Advocacy & commentary

At Rio+20, diverse women leaders bring ground realities to the forefront

UN Women, 20 June 2012

The Women Leaders’ Forum, a discussion between civil society, government and public sector representatives with UN heads of agencies, has broadened the dialogue on gender equality and sustainability at Rio +20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainability.

Organized by UN Women in collaboration with the Government of Brazil and other partners, the day-long event highlighted the central role of women in sustainable development, and the ways that robust policies can  improve women’s lives by reducing poverty, advancing their economic opportunities, and protecting them from adverse health and environmental challenges. It also highlighted the inequalities that continue to slow global progress towards a green economy and a protected environment.

Delivering the opening and closing remarks, UN Women’s Executive Director Michelle Bachelet stressed the critical role of the women’s movement. “Twenty years ago, the Rio Declaration emphasized that women’s…

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On World Press Freedom Day – What Hope for Reconciliation and Free Expression in Sri Lanka?

Historical Justice and Memory Research Network, 3 May 2012 *

Many countries emerging from conflict have relied on the free media to involve the nation in its inquiry processes, and therefore help to validate them. From Kenya to Peru, the press has broadcast televised sessions, disseminated reports in different languages and formats and, while often divided on issues, has catalysed critical commentary and debate.

This has not been the case in Sri Lanka.

According to Sri Lankan NGOs public interest in the report of its Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission is low. Five months after its release it has yet to be translated into Tamil or Sinhala, and with the exception of state-sponsored editorials and maverick English language platforms online, media analysis of its findings has been rare.



Mentions of the Commission, along with most other issues pertaining to national security, minority rights and human rights, are framed largely by the nationalist rhetoric being led by the government.

Reasons for this are not difficult to identify. State officials and state-owned media outlets have for years conducted smear campaigns and issued threats of violence against dissenting voices, often while questioning their national loyalties.

The Minister of Public Relations was quoted in pro-government papers this year saying he will ‘break the limbs’ of Sri Lankan journalists overseas who have ‘made various statements against the country.’ An editorial in the state-owned Sinhala-language daily, Dinamina, denounced journalists by name, before referring to state critics as ‘degenerates.’ The author opined that in some countries, such ‘bastards’ would be stoned to death.

These sentiments are not softened by Sri Lanka’s reputation for targeted killings and disappearances.

The 2012 Impunity Index, just released by Committee to Protect Journalists, has placed it among the four worst nations in combating journalist murders. During President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time in power none of the nine killings committed against journalists critical of the regime have been resolved (nor adequately investigated according to many human rights groups). This includes the high profile murder of vocal government critic and Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga in 2009.

The Alliance of Media Organizations marked ‘Black January’ this year on behalf of Sri Lanka’s journalists. For many in the country, self-censorship has become a matter of physical as well as professional security.

Further restrictions indicate that the government’s grip on democratic space will continue to tighten.

These range from its scheme to register websites, to the outright banning or blocking of dissenting sites such as the Sri Lanka Guardian. The latest clench, in March, involved text message alerts from news sites; any related to national security must now be state approved.

Expressions of concern have surfaced from EU heads of mission in Colombo, international watchdogs and NGOs.

During my last visit to the country in late 2009, low spirits and disheartening forecasts coloured my interviews with NGO staff, journalists and editors. They stood in stark contrast to the post-war triumphalism in the public at large.

Three years on, despite the LLRC’s published recommendations for reform and investigation, there is little hope to offer them; public interest in or tolerance for accountability or human rights issues remains low.

As highlighted by the resolution passed at the UN Human Rights Council in March this year, a clear national picture of the roots and content of the conflict has not emerged, nor is one being pursued.

With a free press, Sri Lanka, with its vibrant democratic history, could have utilised the LLRC as a cathartic learning exercise – or at least the start of a road to accountability and recovery. There seems no greater sign of its absence than the call from Geneva this March. Far better, surely, for the call to have come from Sri Lankans themselves.

For more information: See Free Media Movement, Groundviews, Freedom House; Transcurrents; and the blog of exiled Sri Lankan journalist, Sunanda Deshapriya.

