Friday, July 22, 2011

Colombo uses white-van to harass, threaten Radio Netherlands journalists

JDS News

The Radio Netherlands Worldwide (RNW) said on Thursday that two of its undercover journalists to Sri Lanka have been harassed and threatened using white-van, forcing them to abandon their mission half-way and return home for safety.

“Radio Netherlands Worldwide recently sent two undercover journalists to Sri Lanka. They wanted to see the post-conflict situation in the north and east two years after the bloody defeat of the Tamil Tigers. However they were “white-vanned” and forced to abort their trip and return to the Netherlands,” the RNW said on Thursday.

On an interview by the staff presenter Dheera Sujan after their return to Netherlands, the two journalists, who have faced the white-van threat, said on Thursday that their motive behind the visit to Sri Lanka was to find out the truth of the widespread claims “that the Tamils are still living under a lot of pressure and there are a lot of human rights abuses in the North and the East of the country”.

Police raid

They said that a team of ten police personnel, including the regional chief of police, has visited their hotel room on a late midnight and interrogated them at length in a threatening manner, after receiving a tip of their presence there.

“You can imagine, ten people coming into the hotel room in the middle of the night and interrogating -- it is quite intimidating,” said the male journalist, who is called as Philip considering the safety of the people they talked to in Sri Lanka.

White van

Another journalist, called here as Olivia said that a group of men in a white van have followed the bus they were travelling to another part of the country and waylaid them.

“They tried to rob and they succeeded partly in that. It was very scary,” she said.

Philip said that one of the four men has stolen their larger bag while the other man attacked Olivia and tried to rip the bag off her back.

“Whilst this was going on, another man jumped in front of the van wielding a gun waving it around. We wondered if this is just a straight forward piece of criminality. But everybody we’ve spoken to since then including embassy staff and NGO staff and journalists who have experience having lived in Sri Lanka - everybody says ‘you have been white-vanned’,” he said.

“This is an expression in Sri Lanka. This is how the authorities intimidate people, especially journalists. A gang of thugs who come along and either kidnap or in this case stage a robbery to make you feel very unsafe,” journalist Philip said.

Impact of Channel 4 documentary

“Anybody talking about the UN in Sri Lanka today run the risk of alerting the police to them, because the Sri Lankan government is very sensitive of any accusation of war crimes following the Channel 4 documentary which was telecast a few weeks ago,” he said.

Sri Lankan authorities have been routinely threatening, intimidating, harassing, kidnapping, torturing and killing local journalists in the past, but this is for the first time that they have targeted foreign journalists, that too using the notorious white van.

“We are coming into a new period in Sri Lanka. For the last few months, what is happening is a dossier being built by the international media, which could potentially lead to an international tribunal that will bring senior politicians and senior figures from the war and from the present day to book. I think that the powerful people in Sri Lanka fear that,” he said.

Rubbishing the government’s claim of successful progress of resettlement and rehabilitation, the Netherlands journalists said that the actual situation on the ground does not reflect any of that sort.

Ready to fight again

They said they managed to speak to at least nine former Tamil Tiger rebels who have been under “rehabilitation” and that they were “ready to take up arms again if the conditions under which Tamils have to live in the North and the East continued into the year ahead”.

“They said even though, they have no organisation and the Tamil Tigers or LTTE infrastructure that ran much of the north and east of the country for many years till the end of the war in May 2009 does not exist anymore, they still maintain that they would look to fight again without the support of the leadership and without Velupillai Prabhakaran,” Philip said.

“That spoke volumes of the state of despair that a lot of Tamils are still living in,” he said, adding that the victims were mainly expecting an international investigation.

He said that the ex-Tamil Tiger rebels have expressed willingness to face any such international investigation, which in contrast, was not the case for the Tamil Tiger leadership in the past. They refute liability on their side in the past.

Scared to talk

Commenting on her take on the plight of the people they have met, Olivia said that they were “very scared of the authorities, very careful of what they want to say and that’s why we also have to be careful in what we say about what we saw there”.

“The people are still in danger for meeting us and that says a lot about the state of the country at the moment,” she said.

