Brussels, November 2007
The need for intervention in Sri Lanka
How civilian intervention can play a role in building a peaceful society in Sri Lanka.
Despite the 2002 ceasefire, violence has continued - partly due to the legacy of the long war including the lack of a political solution - and the number of incidents involving civilians including children is on the rise again. At the community or grassroots level in Sri Lanka, the problems linked to conflict and situations of violence in Sri Lanka have been fostered from both the impact of a 20-year civil war and the recent tsunami of 26th December 2004.
The underlying conflicts in different communities are complex. There are community tensions based on ethnicity, religion, land and resources intra-faction conflicts (within Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese groups), forced recruitments (especially of children) and disappearances of civilians and threats against peace makers by extremist groups.
While children and Internally Displaced People, (IDPs) due to the tsunami or ethnic conflict, are some of the most vulnerable groups, the entire civil society is torn due to the effects of the violence.
Furthermore, the relief and reconstruction after the tsunami gave rise to new tensions that resulted in public disobedience and demonstrations, open violence and killings. The effects of the tsunami have found their way in the existing conflict dynamics in the country, turning relief into an extremely sensitive issue.
Continued fear and insecurity, due to intimidation, harassment, threats and violence, stand in the way as stubborn barriers for effective recovery and rehabilitation. Furthermore, the effects of the tsunami delayed reconciliation and real social-economic development for marginalized and vulnerable people affected by the war and related ethnic tensions. As long as people continue to live in fear while their human rights are being violated on a daily basis, and violence continues thereby hindering the recovery, the long-term systematic rehabilitation of these communities including vulnerable groups remains a mission impossible.
Though many of today’s problems are being addressed simultaneously by international agencies and NGOs, the knowledge and understanding of the context, trust and relationship with the local people, access to vulnerable groups as well as the political leadership of the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), adequate analysis, the ability to reduce tensions and increase stability and the support of local sustainable initiatives, are often lacking or heavily underestimated. As a result, the development and implementation of projects or processes get frequently stalled, are ineffective or at times deepen existing grievances and create new tensions.
Though many different international and local actors in Sri Lanka offer services targeting poverty, social and economic development, recovery and reconciliation, surprisingly little is done to protect these investments as well as the people implementing them or those affected by them. As rehabilitation efforts by local groups and international agencies continue, it has become evident that they can only have a real and sustainable effect if such activities can be carried out in an environment that is stable and safe, now and in the future.
NP : what responsability in Sri Lanka?
NP’s sole responsibility in Sri Lanka is to help create such an environment and to facilitate constructive engagements within the communities and between groups, thus paving the way for rehabilitation efforts to be more effective and to allow for local solutions to emerge and be sustained. NPSL uses the greater freedom and immunity of internationals to create larger spaces for the development and growth of peace. Moreover, NPSL’s work helps to break the vicious cycle of violence which disrupts the delivery of the so called “peace dividend”, thus contributing to more tensions and conflicts which further undermines the ability to deliver development programs.
The initial invitation in 2002 for Nonviolent Peaceforce to provide protective presence came from the Sri Lankan human rights platform PAFFREL and a number of other partners within PAFFREL who cited the threats of violence against peace makers, high level of fear of reporting human rights abuses, and lack of any valid international support at a grassroots level to support community peace initiatives.
Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) has been active in Sri Lanka since 2003. By 2004/2005, NP had established offices in the East and North of Sri Lanka allowing its community protection activities to mature and grow. Due to a growing demand for NP’s services, a first expansion, which resulted in an increase from three to five field offices together with twice the number of staff in the field, became a reality during the fall of 2005. Part of this growth reflects the new tensions and community needs caused by the tsunami and the uncertain political situation in all three of the districts where NP works.
In 2006 the violence has been on the rise again in the North and East of Sri Lanka, with attacks attributed to all sides, the LTTE, the Sri Lankan Army, the Karuna faction and radical Sinhalese groups’. In the areas where NP works the escalation in violence, killings, claymore mines, grenades and bomb attacks such that the impact of this conflict has even touched on international NGOs, including one of our own teams (in Mutur town) being targeted and one person injured by a grenade.
The communities themselves have expressed concerns about the boundaries that agencies seem to have placed upon themselves based on ‘mandates’ and they believe that a greater human rights and protection component in the work of agencies are necessary. Without such elements the current humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, which is a direct result of the ongoing Human Rights crisis in the country, will continue to grow.
As stated, in the past the communities were more resilient to face violence and threats. Even during the war people were able to fall back on existing social networks and coping mechanisms for protection and assistance such as the Human Rights Commission and Citizens Committees and Peace Committees. Such community structures are currently weak and inadequate.
Fear for ones own security remains a large obstacle to take action or open discourse. Issues, such as abductions, forced recruitment, become difficult to address by community actors and families affected. Grouping, mobilizing or being visible on certain issues that are directly political or can be politicized is perceived as dangerous or is discouraged by armed groups. Overall, there is a greater risk aversion by community actors in response to a threatening environment. As a result, community actors or families work in isolation from one another.
At the district level, the violence has also affected the pro-active capacity of both local and international actors. Systematic monitoring and documenting of violations by local protection actors and international agencies due to restricted movement and lack of capacity, resources or collaborative mechanisms stand in the way in reaching out to people whose rights have been violated and ensuring accessible complaint mechanisms and proper follow-up in such cases.
These obstacles result in an information gap between Colombo networks and district and communities based networks that allow for proper documentation, legal and community support and advocacy efforts. Consequently, dialogue and debate fail to achieve both greater awareness and accountability and potential enhancement of dormant capacities such as the HRC.
Internationally, Sri Lanka has received reasonable attention regarding the Human Rights situation. UN Special Rapporteurs have visited the country and prepared devastating reports. However, this has not resulted in any improvement of the situation on the ground. Until today the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) has brushed aside international criticism by diplomats and HR bodies and continues to blame other actors for the violations brought to its attention. In fact, the government has been quite successful in downplaying the alarming realities on the ground internationally.