*The Historical Justice and Memory Research Network News appeared fortnightly between February 2011 and January 2013.

Historical Justice and Memory Research Network, 3 May 2012 *

Many countries emerging from conflict have relied on the free media to involve the nation in its inquiry processes, and therefore help to validate them. From Kenya to Peru, the press has broadcast televised sessions, disseminated reports in different languages and formats and, while often divided on issues, has catalysed critical commentary and debate.

This has not been the case in Sri Lanka.

According to Sri Lankan NGOs public interest in the report of its Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission is low. Five months after its release it has yet to be translated into Tamil or Sinhala, and with the exception of state-sponsored editorials and maverick English language platforms online, media analysis of its findings has been rare.

Mentions of the Commission, along with most other issues pertaining to national security, minority rights and human rights, are framed largely by the nationalist rhetoric being led by the government.

Reasons…

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Building skills, finding voices: HIV-positive women in Cambodia

UN Women, 5 April 2012

Mom Ra lives just a few hours from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, yet the 30-year-old felt very far from state support when first diagnosed with HIV. Like other HIV-positive women in her small village, she knew almost nothing about the illness and was diagnosed late, after countless costly trips to the local village doctor and losing a child to the disease. Like many such women, she says she also struggled to find information on treatments and her rights, and has been isolated by open discrimination from her neighbours.

Yet in 2011 Mom Ra found promise and a sense of solidarity when she became one of 1,300 women to receive a USD 100 grant, and training to help her start a small business. The project is supported by UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality as part of its programme to strengthen economic livelihood opportunities for low-income and HIV-positive women in the country.

Although HIV rates are declining in Cambodia overall, female infection rates…

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From the margins of memory: seeking truth for women

UN Women, 23 March

For women, who have long been invisible during and after conflict, truth-seeking is an opportunity to have their experiences recognised and their roles understood, as survivors and agents of change.

In the past three decades approximately 30 truth commissions have been established, along with many national and international fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry. These have been used to draw a clear picture of past events, and identify how best to move forward on issues of accountability and redress. While there has been significant progress in recent years, many of these historically failed to include or respond to women’s experiences of conflict.

For individuals and societies affected by human rights violations, the right to truth can be life-changing. It gives them the right to know the fate of missing loved ones, have crimes acknowledged by the State, and know the identity of those responsible – and it can provide a gateway to healing,…

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Partnering to Close Data and Evidence Gaps for Women

UN Women, 12 March 2012

There has been growing recognition that good development models are based on evidence and mutual accountability. Yet for years the lack of gender-related statistics has been used as a reason to not take bolder action on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

A dynamic new partnership, the Evidence and Data for Gender Equality (EDGE) Initiative, is responding to this gap. Jointly managed by UN Women and the UN Statistics Division, in collaboration with Member States, the World Bank, the OECD and others, it will work to meet the rising demand by countries across the world for greater support in accessing and using gender statistics – mainly by helping to build national capacity and strengthen national systems on data collection in critical areas. It will also promote the work already being done to develop standards and definitions for those who gather statistics, and those who use them.

“We need high quality evidence to make the case, and design…

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Seen and not heard: Women in Sri Lanka’s reconciliation commission

Open Democracy & 50.50 Inclusive Democracy  ,  also carried by the International Centre for Transitional Justice website, and Salem News, 24 Nov 2011 

