Military engagements in the Vakarai area forced people in their thousands to flee the violence, creating an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe. There are thousands who are making the resettlement camps their homes for months on end. Executive Director of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), Jeevan Thiagarajah tells Hard Talk that both the government and the NGOs have failed in their duties towards the displaced. He charged that no one has really appreciated the trauma the displaced have gone through. He claims that the impact is devastating and argues powerfully against the fostering of the current conflict contributing to further personal and communal suffering in the regions.
Q: Thousands are reportedly going hungry in the camps and children are without schooling for months now in the North and the East. How concerned are you of the humanitarian crisis affecting the North and the East?
I am first extremely grateful and admire the courage and integrity of the journalist who has written two forthright stories on the situation in Batticaloa. The need is compelling. I am ashamed of CHA and other agencies for not having done enough to mitigate the impact we are seeing at present. It is said that the total number displaced at the moment in the country could be close to the number who were displaced as a result of Tsunami. Beyond the numbers we must appreciate the practical impact on the lives of people. The impact is devastating and argues powerfully against the fostering of the current conflict contributing to further personal and communal suffering in the regions.
* The number displaced at the moment in the country could be close to the number displaced as a result of Tsunami.
* Humanitarian interventions could literally be caught in the cross fire of the on-going conflict.
* It is an unfinished war, which was frozen in 2002 and which is pretty much melted all over.
* We are unfortunately collectively being dragged into the gutters.
* It is so easy to equate minorities with perceived sympathies for terrorism.
* The government and the LTTE are responsible for the escalation.
Q:Do you think the country understands the exact plight of the thousands left displaced or is there a move to move attention away from that?
There is dull insensitive consciousness. On the one hand we have heard and seen it for far too long and there is a weariness in trying to stay focused. On the other hand, it is only by focusing that we could take suffering seriously or take meaningful steps which offer a solution.
Q:There are reports of shortage in food and basic needs. Who should take responsibility?
There are several representative foras monitoring the situation. These include the IASC, OCHA, the meetings convened by Minister Samarasinghe as well as the CCHA. CHA is a member of all four, and I include ourselves as not having done enough. Doing enough includes classic disaster management interventions which we understand perfectly well. Unfortunately we do not do justice to the knowledge we possess.
Q:Is there a deliberate move or simply a failure to understand the depths of the situation? Is it the fear of alleged intimidation by the government agencies that keep the NGOs away?
It is simply a failure on the part of the NGOs to appreciate the depths of the situation. Of course there is a contribution made to the situation by the lack of resources, but it is greatly the lack of application. Why can`t or won`t the NGOs see what the media is seeing?
Q:Are you saying that the NGO`s have their own agendas, that they don`t wish to see beyond a certain self imposed point as the government is now accusing them of?
No, it is not an agenda issue at all. We are simply not responsive enough. We need to have preventive measures that can ensure that these situations don`t go where they go before they happen. We need to be ahead of these situations and not act after they happen. We should be able to avoid them becoming the crisis they do.
Q:The number of deaths of civilians recorded from the North and the East is very worrying. Humanitarian groups have placed the number at 1800. Can this situation be avoided?
Yes. We should negotiate a de-escalation of violence and bring the situation to be as close as possible to the letter and spirit of the CFA. It is an unfinished war, which was frozen in 2002 and which is pretty much melted all over.
Q:Who is responsible for it and do you see a sinister move to keep the momentum going?
I believe both the government and the LTTE are responsible for the escalation. Its simply that the parties to the conflict have failed by the Ceasefire agreement. Their very absence to seek a viable political proposal is an issue. It is so easy to slip off such a situation.
Q:Findings reveal that the displaced are refusing to be thrown in to new areas of settlement. Are you concerned about the resettlement plans of the government?
Allowing people to return and pick up their lives again is the best option. It though must be accompanied by walking protection and ensuring that their conditions are as close as possible, providing holistically, the needs of people without discrimination. Planning for return is clearly the function of the Government which will be partnered by other humanitarian interventions and the partnership in practice must be robust, concerted and successful.
Q:But do you see a concerted effort to move in a more political plan of resettlement than a humanitarian one?
