Monday, October 18, 2010

World’s hungry billion and Sri Lanka’s increasing malnutrition crisis

By the Economist | The Sunday Times

Yesterday was World Food Day: the day set apart to remind the world that there is a grave problem of hunger in many parts of the world. There have never been as many hungry people in the world, as on World Food Day 2010 when there were about one billion hungry people in the world. There are many reasons for this heartbreaking situation the world over that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Director-General Jacques Diouf, described as a “tragic achievement in these modern days".

Mahatma Gandhi, whose birthday anniversary was commemorated earlier this month on October 2, said: “There is enough food for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.” Among the reasons for this situation are the unequal distributions of people to land and water resources in the world and the unequal distribution of incomes and poverty within countries. Expenditure on wars, rather than on the war on hunger is a fundamental cause that does not enable the poor to be given the necessary income support to obtain their minimum requirements of food. Some recent proximate reasons that have aggravated the situation are climate change, droughts, floods and forest fires causing soaring food prices. The financial crisis and economic recession has not helped either.

There are large numbers in Sri Lanka without adequate food: persons who are hungry, malnourished or undernourished. There is growing evidence of increasing malnutrition in Sri Lanka. The rising prices of food are likely to aggravate this situation, especially in households that do not produce food. Although the country does not have serious food shortages malnutrition affects nearly one-third of children and one quarter of women. Almost one out of five children are born with low birth weight and about 29 per cent of children under five are reported to be underweight, rising as high as 37.4 per cent, in some deprived districts.

The greatest tragedy of malnutrition is that it prevents children from reaching their full potential for growth and development. Malnutrition during childhood has serious and long lasting consequences. There are 14 per cent of children under five who suffer from acute malnutrition (wasting) when their weight is compared to the weight of a normal child of the same height. Nearly 58 per cent of infants between 6 and 11 months and 38 per cent children between 12 - and 23 months are anaemic. The government is conscious of this problem and has set in motion programmes to tackle it.

The level of incomes and the pattern of income distribution determine to a significant extent the access to enough food at the household level. Poverty is a foremost determinant of food insecurity that leads to undernourishment. Further the availability of sufficient food and the means to acquire enough food at the household and individual level does not ensure proper utilization of food and good health. The nutritional status of an individual depends on food as well as other factors such as clean water supplies, good sanitation, acceptable housing, and health care, besides others.

The immediate and underlying causes of childhood malnutrition in Sri Lanka range from disease factors and inadequate dietary intake to knowledge and cultural factors that influence the utilization of health services and available food. Poverty in its many manifestations (among these, low household income, inadequate basic infrastructure, limited access to media), affects nearly 23 per cent of households in Sri Lanka and is closely intertwined with household food security. However, while poverty is an important basic determinant of child under nutrition, it does not solely explain the high rates of child malnutrition prevailing in Sri Lanka. Other major determinants of malnutrition in the country include inappropriate feeding practices, micronutrient deficiencies and disease.

Despite the fact that exclusive breastfeeding levels have risen significantly, some babies are still being bottle-fed. Not only is such formula substitutes inferior to breast milk these do not contain colostrums, the first milk rich in proteins and antibodies that protect children from several infectious diseases. Therefore children should be exclusively breastfed in the first six months and should not be given the wrong kind of food.

Micronutrient deficiencies which affect healthy child growth and development are less obvious forms of under nutrition but constitute major public health problems in Sri Lanka. The most common micronutrient deficiencies in children and women are iodine deficiency disorders, which affect physical and mental development of children; iron – which leads to anaemia and impairs cognitive development in children; and vitamin A which affects eyesight and immunity to diseases. Vitamin A deficiency affects one third of children below 6 years of age and iron deficiency affects over one half of children 5-10 years old. One out of every five children suffers from iodine deficiency disorders – the single most important preventable causes of physical and mental retardation.

Diarrhoea continues to contribute to child under nutrition mainly due to inadequate access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Around one third of households have no access to sanitation and about one quarter has no access to safe drinking water. The wide disparities that prevail across the regions and districts of Sri Lanka create major challenges in dealing with malnutrition.

