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

19/11/2012

The Vanni

You may see Antoni as you walk down the street- head down, lost in thought as he weaves his way through a throng of people. You may sit next to him on the bus, or brush past him in the supermarket. He may live next door to you.

He hides a troubled past, which continually haunts him. And he is just one of the thousands of asylum seekers in every capital of the world, whose lives are totally anonymous.

In The Vanni, a multimedia graphic novel by Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock, we discover Antoni’s roots in Sri Lanka, and his journey to England as an asylum seeker, after being forced to come here during the closing stages of the civil war in 2009.

In a unique format through illustrations and photographs that sometimes morph into each other, the reader finds out that Antoni was happy with his occupation as a fisherman in the north of Sri Lanka. Yet his humble existence, with his wife, two children, mother and sister-in-law was brought to an end in 2008 when they were forced to flee from the escalating violence in the area.


The graphic novel documents the family’s struggle to stay alive as they become helplessly caught up in the bloody showdown between the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.


The inspiration for the character of Antoni came from Dix’s work in Vanni from 2004 until 2008 with Norwegian People’s Aid and then the UN.

In September 2008 the UN decided to withdraw its entire staff from the war zone after the Sri Lankan government warned it could not guarantee their safety. This was a decision that was criticized by the recent Petrie report, an internal review of the UN’s actions in the last months of the civil war.

The report stated that the UN failed in its mandate to protect civilians in the last months of the Sri Lanka civil war.

Dix disagreed with the UN pullout at the time, and following last week’s leaked report, told the BBC that the UN should not have evacuated the north, leaving behind a civilian population “with no protection or witness”.

Dix’s last days in Vanni in September 2008 affected him profoundly and inspired him to create the multimedia novel. He recalls a stressful few days before the UN evacuation, with members of staff being denied passes by the LTTE to leave the area, the army closing in to southern areas of Kilinochchi and crowds gathering outside the UN offices, begging them to stay and witness the conflict.

“The last time I saw one particular family that I had known for three years, they were all huddled together in their small trench of a bunker with their 2-year-old daughter that I had known since birth. Artillery was landing in the near distance and I had to hug them goodbye and wish them ‘luck’. That was the singular most terrible moment of my life. The complete sense of abandonment of friends is something that will stay with me for life. “

After returning to the UK, Dix completed a Masters degree in Anthropology of Conflict and Violence. But he wanted to further explore ideas surrounding conflict. Using the vast array of photographs, film clips and memories that he had acquired from his four years in Vanni, he is focusing on the often forgotten stories of people caught up in the violence in Sri Lanka.

“But I didn’t want to tell [the stories] in a way that only people interested in Sri Lanka or academics would read, I wanted to try and reach a wider audience,” he says.

The statistics relating to Sri Lanka are shocking - about 70,000 died in the last few months in a conflict that has claimed more than 100,000 lives in the last three decades. Although the LTTE committed war crimes, by preventing civilians from fleeing the fighting and forcibly recruiting people into their army, most of the civilian deaths in the closing stages were caused by the Sri Lankan government’s indiscriminate bombing attacks in no fire zones and on hospitals and humanitarian buildings.

Although the Sri Lankan government did its utmost to stage a war without witness, in the three years following the end of the conflict, a plethora of evidence has emerged showing clear human rights violations by the ruling Rajapaksa regime.

This evidence includes photographs, video footage, witness testimonies and reports from various human rights organizations. Dix says that despite the clear evidence of abuses of power previously and currently being perpetrated by the Sri Lankan government, little has been done by the international community to hold the state to account.

“The men that are responsible for so many deaths and so much suffering continue to reign power in Sri Lanka and continue to be invited to the UK to meet the Queen for her Jubilee celebrations, to have diplomatic relations and now are about to host the Commonwealth Heads meeting next year,” says Dix.

