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These blog postings do not necessarily represent the views of all members of the Advisory Council.

21/08/2014

Satellite images show that the High Security Zone is not being used as intended

Last year we ran a campaign around the Government of Sri Lanka's seizure of land belonging to Tamil families forced from their homes by the civil war. Over 7,000 acres of land - potentially up to $2 billion worth at current prices - was seized in the Northern and Eastern provinces using land acquisition notices which gave little justification for the seizures. The vast majority of this land, 6,381 acres of it, is contained within the Valikamam High Security Zone in the northern Jaffna peninsula.

Over 2,000 displaced people complained through the Sri Lankan courts but their cases are yet to be heard. They continue to be denied access to their land - indeed no one can enter the ring of checkpoints surrounding the zone without the army's permission. Meanwhile, research continued to cast doubt on the validity of the Sri Lankan Government's seizure. In particular, while the Government claims it needed the land for a "public purpose" all the evidence appeared to point to the land being put to commercial use. The Government openly touted a hotel they opened on the land, while local reports suggested that a yogurt factory had been built and that the abandoned cement factory was to be brought back into use. All of these ventures, built on judicially stolen land, were to be run by and for the army.

Questions were also asked as to what possible public purpose could require such a large amount of land. Even with the Sri Lankan Government's incredibly high level of militarisation in the north of the country it seemed inconceivable that they would need a base of this size. Many thousands of Tamil families were seemingly being kept from their homes just so the Sri Lankan Army could have a few extra thousand acres to play with.

It was for this reason that we asked the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project of the American Association for the Advancement of  Science to acquire and analyse high resolution satellite images of the Valikamam High Security Zone to determine precisely what use the land was being put to. You can access their report here and the map below summarises their main findings.


Stolen land

The analysis found that that the majority of the land does not seem to be used for public facilities, with much of it devoted to farming or commercial use. They generously estimated that 7.77 square kilometres (around 30% of the total 25.8 square kilometre site) was being put to "institutional use" and therefore could potentially have some sort of public purpose. The remaining area, covering 18 square kilometres and the former homes of thousands of displaced people, would thus appear to have simply been stolen for private gain.

Figure 11 from the report. The High Security Zone with areas put to a potentially institutional use outlined in green

Commercial use

Other uses the land had been put to seemed to be commercial in nature with much of the land seemingly used for farming. In addition, there were indications of a number of new building developments being completed or underway:
  • Around 2,150 new buildings were built across 6.5 square kilometres in the western portion of the zone up to and obscuring the zone's border. These buildings were seemingly small houses (with an average size of around 35-81 square meters) and don't seem to be part of a military base.
  • New buildings associated with the Thalsevana holiday resort are visible, as are a number of developments around the site.
  • Three other new developments, seemingly commercial (or at least non-institutional), are visible. They are pictured below. One appears to be associated with the redevelopment of the Keerimalai temple, while the other two - one in a quarry - are of unknown purpose.
  • Many of the original houses in the High Security Zone have fallen into disrepair or been reclaimed by the vegetation. However, due to the significant number of new buildings being built in the western part of the zone, the total number of buildings has gone up from 3,200 to around 4,700 - the vast majority of them (76%) seemingly non-institutional in nature.
Three new seemingly commercial developments, the middle one appears to be associated with Keerimalai temple

Militarisation: but still no excuse for a base of this size

The evidence would also seem to suggest that the Sri Lankan army’s troops are far more geographically dispersed across the Northern Province than the Sri Lankan Government have been leading the wider world to believe. Contrary to the line that troops are increasingly being moved out of the civilian areas and consolidated into the HSZ, the images are consistent with evidence elsewhere that the army continues to have a pervasive presence in civilian life in the north.

Even if we take the government’s claim that there are only 13,200 soldiers in the Northern Province at face value - and civil society sources have pointed out that the figure is in reality probably far higher – the images appear to show that there is simply not the housing capacity within the HSZ to accommodate this number, thereby corroborating previous arguments that a base of this size cannot be justified.

Although 374 new institutional buildings have been constructed, 310 have been destroyed. And while most of the buildings built have been larger than the ones they have replaced, very few look like barracks or indeed residential buildings of any sort. With a total number of buildings in institutional areas of 1137 it appears the total residential capacity of the Valikamam High Security Zone as a military base is in the low thousands at most.

