Tag Archives: reconciliation

Land grabs jeopardize peace in Sri Lanka

by Christina Williams

Christina Williams is an attorney and founder of Reinventing the Rules, a website dedicated to covering the latest trends and lessons learned in the rule of law sector. She has worked on human rights campaigns related to Sri Lanka for several years and is currently focusing on women and land rights in the region.

The end of the 25-year armed conflict in Sri Lanka in May 2009 signaled what many in the international community hoped would be the beginning of a new era marked by peace and reconciliation. Over the past five years, however, one of the key instigators of the civil war has resurfaced. Land grabs, which were systematically taking place prior to the armed conflict, are once again accelerating at a frightening pace. Shielded by the rhetoric of security and development, the rise of land grabs has left few positive prospects for long-term peace and stability.

Who is behind the land grabs?

The Sri Lankan military, sanctioned by the Government, has played a primary role in confiscating public and private land from the Tamil population, which predominantly inhabits the North and East of the island. Despite the end of the war, militarization of Tamil areas has been the main reason land grabs continue unabated.

In 2008, during the latter stages of the armed conflict, Sri Lanka reportedly had a force of 60 soldiers for every 1,000 civilians or 1 soldier for every 16.6 civilians in the North. In July 2012, the Economic and Political Weekly of India estimated that there is a “ratio of 1 security personnel for every 5.04 civilians in the Northern Province.” The military, which is almost entirely composed of ethnic Sinhalese from the South, includes at least 15 army divisions and personnel from the navy, air force, civil defense force, intelligence, police, and special task force. This conservative estimate roughly translates into 198,000 soldiers or 70% of the security personnel in 14% of the country. View a map of militarization in Sri Lanka here.

The trend towards militarization has only increased with Sri Lanka’s defense budget for 2014 reported to be the highest allocation of funds thus far, at $1.95 billion or 12% of the country’s total spending.  The rate at which militarization grows in Tamil areas five years after the war ended is a concerning trend given the significance land played as one of the root causes of the war. Land will likely continue to play an important role in determining whether peace and a return to normalcy can be achieved.

Tactics used to seize land

The seizure of land marked as high security zones (HSZ) during the conflict and the unwillingness to return much of this property to the thousands who were displaced has contributed to the slow return to normalcy in the former war zones. While some of the HSZ have been disbanded, existing HSZs still occupy significant amounts of valuable agricultural land and no one other than the army is allowed to enter, including elected officials. During the war the legality of the HSZs rested on emergency regulations, which have now been repealed. Five years after the end of conflict, there is no clear legal basis for the remaining HSZ.

Since the armed conflict ended, the military has continued to confiscate public and private land largely under the pretext of security. While many military camps have been created for the army and navy, the government has also resettled thousands of Sinhalese soldiers and civilians from the South in Tamil areas by incentivizing them with free land and permanent housing. This is occurring while 57% out of 138,651 households already residing in the North remain in transitional or emergency shelters while only 32% have permanent homes. Consequently, land grabs are reigniting fears of a concerted effort by the government to change the demographics of Tamil areas in the North and East.  Continue reading

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Sweden faces up to past discrimination against its Roma minority in a new ‘White Book’

by Rhodri C. Williams

One week ago, the Swedish integration minister Erik Ullenhag presided over the long-awaited release of a government “White Book” documenting the country’s treatment of Roma during the 20th century. As appropriate to the aims and nature of this inquiry, the initial publication was a Swedish family affair; while the context of broader European antiziganism – or racism against Roma – is discussed and acknowledged, there has yet to be an official translation of the White Book in English (let alone romani ćhib), although a summary and fact sheet are now available.

Greater accessibility and dissemination will no doubt follow, if for no other reason than to show compliance with Sweden’s EU-mandated integration policy, and respond to specific criticisms of the Advisory Committee for the Council of Europe Framework Convention on National Minorities. However, for the time being, coverage, dissemination and discussion of the White Book have been in Swedish, with the exception of the Local and Swedish Radio. While this has emphasized the extent to which this effort is driven by and aimed at addressing local concerns, it has also resulted in a limited and eclectic international reception to date.

Given my own ongoing research interest in autonomy and minority rights in the Nordic countries, I have been working my way through the White Book and will be writing two posts on it here in TN. The first one, will address the general approach to truth-seeking set out in the White Book, and how it has been received and debated in Sweden. The second will focus more narrowly on the fifth chapter of the White Book, and, in keeping with the concerns of this blog, discuss the historical obstacles to property ownership and secure tenure to housing for Roma in Sweden.

As an outset observation, the White Book is a remarkable document, stating clearly and with an unassuming Swedish sobriety how far the country has come in the integration of its Roma national minority and how far it has yet to go. Its goals are two-fold, namely to provide recognition to the victims of a century of systematic discrimination, and raise awareness among the majority population regarding the severity of these abuses and their enduring effects (12). While the White Book represents a major step toward meeting both goals, some questions remain about both their sufficiency and their relationship with the prospectively oriented Swedish strategy for Roma inclusion.