Instead of focusing on the shock factor, through stark figures or gruesome photographs of war crimes, Dix hopes to inform readers by focusing on the human element of war and the experience felt by all refugees fleeing different conflicts, as they start afresh in an alien environment.
“I wanted to compellingly present the effects that conflict has on an innocent family that is caught up between the warring parties.”

Dix hopes that The Vanni will give readers who know little about the conflict an accessible and impartial introduction into the issues concerning Sri Lanka and the events leading up to the end of the civil war and the rippling effects in its aftermath. After this, he wants readers to act on what they have read by supporting established advocacy organizations (such as the Sri Lanka Campaign) in their attempts to hold the government accountable for its actions.

The novel, of which a preview is accessible online, are mainly comprised of illustrations of Antoni’s experiences, drawn by Lindsay Pollock.

Inspired by conflict related graphic novels such as Palestine by Joe Sacco and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Dix hopes that the multimedia aspect of the project will allow the reader to interact with the book on different levels. A reader can look at the narrative only, but should they wish to find out more the novel also acts as a resource where they can learn about the conflict and issues of asylum, conflict and terrorism via links to web references, reports, photographs and information provided by human rights experts, asylum lawyers and those who were directly affected by the violence in Vanni.

Dix believes that the graphic novel format can be used as a powerful advocacy tool.
“Our Facebook and Twitter pages are awash with people pushing the causes that they are concerned about. So I thought I should try and do something different, something that sticks out and grabs people’s attention and although it’s a tragic tale, it can be presented in an attractive and interactive media that is engaging to read and will hopefully engage people.”

To reach the widest audience Dix and Pollock are making The Vanni novel freely accessible online. They have created the preview through their own funds, but hope to continue the novel through donations.

They have launched a campaign for donations through Kickstarter, the crowd funding website, and hope to receive £40,000 by the end of the year to fund the rest of the project. Click here to donate and find out more.

17/11/2012

Joint statement with CHRI - attending Commonwealth summit must be conditional

A year from now, on the 16th of November 2013, Sri Lanka will host the 2013 Commonwealth Summit or CHOGM. Yet so poor is the human rights' situation in Sri Lanka that instead of the traditional year-out message of welcome the Commonwealth Secretariat had to issue a statement condemning Sri Lanka's impeachment of its Chief Justice.

The report comes as a powerful committee of the British House of Commons issued a report stating that the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, should not attend the summit if it does go ahead:
We conclude that continuing evidence of serious human rights abuses in Sri Lanka shows that the Commonwealth's decision to hold the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo was wrong. We are impressed by the clear and forthright stance taken by the Canadian Prime Minister, who has said he would attend the Meeting only if human rights were improved. The UK Prime Minister should publicly state his unwillingness to attend the meeting unless he receives convincing and independently-verified evidence of substantial and sustainable improvements in human and political rights in Sri Lanka.
We, and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, have issued a joint letter to the Commonwealth Secretary General reiterating our previous call for attendance at the Commonwealth Summit to be conditional upon human rights improvements. To quote the statement:
The Canadian Prime Minister has already asserted that he would not attend the Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka till the human rights situation in the country improves. On 14th November 2012 a powerful committee of the UK Parliament recommended that the UK Prime Minister should not attend the Commonwealth Summit.  
Even as disquiet on the question of holding the Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka increases, the Commonwealth Secretariat has In fact pushed for full attendance.It is morally indefensible to continue to stand by and allow Sri Lanka to unconditionally host the association’s premier meeting and go on to Chair for the next two years. This would seriously undermine the Commonwealth’s values, which have only recently been re-affirmed in 2009 and are supposed to be enshrined into a Commonwealth Charter in 2013.  
We repeat our call to you, as the highest official of the Commonwealth, to uphold the Commonwealth’s commitments to its fundamental values and pursue a course of action that sees the establishment of a series of benchmarks which the Sri Lankan government needs to fulfill, in order to be fit for a Commonwealth Summit.
Heads of Commonwealth Governments should also heed this message.

Read the full statement here.