Even if we were to take the generous position of assuming that every structure within the High Security Zone is used to house soldiers there are only 4,700 buildings in total and most are small houses of between 30 and 80 square meters. It seems unlikely that the total residential capacity of the area is close to 10,000 - let alone in excess of it.

It would therefore appear that the Sri Lankan Army has at least several thousand troops, and in all probability tens of thousands of troops, deployed in the Northern Province but based outside of the HSZ. Indeed it would appear that much of the Sri Lankan Army’s military presence in the Northern Province is based outside of the HSZ. This would explain why the Sri Lankan Army has been simultaneously attempting to formalise its occupation of 18 other plots of land within the Northern Province.

This geographic spread suggests a desire for the Sri Lankan Army’s militarisation of the Northern Province to be visible to the local population, and not hidden away within the High Security Zone. It suggests that the Army is still keen to ensure that it's military are an obvious and active presence within the day to day life of Sri Lanka's northern Tamils across the Northern Province - a form of military occupation which, combined as it is with systemic human rights abuses, we believe constitutes an ongoing crime against humanity.

Take action

Because of the lack of information many more people may well not be aware that the Government is plotting to take their land. Many people who left Sri Lanka still own land there, and that too could well be seized by the Government without their knowledge. For this reason we have created this map, to share information about the land which is to be seized:
  • If you own land in the north of Sri Lanka, or know anybody that does, please take a moment to look at this map and forward it on, the more people who are aware of what is taking place the better.
  • If you think you might be affected by any of these land seizures, or if you have any more precise information about the location of the land, photographs of the land, or who might own it then please get in touch.
  • More land notices are being issued all the time and we will update the map as we get them. If you know of any more land seizures please do get in touch and pass on the details. If you can send us a copy of the notice (in any language) so much the better.
Note: When using the map please be aware that the location of the items on the map are approximate in many instances. We have indicated if and how accurate we believe the location to be, but please use the land notice itself only to determine the true location of any piece of land.

The map can be accessed here, and is embedded below. Please share the link far and wide.


Click here to see AAAS' full report

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18/08/2014

Don't forget Jeyakumari. Write to her today.

Five months ago, a mother of the disappeared - Jeyakumari Balendran - was arrested and jailed amid a renewed government crackdown on dissent in the run up to Human Rights Council session in March. You may remember our campaign and our director's recent report.

Since then Jeyakumari has remained behind bars. Held under draconian anti-terror legislation that allows individuals to be detained for up to 18 months without charge, to this very day not a shred of credible evidence has been produced by the government to substantiate the allegation against her - that she was involved aiding and abetting the purported LTTE revivalist ‘Gobi’, whose apparent death in April removed even the illusion of a reason to continue to detain her.

Whilst her ongoing detention by the government continues to send a chilling message to Sri Lankan human rights defenders that their activism may be punished with impunity, on a more personal level, we remain deeply concerned for Jeyakumari’s mental wellbeing and physical safety. Not only is the Boosa detention facility in which she is held notorious for its use torture, but there are eyewitness witness reports that she (and others) have been physically abused by officials.

So we need your help. We want you to send a message of hope to Jeyakumari, by sending her a physical letter with a few short words of solidarity. By doing this, we hope to do three key things:

1) Offer some small comfort to Jeyakumari who is being held away from her family (including her 13 year old daughter) and who lives in fear for her future safety and access to a fair process.

2) Protect Jeyakumari from coming to further physical harm in detention by alerting her prison guards to the fact that the world is watching.

3) Remind the government that it cannot lock up activists with impunity, and to show solidarity with other the human rights defenders that their actions are designed to intimidate.

