NP provided protective accompaniment and presence to an investigating officer from the Human Rights Commission (HRC) when he visited the victim’s family as part of his ongoing enquiries. The alleged perpetrators are currently in Police custody; one other man was killed when Police tried to arrest him.

NP attended a meeting hosted by the District Child Development Committee (DCDC) which aimed to examine the current situation in Vavuniya District concerning the provision of welfare for children affected by armed conflict. Also present at the meeting were a number of local civil authority actors, including the Government Agent (GA), the District Secretary (DS), and his assistant (ADS) as well as representatives from local NGOs. One key challenge raised at the meeting was the situation faced by child ex-cadres: some of those who have completed their rehabilitation programmes and have returned to their home communities are experiencing safety and security issues as well as economic problems due to a lack of job opportunities in rural areas. The GA planned to follow this meeting with another later in the month to meet with service providers, including NGOs and government agencies. Attending this meeting, however, was very beneficial for NP’s Vavuniya-based staff as they gained a good overview of the situation for children and young people in the whole district and strengthened their working relationship with local government authorities.

Also in Vavuniya, NPSL provided accompaniment for three staff members from Sri Lanka’s National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), to pay a visit to the Divisional Secretary’s (DS) office in North Vavuniya as part of NP and NCPA’s collaboration on a Child Protection and Development project. The NCPA officers met with the Planning Secretary and gathered some statistics about resettled communities in the area. NP followed with an explanation of one of the aims of the Child Development project, which is to help establish Child Development Committees in villages and rural areas that are vulnerable to cases of child rights abuses and violations.

As part of this Child Protection and Development initiative, NP staff invited youth from seven villages in Vavuniya District to learn more about NP’s child protection work. NP spent two days in the month with the youngsters (2 boys and 16 girls); the first day allowed everyone to get to know each other and for NP staff to make some presentations about its work. On the second day, NP facilitated a workshop on Security and Risk/Threat Mapping, which gave the young people an opportunity to start thinking about their own security situations in their home communities. The Vavuniya team plan to hold similar activities on a monthly basis with these youngsters. Next month, in June, the team plan to introduce the children to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and there will also be a follow-up to this month’s workshop, when NP staff will guide them on how to develop contingency plans and SOPs (standard operating procedures) based on their findings.

As NP will be implementing this programme in close collaboration with government agencies, NP invited a Child Rights Protecting Officer to observe the Mapping activity on the second day. He said he appreciated NP’s efforts in Child Protection and agreed that it will be easier when the time comes to fully implement the programme in villages if some of the children have already been introduced to basic human rights principles and been encouraged to start analysing their own security needs.

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

As NP’s successful pilot project with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) came to an end at the end of April, new funding was secured to continue activities with the communities presently involved in the training programme as well as to introduce the programme to other communities in Batticaloa and Vavuniya Districts from the end of May onwards.

This month former UCP-training participants from Marapalam put their UCP skills into action in response to an abduction that took place in their community. On the afternoon of 11 May 2010, two men dressed in plain-clothes and travelling in an unmarked van came to the village of Marapalam claiming to be staff from an international NGO that works with resettled communities in Batticaloa District. The two men began enquiring from members of the village about families who had recently arrived from the Vanni area in the north of Sri Lanka. They then went to talk with one of the families that were newly resettled. Among other questions, the two men asked their intended victim if he knew a specific person, who is currently being held in a detention centre in the north. When he answered ‘yes,’ the two men took him outside the house to point out where the rest of his family was living in the village but before he could do so, they forced him into the van and drove away.

Some of the village’s UCP team-members, who live near this family’s house, had witnessed these events and were suspicious about the two men and their unmarked vehicle. Therefore, when they saw what was happening they took down the vehicle’s licence-plate number, and then brought everyone in the village together to gather all the pertinent details. Remembering what they had learned at NP’s UCP training they went immediately to report the incident to the relevant local authorities, including the village-level government agent (GS) and the Police. They also contacted local NP staff to alert them of what had happened and plans were made for the victim’s family to file a complaint with the Human Rights Commission (HRC). In the event, the arranged meeting with the HRC did not need to take place; once the Police had taken down the details of the case, the Senior Superintendent of Police recognised the number-plate of the unmarked vehicle. The man who had been abducted was released shortly thereafter.

NP are currently planning to hold a session with the UCP team involved to debrief what happened, and also begin the formation and development of standard operating procedures (SOPs) and contingency plans (CPs) in order for them to begin proactively utilising the skills and tools which they have learned to increase the safety of their community as a whole. In addition, a visit has been planned for early June to introduce these UCP team-members to the Officer in Charge (OIC) at a nearby Police station who had already met with other UCP participants from Kithul (see Monthly Programme Report April 2010).