“What happened to us and what we have been told that keeps happening to reporters who dig a little bit, who criticise the government little bit, show clearly that there has been a culture of impunity for a long time. Justice is something that we are used to in the west. We have a procedure. We can pursue people who do wrong to us but that does not exist in Sri Lanka,” Philip said.

Quoting various Human Rights reports including the one that was released last week, Philip said that there were hundreds of cases of torture, kidnap and murder by the Sri Lankan police.

“It is not going anywhere, nobody is looking at it. Nobody does anything about it and nobody takes it seriously. The culture of impunity is the biggest danger for a long lasting peace in Sri Lanka now,” said Netherlands journalist who has faced a very strange experience in Sri Lanka.

For more details: RNW team threatened in Sri Lanka


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Friday, July 22, 2011

War over, fear still stalks polls in north Sri Lanka

By Shihar Aneez | Reuters

Sri Lanka's northern cities hold local polls for the first time in many years on Saturday and though the civil war is over, fear and intimidation remain rife, poll monitors and opposition politicians say.

Voters in the separatist Tamil Tigers' self-declared capital of Kilinochchi, and in Mullaittivu where they were defeated by government forces in May 2009, will elect local councilors for the first time in 29 years.

The northern Jaffna district, under military control in the latter half of the 26-year civil war, will be holding its first local government election in 12 years.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, eager to gain support in the north, toured the area this week to launch development projects and promised more of them, in a war-ravaged region that remains firmly under military control.

"More money has been allocated to your province than the other provinces. There is no place for communal politics in Sri Lanka in the future and narrow-minded politics is unwanted in the future," Rajapaksa, who is from the Sinhalese ethnic majority, told a crowd in mostly rote Tamil this week.

Rajapaksa's government led the offensive to destroy the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), culminating in a final battle in May 2009 that ended the guerrilla group's campaign for a separate state for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority.

Since then Rajapaksa has promised to rebuild the north, shunning calls for political reconciliation in favor of economic development under what he calls "The Northern Spring."

But violence has persisted, and militias who fought for the government have used force to retain their influence. Election monitors have catalogued many violations, including the use of state resources for campaigning, and the use of violence.

"Everyone knows certain sections of the military and the political groups operating in Jaffna are behind these (violations)," Keerthi Thennakoon, executive director of the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), told Reuters.

"A well-calculated fear psychosis has been created among Jaffna and Killinochchi voters."

Dead dogs and funeral wreaths

Opposition politicians, including those elected from the north, have complained they have little access to the area and say they expect intimidation to keep turnout low.

"Unknown people have placed a killed dog in front of one candidate's house while other candidates have seen a funeral wreath on their front doors," parliamentarian M.A Sumathiran, from the former LTTE political proxy the Tamil National Alliance, told Reuters.

He said soldiers are going from house to house "insisting people must vote for the government party, and with all this intimidation of our candidates and the public, no action has been taken so far."

The government has denied any wrongdoing.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a Sinhalese Marxist party which in past decades led two violent insurgencies, said the military would not let them put up campaign posters and followed candidates during canvassing.

"The government badly needs to win this election at any cost to show the international community that their undemocratic and controlled governance in the north has resulted in development and thus people are supporting them," JVP parliamentarian Anura Kumara Dissanayake told Reuters.

Rajapsksa is under heavy pressure from the West to engage in political reconciliation of a sort acceptable to the TNA, and to investigate accusations of war crimes during the war's final phases to which a U.N.-sponsored report has drawn attention.


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Friday, July 22, 2011

Hard times in Sri Lanka's war-ravaged north

By Charles Haviland | BBC News

The dirt road leading south-west from Kilinochchi town is pale red, the colour of the soil of the Vanni, the northerly extreme of the Sri Lankan mainland.

It is a land that lost all its people. They retreated with the Tamil Tigers as the civil war swept through Kilinochchi more than two years ago. There are burnt-out husks of houses.

But new huts are now scattered among the trees. There is a bonfire by the roadside and small shops that returnees have opened.

A few soldiers pass on bicycles. People walk by the roadside like strangers rediscovering the land of their roots. Hundreds of thousands have left army-run camps to come home.

