Lessons from Sri Lanka for the Humanitarian Crisis swamping Middle East and Europe?

Jehan Perera, in The Daily News, 21 October 2015, where the title is “Sri Lankan experience to mitigate world humanitarian crisis “

These past two months Sri Lanka figured significantly in the deliberations that took place on important topics in Geneva, which is one of the key venues for gatherings of the United Nations. In September the country took a central place in the deliberations of the UN Human Rights Council where it co-sponsored a resolution on itself that called for truth, accountability and justice in relation to its past conduct of the war against the LTTE.

humanitarian efforts

In October last week Sri Lanka again got attention at the final consultation of the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in Geneva which brought together nearly one thousand humanitarian workers from all parts of the globe. One indication of the country’s visibility was the role played by Sri Lankan media personality Chevaan Daniel who obtained the official position of master of ceremonies for the duration of the three day consultation on account of the Maharaja group of companies’ humanitarian work and hence became a part of the WHS Secretariat that guided the consultation to a successful conclusion.

The holding of the consultation came with the severe crisis that the world faces due to humanitarian catastrophes taking place today which has seen millions of people displaced and on the move. The most violent manifestations of this crisis have come primarily from the Middle East, where a group that uses terror and operates outside of international law, the ISIS is causing havoc and taking over large chunks of territory of formerly sovereign countries and is establishing state-like structures in them.

The consequences of these conflicts in the Middle East have led to a massive wave of migration last seen over seven decades ago during the Second World War with people from formerly prosperous countries such as Iraq, Libya and Syria fleeing their countries by the millions. The media images of people who never thought that their ordered lives would be turned upside down on the run to safety are haunting ones, and have prompted many countries, especially in Europe which had restrictive immigration policies to open up their borders to cope with the humanitarian crisis.

One of the Sri Lankan humanitarian workers at the consultation, Raga Alphonsus, who worked during the war years in Mannar made a presentation that drew much commendation from those who engage directly with refugee populations on the ground. He pointed to the importance of ensuring the dignity of those who had become refugees. He called for sanctions against those organizations that engaged in violating the dignity of people who had been displaced by imposing solutions on them without consulting them.

L 146 - Dlshy -025=communal kitchnea communal kitchen at one of the Zones at Manik Farm run by inmates with aid and equipment from a designated NGO — Pic by Dilshy Banu, an aid worker

L 153b -- 10919A psycho-social centre at Manik farm in July 209 — Pic by Manori Unambuwe

L 153b - SDC10505beds in Field hospital at Manik FarmPic secured by Myrna Setunga

Drawing on his experience in working in the Sri Lankan situation, he said that those who had become refugees needed to be treated with respect, their views obtained, and their solutions taken into consideration. This calls for inclusion of the victims in the decision making process, which dignifies them. If this is not done the resentments that are generated can become another source of problems as in Sri Lanka especially after the war.

Human dignity:  This aspect of inclusion needs also to be extended to the international community’s efforts to grapple with the world humanitarian crisis. At the consultation in Geneva there was great emphasis given to the need to empower people to cope and recover with dignity through humanitarian action that puts people at its heart and makes them the primary agents of their recovery. This dignifying of people also needs to be promoted through an educational process that is introspective and self-critical.

This is especially needed where refugees are resettled in places outside of their home areas where other populations live. There is a need for anti-racism education and campaigns to enable their inclusion in the societies that will need to accommodate them. As most of the refugees pouring into Europe at the present time are Muslims, it becomes important that the fears and prejudices of the host populations should be addressed through civic education campaigns.

Sri Lanka has considerable experience in this regard as evidenced by the Sudu Nelum (White Lotus) movement formed by the government during the period of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and by civil society organizations to support a political solution to the armed conflict with the LTTE.

However, it was evident at the consultation of the World Humanitarian Summit that the greater emphasis was on the mobilization of financial resources at the level of states and multilateral donor agencies to cope with the refugee crisis. The shortage of finances is a major cause of the stress.

Representatives from Pakistan said that their country had been hosting up to four million refugees from neighbouring countries including Afghanistan for many years without international attention being focused on their plight and on the need to obtain more financial assistance to support them and ensure their dignity, safety and opportunity to rebuild their lives in a resilient manner.

One of the main issues to be taken up at the World Humanitarian Summit has been the issue of mobilizing adequate financial resources. While financial assistance has increased it is not adequate due to the enormity of the need. In 2014, for instance, more financial resources for humanitarian purposes were obtained than ever before in history. But the deficit in the UN’s budget for humanitarian purposes was also the greatest ever.

With tens of thousands of refugees being taken into Western countries which have traditionally been donors to third world countries, the funds allocated to those third world countries, including Sri Lanka, to cope with their own humanitarian problems is likely to get reduced. This has negative consequences for those countries which have been depending on international support to successfully resolve their own humanitarian problems. It will also make it more difficult to respond to the targets set by the international community, as evidenced in the resolution on Sri Lanka of the UN Human Rights Council.

Root causes: Sri Lanka is particularly unfortunate in this regard, as at the very time it is making the turn to ethnic reconciliation and good governance the externally given financial resources to ease the path of transition are drying up or likely to be withdrawn. This will also make it harder for the government to counter the mounting propaganda by the political opposition that it is on the wrong track in having responded positively to international pressures, such as the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka.

There is another lesson that Sri Lanka can share with regard to coping with humanitarian crises. This is the importance of addressing the root causes of conflicts that give rise to humanitarian crises. Today it is generally accepted in Sri Lanka that the prolonged ethnic conflict and war, and failure of the former government headed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, were due to ignoring the root cause of the ethnic conflict and believing that economic development would suffice to pave the way for reconciliation and sustainable peace. By ignoring the need to politically resolve the conflict, the Rajapaksa government alienated the ethnic minorities and totally lost their electoral support. The new government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has made sure that there is not active discrimination against the ethnic and religious minorities. However, they have yet to reform the centralized nature of the state and the ideology of the state that identifies with the ethnic majority.

At the World Humanitarian Summit there was a similar phenomenon. Although many speakers referred to the need for political solutions that would address the humanitarian crises, there was no clear analysis of the political problems that had given rise to the humanitarian crises.

The outcome of Western powers seeking to impose their notions of good governance and democracy on societies that are not yet ready for it can be seen in the breakdown of the state and tragedies that have unfolded in the Middle East. At the same time it is necessary to be critical of the violent terror of the ISIS that has been born in the womb of those Middle Eastern societies. This was also the case with regard to the LTTE which even today sections of Tamil society are unwilling to criticize. The recent statement of the TNA leadership in which there is introspection and self-criticism is an example for Sri Lanka and the international community even though it is likely to come at a political cost to them if the government does not reciprocate and show results on the ground to the affected people.

The TNA statement has been oft cited, and it is useful to cite again. It said “We also accept and undertake to carry out our responsibility to lead the Tamil people in reflecting on the past, and use this moment as a moment of introspection into our own community’s failures and the unspeakable crimes committed in our name, so as to create an enabling culture and atmosphere in which we could live with dignity and self-respect, as equal citizens of Sri Lanka.”

Any reform that addresses the roots of conflict requires that the people, victims, perpetrators and outside supporters, are brought into the process of change. If they are not brought in, it is more likely than not that they will reject those reforms even though they are in the larger interests of all. The solutions to problems best comes when all sides becomes aware of their contribution to both the problem and its solution. This requires much education work at all levels of society, both national and international, that promotes self-criticism and introspection.

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One response to “Lessons from Sri Lanka for the Humanitarian Crisis swamping Middle East and Europe?

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