Dynamism in the rural and agricultural sectors is essential to narrow the rural-urban income gap and reduce rural poverty that is closely related to food security. The World Development Report 2008 (WDR) argued that an emphasis on agricultural investment, reforms and policies in agriculture are essential. It disclosed that agricultural and rural sectors in developing countries have suffered from neglect and underinvestment over the past 20 years. Only a mere 4 per cent of official development assistance was for agriculture.

Even in countries that are heavily reliant on agriculture for overall growth, public spending for farming is only a small proportion of total government spending. These are fundamental reasons for the soaring food prices we are experiencing and the large number of people in the world being hungry.

The World Bank argues strongly for more and better investment in agriculture and rural infrastructure. Higher levels of investment are needed by governments in science, agricultural research, infrastructure, and human capital. There should be better policies and institutions that are major drivers of agricultural productivity growth. Despite high returns on these investments, developing countries grossly under invest in these public goods.

In Sri Lanka, agricultural growth has been only 1.2 per cent per year and lagged behind those of other sectors. Production of several crops declined over a period of time and even when there was growth these have been modest. The yield levels attained in almost all crops is much less than the potential. This applies as much to plantation crops as to small holder agriculture.

Agricultural growth could contribute to reduction of poverty, hunger and malnutrition. Poverty and food insecurity are largely problems in the rural and estate areas in Sri Lanka. The development of Sri Lanka’s agriculture requires many thrusts. There has to be much more investment in research and rural infrastructure development. The agricultural extension services that are hardly serving its purpose should be reformed and reconstituted.

The problems of marketing of agricultural produce have to be resolved by developing storage and milling capacity, promoting competition and improving transport facilities. There should be more constructive private sector-public sector collaboration. Land policies require to be reformed in the context of current situations to permit land use on the basis of economic returns. Productivity increases in agriculture could play an important role in the reduction of poverty, hunger and malnutrition.

© The Sunday Times

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Monday, October 18, 2010

When the “South” surrenders with or without “White Flags”

By Kusal Perera | The Sunday Leader

The famously speculative “white flag” case against SF with FJ continuing on the witness box, cross examined by Defence Counsel is now into controversies more on publication than on FJ’s reporting.

What is this case about? This case has SF as the man who commandeered the war, accused and charged for making provocative statements creating unrest and communal problems in the country and inconveniencing the government. “Inconveniencing the government” by talking of “white flags” and surrender of LTTE men who were later clarified by him, as killed on the battleground.

This would certainly not come up for questioning, as the purpose of this case is not to investigate the circumstances of the death of those non combatant LTTE leaders who, it is said have walked up with white flags to surrender.

Though outside the court case, this accusation over “white flag killings” does raise goose pimples in this regime. Media reports have many high profile personnel implicated in negotiating the “surrender”. Two articles, one by Marie Colvin, a British journalist who, some nine years ago in 2001, wrote about the war from behind the front lines in LTTE controlled areas and the other by an investigative reporter, Andrew Buncombe, who wrote to the Independent from Colombo, are very insightful articles, on “white flags and surrender”.

Marie Colvin’s article — ‘Tigers begged me to broker surrender’ — date lined May 24, 2009 in the London Sunday Times, was just five days after the war was declared successfully over, by the President. Buncombe’s article — Tamil leaders ‘killed as they tried to surrender’ — was filed just one day after, on May 20, 2009.

This single quote from Buncombe’s article is most intriguing. “Mr. Kohona produced a text message stored on his phone which he had sent to the NGO at 8.46am on Sunday, 16 hours before the Norwegian minister had his final conversation with the LTTE leaders. The message – in response to a question from the NGO as to whether the two political leaders would be safe if they gave themselves up – read: “Just walk across to the troops, slowly! With a white flag and comply with instructions carefully. The soldiers are nervous about suicide bombers.” The whole article can be accessed from the web at –

This next quote from Marie Colvin’s article is more than intriguing. “I told him (Vijey Nambiar – Ban Ki-moon’s Chief of Staff) the Tigers had laid down their arms. He said he had been assured by Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan President, that Nadesan and Pulidevan would be safe in surrendering. All they had to do was “hoist a white flag high”, he said. I asked Nambiar if he should not go north to witness the surrender. He said no, that would not be necessary: the president’s assurances were enough.”