Entry to this region has been heavily restricted for years. But the BBC was given unconfined, though temporary, access to Kilinochchi district.

Tempered by tragedy

Chandrasegaran Thayakaran, his wife Vinodha and their four-year-old son Dhanushan are working together to put up a modest wooden-framed house in Unionkulam village.

The boy scoops up sand and carries it to the building site, patting it down carefully.

Chandrasegaran, now 22, married at 17 to escape being recruited by the Tigers.

The family lived through months under bombardment in the war zone and a year in a camp. They got a UN grant equivalent to $230 (£143) when they came out.

Since then they have had some cash help from the Save the Children charity and pawned their possessions to get by. Chandrasegaran gets some casual labour work.

Any gladness at returning to his village is heavily tempered by tragedy.

"I lost my mother, my little brother and my elder sister and brother in the war," he tells me. "We've come here without our family. So we're not really living happily."

At least people in this newly resettled community are supporting each other.

Chandrasegaran's two friends were both wounded in the war. Now they are helping the family build. The three laugh and joke as they go off by motorbike.

Everyone has had a difficult homecoming, haunted by trauma and loss.

Nagamma Chandran, a widow of about 50, lives with her mother and teenage son in a shack of tin and tarpaulin built with help from the Dutch refugee organisation ZOA and the UNHCR.

She lost her brother in the war. She and her mother are sick and she cannot find work; nor can they afford transport to a hospital.

"We've been here almost three months. Since then we have got nothing, no help. We get 100 rupees ($1) per month each in aid money," she says.

"The government is not helping us. I have sent a lot of letters, but there's no reply."

In Kilinochchi town - once the Tamil Tiger headquarters, now a government garrison town - I meet the chief local government officer, R Jegathiswaran.

She says the government is doing all it can to help the displaced people returning home.

They extend livelihood assistance - support for home gardening, livestock development or small businesses.

But she admits that some people "could not get" it - perhaps an acknowledgement that some, like the landless villagers we met, fall through the safety net.

'Bombastic monument'

"I can say the government has provided enough assistance to the people. Although they've received all the things provided by the government and some of their livelihood assistance we have provided through NGOs, they want to get more and more.

"Whatever they get, they have to be satisfied with that."

he town centre of Kilinochchi is very different from the hinterland around it.

Half a dozen soldiers, supervised by an officer, lovingly tend a huge - some say bombastic - monument to the government's war victory.

One soldier snips the grass with scissors to keep it neat. They are on duty here around the clock.

Its centrepiece is a massive concrete cube representing the Tamil Tigers' violent insurrection.

It is pierced and cracked by a big bullet, said to symbolise the "sturdiness of the invincible Sri Lankan army", and topped with a flower of peace.

The adjacent tablet says President Mahinda Rajapaksa was "born for the grace of the nation".

Not many local Tamil people seem to visit. One man tells us he finds the monument insulting.

But others flock to admire it, including a busload of Sri Lankan tourists, among them a Buddhist monk from the central highlands.

As in the countryside, everyone in town is newly returned.

Almost all have lived through terrible war experiences.

Yet Kilinochchi is now achieving a kind of normality, though under the ever watchful eyes of soldiers on every corner.

At the main bus stand, people buy transport and lottery tickets. Children eat ice-cream. There is even a souvenir shop selling T-shirts saying "Reawakening Kilinochchi", situated by a huge water tower dynamited and toppled by the Tigers.

Back in her village, Nagamma makes tea. She, like other destitute returning refugees, struggles to afford the basics of life.

I ask her if she wants punishment for those responsible for her brother's death.

"We don't need another war or fight," she says.

"We've lost a lot because of the war and it mustn't happen again. Our time is finished now, but at least the remaining children must be happy.

"Every day I pray to God for a peaceful country, where every person of every race can live in peace."

BBC News

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Friday, July 22, 2011

Sri Lanka, human rights and foreign policy in a tweet

By Phil Lynch | ABC.Net

Kevin Rudd, or @kruddmp to his online followers, likes to tweet. I strongly support his use of Twitter - social media is an important new tool in the world of digital diplomacy - but I was struck by one message from the Foreign Minister on July 4.