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14/11/2012

The UN internal "Petrie" report into Sri Lanka

Following yesterday's fantastic BBC coverage the UN today released their internal report into failures in Sri Lanka.

As well as releasing it to the press they originally made a document available online but then appeared to take down the link, which stopped working after about twenty minutes. However in that time it had been reposted by Groundviews and Lanka Standard.

Various pieces have been blacked out. However they have not been electronically removed and so any person can read what they say simply by copying the text and pasting it onto a document with a white background.

The blacked out sentence on Page 11 reads:
several USG participants and the RC did not stand by the casualty numbers, saying that the data were ‘not verified’. Participants in the meeting questioned an OHCHR proposal to release a public statement referencing the numbers and possible crimes.
The blacked out paragraph on Page 15 reads:
Several participants noted the limited support from Member States at the Human Rights Council and suggested the UN advocate instead for a domestic mechanism, although it was recognized that past domestic mechanisms in Sri Lanka had not led to genuine accountability. One participant said that “[i]t was important to maintain pressure on the Government with respect to recovery, reconciliation and returns and not to undermine this focus through unwavering calls for accountability ...” 
 The blacked out sections on pages 66 and 67 read:
The Policy Committee met two days later, on 12 March, to discuss Sri Lanka. Participants noted variously that “this crisis was being somewhat overlooked by the international community”, the policy “of coordinating a series of high level visits seemed to have produced some positive results”, and that the possible involvement of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (SAPG) would not indicate a suspicion of genocide but may add to overcrowding of UN actors involved. Participants acknowledged the apparent need for a Special Envoy but noted this “did not seem politically feasible”. It was suggested that “the Secretary General’s [public] statements may have appeared a bit soft compared with recent statements on other conflict areas [and it] was suggested [he] cite the estimated number of casualty figures ….”. OHCHR said it would be issuing a “strong” statement which would include indicative casualty figures and raise the issue of possible crimes under international law by both sides.
                                                       
Several participants questioned whether it was the right time for such a statement, asked to see  the draft before release and suggested it be reviewed by OLA. There was a discussion on “balancing” the High Commissioner’s mandate with other UN action in situations requiring the UN to play several different roles. The meeting led to the adoption by the Secretary-General, through the Policy Committee, of several decisions, including: continued engagement on “the immediate humanitarian, human rights and political aspects of the situation”; “system-wide advocacy” to press the LTTE to allow safe passage for civilians and UN staff; pressing the Government on protection and assistance to IDPs; inter-ethnic accommodation and reconciliation; political advice to Sri Lanka; child protection; transitional justice; demining; reconstruction; disarmament, demobilization and rehabilitation; political solutions to the underlying causes of the conflict; and renewed efforts to establish an OHCHR field office.  
The blacked out line later on on page 67 reads:
At today’s Policy Committee meeting,
The blacked out line on page 68 reads:
The references to possible war crimes will be controversial … I am not sure going into this dimension is helpful, as opposed to more indirect references to the need for accountability, in this conflict as elsewhere.” 
 The blacked out section on page 88 reads:
Members agreed to: urge the Government to ensure protection and assistance for IDPs in accordance with international law; continue dialogue toward a durable political solution and reconciliation; seek a principled and coordinated international approach to relief, rehabilitation, resettlement, political dialogue and reconciliation; and pursue a “principle-based engagement by UNHQ and RC/HC/UNCT, with the Government, International Financial Institutions, and other partners on early recovery …”. It was agreed that the UNCT would engage with international partners and develop principles of engagement, and a monitoring mechanism to ensure adherence to these principles.
The blacked out line on page 89 reads:
Members of the Policy Committee also noted “politically, there was little to show for the UN's engagement with all stakeholders” and that the President was “not receptive to the Secretary-General's suggestion to appoint an envoy.”
The blacked out line across page 92 and 93 reads:
“The Government has not agreed to proposals for the establishment of a body involving donors and the UN which would facilitate humanitarian and recovery coordination.”
The blacked out sections on pages 95 and 96 read:

