A five-country study by international charities ActionAid, PDHRE and HIC-HLRN and backed by UN has revealed how, after the December 2004 tsunami, governments frequently ignored human rights principles and failed to protect survivors from discrimination, land grabbing and violence. The report, released in UN Headquarters in New York recently, criticises official relief, compensation and rehousing programmes on a number of counts including forced relocation, shoddy construction, and neglect of the needs of vulnerable groups including women, children and ethnic minorities. The study of more than 50,000 people, in 95 towns and villages, was conducted in November 2005 in Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Indonesia and the Maldives. It found that in many places, survivors had been driven from land, cut off from their livelihoods, and denied food, clean water and a secure home. After the release Mr. Bijay Kumar, ActionAid International Sri Lanka Country director, answers some questions about Sri Lanka.
Q; What are the main issues that ActionAid’s report highlights in Sri Lanka?
A: One of the main concerns is the buffer zone. Throughout 2005, regulation on the buffer zone was debated affecting the rehabilitation in the ground and did create confusions among the families. Particularly the families living in temporary camps did not know when or whether they would be able to rebuild on the site of their old homes. The final declaration of the buffer zone (35 metres in the south and west, 50 metres in the east) has brought some clarity but this is yet to reach the large affected population.
This report also emphasizes the need of adequate housing for all tsunami affected people. There is still a long way to go before adequate housing is achieved for tsunami survivors. In some areas of Sri Lanka, overcrowding and inadequate lighting has left women and children exposed to violence and abuse, and shoddy construction and lack of toilets are setting many problems for these people. Regarding livelihoods recovery, a large number of poor fishing families who do not own boats themselves but earn money by working on other people’s boats are yet to receive meaningful compensation whilst most of the owners of big boats received compensation. The report also expressed concerns on the ensuing rehabilitation processes that have been insensitive to women’s rights. Most of the times, they haven’t been included on the decision making process and in some areas, widows and women have frequently been denied compensation which has almost always been handed out to male members of the family.
Q: The report also suggests that in Sri Lanka, there is a significant discrepancy between the southern and north-eastern provinces. Any comments?
A: The main reason is the security situation and the accessibility to these areas. Reconstruction and rehabilitation process has developed very fast in southern areas compared with the conflict-affected eastern districts, where the accessibility was adversely affected due to the volatile security situation. The failure to reach the affected population can partially attributed the failure of the joint mechanism. The sustained peace is definitely a necessary condition to adequately reach the large section of the tsunami affected population.
Q; The report is very critical of the Governments in the Tsunami affected countries.
A: The report aims to analyse human rights standards pursued by all those involved in tsunami response –governments, (I)NGOs and community groups. But end of the day we believe it is “the political will” of governments involved with active participation of the communities and their agencies can make the big difference. It is governments who are the signatories to international human rights agreements.
It is governments who ultimately have responsibility to ensure that human rights are protected, both through providing social services as well as regulating those involved in emergency response. We hope that this report will help to put human rights firmly on the agenda to improve policy and practice of emergency response and reduce risk of future disasters.
Q: The report paints a bleak picture. Are you saying the tsunami response is a failure?
A: When it comes to upholding human rights standards, sadly the answer is “yes”. There is ample evidence from this research, covering more than 50,000 people, that the dignity, the human rights of survivors have been neglected and abused in the wake of the tsunami. On the other hand, we must also recognise that a great deal has been achieved by communities, NGOs and governments responding to the tsunami. But these are pockets of success that we must build on. The overall picture is still far from rosy.It is not too late for governments, NGOs and communities to put things right and protect and promote the human rights of tsunami survivors. The report, which provides practical recommendations for policy makers and practitioners, represents a firm step in that direction.
Q; How the conflict is affecting the rehabilitation process in Sri Lanka?
A: Conflict and rising tension hits the poorest and most vulnerable people hardest. Some of the areas hit hardest by the tsunami are historically the areas hit hardest by conflict. We are pleased to learn that, for the first time since the CFA was signed in 2003, now, both the parties have once agreed to hold direct talks in mid-February in Geneva. We urge all those involved to reach a peaceful conclusion.
Q: What would be the plan of action to take this process forward?
A: In Sri Lanka, the People’s Planning Commission (PPC) has built up a strong consultation process with the tsunami affected communities through more than 34 public hearings across the affected regions. PPC has also come up with a report on the Human Rights issues involved in the tsunami affected areas. The report has been launched on the last 24th January with the involvement of 134 community based organizations, trade unions, NGO and civil society representatives.
A people’s agenda has been drafted as an outcome of the consultation process with the involvement of the international community as well those who represented as commissioners on the specific issues of land, shelter, livelihood, education and women’s issue. The process has created a space to facilitate a dialogue among all the stakeholders involved in the tsunami recovery. We are also aware that the people’s planning commission process is currently engaging the government and international agencies to take note of the perspective of the affected communities.
Both the reports have raised similar concerns on all these issues that are stated earlier. The current report reaffirms the situation of the affected communities in five Countries; hence, there is an opportunity to link up with the initiative taken up by the PPC with the other regional and international forums to influence the rehabilitation process.