It read "4 corners tonight on Sri Lanka deeply disturbing. UN Human Rights Council can't simply push this to one side. Action needed. KRudd".

The program, Sri Lanka's Killing Fields, was indeed deeply disturbing. It documents serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law against Tamil civilians by Sri Lanka's military, including systemic rape, murder and the targeting of hospitals and health care clinics. The allegations are not new, however. The program aired in the UK on June 14. Both the US State Department and Human Rights Watch issued reports on possible war crimes in Sri Lanka as far back as 2009.

What struck me about the Foreign Minister's tweet was the implication that the UN Human Rights Council has failed to act with sufficient resolve or urgency on Sri Lanka. It struck me because, at the council's last session on June 15, Australia failed to even identify Sri Lanka as a 'situation requiring the council's attention'. Australia did make a strong statement calling for the council to act on Syria, Libya, Iran and Fiji. Unlike states such as the US, the UK, France, Spain, Sweden and Denmark, however, we were resolutely silent on Sri Lanka. Each of those countries and many others, by contrast, called for 'immediate action' to 'ensure accountability' for 'grave allegations' as to breaches of human rights and international law in Sri Lanka.

A critical analysis could attribute this silence to Sri Lanka's cooperation with Australia to prevent the flow of asylum seekers. The 2011/12 federal budget included $10.8 million to deploy Australian Federal Police liaison officers to Sri Lanka (as well as to Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand) to 'combat people smuggling'. The Sri Lankan Department of Immigration and Emigration is a recipient of Australian aid dollars.

A more generous analysis, to which I am inclined, attributes the disjunct between Australia's statement in Geneva and the Foreign Minister's tweet to our lack of a comprehensive strategy on human rights and foreign policy. Without such a strategy, Australia's action on international human rights often lacks coherence or clear priorities for action. This was evident again just a few days ago, when the Foreign Minister, in announcing a new aid and development strategy, said 'for the first time, human rights has been formally included within the core development objectives of the Australian aid portfolio'.

This is a positive development. It will come as some surprise, however, to the UN's Independent Expert on Human Rights and Foreign Debt, Cephas Lumina, who just three weeks earlier, was lambasted by Australia for his 'inaccuracy' in 'asserting that AusAID does not have an overarching human rights-based approach guiding its policies and programs'.

Kevin Rudd is a highly capable, energetic and ambitious Foreign Minister who professes a strong commitment to human rights. Australia's candidacy for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council, conceived and actively and appropriately pursued by the Foreign Minister, pitches us as a 'principled advocate of human rights for all'. And so should we be. The realisation of human rights should be a primary goal and instrument of Australian foreign policy. As a goal, we should commit to promoting human rights and the rule of law as a key foreign policy priority. And as an instrument, we should protect human rights to secure related goals such as peace, security and sustainable development.

If Australia's human rights rhetoric is to translate into effective outcomes, however, we need to develop a more principled and coordinated approach. A comprehensive strategy, similar to those developed by the Netherlands and Sweden, could integrate human rights in all areas of Australian foreign policy and, like those countries, capitalise on the benefits of doing so. Those countries have also appointed permanent Human Rights Ambassadors - a post which does not exist in Australia - to ensure an active and consistent approach to human rights at the international level.

With an ever-shrinking foreign service, the Foreign Minister should also establish a Human Rights Advisory Group, comprising experts from NGOs, academia and human rights bodies, to provide external advice on foreign policy and options for addressing human rights problems. Mr Rudd's UK counterpart, foreign secretary William Hague, established just such a group in 2010 and tweeted only a few days ago that 'the Group's expertise has already proved valuable in informing our human rights policies'. It is imperative, he wrote, for governments to 'hear from experts at forefront of reporting and documenting human rights abuses'.

Mr Rudd, I look forward to the tweet that reads 'Just announced comprehensive human rights strategy & 100 concrete actions Australia will take to advance human rights around world. KRudd'. That would be 140 characters worth far more than 1,000 words.

Phil Lynch is executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre.

ABC - Drum TV

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