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LLRC sessions in Trincomalee: Observations by Center for Human Rights (CHR) Sri Lanka.

2010 Dec 10

Has the East been forgotten by everyone?

* The role of government and international aid agencies in question
* Does the LLRC have a mandate to address Human Rights issues?
* Restitution, livelihood issues and economic rights
* In camera sessions and safety
* Reserving more time for oral submissions
* Reconciliation not even touched

484 complaints were made during the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) sessions in Trincomalee from December, 3 to 6. There were 213 (44%) complaints on missing persons, 90 (18.5%) cases are on abductions, 124 (25.6%) on detainees and 57 (11.7%) miscellaneous complaints. The fact that nearly 500 individuals gave evidence before the LLRC despite the heavy rains shows that there is a will and trust among the people that there issues will be looked into by the Commission.

Although the commission had planned to visit Sampur on December, 4th, 2010 it wasnot able to visit the area due to bad weather and appalling road conditions.

However CHR feels that the Commission should try to visit the area again since a large number of
people in Sampur lost their property to the High Security Zone (HSZ) and a large number of people live in temporary shelters in and around Muttur.

During the sessions in Trincomalee it became apparent that land/property issues are important/sensitive for the people of the Eastern province. Unlike during the sessions held in the North there were a considerable number of complaints regarding displacement and a lot of questions were raised on the role played by government as well as INGOs and other institutions.

The role of government and international aid agencies in question

Several individuals complained about the inaction of government officials as well asvarious international agencies, specially the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR.) Speaking at the Muttur sessions displaced individuals complained that they have not been given the temporary shelters promised by the UNHCR despite therecommendations of the Divisional Secretary of Muttur.

The UNHCR has promised to provide temporary shelters to those who have been displaced by the war and the creation of the HSZ said S. Selvanayagam, Divisional Secretary of Muttur. Although over 3000 such shelters have been given there are still a number of families who are yet to receive the aid. These delays are due to the non availability of documents by those who request aid and the availability of funds,  in
Addition people who have returned from India do not receive any aid from the UNHCR since they belong to a separate scheme.

Meanwhile UNHCR office in Trincomalee stated that they will be able to provide the temporary shelters to all those who are displaced by early next year.

However it is obvious that aid agencies and the government is focusing their energy and resources in the Wanni which is the centre of all media attention. But as CHR warned in its statement on the Muttur, sessions not paying attention to the land issues will lead to resentment and would adversely affect the reconciliation process.

Nevertheless CHR would like to point out that the ultimate responsibility of restitution of housing goes with the state, according to the 'Pinheiro Principles.' Thus the government should lead the way and provide the necessary facilities to those who are displaced.

Does the LLRC have a mandate to address Human Rights issues?

A high percentage of complaints made during the Trincomalee sessions were on are human rights and restitution issues. According to CHR calculations around 88% in of the complaints were on Human Rights issues.

According to the gazette notification on LLRC President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed the eight member Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission with the aim of ‘reporting on the lessons to be learnt from the events in the period, Feb 2002 to May 2009, their attendant concerns and to recommend measures to ensure that there will be no recurrence of such a situation.’

However speaking at one of the earliest sessions in Colombo former Defense Secretary Austin Fernando pointed that there is no mandate to look at Human Rights violations in the gazette to which commissioner H.M.G.S. Palihakkara responded by stating that Human Rights are included in the ‘attendants.’

Fernando went on to claim that, ‘I wish to tell you that it should be more open and not hidden. Human Rights are not only important to the United Nations and other NGOs but also to the entire international community. It will also help this commission to build faith in the minds of the Diaspora. It's vital to create a mechanism that looks into Human Rights. You are very straightforward about the way you look at the failure of CFA, so dothe same for HR. don’t put Human Rights under ‘attendant,’ it looks soggy that way.”

Over three months have passed since that incident but the LLRC, its proponents or even its critics have not taken up the issue. Does the LLRC have a clear mandate to look at Human Rights? CHR feels that the LLRC needs to make a clear statement about the matter since the overwhelming submissions at the outstation sessions (e.g. 88% in Trincomalee) are on Human Rights issues.

Livelihood issues and economic rights

Of the complaints received by the LLRC secretariat 57 (11.7%) cases are listed as miscellaneous in the Trincomalee session. Most of them fall under 'restitution'.

According to the Handbook on Principles on Housing and Property Restitution for
Refugees and Displaced Persons (Pinheiro Principles) “Restitution should, whenever possible, restore the victim to the original situation before the gross violations of human rights law or serious violations of international humanitarian law occurred.

Restitution includes, as appropriate restoration of liberty, enjoyment of human rights, identity, family life and citizenship; return to one’s place of residence, restoration of employment and return of property.”

Nevertheless just like previous outstation sessions complaints of missing persons and abductions formed the majority of the submissions to the LLRC and around 90% of those who appeared before the commission were women. Most of them told the LLRC that they have lost the bread winners of their families and that they are going through extreme economic hardships. For CHR economic rights are important as civil and political rights.

Therefore LLRC's ability to address these livelihood issues and making recommendations related to "return to one's place of residence and return of property" will be a major factor in establishing it's credibility among local and foreign observers. .

In camera sessions

Some people who testify before the LLRC in the outstation sessions reveal/talk about sensitive information that might lead to future persecution. Therefore it's prime responsibility of the Commission to ensure that security of the witnesses and to create an environment where they can testify without fear.

In mid November CHR in a press statement pointed out that the LLRC failed to establish a free and fair environment during the sessions at Kaytes Island where people could give evidence without fear of future prosecution.

The LLRC responded swiftly to the issue we raised and actively encouraged those who have sensitive information/submissions to give evidence before the camera. During all sessions at Trincomalee the commissioners constantly reminded those who came for the sessions that such a facility is available for their safety.

CHR commends the LLRC for this proactive move and hopes that the commission will continue to learn from their outstation experiences.

Reserving more time for oral submissions

One of CHR’s main complaints about the LLRC’s previous outings was that it failed to give enough time for the general public to give oral submissions.

The majority of the people have lost their loved ones and desperately need to talk about their loss. CHR pointed out that accepting written submissions with promises of ‘we will look into it,” were not sufficient since open expression of emotions are an important part of reconciliation.

Once again LLRC responded by reserving over six hours at each session in Trincomalee to listen to the grievances of the people. CHR observed that almost all the people who came to give evidence had time to appear before the commission.

But, still there were a number of people were unhappy about the time allocation. Some claimed that they did not had a chance to talk in front of the Commission, while others complained about the short time given for them to speak and also there were complains about the selection criteria of some who give evidence. While commending this CHR reiterates that more time should be allocated for oral sessions since some submissions had to be stopped halfway to make time for others.

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