Writing your Letter 

In writing your letter, which could be a card or postcard, we would advise that you keep your message as personal as possible and to avoid making political statements or comments relating to the specifics of her case which could risk putting her in further danger. The letter should be seen for what it is, as a personal message of support and not part of an organised campaign (for this reason we have not included a suggested text). Because English is not Jeyakumari’s first language, we would also recommend (unless you are writing in Tamil) keeping it as short and as visual as possible. For example:



We would also advise that you print and include this short note in Tamil which helps briefly explain what the letter is for[1]. You can download this as a PDF here:

அன்புள்ள திருமதி பாலேந்திரன்,

குற்றச்சாட்டு நிரூபிக்கப்படாமல் நீங்கள் தொடர்ச்சியாக தடுத்து வைக்கப்பட்டுள்ளமைக்கு எதிரான சர்வதேச ஒருமைப்பாட்டு பிரச்சாரத்தின் ஒரு பகுதியாக இந்த கடிதம் உங்களுக்கு அனுப்பி வைக்கப்பட்டுள்து.

இந்த மடல், நீங்கள் நலமாக இருக்க வேண்டும் என்பதை மனதிற்கொள்வதோடு, உங்களுக்கான ஆதரவையும் வெளிப்படுத்தி எழுதப்படுகிறது.

இத் தருணத்தில், நீங்கள் நம்பிக்கையுடனும், நலத்துடனும், பாதுகாப்புடனும் இருக்க பிரார்திக்கிறோம்.

அன்புடன்,

இலங்கையில் சமாதானத்துக்கும் நீதிக்குமான நண்பர்கள்

Sending your Letter

Please address your letter to:

Mrs Jeyakumari Balendran,
Boossa Terrorist Investigation Unit, Racecourse Rd
Boossa
Southern Province
80270
Sri Lanka

An average sized greetings card or letter (under 60 grams) to Sri Lanka will cost £2.15 (or 3 x 2nd class + 1 x 1st class UK stamps) from the UK. But larger cards or folded A4 letters may cost slightly more. If in doubt, please consult the Royal Mail price finder or enquire with your nation’s post office.

Sharing your Letter

To get an idea of how many people have joined our campaign, and to encourage others to do the same, we would really appreciate it if you could Tweet us using the hashtag #FreeJeyakumari, message us on Facebook, or send us an email with a picture of your card or letter. Or if you would prefer to remain anonymous, just drop us a line and let us know that you have been part of it.

Writing a letter takes only a few minutes, costs little, and means a lot. Please send one today.



1 - English translation:

Dear Mrs Balendran,

This letter has been sent to you as a message of solidarity against your ongoing detention without charge. It contains a message wishing you well and expressing support for you. We wish you hope, comfort and safety during this time.

Best wishes,

15/08/2014

Mob storms meeting of relatives of the disappeared - pt 3

This is the last part a three part series on the incidents surrounding the storming of a meeting in Colombo by a mob of Government supporters last Tuesday. In part one we provided a narrative of events with some photos and footage from the scene. In part two we analysed these events, and in this part we will talk about its aftermath and the reactions from both sides.

Several statements were issued in the wake of the incident. The US embassy statement accused the local police of supporting the mob and the protesters of being intent only on intimidating and silencing those in attendance. The embassies of Great Britain, France, Germany and Switzerland later followed suit with a fairly bland statement.

The Lawyers’ Collective in Sri Lanka’s statement and the Centre for Policy Alternatives’ condemnation the incident both lamented in particular the continued impunity enjoyed by government supporters.

Meanwhile at a press conference the following day, Ven. Angulugalle Siri Jinananda Thera of the DMPFF claimed full responsibility for the disruption of the meeting and then went on to make a series of unfounded allegations and outright lies. The press conference (in Sinhala) can be seen here:


And you can read a full translation in English here.

