One year since the war in Sri Lanka ended, the situation for ethnic minority Tamils and Muslims remains of concern as communities in the former war-torn areas await justice, security and an opportunity to participate in reconstruction and development of their homeland, Minority Rights Group International says.
While the Sri Lankan government is championing economic development in the country’s former war-torn north and east, including major road and tourism projects, local communities who have been disempowered by war remain marginalised and excluded from the development process.
‘For the first time in nearly three decades minorities in the north and east can live without the fear and insecurity of war. This has to now progress into proper security and human rights guarantees and lead to a lasting peace,’ says Chris Chapman, MRG’s Head of Conflict Prevention says.
‘This is an historic opportunity for the new Sri Lankan government to address the grievances of minorities in the country. They should not hesitate to take up the challenge,’ Chapman added.
Last month, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s United Peoples Freedom Alliance party won national elections with a huge majority. Rajapaksa has the support of the majority Sinhala community and is in a commanding position to offer minority rights guarantees, to Tamils and Muslims, MRG says.
After his own victory in the Presidential election in January 2010 and his party’s victory in parliamentary elections, Rajapaksa has taken some positive steps to improve the situation of minorities. He has cut back emergency regulations in the country that were resulting in arrests and detentions of Tamils.
It is still unknown how many people died in the last stages of the war but estimates are over 20,000. The government says the figure is much lower. In many cases the deaths have not been accounted for, families have not been compensated and without death certificates family members are unable to claim land and other rights.
The President has appointed an 8-member commission to look into lessons learnt from the conflict and post-conflict reconciliation, but its exact mandate is vague and unclear. MRG welcomes the Sri Lankan government decision to investigate this issue but is concerned about the impartiality of such a commission.
‘The mandate of the commission appears to be more about investigating the need to go to war than whether international laws were broken in the course of the war, particularly at the latter stages of the fighting,’ Chapman says.
‘There are a lot of people in Sri Lanka who want justice and accountability but the commission appointed by the government is very unlikely to fulfil the country’s current need for reconciliation,’ he adds.
MRG says that any investigation into issues of war-crimes should meet international standards and should be broadened to look at crimes committed against all communities – Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims.
Whilst in the last six months there have been efforts to speedily resettle large numbers of those displaced in the latter stages of the war some 70,000 people remain in camps. As the displacement crisis has shifted out of the international agenda, aid to these people has considerably dropped. There are also over 300,000 long-term displaced including Muslims, who have been in displaced camps for close to two decades.
There is no clear direction given by the government on the resettlement of the older displaced groups. There are also concerns that the resettlement process that is taking place is not happening according to international standards and financial support to families going back home is limited.
‘In some areas people lack basic facilities like toilets. Children have to walk miles to get to a school and there are no medical services nearby. There are very limited employment opportunities,’ Chapman says.
MRG is also concerned about the high level of militarisation in the north and east. Civilian administration is dominated by military officials or former military officials.
Land rights are posing a major problem in the north and east. Lands belonging to minority groups have been encroached upon by each of the other communities, designated by the military as High Security Zones (HSZ), or are being claimed for development purposes.
Many Tamils and Muslims also fear that the government will settle the majority Sinhala community in lands formerly occupied by minorities. There have been recent cases recorded by local human rights groups of lands owned by members of minority communities taken over by the central government without proper consultation and with no compensation.
The government is spearheading major development campaigns in the former war-torn areas, led mainly by former military figures from the majority Sinhala community.
‘It is imperative that local communities are part of any development work that takes place in their traditional homelands. The people have the local knowledge and should enjoy the basic right to have a say in matters that affect them, and the right to development,’ Chapman adds.
MRG also urges the government to restart negotiations with minority political parties on offering a political autonomy and power sharing package giving minorities the ability to govern the areas they live in.
To the government of Sri Lanka (GoSL):
— The GoSL should make a policy statement recognizing and valuing ethnic and religious diversity in the country.
— The GoSL should begin immediate and inclusive consultations with all political parties and political representatives of all communities in order to agree a political settlement that addresses the root causes of the conflict and is acceptable to all communities in Sri Lanka, and includes full legal protections of minority rights and prohibition of discrimination, with mechanisms to enforce these rights; equitable distribution of resources to support services in minority communities; and mechanisms to ensure minorities can participate in decision-making affecting their communities.
— The GoSL should work together with civil society to develop a justice and reconciliation mechanism to account for atrocities committed by successive Sri Lankan governments and the LTTE throughout the 30 year conflict. This mechanism should look at how all three communities, including Muslims, have been affected by the conflict and ways in which they can receive justice.
*The GoSL should make public their economic development plans for the north and east. Communities in the area should be fully consulted on these plans, and community activists and minority political and business representatives should be part of the task forces appointed to plan and implement the development projects.
— Recognising that recommendations above must be a participatory and consultative process and could take time, the GoSL should set out a reasonable timeframe for implementation. In the interim, the GoSL should implement fully the 13th and 17th amendments to the Sri Lankan constitution. The 13th amendment aims to devolve power to regional units, while the 17th amendment requires the appointment of a Constitutional Council that subsequently has power to appoint several bodies including the National Police Commission and the Human Rights Commission.
— The GoSL, in consultation with the UN, INGOs, civil society activists and minority political parties, should come up with a comprehensive plan for the voluntary return or resettlement of all IDPs, including Muslims. Where there are insurmountable obstacles to return, properties of an equal value and quality should be offered. All communities must be treated with fairness. The GoSL should declare a realistic and achievable date by which all IDPs can be returned or resettled, and should work towards meeting that target.
— The GoSL should develop a plan for providing assistance to the various categories of persons who have been released from camps and returned, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.
— The GoSL should work with the UN, international agencies, INGOs and NGOs to do a full assessment of families who have been separated, and to account for people sent to ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘detention’ camps. Measures should be taken with urgency to reunite separated families.
— The GoSL should declare the number of Tamils arrested and detained from the camps. Detention centres should be open to the ICRC and the UN. The government should adhere to international due process standards when arresting and detaining IDPs.
— The UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues should be granted an invitation by the GoSL to visit the country in order to report to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on the situation of minorities in Sri Lanka.
Media Officer and Sri Lanka Programme Coordinator
Minority Rights Group International
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