Also in May, NP staff conducted a number of follow-ups with former UCP participants in their home communities. In one of these communities, UCP members have been liaising with NP to try and resolve some concerns shared by fellow-residents about their GS (local government agent). The same UCP members are also trying to calm tensions that ensued after a violent row broke out at a local Women’s Rural Development Society (WRDS) meeting in April. The UCP members approached NP to facilitate a dialogue between the individuals involved but that idea was not supported by all parties. Instead, the local Divisional Secretary (DS) and GS decided to suspend all WRDS activities for the time being until they appoint new people to lead the meetings in future. Feeling that more should be done about these issues, the local peacekeepers reported the incident to the Police and the HRC. The HRC agreed to conduct an investigation into the situation in consultation with the DS. The UCP participants will inform NP when this investigation begins and if they need any additional support.

Looking ahead to the next stages of the UCP programme, NP staff in Batticaloa District followed-up with the newly-formed UCP team in Thanamunai (formed after the community-led UCP training at the end of April), in order to plan a session with them in June to develop standard operating procedures and contingency plans to guide their efforts. And in Kiran, having overcome some challenges this month to secure access into the area, NP staff will be supporting the four resident training-of-trainers (ToT) participants in June to help them prepare for conducting UCP trainings with fellow community members in July.

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

NP’s Batticaloa team provided accompaniment to a Colombo-based human rights defender (HRD), who met with the family of a Sri Lankan HRD who had had to leave the country due to severe personal threats to his safety. The family visit was carried out so as to ascertain their security situation.

On the 4th May, NP facilitated a training on UN Special Procedures (UNSP) at its office in Batticaloa for nine human rights defenders from around Batticaloa District, including Valaichchenai, Batticaloa town and Ampara. The training, which was the same as previous trainings held in Colombo and Vavuniya (see Monthly Reports for March and April 2010), was once again conducted by a staff member from the Colombo-based organisation, Law and Society Trust (LST). Two staff members from NP’s HRD Unit in Colombo travelled to Batticaloa to oversee the training; in addition to the UNSP training, one of them gave a presentation on basic human rights principles, the legal basis of human rights and the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. The training was much appreciated by all the participants and helped to increase their knowledge about reporting human rights violations according to UN standards.

NP was invited by the Divisional Secretary (DS) of Manmunai West in Batticaloa District to attend, as observers, a community meeting facilitated by NP’s partner organisation, Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA). The meeting was attended by members of the Rural Development Society (RDS) and the Women’s Rural Development Society (WRDS) from throughout the District. The aim of the meeting was for the newly-installed DS to become better acquainted with some of the current infrastructure issues facing local populations with an aim to improving the situation. In a separate meeting with NP, the DS said he was keen to have NP staff there due to their close relationship to, and knowledge about, local communities.

Staff from NPSL’s Valaichchenai and Batticaloa offices held a meeting at the Human Rights Commission (HRC) branch office in Batticaloa town to discuss the planning and implementation of joint activities. Given NP’s experience in the protection of human rights defenders (HRDs), the HRC is keen to encourage a closer working relationship to utilise that knowledge and skills-base. Talks centred on the possibility of NP accompanying HRC staff on their monitoring visits to local resettled communities where joint human rights trainings could be held for local residents. Discussions also looked at the possibility of collaboration regarding the direct protection of Sri Lankan HRDs around the country as well as NPSL continuing to offer human resource assistance to regional HRC branches in helping to document human rights violations cases.

NP’s Valaichchenai team held a meeting with several local NGOs, all of which expressed an interest in receiving NP support to safely carry out their legitimate activities; the work of these organisations range from offering micro-credit livelihood support to addressing cases of sexual violence in local communities. NP staff invited them to attend the monthly meetings that are hosted by NP’s partner organisation, Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, in order that they might expand and strengthen their networks with other local NGOs.

May was a busy month for one of NP’s partner organisations in Valaichchenai, OCPC (Organisation for Coordinating Peace and Co-existence). OCPC is an umbrella organisation that consists of nineteen local NGOs. At the end of 2009, it secured funding from USAID to carry out peace-building activities with Tamil and Muslim populations living in ten border communities in the Kalkudah area of Batticaloa District. Now, after several months of internal discussions, OCPC is laying the groundwork to begin implementing its activities. To this end, OCPC requested NP’s support in making a formal presentation about its work to key stakeholders in and around Kalkudah.

As a first step, NP helped OCPC staff to draw-up a letter of invitation to local Police and Military personnel and accompanied the OCPC President and Treasurer to deliver it. The letter invited the Officers in Charge (OIC) of Valaichchenai and Kalkudah Police, respectively, the Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) from Valaichchenai and senior officers from two local military camps to a meeting held at the end of the month at NPSL’s Valaichchenai office. All those invited attended the meeting and responded enthusiastically after being presented with information from OCPC’s Coordinator for the USAID project. The ASP was especially keen and told OCPC that he would put them in touch with a social work organisation in the area and he expressed his total support for the project.