In fact, the current relevance of the White Book was underscored with near-Hollywood timing by a set of recent scandals involving Roma in Sweden. Continue reading

Talks collapse in Geneva, reconciliation blooms in Syria?

by Rhodri C. Williams

It is hard to read Syria these days. Hard to look as one horror rolls into another. And hard to understand the dynamic this creates in a population that knows something better, wanted something more and did nothing to deserve what they ultimately got. So, predictably, the day after I speculated that the Geneva talks risked become a pretext for a final ethnic cleansing of Homs in the guise of a humanitarian ceasefire evacuation, the talks collapsed and the ceasefire apparently continued.

Subsequent reporting, particularly by the BBC’s Lyse Doucet, has provided a much clearer picture of how the humanitarian operation in Homs went, with UN personnel and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) showing both courage and ingenuity in the face of direct targeting, most likely by pro-Assad regime militias:

Sources confirmed these attacks were the work of a local paramilitary group known as the National Defence Force determined to scupper a deal it saw as feeding and freeing their enemies. “All the devils in this crisis will always try to hinder our work,” Sarc’s head of operations, Khaled Erksoussi, told me on the telephone line from Damascus with a voice tinged with exhaustion and anger.

There are no angels in this war, only what one aid official called “good people in a very bad situation” on both sides of a bitter divide were determined to carry on.

By Wednesday, lessons had been learned. On the edge of the Old City, bundles of food and medicine were unloaded from lorries, and passed along a chain of Sarc volunteers on to two trailers. Supplies would be towed in by the UN’s armoured vehicles.

One of the most sensitive aspects of the operation involves the fate of about 300 “fighting age” men who left the besieged Old City of Homs along with the rest of the civilians evacuated. The willingness of the UN to go forward with the evacuation without guarantees of the humane treatment of fleeing men has been controversial from the outset. This issue, along with the failure of the regime to guarantee humanitarian access to other besieged areas and detention centers, led the ICRC to publicly withhold its support for the operation in Homs:

Evacuations are not the solution to every humanitarian problem, although the Syrian authorities and opposition groups must allow civilians to leave for safer areas. Those who, for whatever reason, choose to stay in their homes remain protected by international humanitarian law and must not be attacked. ….

Anyone detained after an evacuation must be treated humanely at all times and be allowed to contact their families. In addition, our delegates should be allowed to register detainees so that we can follow up on their fate and whereabouts and restore and maintain family contact whenever necessary. We continue to negotiate with the Syrian authorities and other parties to have access to places of detention across the country.

However, as reported by both Doucet and the Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher, events took an unexpected turn early, beginning with a decision to release nearly one third of the detained men who signed “a pledge never to bear arms against the state”. As Dagher notes here, such leniency flows from the highest levels of the regime and involves a willful effort to recast the traumatized detainees as born again-Assad supporters, graciously spared the consequences of their own foolishness:  Continue reading

Reconciliation, or getting over losing to win in the Balkans

by Rhodri C. Williams

For several years now, I have provided periodic technical advice to a European Union funded program to aid refugees and displaced persons in Serbia. Although the deck has been stacked pretty heavily against the program’s clients and the rest of the world’s attention long since wandered from their plight, it means a lot to me to be able to continue participating in picking up the pieces from the conflicts that shocked me into political consciousness back in the distant 1990s.

My most recent trip came last week, for a training in Belgrade. Much on the way to Serbia was bracingly familiar, beginning with the blithe surliness of the nicotine-raspy JAT stewardesses who make you eight again and dealing with the cafeteria ladies as they slap a canned sandwich down on your bobbling tray. Belgrade itself was indecently unchanged, with its steady throng of cheerful and careworn pedestrians wandering amidst canyons of faded glory. Of all the Eastern European places I return to, Belgrade seems to change the least, not resisting so much as ignoring the tsunami of Benetton gentrification that rages all around it.

This is not to say that the politics haven’t changed. In many respects, its been a banner year for the West Balkans. As Besar Likmeta recently pointed out in Foreign Policy, the accession of Croatia to the EU on July 1 capped a sequence of breakthroughs ranging from the belated election of a true reform candidate in Albania to the political galvanization of Bosnia and most notably, the power-sharing agreement arrived at between Belgrade and Pristina. At first glance, the only parties that seem bitterly divided or incapable of applying the rule of law at all these days are within the Tribunal that was meant to fix all that (on which, see Eric Gordy’s latest ruthlessness here).

However, an atmosphere of palpable unease remains over issues like the delicate détente over Kosovo. The lawyers I met with last week exemplify the paradoxical nature of post-Yugoslav normalization. On one hand, there they are, Serb lawyers representing Serb clients in Serbian, working the Kosovo courts every day. The first time I went to Kosovo in early 2000, the idea was unimaginable (‘suicidal’ would not be out of place) and its realization gives some hope for a viable multi-ethnic future.

On the other hand, the lawyers had a laundry list of shenanigans, underhand, bureaucratic and worse. In many senses, the uprooted and impoverished clients they represent are the most easily dispensable part of a veritable mountain of irregularities and grievances accumulated during a decade of international administration. Property claims remain a significant issue, but must be viewed alongside unresolved disappearances, highly contested privatizations, potentially massive liability to the former employees of state firms and other pending calamities.

That said, the lack of trust remains striking. After dinner one evening, the conversation revolved around plots. Is this a blocking maneuver meant to distract us from that or wedge us out of there? There was some ironic laughter but an undertone of real worry. For Serbs living and working in Kosovo, a sort of elemental uncertainty that long since evaporated from more settled former war zones like Bosnia still clings.

Continue reading