Sri Lanka Peace Efforts Falter; Hundreds of Thousands of People Remain Displaced

Following the collapse of peace talks in late October, the lack of commitment to serious negotiations on the part of both the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has become painfully evident. Norway continues in its role of facilitator, but appears to have little leverage, especially since parts of Sri Lanka’s political establishment oppose Norwegian involvement. All signs point to continued bloodshed. The government’s 2007 budget provides for a 45 percent jump in military spending.

Meanwhile, the so-called co-chairs of the failing peace process—the United States, Japan and the European Union, in addition to Norway—appear increasingly desperate in their efforts at conflict resolution. They are seeking greater engagement by others, including neighboring India.

Both sides to the conflict have deliberately targeted civilians, are committing grave human rights violations, and are consciously exacerbating ethnic tensions. Some 3,300 people have been killed this year. More than 16,000 people fled to Tamil Nadu in southeastern India.

No accurate figures exist for the number of people displaced within Sri Lanka. UN agencies offer the following estimates:

  • More than 200,000 people were displaced by renewed hostilities during 2006.
  • About 317,000 people are still displaced by the conflict before the 2002 ceasefire agreement.
  • According to a December 2005 estimate, 457,000 people remained displaced by the December 2004 tsunami.

Some people have been displaced multiple times, and there is an unknown degree of overlap between these different categories. The total number of displaced people could be as high as 800,000. But there are also unknown numbers of unregistered IDPs living with host families and “night time IDPs”--people who live in their homes during the day but spend nights in camps for fear of violence.

After mid-2003, the return movement of IDPs slowed considerably, due to insecurity, continued presence of landmines, and lack of livelihood opportunities. Some returnees have been displaced yet again. The government as well as the LTTE have severely restricted access to conflict areas they control, so that an estimated 130,000 IDPs cannot be reached by international aid agencies. Workers for humanitarian groups increasingly find themselves accused of harboring sympathies for one or the other protagonist, and there have been some attacks on aid convoys.

Although NGOs complain that the government’s Reconstruction and Development Agency (RADA) lacks transparency and accountability and often fails to consult with civil society, tsunami IDPs have received far more attention than conflict IDPs. Also, IDPs in government-held areas receive more aid than those in inaccessible conflict areas in the north and east.

The truncated Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (personnel from Denmark, Finland, and Sweden were withdrawn after the European Union declared the LTTE a terrorist organization) is increasingly unable even to monitor ceasefire violations, let alone deter them. Particularly government forces are denying the monitors access to conflict zones.

The forcible recruitment of children as combatants remains a major concern. Following a 10-day fact-finding mission, Allan Rock, the Special Advisor to the United Nations Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict on Sri Lanka, said that government troops had rounded up Tamil children and forced them to become to become fighters for a LTTE breakaway faction known as Karuna’s group.