No, not necessarily but there is a rough spot in the plans for resettlement in Mutur. The plan there is to remove six villages and create High Security Zones there. The civilians feel that they will be completely removed from their areas and planted somewhere completely alien to them. What about their livelihoods and would they be assured of the same standard of life in these new areas? The people are very worried about these developments. This move will definitely cause hearburn to the villagers in the years to come. They feel that there is a move to remove them and resettle them without fully appreciating what infrastructure and basic needs have to be in place before.
Q:How concerned are you of reports of intimidation and threat on the NGO staffs working in the areas? Is there a targeted move by `interested` parties to curtail the work done by NGOs?
Yes, there are parties interested in curtailing the works of NGOs and it is standard operating procedure as a tool in a conflict ridden war affected environment!
Q:How seriously affected are your staffs in this scenario?
I think all agencies feel the heat now. The environment is less inviting, there are a great deal more operational constraints and regular visits by government agencies. These are less than normal working conditions.
Q:There is a serious issue of access being denied to the NGOs to carryout their humanitarian work in the areas. How do you plan to address this?
Officially there is no in access operationally though it is subject to numerous procedures and approvals. Debating the specifics at the CCHA is an option available to us. We are also pro-actively reconfiguring our approach to articulate robustly the protection of humanitarian interests with all parties. Due to a chain of events and their outcomes we are close to a situation where minimum conditions will have to prevail for humanitarian intervention to be pursued. Otherwise humanitarian interventions could literally be caught in the cross fire of the on-going conflict.
Q: Is there any justification for the government claims that there is a `sinister` campaign by the Non Governmental Organisations to `discredit` the government on human rights grounds?
I cannot speak for all. Presently facts of human right abuses does not provide for sinister work. The Government would not be discredited if it has nothing to do with the perceived abuse.
Q:Are you saying the government has a record of discredit especially taking up issues like those raised by the Amnesty International?
There are allegations to be met and records to be set right. Even if it is not direct invariably the people are under serious constraint.
Q:How do you view the situation of disappearances and abductions?
It is serious enough to scare off civic activists, to make informed people advise others to be careful, editors and journalists to be formally notified of possible prospects of exterminations. We are unfortunately collectively being dragged into the gutters. There is a popular view which conveys fear, the disappearances and abductions are a real phenomenon
Q:How serious is the role played allegedly by the Karuna faction in this regard?
The role played by the TMVP requires greater clarification by them. There is a body of information which fairly or unfairly accuses the group lead by Karuna Amman of engaging in activities which are not legal or mandated as a political party. In a evolving situation a comment on seriousness would be somewhat relative and not necessarily be very firm.
Q:How much would you say they were contributing to a scenario of fear in the North and East?
The Karuna faction is clearly acting as a quasi military group and not a political party. It`s terrorizing tactics are very visible. The government should have the group pulled back to barracks.
Q:In 2006 United Nations expert on extra judicial killings Phillip Alston informed the UN General Assembly that the situation in Sri Lankan situation was reaching critical proportions. Do you think there is sufficient international concern to the situation?
Sri Lanka has been named in human rights of the United Nations System for literally the entirety of the length of conflict in the country. It has been an on-going process of much debate where at times we have been roundly criticized and at times being classified as a country which metes out grossly abusive treatment to its citizens. The current conflict is one in which we are under significant scrutiny by inter-governmental bodies as well as governmental reports.
Q: How do you see the reaction of the government to the HR campaign on Sri Lanka by Amnesty International?
I would not have advised the government to respond in the manner we have seen. We should go play our cricket and allow amnesty to prove their case. If we felt strongly we should have engaged amnesty robustly proving why their campaigns is foundationless. By reacting harshly we send the message of being defensive or at worse a belief that we have something to hide.
Q:Do you see the new Anti-terrorism laws affecting the minority groups more than is necessary?
Yes. It is so easy to equate minorities with perceived sympathies for terrorism. One such example is differing practices and interpretations of who has the right to call for house holder details, legitimate action if information has not been provided and the actual practice faced by people particularly minorities when checks is undertaken. I believe the rank of ASP and above is required when soliciting information. The lack of records at Police Stations is not enough for unwarranted and long periods of presence in Police Stations. There have been very uncomfortable experiences for some particularly women. I must though grant that there have been professional behavior too in many instances. However, extra scrutiny particularly for minorities reinforces a view that they are different and by extension people with suspicious antecedents. Another example is the whole process and time it takes for a resident of Jaffna to travel to the South. It could be safely classified as discriminatory and fairly violative of the right of free movement.