And then Colvin writes, “I was woken at 5 am by a phone call from another Tigers’ contact in Southeast Asia. He had been unable to get through to Nadesan. ‘I think it’s all over,’ he said. ‘I think they’re all dead’.” The whole article, is at –

That for now would suffice, as this case is all about SF’s remarks on the issue and not about Nadesan and Pulidevan with about 300 others, carrying “white flags”.

How the “home made” chutney gets its recipe

Walking to the court house, SF says he would not bow down to “hooligans”. Yet both SF and FJ would have anxious moments as humans, in how the case rolls over each day. Meanwhile the regime is on a another rendezvous. This society is now their ball of clay, to make their own designs from. The next two Bills to come up in the legislature, works around such thumbing and kneading of society.

The government is to use a legal provision to have all PCs ratify the bills, to say there is no opposition to their two draft bills, the Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Bill 2010 and the Local Authorities (Special Provisions) Bill 2010.

There is immediate response in saying the two bills strengthen the processes for counting and polling in order to ensure the integrity of an election. The mixed system of having “ward” base direct representation with FPP elections, is thought of as making the elected representative more accountable to the people. Yet the whole approach and how the Local Authorities (LA) would be brought under the Colombo centred political authority, deflates all such “integrity” and “close to people” representation. Colombo centred power that takes over LAs removes the validity of the voter, how ever free and fair the election could be. It then gives party secretaries the power to decide on mayors / chairmen and vacancies, reducing “voter importance” to naught, again from Colombo.

These two Bills thus taken together, contradicts the existing political consensus on devolution and power sharing, whether “13 Plus” or “Minus” contradicts the President who says he would find his own “home grown” solution in sharing power. It also contradicts the broad consensus arrived at and written into the “Final Report” of the APRC, handed to the President by its Chairman and Minister, Vitharana, who is now wholly dumb on the issue.

There is no provision in the present Constitution as provided for in Article 04 of List I under the “Ninth Schedule” of the 13th Amendment, for a minister in Colombo to decide on dissolutions and administration of Local Government (LG) bodies. This is a devolved subject to the PCs. In fact, it is irrelevant to have even a minister for LG, as PCs take care of all LAs. But in Colombo, they do swear in ministers for subjects like LG and Co-operatives, portfolios they have no reason to have and interfere in work that PCs have to be held responsible for.

This government’s intentions go beyond such interference. It keeps accumulating power in Colombo and in the hands of the Executive, establishing a regime that would finally control all aspects of governance, under a single ruler. One long leap towards such power accumulation was with the new 18th Amendment that did away with the 17th Amendment. All power in appointing all key positions are now with the sole and mighty power of the Executive, who continues with immunity from judicial inquiry. The first layer of governance has thus been usurped and centralised in the hands of the President.

The third tier in governance, the LA’s will now be grabbed with the two Bills lined up for adoption. Giving powers over LAs to a minister contradicting existing law, provides the regime to have all strings in their hands, to be pulled at, when they want. This needs to be seen in the context of the defence budget which has kept increasing after the war from Rs177 bn in 2009 to Rs.214 bn in 2010. Estimates for 2011 show another increase to Rs. 227 bn.

This needs to be seen in the context of the Defence Ministry being given all urban development powers vested with the UDA and land reclamation and development under the SLLR&DC too. The Coast Conservation Department that had traditionally been a subject under the Fisheries Ministry, is also with the President, listed under Ports and Aviation. All LAs would thus be tied to the defence establishment as well.

Where most get carried away, despite this heavy centralisation of power with defence playing a lead role, is the belief that a strengthened electoral process allowing “ward” based representation, would be more voter friendly and would be responsible to the voter. But history proves otherwise. Single ward, single member representation has never been pro development.

Nominations and elections to such wards have always been on caste, religion or ethnicity, exploited by political parties. Elected members were seen around, but never have they been efficient, town and city planners for village, town or urban councils. They eventually turned out as grass root power nodes controlled by Colombo party bosses, in government or in opposition.

So was it with elected MPs to the old electorate. If they had been “voter friendly” as most wish to believe, this political tragedy under different governments since independence, would not have been as nauseating as this. It is with them that rural poverty expanded. It is with them, communal politics turned into a brutal war. It is them who established this 1978 Constitution.

