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Transcript- Visaka Dharmadasa

07 October 2010

 Ms. Visaka Dharmadasa

 Dharmadasa: Honourable President, distinguished members of the Panel, first of all I would like to thank the Commission for giving me the opportunity to make my submissions on matters pertinent to the Mandate of the Commission. At the outset, I should state that I am making these submissions mainly as the Convener of Parents of Serviceman missing in action and the Chairperson of the Association of War Affected Women. During the period the Commission is dealing with, I was a member of the National Advisory Council for Reconciliation and was a team member of the Special Repertoire on conflict related human rights violations appointed by the National Human Rights Commission. It is well known that any society will face a dilemma when trying to look into human rights violations and violence during an armed conflict. It becomes ever more difficult when you are dealing with an internal armed conflict. I also believe that the task this Commission is made difficult also because of the fact that it has to deal with a specific time frame which is carved from a lengthy process which has taken place for more than three decades and more so because of the fact that most of the acts may have reasons which go back to the period that is not covered by the Mandate.  Various countries in the world that have undergone armed conflicts have developed mechanisms to deal with the past in order to make the future better for all its citizens. It is impossible to replicate another country’s initiative as a whole but we do have many lessons to learn from all of them. Sri Lanka’s context is unique as we are still not a post conflict country though we have become a post war country more than 17 months ago. I would like to emphasize here that reconciliation cannot be taught in a class room nor can it be achieved by writing on walls or any propaganda mechanism. Reconciliation will come about in people’s hearts and minds when they understand that there is no discrimination whatsoever in any form applied against them individually or collectively. To make a conducive atmosphere for such a process to be grounded in our country there are essential pre-requisites that we as individuals, as communities and as a nation will have to fulfill. Since I have already handed over the report to the Commission from our findings as the Special Repertoire on conflict related human rights violations I would like to divide my submissions today into two separate areas. I do believe that dealing with each of these amongst others is essential in order to create that above mentioned conducive atmosphere. First one is the issue of missing and missing in action and the second is women’s specific issues.

 The issue of missing and missing in action

 As it is well known to all of us in Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka has witnessed waves of mass disappearances from 1971 although 40 years have passed we are yet to find lasting solutions in order to see an end or at least minimize this grave human rights violation. If we look at the armed conflict between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam upto 2002 there was 12,000 unresolved cases from the reported cases to the ICRC of civilians and more than 4000 of armed forces. From the civilians cases there were a few thousands only from the district of Batticaloa alone. During the period that this Commission is mandated to cover we know that abductions and disappearances became a menace not only in the northern towns but also in the capital city, the infamous white van sent shock waves to all but those who were responsible for this grave human rights violation.  Similarly thousands of fathers, mothers, wives, children and close relatives are waiting for decades to know the fate of those who wore a uniform and went for call of duty when the country most needed them and was reported as missing in action. Prior to 2002 there were more than 4000 cases of missing in action within the 3 forces, the Sri Lanka Army being the highest. Whether your son or daughter was a soldier or a civilian or for that matter a combatant the next of kin has the right to know the fate of those who are reported as missing.

We as parents of Serviceman missing in action regard the issue of missing in action as a unresolved issue for which the government of Sri Lanka is answerable to the families. We have a right to know what happened to our children, we believe that violating the right to know of the family is as grave a crime as concealing the existence of an individual. Similarly, all citizens of this country have the right to know the fate of their loved ones who were abducted and disappeared. When we speak of reconciliation it is a must for all families to know the truth and come to terms with the past. They need to grieve and mourn the loss of their loved ones then only they can reconcile with the unfortunate incidents that none of us were directly responsible as individual citizens. One must understand that when one decides to conceal the existence of a person he is not necessarily only hurting that particular individual but the society as a whole as a family who has a person’s  existence not known will never be able to contribute to society as he or she did before. If we fail to find answers to these questions and also if we fail to learn from those unfortunate incidents of the past and put and act to put an end to this grave human rights violations the grudge will remain in the hearts and minds of the people and reconciliation will only be a dream in this country. Therefore we would like to recommend below for the issue of missing in action. Take all steps to find out the fate of those who are reported as missing in action, identify the grave sites in Wanni and mark them, collect all material that could lead to identification and ascertain the fate of those who are missing in action, reserve the mass cremation site of Pampaimadu and erect a monument, build a monument for the unidentified soldier in a centrally located place. Since there were no formal funerals held for all those reported missing, hold a formal funeral with full military honours for all those who paid the supreme sacrifice but never was been able to be honoured accordingly because of the circumstances of their demise. For the issue of missing, make abductions a punishable offence irrespective of the motive, make concealing the existence of a person a punishable offence, make authorities to understand that violating the right to know is violating the human rights of a person and is punishable, take all steps to trace those who are missing, uphold the universal principle responsibility to protect.

