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October 2009 Sri Lanka Report

Date: October 1, 2009

Throughout October, pressure on the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) continued: to fulfill its promises related to the release of Tamil populations still being held in closed camps in the North following the military defeat of the Tamil separatists last May. The pace of release began to be speeded up, but was hampered by the lack of existing infrastructure in many areas and the enormity of the mine-removal needs. Pressure also came in the form of the threatened loss of favorable economic considerations from the European Union in relation to Sri Lanka's vast garment industry. The EU claimed it was not 'punishing' Sri Lanka but that the country was in violation of most of the 27 international human, civil and political rights conventions it had committed to when it applied for the GSP Plus programme in 2005. Sri Lanka's suspension would mark the first time the EU would resort to such action against one of 16 poor countries participating in the programme, leading to heated debate from many quarters about the merits of linking trade benefits to human rights considerations.

With the main road to the Jaffna Peninsula opened, goods began moving more freely from the south of the country and prices were reported to have come down in the North, whose isolation throughout the war made access and mobility difficult and costly. Some vendors and entrepreneurs report that access to transportation is still limited and continuing high security protocols limit accessibility and mobility. The national bank is working to approve the opening of dozens of additional banks so that credit will be more readily available in the North.

The Context and Work of the NP Teams

October saw the initial formation of a Nonviolent Peaceforce presence in Vavuniya District. Two national staff members are laying the groundwork for a new field site in this northern district, home to many IDPs (internally displaced people) and war-affected communities. About half of the known people in Vavuniya appear to have been returned there, with a bit over half to Mannar, and about twenty percent to Mullaithivu, the district that was the scene of the final military campaigns. Considerable progress was made this month by the Team in gaining acceptance and approval from the local authorities and the cooperation of other area stakeholders and partners to begin implementing the full range of NP's programs in Vavuniya in the coming months. The addition of international staff to the fieldsite is pending the signing of an official Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with a Government Ministry in the capital. Reports at the end of the October were that there were no civilians to be seen in Kilinochchi, the former headquarters of the LTTE, and that the whole area was virtually destroyed. De-mining operations there and in Mullaithivu are currently being concentrated only on known battle fields and not yet in other civilian areas.

The security situation in the other districts where NP teams are located was mostly stable throughout the month, with the government's official State of Emergency continuing to be in effect throughout the country. In Jaffna there remains some restrictions on movement, and NP's international staff was delayed in returning to the Peninsula due to changes in Ministry of Defense clearance procedures. The situation was calm there, including throughout the return process of a large number of IDPs from displacement camps in the Wanni.

In Batticaloa District in the East, the security situation was also generally calm, with virtually no more IDPs in organized camps. There are some 900 displaced individuals still being hosted by relatives or friends, about half of whom are from Trincomalee District and who still await resettlement. Numerous recovery and development issues continue to challenge communities, including concerns about landmines, livelihoods, property rights and access to land, co-existence of ethnic groups (particularly in border areas between different ethnic groupings), reunification of missing family members, and reintegration of ex-combatants. Some youth report fear to return to their home communities following the end of the war, especially as continued forced involvement in political party activity is reported. While the Probation Department is following up, with support from NP, on some 32 youth released by the TMVP, there is an advocacy gap-especially in the absence of the ICRC in the district--for over-aged civilians who report continued harassment. Armed actors in remote areas of western Batticaloa are reportedly extorting money and food from resettled populations there, with women fearing to move about without a male escort. Additional police posts have been requested for some areas. As stabilization measures and development initiatives are being undertaken, concerns are also being raised among some Tamil communities that both Sinhalese and foreigners are buying up and settling on desirable coastal lands, with Muslims also returning to reclaim lost lands. While the humanitarian needs remain great, some organizations are noting a loss of funds and donors for the East, as the focus of aid has shifted to the North in 2009.

The following is a summary of some of the key accomplishments of NP teams this month.

Increasing the Safety of Children Affected by Armed Conflict

Team activities this month directly impacted more than 170 children affected by the war. Child rights and protection agencies are planning to undertake an assessment in the North and East regarding Security Council Resolution 1612, which addresses six areas of human rights violations against children. The report will be submitted later in New York to the Working Group on Children Affected by Armed Conflict.

In Vavuniya the nascent NP team was asked to accompany a government Child Rights & Protection Officer in moving 9 surrenderees from the remand prison to a rehabilitation camp for ex-cadre. They also started receiving case referrals from other organisations, including the local Human Rights Commission, and began coordinating with other child rights actors to monitor the progress of 70 child ex-combatants who have been integrated into host families. Introductory meetings were held with the local NGO Consortium to discuss NP's integration into the district coordinating structures, as well as the need for capacity-building on child rights and protection issues, a niche NP will be able to contribute to for governmental and non-governmental actors.

In the East the teams received 14 new cases of suspected human rights violations. The teams continued support of the government's Probation Department and village-level Child Rights & Protection Officers to follow up on all reported child protection cases. This month that included monitoring the reintegration needs of 32 ex-child combatants who have returned to one area, and the teams are coordinating referrals with agencies offering Life Skills and Enterprise Programs for 16-22 year olds. There was also a coordination meeting with several child-focused agencies to design a joint 2010 workplan addressing the post-conflict needs of children and their families, including the legal needs of youth who did not go through the government's formal 'surrendering' procedures and are now lacking the documentation they need to verify their status and increase their safety. While they are in need of special reintegration and protection monitoring, due to family poverty many youth report feeling caught between wanting to take advantage of training programs, but needing to find ways to contribute to the care and support of their families by whatever means they can.  

