Jaffna NGOs march for civilian rights

Place: Jaffna | Courtesy: Sunday Leader
| Date: 20000408

Conceptualising civil society as the counterweight to the state was a set of ideas that became established in western thinking as societies realised that the all-powerful state was not delivering the goods. The proponents who wanted organs in civil society empowered found a voice with the decline of state-led communism. By the early 1990s, the importance of institutions in civil society had infiltrated even third world countries such as ours, and became an established part of the political discourse.

Among the advantages civil society had over the state was that its institutions can oppose the rigidity of the state and be free of the burdensome intricacies of bureaucracy. Finally, it was also believed that if these organisations were properly constituted they could serve interests that were not sectarian and deliver the goods without fear or favour as to who the recipients were.

Events in Sri Lanka last week showed how NGOs that are firmly located within the ambit of civil society, have been transformed by the nature of the conflict in Sri Lanka and how they perceived their roles in this ethnically fragmented society.

The NGOs operating in Jaffna today are mostly those involved in the distribution of relief and, if the situation permits, in reconstruction and development projects to rehabilitate the lives of the people in war-ravaged areas. The NGOs include the strictly local ones, as well as those operating from Colombo with branches in the north. They work closely with international NGOs such as CARE and Save the Children as well as international organisations such as the ICRC and the UN agencies.

In Colombo, the NGOs that got top billing in the media last week were those engaged in lobbying and trying to influence local and international opinion to perceive the war in a particular way. These NGOs are the Sinhala Veera Vidhana, National Movement Against Terrorism and Buddhist organisations such as the National Joint Council.

What brings the two groups of organisations together is that last week they both utilised their power, influence and standing, to pressurise international bodies for what they wanted. However while one demonstration turned mildly violent, the other ended peacefully.

The NGO consortium of Jaffna organised a rally in front of the Jaffna kachcheri on April 6 where approximately 250 people had gathered. They prevented the government agent, members of international NGOs and UN agencies from entering the kachcheri premises and holding a meeting on the humanitarian crisis in the north.

The NGO consortium was protesting in support of the civilians who were unable to move out of the Kilali area because the military was not allowing them to leave. The demonstration came after repeated attempts by political parties and other lobbies to focus international attention on the charge that the military was preventing the movement of civilians to use them as a shield against LTTE attacks.

An interesting aspect of the protest was that the picketing demonstrators at the kachcheri, who did not allow the meeting to take place had among the posters, "UNHCR are you on holiday here - pack up your expensive vehicles and get out!"

The rally then marched down to the ICRC office where a petition was presented and then a much smaller group to which the original number had now dwindled, arrived at the UNHCR office where once again a petition was presented. During the discussion it is believed that the UNHCR officials had expressed their annoyance at the offensive banner and said that it could sour relations between the UNHCR and the local NGOs. The meeting broke up amicably though when the group of demonstrators thanked the UNHCR for its assistance in the past and word was received that the civilians prevented from leaving Kilali were being allowed to move out in batches.

This is not the first time such a picketing has been staged to protest against the role played by international organisations where the state was seen acting in a way that was against the interests of the civilian population in the north. In July last year, when the government used the controversy of locating the civilian security zone (CSZ) to suspend the supply of food, medicine and other essentials to the LTTE-controlled areas of the Wanni, the starving population there staged pickets in front of the UNHCR, as well as the offices of CARE and the ICRC too, demanding that they pressurise the Sri Lanka government to lift the blockade and begin the re-supplying of relief.

Among the organisations that put together the protest in the Wanni last year was the Lorry Owners Association that prevented staff of the international NGOs from leaving their offices. The picket and the association were then dubbed as pro-LTTE.

The demonstration last week however was organised by the NGO consortium of Jaffna.

What this goes to show is that the desperate measures that organisations in civil society such as the NGO consortium were forced to adopt in the wake of the humanitarian crisis in Jaffna. Though Major General Lionel Balagalle has written to the head of delegation of the ICRC that the "Sri Lankan security forces have never used and will never use civilians as human shields as done by the LTTE," the fact that there were certain restrictions’ imposed on the movement of civilians by the security forces needs no reiteration.

The humanitarian crisis shows that either a) the government gives tacit support to the military for the use of civilians as human shields leading to a protest by organisations in civil society such as the consortium, or, b) that the government lacks control over sections of the military which feel civilians can be used for this purpose.

It is in this context that the negotiations between the PA and the UNP should be viewed. There is a serious lack of credibility of a government that claims to be interested in resolving the present conflict through an extended process of negotiations, while sections of the public that are to reap the benefit of such a negotiated political settlement find themselves caught between the warring factions and becoming victims of the crossfire because they are prevented from leaving the war zone.

If the situation of exploiting civilians for military purposes continues, organisations in civil society will be compelled, even in the future, to lobby firmly to see that basic humanitarian standards are maintained by the warring parties because expecting the state to do this will be futile.

Courtesy: The Sunday Leader