Friday, October 16, 2009

Sri Lanka: Harassed NGOs, stifled journalists and a self congratulatory government

Iman Qureshi - Sri Lanka came to the end of a 26-year-long war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) on the 18 May 2009. Since then, 'peace' has been balancing on a curtailment of basic freedoms. Despite criticism from the international community, Tamil civilians have for months been placed in what the government calls "welfare camps". UN officials have compared these to internment camps. With 260,000 people crammed into just 16 camps lacking in basic sanitation. Water is sparse and a third of all children are malnourished. Civilians, policed by armed guards, are forbidden to leave the grounds and with the monsoon season approaching the camps are expected to flood, spreading disease and causing tents to disintegrate.

The Sri Lankan government has outlined its reasons: Tamils need to be screened for any remaining affiliations with the LTTE in order to prevent a resurgence, and the vast minefields in the northern and eastern parts of the country need to be cleared before the area is once again inhabitable. The government, having pledged three months ago to release 80% of the detainees by the end of the year, has so far released only 20,000. Furthermore, draconian measures put in place by President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government suggest that its intentions aren't all that straightforward.

A record of state sanctioned murder, abduction and intimidation keeps the grudging dissident media at bay. According to Amnesty International, 14 journalists have been killed since 2006; the Committee to Protect Journalists allege that no one has yet been brought to trial in any of these cases. Additionally, foreign journalists have throughout the year been deported and refused visa renewals.

The media is not Mr Rajapaksa's only adversary. NGOs have also been made to tread around the government with caution. The head of the NGO, Forut, arguing that it should remain neutral, was deported for not flying a Sri Lankan flag over the office after the Tamil defeat. James Elder a spokesman for UNICEF, was expelled in September for criticising the treatment of children in the camps. The Red Cross was ordered to leave eastern Sri Lanka where the biggest camps are located. It seems that while Mr Rajapaksa is more than happy to receive foreign aid in the form of a gargantuan IMF loan ($2.6 billion) or the £12.5 million of humanitarian assistance allocated by the Department for International Development (DFID), foreign aid workers are largely unwelcome.

Camps aside, Sri Lanka is hardly a model example for human rights. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, presiding over a UN Security Council resolution on Women and Peace and Security passed on 30 September, named Sri Lanka as a prime culprit for using rape as a tactic of war. The question is; should the British government be handing out monetary aid to a country closely skirting the line of human rights violations, when they have little control over how or where it is spent?

Following months of demonstrations outside Westminster, it is clear that a large Tamil diaspora in the UK is worried for the future wellbeing of Tamil Sri Lankans and fearful of Mr Rajapaksa's impune government. The string of disappearances, tortured suspects and arrests without charge is long, and although it has slowed, it has by no means stopped. Last month the army clashed with camp detainees, injuring several. As reported by the Economist, Sinhalese Sri Lankans are flocking to Tamil areas in order to reclaim "stolen" land. The British government is in a tricky predicament: do they aid, and thereby perpetuate, detention camps and a racist regime, or do they outrightly refuse assistance to some quarter of a million internally displaced people? British Minister for International Development Mike Foster's visit to Sri Lanka on 6 October has highlighted the pressing urgency for western countries to impose more stringent conditions.

Realistically there's not much western governments can do as far as human rights are concerned. A recent European effort to launch a UN war-crimes investigation in Sri Lanka was rejected by China and Russia who argued that such domestic issues should be addressed internally. The only remaining force the EU retains against the Sri Lankan government is the "GSP Plus", a trade concession that has benefited the country greatly in making exports to the EU the biggest source of foreign exchange: it is up for review on 15 October. The Economist has reported that, based on stipulations within the contract to honour human rights which have been broken, Sri Lanka is ineligible for a renewal.

With NGOs and the media being stifled and expelled, it is difficult to determine exactly what is going on. Ultimately it is up to Mr Rajapaksa to maintain a fair and unbiased governance, so far there is little evidence to show that this has been the case. If the fragile situation isn't handled carefully, Sri Lanka might very well see a greatly feared return to terrorist insurgencies and sectarian violence.

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