Women’s specific issues

The military victory of the government of Sri Lanka in May 2009 and its post war humanitarian crisis generated a mass exodus of internally displaced persons in which women and children have been the majority of the affected community.  The post war stages present its own menu of risk and vulnerabilities for women. Crisis situations affect men and women differently and disproportionately. Crisis always further jeopardizes the well being of women more than men in placing in situations that exacerbates existing inequalities in relation to women’s personal security, bodily integrity, health and well being and violation  of socio economic as well as civil and political rights. Evidence suggests that violence against women and structural discrimination has increased in former conflict areas due to the lack of participation of women. Discriminatory policy and practices, heavy military presence, lack of authority to control their environment, limited access to basic needs combined with weak institutional protection mechanisms  and breakdown of traditional support networks norms and prejudices against women in the society and attitudes and behavior of power players lead to a culture of violence and impunity which expose women to various forms of sexual and gender based violence that compromise their dignity, security well being and rights. The general trend in labeling women as the victim and man as the rescuer has created a situation which has formed a huge gap in the active participation between men and women in post crisis responses and management. In these given circumstances it is important to bring in the multi-dimensional nature of women’s role during the conflict and post conflict including victimization as well as their efforts in conflict prevention is building in prevention and peacemaking, it is important   to document women’s experiences and impact on women in conflict situations during the time of transition to peace and post conflict cities during reconstruction. In post conflict reconstruction efforts women are often excluded from peace building processes, the marginalization or seclusion of women from decisions that affect their lives in the re-integration process constitutes a serious obstacle  to the full enjoyment of their human and socio economic rights, increasing the capacity of women’s leadership and voice in peace building is integral in sustaining peace largely because women are the majority in Sri Lanka and women have come up as better peace keepers at home and community at large. Women out number men in post conflict areas and numbers of female headed houses are higher than other areas due to long term conflict. There are a considerable number of war widows who have lost basic need in their lives, who are very vulnerable to poverty and social exclusions. Women too lost their jobs, lands, businesses and sources of livelihood. However, women have largely being excluded from decision making mechanisms in the reconstruction process. Further lack of women friendly institutional norms, men driven procedures and services together with marginalization of women from right to land ownership and livelihood opportunities have increased their vulnerability.

 Limited access to resources, lack of skills, markets and income are some of the contributory factors delaying early recovery in post conflict situations. Women in post conflict areas are more vulnerable to violence in every sphere of the lives due to the post conflict stress, trauma and historical marginalization of human rights and gender equality. While there has been some attempt to address gender and women’s concern in the aftermath of the conflict in the reconstruction process, this has been slow and fragmented, and women’s situations remain largely the same to date.  Pressing concerns and transformative interventions and opportunities are required to bring women to the playing field in the development effort. Properly planned development interventions in post war situations could open a window of opportunity to acquire new skills and nature women’s advancement. Specially one must remember that women’s protection and safety are very important for our society and if their safety is threatened that can lead to future conflicts. Considering that Sri Lanka has ratified the international convention related to the protection of civilians and safeguarding their human rights and women’s rights, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, convention  on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, SEDOR and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1820 time has come more than ever before to address critical gender gaps in the normalization process in post war Sri Lanka.


The Honourable Commission should facilitate a process to bring women’s concerns and historical discrimination to the attention of the authorities and recommend actions to rectify those as priority issues. Platforms should be created for women affected by war to discuss issues pertinent to their lives. Facilitate women’s involvement in post war reconstruction efforts to ensure their society is founded on justice and inclusion. A social dialogue between women’s group from the North and East and other districts is very timely and necessary to bring women’s concerns into reintegration and reconciliation processes. In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that reconciliation is only possible if each and every one of us is ready to accept the other for who or what he  or she is and not for what we want he or she to be. One must remember that unless otherwise the root causes of the conflict is adequately addressed and justice based on truth is applied and made real for all there will be no space in the hearts and minds of our people for reconciliation. It is important for us to learn from the past and understand the conflict in all complexities and more so to understand that dignity and equality has to be the overarching principle in our journey of finding lasting solutions which will enable all the people of this country to feel and enjoy the full citizens rights so that their contributions in all forms will set the stage for Sri Lanka to move forward.

Q & A:

Rohan Perera: Ms. Dharmadasa thank you very much for that presentation, I just have a question on one of the recommendations you just made namely to facilitate women’s involvement in post war reconstruction efforts. How would you place that recommendation institutionally or structurally? We have heard different views about the need for a mechanism for a permanent commission on reconciliation was one we heard before this Commission. There has been another view like the need for inter religious councils or committees to function as early warning systems if there is problems between ethnic communities for these inter religious council to address those so when you talk of facilitating women’s involvement from a structural or institutional point of view, how would you see that role being played, what is the mechanism within which that role could be played?