Here were some of his most outrageous statements, often made while pointing to a photograph of the activist in question.
  • That all the families from North were “Mahaveerar” (i.e. “Great heroes” - usually referring to the families of deceased LTTE members). This is false. Several of the families present claimed that their relatives were not part of the LTTE. Others said their relatives were in the LTTE, but had disappeared after surrendering.
  • That each family was paid two hundred thousand Rupees to give evidence. This is entirely false; unsurprisingly no evidence has been produced to substantiate this claim.
  • That Nimalka Fernando and Brito Fernando are seeking to undermine Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. The day before he had said that these people should be hanged. Nimalka Fernando and Brito Fernando have both been activists for the cause of human rights and peace for many years. Nimalka Fernando herself has provided the most articulate explanation of how this work is the exact opposite of treason.
  • That Ruki Fernando had recently given protection to LTTE cadres who were spearheading the re-emergence of the LTTE in the country. This is an entirely false rewriting of the story of how Ruki Fernando was arrested earlier in the year in relation to his human rights work. This is discussed at length in our campaign director’s recent paper.
  • That Fr. M. Sathivel is homeless and has been excommunicated, that he tried to assault some of the monks who came to CSR and that he was mainly responsible for the situation becoming heated. The video in part 1 of our blog series clearly shows this not to be the case. No evidence has been presented to substantiate the outlandish assertions against Fr Sathivel personally.
  • That the Peratugami political party (whose representative Pubudu Jagoda was at CSR), has, from its inception been pro-LTTE and pro-Tamil diaspora. The PSP is a largely Sinhalese leftist political party that has its origins in the Sinhalese Nationalist Marxist JVP.
  • That Bishop Rajappu Joseph (referred to as the Archbishop of Mannar) has supported the LTTE for decades, and that he and his assistant Fr. Sebamalei were involved in coordinating these events and sending people to attend them. No evidence has been produced to substantiate this claim. Bishop Joseph is one of the leaders of Tamil Civil Society, while Fr Sebemalei is a human rights activist and priest who has come under attack before.
  • That the lawyer J. C. Weliamuna is a traitor to his profession. J.C. Weiliamuna is a reputable human rights lawyer, the convener of Lawyers for Democracy, a member of the Sri Lankan Bar Association, and the Sri Lanka director of the respected international NGO Transparency International. Despite an attack on his home in 2010, in which a hand grenade was thrown into his house, he continues to fight for the rights of all Sri Lankans. In no way does this constitute treason.
  • That US Embassy money and vehicles were being used to transport these families from the North to Colombo. This is entirely false; unsurprisingly no evidence has been produced to substantiate this claim.
  • That the testimonies of families was immediately communicated to US and Geneva via Skype. Not only is this untrue but it is patently absurd. Anyone who has attempted to use Skype will know how technically unsuitable it is for large public meetings of this kind. Moreover, few would be reckless enough to use Skype as a means of transferring sensitive evidence to investigative procedures and it is doubtful if evidence submitted this way would be admissible.
  • That the mob didn’t break into or disrupt the meeting and that they approached the organizers peacefully to make an appeal to them before they responded angrily. Again video footage in part one clearly shows this not to be the case.
As discussed in part two of our blog, many of these lies are fairly dangerous, while the choice of those targeted demonstrates a concerted effort to target prominent and outspoken human rights activists, and in particular those looking to make links between Colombo and grassroots victims and relatives groups in the North.

14/08/2014

Mob storms meeting of relatives of the disappeared - pt 2

This is part two of a three part series on the incidents surrounding the storming of a meeting in Colombo by a mob of Government supporters last Tuesday. In part one we provided a narrative of events and some photos and footage from the scene. In this part we analyse these events, and in part three we will talk about the aftermath of the event and reactions from both sides.

Our Campaigns Director has recently written at length about the Sri Lankan government’s growing campaign of intimidation against critics and human rights activists – and in particular its strategy of seeking to silence society in a manner which it can avoid the opprobrium of the international community. Two key elements of this strategy can be seen in these events.

The first is the targeting of prominent and outspoken human rights activists, and in particular those looking to make links between Colombo and grassroots victims and relatives groups in the North. This can be seen in the manner in which these events were used to spread false allegations about named senior human rights activists, and to erroneously suggest that they are giving information to the United Nations (giving information to the UN is not a crime, but in Sri Lanka it places you at significant risk of meeting a violent end).

The second is the way these events are used to intimidate and terrify grassroots Tamil activists. While many of the Colombo based activists who were mentioned by name have been put at greater risk as a result, by and large they have effective protection strategies and many people looking out for their welfare. Not so those who have to return to villages in the North, where they are out of sight and mind of the international community and almost entirely at the mercy of the local military commander.

Furthermore it is depressing to note that this incident only received the attention it did because it happened in Colombo and because western diplomats were present. The breaking up of such meetings is an entirely commonplace occurrence in the north and the coverage this event received, welcome though it is, will once again play to the understandable perception that the international community does not care if such things happen, provided they only happen in the north and the east.

