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EU aid must not fuel new ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka

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EU member states should be working more actively to ensure that [international] development projects in Sri Lanka, especially in the north and east, do not help institutionalise an unjust peace or fuel new grievances and violent conflict, particularly with regard to the use and ownership of land.

With regard to the resettlement of the nearly 300,000 people displaced from their homes by the last two years of fighting, the large majority have left the military-run camps in which they were locked for months. This is good. Nonetheless, according to the most recent government figures, available from the UN, more than 20,000 people remain in the camps and another 70,000 live with host families and are not back on their own land.

Huge problems

Those who have returned home face huge problems, including a lack of housing and other infrastructure, few economic opportunities, and difficulties farming their land and fishing off the coasts.

There is little evidence that the Sri Lankan government is approaching their problems with the requisite openness, urgency and resources.

This can be seen in the damaging restrictions placed on the activities of local and international humanitarian NGOs. Agencies are currently permitted to do little more than deliver tangible material goods, for which the government oftens take credit.

None of the crucial post-war work of rebuilding community organisations, dealing with the psychosocial damage from the war, tracing missing persons, or attending to women’s specific needs – is officially permitted. In this context, it is important that ECHO (the European Commission’s humanitarian aid department) continues to operate in the north and east, though the work they can do there is extremely limited.

What humanitarian and development activities are allowed are closely monitored by the tens of thousands of troops deployed throughout the northern province, and all important decisions are made by the military and predominantly Sinhalese officials in Colombo, chiefly by the Presidential Task Force headed by the President’s brother Basil Rajapaksa.

Conflict over land

In this context, the growing numbers of Sinhalese moving to the north, in a process that is anything but transparent, has fed fears by Tamils that the government plans to change the ethnic make-up of the Tamil-majority north.

The government’s repeated promises that all of the 70,000 or more Muslims forcibly evicted from the north by the LTTE in 1990 will be allowed to return home is good news.

However, the fact that there is very little involvement by Muslim and Tamils community groups and independent politicians in the process of resettlement is sowing the seeds of renewed ethnic conflict, especially in the face of competing land claims.

This is made worse by the government’s failure to establish a transparent and equitable process for negotiating land disputes in the north, of which there are already many.

EU responsibility

Even after the conflict over GSP+ privileges, the EU still contributes a significant amount of development assistance to Sri Lanka, both directly and via its member states’ contributions to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Unfortunately, under current conditions in the north and east, where local communities and their Tamil and Muslim political representatives have little involvement in the physical and economic reconstruction taking place, it is extremely hard for international development assistance to be “conflict sensitive” without much more active monitoring and political engagement.

EU member states and institutions should be using their political and financial influence to press the World Bank and the ADB to tie the delivery of their aid to more inclusive, participatory and democratic forms of planning and implementation, especially in the north and east.

Dr. Alan Keenan is the International Crisis Group's Sri Lanka Project Director and Senior Analyst. The above is extracted from his submission to the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament, Meeting of 6 December 2010 (Full text available here)

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