Dharmadasa: The Women’s Group have been requesting from the government even before the war came to an end to have women in committees or task force, the Presidential task force or whatever reconstruction mechanisms they are going to put in place to have women in them because for the very simple fact of building a house a woman will know where a window should be in a kitchen, specially the toilet facilities. For women it is very important to have a toilet facility in a concealed environment specially taking into consideration that the areas are heavily militarized. There is a heavy military presence and also there are 20 feet sentry points where they can see a larger area. So if women are there they can definitely bring these matters to focus. For example, the Vihara Maha Devi Park, the washrooms have glass doors. If a woman had designed it they would never have had it. One could see from outside what is inside. So that is where we would like to have women at all levels. Women from the ground, women from all other levels when they are appointing these mechanisms for reconstruction.

Hangawatte: About persons missing in action, I believe your focus was on the missing soldiers problem based on your work and one of the problems even if there is agreement on the right to know, one of the problems is how do we know for sure whether a person who is missing in action because there are instances though it may be that they turn up? This also applies to LTTE combatants as well. There are instances when we visited the North we were very moved by mothers and fathers who come  and  cry and ask us to find their child, my child was taken by the LTTE, some of them were conscripted, some of them joined on their them but are now missing. We are now confronted with a question. How can we tell a weeping mother or father that your child is or may be even dead? How can we tell them that, what if the child turns up?

Dharmadasa: There are mechanisms in Humanitarian Law and also the Geneva Convention for a soldier to wear and respect an identification disc. We have been calling the Sri Lankan military and the government of Sri Lanka for a long time now to make each and every soldier to wear an identification disc and also to make him understand how important it is and even if he finds a disc to bring it back. We have told the same thing to the LTTE and we know that the LTTE also wore some sort of a disc and the Sri Lankan military when we asked them said yes the soldiers are wearing. If you can remember from the Elephant Pass debacle in 2002, after 2 years they did find two soldiers, they knew they were from the Singha Regiment because they had the identification disc. So this is one thing in prevention and also when a person is enlisted to the military they take one full hour to take all the identifications marks. They go through the finger prints, they go through the dental records. We did have all these things, but it is from the part of the military and the government of that day, they did not care whether they are dead, missing or anything and that is what I have to tell the Commission. If they took action to collect all the bodies, get the LTTE to collect all the bodies and accept them body and find whose bodies are that. Instead they were created in a mass cremation ground in Pampaimadu and that is why, parts of the bodies are still in Pampaimadu.

Ramanathan: On page 3 of your submission you state that the military victory of the government in May 2009 and its post war humanitarian crisis generated a mass exodus of internally displaced persons in which women and children have been the majority of affected community. Do you know of any women’s organizations which have taken steps to resettle these women and children? If so can you name these organizations?

Dharmadasa: The state is the one that is completely doing the resettlement process. Even for NGO’s to work in those areas, Defence Ministry permission is required and from the Presidential Task Force, but this is particularly done by the government but the thing is the women’s organization who are on the ground, who are from the North and East are trying at least to do the minimum they can to make the women okay but normally everything is done by the government. During the time of the tsunami we did have the space to go and work with the women and we did have the space to even demand from the government to have camp committees and for the camp committees to have women especially to have women Grama Sevakas as we saw having women Grama Sevakas it is much easier and also the safety of women, so we have space as civil society but this everybody knows that civil society really did not have any space in this particular area.

Hangawatte: So do you mean to say that there is lack of women in the administration process?

Dharmadasa: Specially in decision making at all levels, I mean we have been telling throughout  in the process of Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration and Reconstructions processes to have women because the women are the ones who know, even the land mines, they are the ones who use small paths to bring water and firewood and therefore it is extremely important to have women in these committees and throughout the  world women’s organizations have been calling for this and those who have exactly taken heed of these they have had better process of recovery. The women are the ones who are going, they are the ones that are there, it is easy for them and they are the ones that are encountering these mines and mine action has to be done in a gender sensitive manner, it is called for by International Organizations. Yesterday there was an article, there are women who are removing land mines. Women should be there at all stages of these processes and unfortunately the decisions from Colombo that has caused all these problems.

Hangawatte: Is it a fact there is no participation by women or is it just based on assumption?

Dharmadasa: Just see, how many are you? Just only one Lady. Why not balance from the day this Commission was to be appointed we were waiting to see how many women would be appointed, because women will understand and women do look at things differently. Women are outnumbered and they cannot get their positions. We would have been very happy if this Commission had 3 women. It is just like, this reflects, this is something that does not reflect all over but sometimes at least one here and there.

C.R. de Silva: On behalf of the Commission I wish to thank you for the views that you expressed before this Commission and I am sure we will be taking into consideration the views that have been expressed by you in formulating our recommendations to HE the President.


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