Their independence is tied to power, vested in Colombo. With a regime that can negate all democracy, they’ll be colourfully dressed dancers in a puppet show. Their allegiance will not be with the voter, but with the regime. What responsibility can the voter expect from such members, though from a “ward”, elected from a free and fair election ? It may not be long, for white flags in the South.

© The Sunday Leader

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Most Sri Lankan families can’t buy even a basic house: World Bank

The Sunday Times

While housing developers are doing good business and Sri Lanka’s rich are buying and selling luxury condominiums for profit, most families can’t raise the money for even a basic house, according to the World Bank.

“Newspapers are full of real estate classified ads for both rental and purchase properties. At the same time, more than 80% of the households in Sri Lanka have no access to home financing, and about 7% are lacking homes. One third live in semi-permanent housing and 6% live in line room estates and shanties,” it says in a report on housing finance.

It said middle-income families find it difficult to get loans for housing because banks need collateral to lend. Because of the mortgage lending system, mortgages are not affordable for most families looking for even a one-bedroom house.

“Using an industry standard of mortgage lending up to three times annual income, a low-cost house of Rs 175,000 could be affordable to an individual with an annual income of Rs 58,000. Accordingly, a 350-square-foot house with one bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and a toilet that, by one estimate, would cost Rs 175,000 would not be affordable for nearly 45% of the Sri Lankan people,” says the report titled ‘Housing Finance Needs to Reach South Asia’s Poor’.

The World Bank suggested creating property and house price indexes and introducing reforms to government organisations operating in the housing market, to meet demand for housing. The need for housing in Sri Lanka is rising but housing financing is lagging behind, it said. “Housing finance growth is nowhere near the pace necessary to close the housing gap over the next 10-year period,” the report said.

An efficient land registration and titling mechanism is needed, says the World Bank, to help the mortgage market grow, allowing more people to access housing finance. “The first necessity to develop primary mortgage markets is a functional land registration and titling system,” it said.

The World Bank suggests creating property and house price indexes and improving the Credit Information Bureau (CRIB). The World Bank says the Asian Development Bank’s financial sector assessment suggests privatising CRIB. State-owned mortgage banks are also cited for structural reforms. The World Bank says the State Mortgage and Investment Bank (SMIB) and the Housing Development Finance Corporation (HDFC) should be exposed to general market competition and should operate on an equal footing with other market participants.

The use of secondary mortgage market instruments is seen as a possible method to raise funds to expand the local mortgage market. “For the mortgage market to rapidly expand beyond current effective demand and eat into some of the existing housing finance gap, adequate mortgage funding is needed. The required liquidity for fast growth cannot be provided by existing funding sources. Basic and robust secondary mortgage market solutions (such as covered bonds or a liquidity facility) would make this possible. In the longer run, when a sizable primary mortgage market of a certain scale develops, securitisation will become a viable option,” says the report.

The demand for housing however, is building up every year. According to Central Bank estimates the annual demand for housing in Sri Lanka is between 50,000 -100,000 units, but two thirds of the incremental demand is not met. So every year, the backlog demand is adding to new demand.
The housing pressure is felt most in cities, where population growth is faster than the overall national population growth rate of 1% per year.

Nearly 15%–20% of the Sri Lankan population is urban—and that population is expected to grow at 3% –4% a year,” says the World Bank. Out of the 25 districts, four urbanized areas are already experiencing very high population density, causing housing problems.

“However, in 4 of the country’s 25 districts, the population density is comparatively very high, resulting in massive urban housing issues. The people-per-square kilometre density of Colombo (3,330) is followed by those of Gampaha (1,539), Kalutara (677), and Kandy (667),” notes the World Bank report.
The cost of building a house has also shot up over the past few year. The cost of buildings has tripled since 1990 because of the rapid increase in land prices, particularly in city areas, and also because of price increases and shortages of construction material.

“The cost of building has increased about threefold since 1990, thus inhibiting the growth of housing construction. Building materials that registered substantial price increases since 1990 include sand (1,070% increase), timber (568%), and bricks (678%). Labour cost increased by nearly 250% during this period,” it said.

“Information on land prices for 2003 and 2006 obtained from finance companies showed that average land prices in 18 selected areas have increased by about 28%, with a growth range of 12% –71% annually,” says the report.