There is a third element to the strategy which we have not previously discussed, and that is the extent to which, in order to avoid censure by the international community, the Government are increasingly not acting against the human rights community directly but through proxy groups – and the mob in question must be regarded as precisely that, if for no other reason than because they are doing the Government of Sri Lanka’s work for them while enjoying the benefits of the culture of impunity that the Government have engendered.

Moreover several aspects of this latest incident would appear to suggest that there is a more active collusion between these groups and the state:
  • The failures of the police. They arrived quickly, but appeared to then allow the mob to continue to disrupt the meeting. They would only say that ‘peace had been broken’ and closed the event rather than arresting the intruders. This was raised as a matter of concern by the USA but disappointingly not by the EU.
  • The identity of the intruding party. The self-described Dead and Missing Persons Parents Front (DMPPF) appeared to come together specifically for this meeting, but the presence of several extremely nationalistic Buddhist monks suggests they come from the same ideological space as the BBS, the far right group linked to both anti-Muslim pogroms and to the President’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
  • The filming of activists. The fact that the mob who broke in started to film activists was clearly an intimidatory tactic, but it only works as such if you assume collusion with the state. A civil society group such as the Dead and Missing Persons Parents Front presumably has no need for footage of human rights defenders - the intimation was that the footage would be shared with Sri Lankan intelligence.
  • The actions of state-sponsored and state-friendly media. State-sponsored and state-friendly outlets arrived quickly on the scene but many did not conduct responsible journalism. They colluded with the Government’s attempt to mischaracterize events as a simple spat between NGOs, they allowed dangerous lies (such as that the group were working with the UN) to go unchallenged, and they gave a platform for vicious hate speech – including the assertion that human rights activists should be hanged.
  • The Government’s response. In a highly inaccurate official statement the Minister of External Affairs mischaracterized the event and blamed the organisers, participants and the diplomatic community for the incident. The Sri Lankan Lawyers’ Collective wrote an articulate rebuttal.
  • The highly orchestrated nature of the intrusion. Many aspects of this attack appeared to be surprisingly well planned. For example it came to light that members of the media were invited to the meeting by a fake press release which was faxed from an unknown number to various media outlets at 2.29pm (i.e. after the event had started). The forged press release was constructed as an appeal from Brito Fernando for media coverage of an event being held to train those from Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka to give evidence to international investigations – yet again a lie, and a dangerous one.
Take these events together and what we have is a concerted attempt to warn civil society away from having any interaction with the UN investigation. But unwittingly in so doing the Government and its allies are making the need for the UN investigation ever clearer – by outlining how impossible it is to conduct these processes within Sri Lanka. Furthermore the new message the Government and its allies have been using (including in this confused piece by militant anti human rights journalist Shamindra Fernando) is a misstep. When demanding that the current international investigation must address rights violations committed by the LTTE they will find not the antagonism they expect but enthusiastic agreement from the international human rights community. It is precisely this all-encompassing approach that UN investigators will be seeking, and rightly so. The only difference is that while Shamindra Fernando and the DMPPF seem to think that one can only investigate war crimes by one side or by the other, we would argue that you can look at both.

In conclusion, this might seem like a lot of fuss to make over some shouting and shoving, a few dangerous lies, and half a punch – particularly when compared to the deaths of tens of thousands in 2009 and the ongoing oppression of Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka. But these events are important, because they form part of an ongoing and systematic attempt to control Sri Lankan civil society, the side effect of which is that it becomes virtually impossible to have meetings in which victims can mourn, reflect and above all, reconcile. Without the space in which these basic first steps of reconciliation can take place, the prospect of a return to conflict will remain.

13/08/2014

Mob storms meeting of relatives of the disappeared - pt 1

This is part one of a three part series on the incidents surrounding the storming of a meeting in Colombo by a mob of Government supporters last Tuesday. Here we provide a narrative of events and some photos and footage from the scene (you can read more in this piece in Groundviews). In part two we will go on to analyse these events, and in part three we will talk about the aftermath of the event and reactions from both sides, including an analysis of the inaccurate and libelous statements made by by Ven. Angulugalle Siri Jinananda Thera, one of the ringleaders of the mob, on the following day.