albeit with considerable disagreement on what action should be taken. In the 23 June Policy Committee meeting in New York
then
One participant said that “[i]t was important to maintain pressure on the Government with respect to recovery, reconciliation and returns and not to undermine this focus through unwavering calls for accountability ...”  OHCHR was tasked with preparation of a UN strategy and position on justice and accountability issues, including the possibility of an international investigation. 
then
Discussing whether or not the Secretary General should establish an international Commission of Experts, many participants were reticent to do so without the support of the Government and at a time when Member States were also not supportive. At the same time, participants also acknowledged that a Government-led mechanism was unlikely to seriously address past violations. The Secretary-General said that “the Government should be given the political space to develop a domestic mechanism” and that only if this did not occur within a limited time frame would the UN look at alternatives.
Meanwhile Frances Harrison has looked at what the report says in terms of what the UN were saying and what they knew:

Sri Lanka is the top story on the BBC. You can do something about it.

As you may have heard the BBC ran a story today about a leak of a UN internal probe into its behaviour - the "Petrie" report.

You can access the website version here, the World Service Radio report here, (it was also repeated every hour), and the BBC Radio 4 report here. The BBC 10 O'clock news and BBC Newsnight reports should be available at those links shortly.

Its an important story, and it needs to be heard. So please do forward on this email and share it with your friends, family, and colleagues. The more this is spoken about, the greater the demand for the report to be published in full will be.

It is a story to make you angry. Angry that the UN let those people down, and even more angry about the real villains: the Government of Sri Lanka, and the LTTE. But there are things you can do to help the victims of this outrage. Here are just some suggestions:
  1. Sign our petition to demand an independent international investigation into war crimes.
  2. Tell your friends: about the programme, and about our campaigns
  3. Give money, to help us continue to campaign
You can help us make sense out of this madness. You can stop this from becoming another story of meaningless disaster. Please help.

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12/11/2012

Sri Lanka "least constructive nation ever to appear before the UPR"

Sri Lanka appeared before the United Nations Universal Periodic Review last week - a four yearly stock-take of their human rights record. You can see the video here:



Sri Lanka's response to the process was extraordinarily belligerent. Sri Lanka rejected 100 of the 210 recommendations made to it. In the previous 206 reviews no country has ever rejected more than 95. As well as being the largest absolute number of recommendations ever rejected outright this is also the fourth highest proportion of recommendations rejected.*

Meanwhile further research suggests that there can be little hope for the implementation of those recommendations that they did accept. On 52 out of 71 pledges the Government of Sri Lanka accepted last time, they have done nothing whatsoever. So on past form we can expect the Government of Sri Lanka to completely fail to deliver on 73% of the pledges they made this time round.**

Our comprehensive report (available here) analyses each of Sri Lanka's pledges from 2008 in detail. The Government of Sri Lanka claimed to have delivered fully on 12 of their 71 pledges but we could only find this to be true in four cases. They euphemistically described progress towards the remaining recommendations as "ongoing", but we could only find evidence of any progress in 15 cases.

______

* Burma rejected 95 recommendations in January 2011 while leaving the status of a further 25 recommendations unclear. In December 2009 the DPRK rejected 50 recommendations outright and "noted" a further 117 - a term the precise meaning of which has never been clarified. Only San Marino (61% in February 2010), Burma (58% in January 2011) and China (56% in February 2009) have rejected a greater proportion of recommendations. A further 16 nations have accepted a smaller proportion of recommendations but recommendations for which the response is unclear or pending maintain Sri Lanka's fourth place in terms of outright rejections. For more details see UPR Info and check out this spreadsheet.