Developing the mortgage market is seen as a solution to meet housing requirements in the country. However, the World Bank notes that this segment of housing finance is hampered by legal limitations, risk management issues and funding.

© The Sunday Times

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Major General takes over as the deputy head of the Sri Lanka's UN Mission

By K.T.Rajasingham | Asian Tribune

Latest report revealed that Major General Shavendra Silva has taken over as the new Deputy Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka’s UN Mission in New York.

He was earlier the Brigadier who successfully commanded the 58 Division of the Sri Lanka Army during the humanitarian operation against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam .

In July 2010, Brigadier Shavendra Silva (45) of the Gajaba regiment was promoted as the youngest Major General in the SL Army and served as the Army Operations Director and Commanding Officer.

He succeeded Bandual Jaysekera who is presently the Director General of Public Communication at the Ministry of External Affairs.

Asian Tribune learnt that both Dr. Palitha Kohona, the Permanent Representative as well as his Deputy Major General Shavendra Silva hails from Matale.

In the meantime, former Brigadier Prasana De Silva [then Commander of 53 Division ], who too was promoted to the rank of Major General in July, is the new Military Advisor to Sri Lanka’s High Commission in London. He has been appointed to the diplomatic position as Minister and posted to the Sri Lanka Mission in London.

He succeeds Brigadier N.A. Dharmaratne.

© Asian Tribune

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Monday, October 18, 2010

"Sri Lanka is heading for a Taliban era police state situation" says young couples

By Gayan Kumara Weerasinghe | Lakbima News

Couples speaking to Lakbima News urge a human rights organization to challenge the police harassment they underwent, in courts on behalf of them, as their personal freedom is curtailed day by day.

We spoke to many couples at Galle Face and Viharamahadevi Park and in anonymity, they said that they only spend time talking to their lovers and do not engage in any sexual activities. But they are in fear whether police would arrest them as police arrested couples on Polhena beach in Matara, and at Galle Fort recently.

“We even fear to hold hands. We feel that we are losing our freedom to talk to our lovers. This country is heading for a Taliban era police state situation”, they said.

Meanwhile, some 13 hotels and guest houses in Kurunegala which had been pounced upon by the police to nab suspected couples a few weeks ago are shut down at the moment.

As a result of this closure of hotels and guest houses, Kurunegala town could now only boast of one such hotel with basic lodging facilities.

That hotel bears the name ‘Wickrema’ and it has 53 rooms, and according to the owners of that hotel the Kurunegala police are keen to close it down as well, hence their decision to swoop down on alleged couples staying at the hotel.

The Kurunegala police as a result of their swoop on hotel ‘Wickrema’ had taken 47 such couples out of 47 rooms recently.

Hotel and guest house rooms

These couples after being taken to the police station had been benched, and they had been sternly warned not to visit any hotel in the town.

SSP Vaas Gunawardene in charge of the Kurunegala Division, stated that the reason for sending cops to swoop on hotel and guest house rooms, was to nab ‘suspects’ as they had received ‘information’ .

As a result of it all people inside hotel and guest house rooms have to be checked and they invariably have to be taken into custody, he said.

“During most of these raids we have managed to nab several school children as well, those who leave home under the ruse of going for extra lessons end up in the rooms for casual sex and all other kinds of vices”, SSP Vass Gunawardene opined.

He remarked that though adults are within their rights to do whatever they want inside rooms, as police they cannot condone school children being left alone to their devices, in such places.

He commented that Kurunegala has already emerged as the city with the highest number of brothels and the largest number of abortions taking place in this country. He said it was up to the law enforcement authorities to curb the menace, hence their decision to swoop down on suspected couples at hotels and guest houses in the town area.

SSP Vaas Gunawardene stressed that one of the main reasons for abortions to escalate in the area was school children being left alone in rooms in such guest houses and other hotels.

He further explained that despite repeated requests to hotel and guest house owners not to permit underage males and females to patronize their rooms, such pleas had fallen on deaf ears prompting them to carry out raids as a last resort.

Adultery not an offence

Meanwhile, Senior Lecturer of the Law Faculty of the Colombo University Prathiba Mahanama noted that nabbing couples occupying hotel or guest house rooms was against the law.

He added that school-going children would never occupy such places and that this was a lame excuse trotted out by the police.