On Monday 4th August, families of disappeared persons from the North of Sri Lanka met to share their stories of loss with civil society groups and members of the diplomatic community. The private meeting was organised by Families of the Disappeared (FoD), an organisation which campaigns for the rights of disappeared Sri Lankans. FoD had arranged for 25 families representing 5 districts in the Tamil-populated North of the country to gather and speak of their experiences in a ‘listening and sharing’ session at the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) in Maradana, Colombo. The event was to be followed by an exchange between mothers, from both the North and South, who have experienced similar losses.

But at around 3.15pm, during the delivery of a moving testimony by one of the grieving mothers in attendance, a mob of between 20-40 persons led by a group of men in Buddhist monk robes stormed the building where the session was taking place and attempted to break into the meeting room. The organisers and other civil society activists in attendance rushed to block their path, successfully preventing the mob from entering the room.

video

Among the various abusive, untrue, and slanderous allegations made by the mob, they accused those present of being family members of Mahaveer (LTTE martyrs), and the human rights activists and clergymen organising the event of conspiring to defame the Sri Lankan government and betraying the country. They further claimed that families in attendance had been invited there by foreign NGOs to give evidence against the Government in exchange for payment. We go on to analyse these claims in part three. In an apparent attempt at intimidation, members of the mob also took photos and video footage of the meeting, whilst women and children in attendance cowered, fearing for their immediate safety and the risk of reprisal upon their return home.

Despite arriving promptly, local police failed to disperse the mob for over 90 minutes. Through the course of the mediation, it became apparent the police had arrived at least in part due to a complaint made by Ven. Angulugalle Siri Jinananda Thera of the Dead and Missing Persons Parents Front (DMPPF) that a meeting ‘against the country’ was taking place. Despite the appeals of the meeting’s organisers and participants, they made no effort to remove or arrest members of the mob – announcing simply that the ‘peace had been disrupted’ and that they could not guarantee the security of any persons inside the hall.

video

After an announcement by police that the meeting was to be closed, some members of the mob claimed that they had only wanted to participate and share their own experiences as part of the session. The organisers maintained that no one could join the meeting forcibly, but stated that they would be willing to meet and discuss the possibility of future collaboration at a mutually convenient date and place.

Even once the protestors had eventually been ushered out of the hall by police, they remained outside the CSR building until approx. 5.00pm, where they continued to call for the arrest of the meeting’s attendees and clashed with other civil society activists as they arrived at the scene. Ven. Jinananda was then allowed by the police to give an interview to the mainstream media in which he called for Brito Fernando and fellow human rights activist Ms. Nimalka Fernando to be “hung until death legally”. Upon the insistence of the police, five members of FoD’s organising committee then agreed to make their way to the Maradana police station, but on their condition that they would do so to file their own complaint about the incident, rather than to respond to complaints made by DMPFF.


Meanwhile, many of the diplomats present at the event (including personnel from the British, German, French, U.S, Swiss and EU missions) began to express to police their fears for the safety of the participants inside. Whilst several diplomats summoned their security details and were escorted from the building, others, such as Acting Deputy Chief of the US Mission Mike Honigstein, took the right and commendable decision to stay and thus afford protection to those not as well as protected as he.

At the police station, verbal clashes between the mob and FoD organisers continued, with members of the mob claiming to have disrupted the private session on the basis that its organisers were in Colombo to collect evidence against the Government as part of the ongoing UN "OISL" Investigation into alleged serious human rights violation committed between 2002-2011. As we discuss in part three this is not the case, but it is a tragic indictment of the current situation in Sri Lanka that the very suggestion of interacting with a UN human rights mechanism should cause such a response.

Whilst thankfully no one was hurt, and similar episodes are sadly much more commonplace in Sri Lanka's north and east, this episode also appears to be indicative of the growing pattern of intimidation and silencing of human rights activists and victims in Sri Lanka (the recent upswing in which our Campaigns Director has written about at length here) by both the state and proxy groups. These form part of a strategy which is making it impossible for reconciliation to occur in Sri Lanka. We will examine the various way in which this latest incident seems to fit that pattern in part two of this blog post.