Strengthening Existing Mechanisms and Building the Confidence of Civilians to Use the Mechanisms to Increase their Security

In the north, the Jaffna team met with the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) to discuss a new MOU (Memorandum of Understanding), including holding joint "Go and See" visits to resettled areas. Such accompanied visits allow displaced populations to more confidently participate in assessing for themselves the viability and security of a durable resettlement in a designated area. With new leadership in the District's Human Rights Commission (HRC) the team will also have a strong human rights ally in the District. HRC staff has reinstituted human rights monitoring visits to army camps, police stations and to the prison, as well as to IDP camps. The team visited government officials in three locations, with introductions to newly established Civil Protection Committees (CPC) that are being formed in all grama sevaka (GS) areas. Training needs of the CPCs are being assessed and the government is looking to NP for support in this regard. A pressing issue is access to livelihoods in the post-conflict environment, exacerbated for fisherfolk by the continued presence of high security zones in some coastal areas. In Vavuniya the team was granted permission, with the support of the military coordinator for rehabilitation of ex-cadres, and in coordination with another child-rights organization, to meet other military leaders, along with 40 youth in an IDP camp, to discuss their security concerns and other needs. This first visit was brief and will be followed with future coordination efforts to ensure the security, social and psychological needs of the youth are being addressed. The authorities were interested to learn about the confidence and capacity-building opportunities that NP can offer.

In the East similar activities are taking place, with monitoring visits occurring to several remote resettlement areas. In two areas, meetings were held to discuss coordination needs with military Civil Affairs officers, local government servants, community leaders, and other INGOs. A local human rights defender was accompanied on a monitoring visit to the still-vulnerable western area of the district. Lack of confidence among civilians is seen particularly in border areas where Tamils and Sinhalese are beginning to settle side by side. As government servants at the grassroots levels attempt to bridge the communities, one Tamil government servant (GS) sought the assistance of NP to approach a local Army commander regarding security and other community issues. With NP's support the GS was able to enter the army camp for the first time and the two parties were able to discuss face-to-face their mutual concerns. Opening such lines of communication is an important first step in building trust in systems that have not worked well due to decades of conflict.

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

The teams continue to garner support and potential participants for a number of planned capacity building trainings related to civilian peacekeeping. The concept has been well-received by all actors in NP's areas of operation.  In Jaffna the team has been asked by Sarvodaya to include 20-25 of their Shanthi Sena members in the training, and Christian Aid has recommended two of their partner NGOs. The team has also identified 6 divisional secretaries and Civil Protection Committee members living in those areas. In Vavuniya the team has received the support of the Divisional Secretary and the NGO Consortium and will meet with their training coordinator to identify the capacity-building needs of their membership. The team has also begun contacting religious groups.

In the east, the Valaichchenai team continues to support the capacity of the early warning network of Tamil and Muslim community-based organizations in the northern part of Batticaloa District. Over the past months they have worked with them to access funding from UNDP and facilitated a meeting this month with USAID, also increasing their confidence and capacity to develop longer term violence-reduction programmes. To the south, the Batti Team focused this month on the government sector, meeting with Divisional Secretaries in four areas to identify GSs who wish to participate in NP's upcoming trainings. 

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

NP is developing a comprehensive and robust HRD support programme both at the field site level and in the capital, with new staff being added to the project and plans to expand services into several new districts in the coming months. HRD project staff in Colombo have also been active in helping establish the new field site in Vavuniya. NP's relationships with human rights defenders is a partnership of mutual benefit, as local partners serve as valuable advisors and share perspectives on the challenges of living and doing human rights work in an environment emerging from long-term armed conflict.

In the North and East, NP teams are reaching out to a growing circle of local human rights workers who wish to be a force for positive transformation of their communities at this critical transition time. Accompaniment and support of local human rights defenders as they carry out their work increases their safety, but also is a longer-term capacity building strategy, providing additional 'safe space' for local people to work together on local solutions to problems of violence. In Batti District this month, more than 150 people in three very remote areas attended human rights awareness programmes, supported by NP's presence.

In Colombo the team closely monitored the work of 10 human rights partners this month, with six of them reporting that their level of activity was increased or maintained with NP's support. One reported that his activity was diminished due to perceived threats. While the provisions of the Emergency Procedures and the Prevention of Terrorism Act are reported to have a chilling effect on human rights workers and others, many courageous actors continue to work to improve adherence to democratic ideals and humans rights principles. Through the HRD project, human rights defenders are assisted in developing both local and national networks, and the mutual support provided has been valuable to them in continuing their work. Assistance can also take the form of support in developing concrete Contingency Plans that serve to build their confidence, and the comfort of their families, should some threatening or disruptive event befall them. Human rights defender trainings are under development for delivery in early 2010, as well as continuing staff development as the project expands. These efforts have been welcomed by all NP's partners, including by many in and out of government.

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