“Apprehending couples who are beyond the age limit required to stay in such rooms is a slight on the judiciary itself”, Mahanama said.

“The reason for this is, the judiciary has clearly granted the approval and the right to any couple who are not underage, from staying in such rooms”.

He further pointed out that recently the OIC of the Seeduwa police having deployed a team, had nabbed a couple occupying a hotel room.

“The male was married while the female was unmarried and they were produced before court as a couple who had extra-marital sex”, Mahanama added.

“However, that couple appealed to the SC through a fundamental rights application and the SC gave the ruling that any couple irrespective of whether they are married or not could occupy rooms of their choice -- and that it does not come under an offence.’’

“The SC has clearly indicated that adultery is only relevant in a divorce case and the only charge that could be directed would be at people who are below the age of 16 from occupying such hotels or guest houses, in which case sex becomes statutory rape”.

Prathiba Mahanama also asserted that the police can only raid brothels with a search warrant issued by a court and not otherwise.

In that sense he affirmed that if a couple who are occupying a room according to their wishes are evicted forcibly by the police, such couples could always file fundamental rights case against their tormentors.

© Lakbima News

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Monday, October 18, 2010

A War Criminal concluding the Commonwealth Games is the best it could go!

By Avinash Pandey | Asian Human Rights Commission

Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Sri Lanka was the guest of honour at the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games 2010, New Delhi. He presided over the extravagant ceremony that would declare the arrival of India on the big stage, conclusively.

Presiding over something is nothing new for the President. He has presided over the last leg of the decades long civil war leading to the final victory of the Sri Lankan state over the rebels. In doing that, he has presided over countless cases of extrajudicial killings, of torture, of illegal abductions and of course disappearances. It goes without saying that the victims were almost all civilians, trying to run away from equally barbarous rebels - the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The Organising Committee (OC) of the Commonwealth Games 2010(CWG), duly supported by the provincial and central levels, has presided over a similar exercise in quality even if not in degree. Forced to work and live under the most inhuman conditions, more than 60 workers have died at CWG worksites, a number not really incomparable to the Sri Lankan war if one looks at the numbers involved.

The war in Sri Lanka was fought on enormous costs, all of that unaudited, unaccounted. There have been reports that part of the money to wage the war came from the humanitarian relief the Sri Lankan government received from international agencies and governments.

CWG, the biggest games till date, have proved to be the costliest and most corrupt. The cost of the games has turned out to be 114 times higher than the original estimates, spending more than 7 billion USD. All in the name of 'national pride' in a country that does not feel ashamed of ranking 67th in the global hunger index released by the International Food Policy Research Institute. Think of the fact that the total budgetary allocation for the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) is a mere INR 8,700 crore, a pittance as compared to the games.

Much before entering the last leg, the Civil War in Sri Lanka has resulted into the deaths of hundred thousand civilians. A decade before it got over, Sri Lanka earned the unenviable distinction of being second, next only to Iraq in the number of 'disappearances'(a euphemism for forcible abductions, torture and killing of civilian and combatants alike) according to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in 1999. A decade before that, it has had some 3000 people killed extrajudicially in just one district named Amparai.

Half a decade before that, around 10,000 to 60,000 (depending on contradictory estimates) Sinhalese, the majority ethnic group, had been butchered in the name of suppressing the Marxists revolutionary movement by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

Not one of these atrocities has been investigated into impartially. The perpetrators, instead of being brought to justice, have been rewarded by regimes after regimes. In the face of the JVP's insurgency followed by the civil war, justifications were not hard to come by. People kept seeing their rights getting trampled over by the state and the rebels alike.

Not a single death at CWG worksites has been investigated into either. The OC, the governments, the quasi-governmental human rights watchdogs, went beyond remaining quiet and actively tried to push the deaths under the carpet.

National pride comes at a price after all. So what if this price is always paid by the most vulnerable and not by the rich. It's just that, a chance encounter.

Barbarism, brutality and the utter disregard for life and dignity has become a 'normal' part of the life of ordinary Sri Lankans. In a much distorted sense of the word, ordinary Sri Lankans had learnt to live with all this. They believed that life could not get worse, that their country had reached the limits already.