In addition to this, after expressing a desire to learn more about the work of the Human Rights Commission (HRC), NP facilitated an awareness-raising session by the HRC for OCPC. The local coordinator from the HRC and one of their investigating officers both gave presentations to explain their work, and human rights generally. OCPC and the HRC will go on to discuss if there are possibilities of their two organisations collaborating in the future. By facilitating this session, NP helped to support the work of government agencies and strengthen their relations with local civil society organisations.

NP also provided protective presence for representatives from OCPC when they attended a volunteer ‘clean-up’ of a Temple and health centre that involved residents from two local communities: one Tamil, one Muslim. The gathering provided a good opportunity for the participants to get to know each other better and encourage greater inter-communal understanding. It also afforded staff from OCPC and NP an opportunity to explain to the locals about their respective programmes.

NP’s team in Vavuniya met with local partner organisation Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) to discuss their Human Rights and Human Security programme that NP is helping to support. CHA’s District Officer said he was keen to help build the capacity of local HRDs to be able to carry out their own independent investigations into human rights issues in their respective communities. He also referred to CHA plans to carry out workshops in resettled areas on how to document human rights violations.

NPSL staff conducted several monitoring visits during the month to a journalist in Mannar after he reported receiving a number of threatening ‘phone calls. The calls started after he published a series of articles about the increasing number of threats being made against local government supporters and Tamil political party, the TULF. He had also written about three cases of theft in the area, all of which had taken place at the beginning of the month.

As part of NP’s efforts to strengthen Sri Lankan government agencies and also as part of its partnership agreement with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), a member of staff from NP’s team in Vavuniya spent seven days during May at the local branch of the HRC to help continue the ongoing work of documenting human rights cases, such as disappearances, abductions and arbitrary arrests, from November and December 2009.

NPSL staff provided five consecutive days of protective presence to a family in Vavuniya who had received threatening telephone calls demanding payment of a large sum of money. The caller threatened to kidnap the family’s daughter if the money was not paid. Following NP’s advice, the family reported the calls to the Police, who are currently investigating the case and trying to determine the identity of the caller. NP staff plan to visit the family on a regular basis until the matter is resolved.

Also in Vavuniya, NP attended a forum discussion focusing on sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) that included representatives from the HRC and from twenty local and international NGOs. Topics included an awareness-raising programme that the HRC intends to carry out in Kilinochchi, and the results of an investigation led by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) into the different types of cases of gender-based violence from August 2009 – March 2010. Cases included rapes, sexual assaults, forced marriages and psychological and emotional abuse. The overwhelming majority of cases – 233 out of a total number of 302 – were found to have been committed in Manik Farm, home to nearly 300,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) at the end of the war. This forum proved an excellent opportunity for NP to build stronger links with other organisations in the District, which may lead to future collaborations.

On the 17th May in Colombo, the European Union (EU) Mission hosted an event to analyse the current human rights situation in Sri Lanka with a view to presenting recommendations to the Sri Lankan government. Due to NP’s work with human rights defenders around the country and its HRD Unit in Colombo, NPSL was invited by the EU to help organise the event and facilitate the attendance of around fifty HRDs from Colombo, Batticaloa, Valaichchenai, Trincomalee and Mannar. The day-long event, which was also attended by several international NGOs and diplomats from European embassies, consisted of meetings, panel discussions and interactive workshops. Four NPSL staff – from their bases in Colombo, Batticaloa, Valaichchenai and Vavuniya - actively participated in the sessions alongside the HRDs and the diplomats. A number of overarching thematic areas dictated the analysis, such as civil and political rights; freedom of expression; child rights; minority rights; gender issues; and internally displaced persons (IDPs). From the feedback gathered afterwards, some HRDs were frustrated that with so many people attending, there was too little time to discuss every issue in-depth. Nevertheless, most participants welcomed the initiative as it helped to establish better links between Sri Lankan HRDs and international networks in Colombo, and many expressed their hopes that further meetings of this nature would be organised in the future.

Colombo-based NP staff conducted a follow-up with an online media source for which NP had provided protective presence during both the Presidential and Parliamentary elections. NP was informed that the current situation for staff is slightly more stable than in previous months. Also, in May, NP staff contacted the director of the media outlet, who is currently abroad attending a journalism course, to put him in touch with a local NGO that was interested in taking up his case.

Staff from NP’s HRD Unit visited the office of the international organisation where NP had provided daily protective presence from February to April. The head of the organisation said that they were in the process of implementing the security initiatives recommended by NP following its security training in April and thanked NP for all the support given which, according to the director, had improved his staff’s confidence and security.

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