11/08/2014

How the Sri Lankan Government is crushing dissent


Our chairman Edward Mortimer has just published an opinion piece in the Independent. It supports a piece of research published by our Campaign Director Fred Carver in the International policy digest. Together they revisit the events surrounding this March's Human Rights Council, and ask why the international community does not seem to care that, five months later, Jeyakumari Balendran is still locked away in a detention centre notorious for torture.

You can read Edward's op ed here

and you can read Fred's research here

or the executive summary here.

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31/07/2014

Nigeria, Boko Haram and the ‘Sri Lankan Model’ of Counter-Insurgency


 

How do you end an armed insurgency?

In 2009, this question was answered by the Rajapaksa regime with a display of overwhelming brute force against LTTE-held areas in the North East of the country. Driven by an unwavering commitment to the total elimination of the enemy at any cost, an open disregard for international opinion, and a strong emphasis on the control of information from the battlefield, the ‘Sri Lankan Model’ of counter-insurgency as it is now known, has been a decisive factor in shaping Sri Lanka’s recent trajectory. Though drawing to a close the decades long civil war with the LTTE, its role in the commission of war crimes on a mass scale has also precipitated a new era in Sri Lanka’s history, marked by ongoing human rights abuses, impunity, authoritarianism, international isolation and a deeply unstable political settlement.

Five years on, it is therefore as surprising as it is appalling that such a model continues to be touted as a viable model for dealing with separatist movements elsewhere. This was the case earlier last month in Nigeria, where following the visit of a Sri Lankan delegation for a military ‘brainstorming session’ and presentation, the Nigerian Chief of Defence Staff released a press statement remarking that “the Nigerian military is seriously considering the counter-insurgency experience of the Sri-Lankan military” in its fight against Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group that has been waging an insurgency since 2009 and which has claimed thousands of civilian lives in the process.

The dire humanitarian concerns associated with this announcement were quickly raised by Andrew Stroehlein at Human Rights Watch who, drawing parallels between the exposure to harm of Boko Haram’s civilian hostages and those civilians used as human shields by the LTTE in 2009, remarked in no uncertain terms: “It is hard to imagine a worse idea”. The reply offered by Nigerian Major General Olukulade did little to alleviate that feeling. Though affirming Nigeria’s human rights obligations and downplaying “the import of interactions between the Nigerian military and the visiting Sri Lankan military delegation”, it essentially failed to backtrack on the original statement whilst re-stating that the Nigerian military welcomed the “well-meaning engagement” of countries such as Sri Lanka.

Whilst the future direction of the Nigerian government’s military response to Boko Haram remains unclear – although what is clear is that its heavy handed tactics have had dire consequences for the civilian population to date – this recent episode serves to underscore the far-reaching implications of what happened in Sri Lanka in 2009, as well as the ongoing need to tackle the perception that it offers an effective model of how to deal with civil strife.

Both the domestic public and the international community will have a key role to play in making this case, and in pushing for alternatives that are peaceable and which adhere to international law. Yet whilst continuing to flag the appalling humanitarian consequences implicit in the ‘Sri Lankan model’, they must also remind political and military leaders of both its fundamental unsustainability as a solution for resolving the root causes of armed insurgency, as well as its broader detrimental impacts on a country’s society and governance. For if we are to judge the ‘Sri Lankan model’ on its longer-term merits, we must also account for the deep grievances that continue to exist in Sri Lanka, as well as the growing patterns of authoritarianism and militarization that have naturally accompanied the failure to account for wide-spread abuses against civilians in 2009, and which may yet lead to a return to war.

As awful and as crude as it may appear, the ‘Sri Lankan model’ of counter-insurgency continues to be showcased around the world in seminars and presentations organized by the Sri Lankan military (for instance in Burma, Turkey, Indonesia, Bangladesh and the Philippines). And worrying still, security officials elsewhere, faced with internal security threats and under strong pressure to act, continue to look to it as a “source of inspiration” (as remarked recently by one senior Pakistani police official). Yet the model that is being sold by the Sri Lankan military to these countries and individuals should instead serve as an important lesson in how not to secure a sustainable peace – not merely because it inevitably leads to human rights violations, but because it simply does not work.