Presiding over the deadliest phase of the war, Rajapaksa proved them wrong. The last two weeks of the war alone have resulted into deaths of 7000 civilians as per UN estimates. Other sources like The Times newspaper had put the figures at 20,000, adding that almost all of them were caused by the Sri Lankan army.

The Sri Lankan army resorted to shelling on civilian targets and arrested those who were trying to flee from the LTTE. It fired at civilians without warning, 'suspecting' them of being rebels or 'their' sympathisers. According to human rights organisations, it detained more than 10,000 civilians. Most seriously, it fired even on surrendering LTTE rebels. At the time of victory, Sri Lanka had 300,000 Tamils as Internally Displaced Persons(IDPs) living in the most inhuman conditions in rehabilitation camps in their own country.

The games, too, have resulted in serious violations of the human rights of the poor. In order to present a clean, shining face of Delhi (and India by implication) to the world, the government resorted to forced evictions of street vendors and closed down shelter homes. It demolished thousands of homes (tersely called slums in the official language) rendering a minimum of 2,00,000 people homeless. It chased street vendors out of the city and thus ensured the loss of livelihood opportunities for workers belonging to informal sectors like rag-pickers affecting a minimum of 300000 'citizens' of India.

Sri Lanka, a country of 20 million people chased 300,000 of its citizens out of their homes to win a war. Delhi, a city of 13 million, rendered 200,000 of its citizens homeless to salvage 'national pride'.

Rajapaksa led the war with complete control. The proof for his direct involvement in extrajudicial killings came from none other than General Sarath Fonseka, his commander in chief. He said, much before his arrest and consequent conviction for 'treason' that the orders to execute surrendering Tamil Tiger leaders in the final days of the war had come directly from the defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the brother of the President. The claim was further substantiated by the fact that the general retracted his claim later and asserted that he had 'mis-spoken'.

The world has been asking for an impartial enquiry into the alleged human rights violations and the infringement of Geneva conventions. The UN secretary general has appointed a special panel to advise him on "accountability issues" regarding the alleged war crimes committed by both the government troops and the LTTE. The President kept doggedly refusing to hold any impartial enquiry, while appointing his own commission to hoodwink the international community. Does one need more proof for his complicity?

The war has brought an end to the armed hostilities. It has given rise to the hopes of reconciliation between communities, of the possibilities of rebuilding the nation. The only way to that reconciliation was restoring justice and rule of law to the island nation. It required the government to assuage the feelings of Tamils who had survived so much of loss, both human and material. It required the state to prosecute the perpetrators of war crimes.

The president responded to all this by celebrating the first anniversary of LTTE's defeat in the most triumphalist tones, indeed almost humiliating the Tamils. The parade and the fanfare on the day was greater than that of Independence Day celebrations of Sri Lanka. Worse, this was nothing strange given the fact that Rajpaksa's government has started celebrating the day of collapse of JVP's insurgency as the day of "national victory", think whatever of almost 30000 innocent ones that perished to the bullets of the government.

The government of India too did the same. Instead of instituting impartial inquiries into the criminal negligence causing the death of the workers to the massive corruption by the OC, it decided to bail out the officials employing even the army to clear the mess. The political leadership of the country issued impassioned appeals to the citizenry to ensure the national pride remains intact. It was a macabre dance of patriotism, not very different from one in Sri Lanka.

It was not for nothing that the OC was compelled to issue a denial that it was advising staff to ignore one of its major founding principles - to protect human rights. It should have, in the same statement, also repented the fact that it had suspended Pakistan from the membership of Commonwealth in November 2007 on similar grounds. However bad it could be, after all, Pakistan's record in ensuring human rights would certainly not be worse than Sri Lanka.

Maybe the preparation for the games and the most serious violations of the rights of the urban poor in India were a dry run for the upcoming 'projects' of the Indian state to enhance national 'pride'. Maybe India has decided to learn a few lessons from President Rajapaksa. He is presiding over the dismantling of democracy in Sri Lanka. Maybe India is looking forward to the Rajapaksin solution for Kashmir and the North East.

It has got the best teacher available then. Welcome Mr Rajapaksa!

Avinash Pandey, alias Samar, is a research scholar based in New Delhi, India. Currently Samar is in Hong Kong on a work assignment with the AHRC.