Notable rejected recommendations include:

129.27 Enact urgent legislative amendments to the Penal Code to ensure that the rights of women from all religious and ethnic communities are safeguarded (New Zealand)

129.96 Take immediate steps to prevent attacks on the human rights defenders and media and take action to investigate such acts (Slovenia);

129.85 Safeguard the independence of its judiciary (Slovakia);

129.80 Make every effort to ensure that those responsible for crimes against children, and in particularly concerning the recruitment of child soldiers, are brought to justice as soon as possible (Sweden)

129.76 End impunity for human rights violations and fulfill legal obligations regarding accountability (USA)

129.71 Take action to reduce and eliminate all cases of abductions and disappearances (Australia)

129.66 Take action to reduce and eliminate all cases of abuse, torture or mistreatment by police and security forces (Australia)

129.65 Publish the names and places of detention of all the imprisoned persons (France)

129.60 Take further steps to ensure more participation of Sri Lankan Muslims in the reconciliation process and national efforts of economic, social, and cultural integration (Egypt)

129.28 Fully implement the recommendations of the LLRC, in particular steps to ensure independent and effective investigations into all allegations of serious human rights violations , in the context of Sri Lanka’s civil war and its aftermath (Austria)

129.25 Adopt legislation on appointments that would ensure the independence of the Human Rights Commission (New Zealand)


** For comparison a study by UPR Info of 66 countries showed that an average of 40% of recommendations are typically wholly or partly implemented by the half way point in a UPR cycle. After a full cycle Sri Lanka had only made any measurable process on 27% of recommendations.

Read the report

08/11/2012

Thank you!

Thank you so much for your generous response to our fundraising campaign.

Nearly a hundred of you gave a total of over £5,000, that and a grant from the Network for Social change means that we met our £10,000 target.

Many of you also signed up to give on a regular basis via direct debit. That means that we have enough money to keep on going until at least May.

The wolf has retreated from the door but it is still circling. In order to remain independent and free from influence we would like to remain fully funded by individual donors - people like you. 

As we are no longer in imminent danger of closing we have taken down our countdown from the front page. But as we still require your generosity to keep going we are maintaining our countdown on our donate page as a permanent feature. Currently it stands at 195 days.

So thank you so much; you have saved the Sri Lanka Campaign. But if you are able to please do keep giving, sign up to make a regular contribution, or tell your friends about the campaign. Your donations are just as vital now as they ever were.

06/11/2012

We've just launched our #ThinkAgain campaign

Why not share this infographic on social
media sites like facebook and pinterest?
Dear friends,

It is a great pleasure to launch our #ThinkAgain campaign on ethical tourism in Sri Lanka.

Many people go on holiday to Sri Lanka without realising that as recently as three years ago tens of thousands of civilians were slaughtered there, in the closing stages of the civil war; that the north of the country remains under military occupation; that its people are still traumatized, many of them disabled or otherwise prevented from earning their living; and that people in any part of the island who fall foul of the government are liable to be kidnapped, beaten and often killed. Our campaign is designed to help tourists make informed choices, so that they spend their money in ways that help reconstruction and rehabilitation rather than lining the pockets of criminals.

As we say, tourism can bring positive benefits to a country, and we are not suggesting that these be denied to a population already suffering under an oppressive regime. Often the challenge is making sure your holiday spending really does go to help local communities - in Sri Lanka there is the additional problem that it may profit known or alleged human rights abusers. The most important thing is to make an informed choice.

And that's what our campaign seeks to do - give advice on ethical tourism and warn against those that do not help Sri Lankans achieve lasting peace. We name and shame five hotels, four airlines, and four attractions that have links to the military as well as highlighting concerns surrounding three major hotel chains. We further name and shame twelve international tour operators that use these businesses, including Virgin, STA Travel and Thomas Cook.

Would you like to support the campaign? Then please help spread the word. Doing any of these things will help.

  • Email your friends and family about the campaign, and anyone you know who might be thinking of going to Sri Lanka on holiday.
  • Spread the word on social media: facebook, twitter, reddit etc...
  • Share the infographic (right). Stick it on your facebook wall or pinterest board, or tweet it.
  • Spread the word on travel forums such as the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, or in the comments on the travel section of newspapers.

All the best.