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Monday, October 18, 2010

Commonwealth has abandoned human rights commitment – leaked memo

By Julian Borger | The Guardian

The Commonwealth has abandoned its commitment to defending human rights, according to a leaked document obtained by the Guardian in which the secretary general tells his staff it is not their job to speak out against abuses by the 54 member states.

David Cameron and the foreign secretary, William Hague, have both said they will put new emphasis on the Commonwealth in Britain's foreign policy. But the organisation's London-based institutions, the secretariat and the charitable foundation, are both in turmoil, riven by disputes over their purpose and direction, and internal wrangles over the treatment of staff.

Coming soon after the well-publicised shortcomings in India's preparations for the Commonwealth Games, the latest revelations about dysfunction within the secretariat and foundation are likely to add to questions over what the Commonwealth is for. The most threatening internal rupture is over human rights. Staff at the secretariat were furious when the secretary general, Kamalesh Sharma, remained silent over a series of abuses by member states in recent years.

For example, when the Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh, threatened to behead homosexuals in 2008; when government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels were accused of widespread atrocities at the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka last year; and when a Malawi court in May sentenced a gay couple to jail for being homosexual, the secretary general ignored calls from secretariat staff urging him to express concern at least.

"All those cases were all about the values the Commonwealth is supposed to stand for and we failed," said one staff member. "I feel we could become moribund."

In response to complaints from employees, the secretary general's office told his staff that the institution had no obligation to pronounce on the issue.

"The secretariat … has no explicitly defined mandate to speak publicly on human rights," Sharma's office told senior staff. "The expectation is that the secretary general will exercise his good offices as appropriate for the complaint and not that he will pronounce on them."

Human rights activists said the comments represented a reversal of the Commonwealth's tradition of speaking out over gross abuses, such as apartheid. They said the secretary general was contradicting a key policy document adopted by Commonwealth heads of state in 1995 that calls for the "immediate public expression by the secretary general of the Commonwealth's collective disapproval of any such infringement" of democratic values and fundamental human rights.

Purna Sen, the head of the secretariat's human rights unit, said yesterday: "We have been accused of being over-cautious. Our work below the radar is extremely important but we need to explore more fully where we can make public statements. Public comments need not be condemnations, but we need to defend our values."

Others question whether quiet diplomacy by the secretariat has been effective, as states have little to fear from the Commonwealth.

Danny Sriskandarajah, director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, said: "I recognise the Commonwealth often works behind the scenes, but without public achievements on its values it will lose credibility."

He added: "Many of the Commonwealth institutions were created in the 1960s and have structures and hierarchies that now seem outdated. It needs to modernise its institutions if it wants to be fit for purpose in the 21st century."

The Commonwealth Foundation, a charitable trust aimed at promoting co-operation between professional bodies in the member states, has also been split since a decision last year to cut direct funding for HIV and Aids prevention programmes by more than half.

The internal dispute came to a boil last October when the woman in charge of the programmes, Anisha Rajapakse, was suspended, escorted out of the foundation and then summarily dismissed, on the basis of allegations by an intern.

According to the foundation, the intern alleged that Rajapakse had tried to persuade her to forge a letter purported to come from a civil society group complaining about the cut in funding.

However, the intern, Elizabeth Pimentel, wrote to the foundation's board of governors in August distancing herself from the allegations.

In her letter, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, Pimentel said her name had been "wrongly connected" with the disciplinary action against Rajapakse, and that she had not wanted remarks she made to the management "to be construed as a complaint at any point".

She added: "My discussions have been misinterpreted and used out of context."

Rajapakse and Pimentel both refused to comment on the dispute, which is due to go before an employment tribunal in December.

Two other members of the foundation's 20-strong staff have started grievance procedures against its director, Mark Collins. A secretariat staff member said: "There is a climate of fear at the Foundation. Everyone is afraid of doing something the director does not like because of what happened to Anisha."

Collins said it was an "undesirable situation" to be the focus of so many staff complaints at the same time but denied that there was any systemic problem at the foundation.

He said Pimentel had not formally withdrawn her original allegation against Rajapakse. "At the time, she felt that an investigation was justified," he said, suggesting Pimentel had since become "fearful" over the impending employment tribunal.

© The Guardian

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