If and when Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) releases its report later this month, as scheduled, it will do so amid wide scepticism on many critical fronts – except, it seems, for one. The credibility, independence and the ethnic balance of the post-war commission have been well-challenged internationally, since it was established by the President last year to ostensibly help reconcile the nation.  But for the war’s tens of thousands of female survivors there has been little space and little said, by either the commission or its critics. The LLRC’s weaknesses in this area deserve greater attention. They also add significantly to the impression of an instrument trailing far behind modern truth and reconciliation efforts elsewhere.
Falling short of international standards
Many governments in countries recovering from conflict are taking steps to better include women in post-conflict processes, whether through peacekeeping strategies, reparations programmes or truth commissions. They do so to better secure lasting peace and stability - and to improve their image at home and abroad. New expectations have been set by international developments such as UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1889 on women, peace and security, and advances in international criminal law. These were bolstered by sustained women’s rights campaigning, and underscored by states’ legal commitment to equality. Under non-discrimination provisions, States must now show that they have strategies in place that will overcome the underrepresentation of women, and redistribute resources and power equally, and in the last decade or so experts have helpfully applied these to transitional mechanisms. In the mid-nineties and early 2000s for example, South Africa and Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) were able to uncover the shocking scale of crimes against women during apartheid and internal conflict respectively, and then respond with gender-specific reparations and reforms. A few years later, commissions in Sierra Leone and East Timor built strongly on these improvements by broadly consulting women in their design and procedures, with mandates that explicitly took the gender of victims into account.

These steps and others show a growing acknowledgement that women’s concerns, needs and abilities have historically been a low state priority, and that they face greater barriers in accessing state machinery. They recognise that women generally experience conflict and displacement differently to men and that, in outnumbering them as survivors, they have greater post-war roles and responsibilities, and differing needs. And they show an improved understanding of the ways that truth commissions and commissions of inquiry (CoIs) have long worked from a male standpoint, excluding women from an instrument meant to shape a state’s future priorities and practices, and producing, as noted by the ICTJ’s Vasuki Nesiah, a ‘narrow and partial truth’. 1
A voiceless majority
In Sri Lanka, large numbers of mostly-Tamil minority women in the North and East are bearing the brunt of the post-conflict period. Displaced, widowed, injured and traumatized, many are primary carers for other maimed and traumatized persons in environments where resources are scarce and security concerns are extremely high. The military has replaced most civil administrative systems in the North and East, and reports on the increase of sexual assault throughout high-security zones are also citing a rise in prostitution, trafficking and STDs, since vulnerable minority women must now deal with male Sinhalese soldiers as part of their daily routines.2Compounding their disadvantage is an administration perceived as having little interest in addressing legitimate minority grievances, sex equality or crimes against women, and which has presided over a widening gender gap.3 And added to this is the disabling effect of often stricter Tamil traditions and stigmas, which tightened during the war. These women therefore have specific needs, concerns and grievances that any post-conflict initiative will only be able to address, effectively and legally, with strong positive measures.

So it is critical to ask what the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) has done to ensure that the LLRC has served Sri Lanka’s women; particularly those from its beleaguered minorities. Floods of women may have clamoured to access the LLRC – as they did for a series of previous, similarly flawed Sri Lankan processes. But have they been able to effectively use them on a par with men?  There is not the space to consider this in detail here: but it is possible to look briefly at what has notbeen done.
Lessons ignored 
Similar commissions in East Timor, Sierra Leone and Peru, offer positive, recent examples. Between them they have: developed the use of outreach workshops that prepare and manage the expectations of female testifiers; employed staff with expertise in gender, and sensitive forms of statement-taking (to  encourage the sharing of sexual or gender-specific violence);  sent information through channels that women are more likely to understand; and have provided basic support, like food and transport costs, since many women work in the informal sector and are less likely to be compensated for missed hours. They held public and private thematic sessions for women’s testimony of their experiences, expectations and needs, and programmes to address community stigmas for female breadwinners, or victims of sexual abuse. These features, among others, have allowed for some rehabilitation on both individual and social levels, among men and women.

The LLRC (and predecessor processes in Sri Lanka) can boast few if any of these features. Instead it has been criticised for demonstrating a bias to (male) seniority and for spectacularly failing to address the emotional needs of victims, or ensure their physical security. Women have been chastised and disregarded for crying while testifying, received little help in negotiating the system, have been told to write their submissions rather than speak them - on forms only in Sinhalese and English, and have in various ways have been left profoundly frustrated, stigmatised and intimidated.4

Yet sex discrimination runs deeper than a commission’s operation.

Open Democracy & 50.50 Inclusive Democracy ,  also carried by the International Centre for Transitional Justice website, and Salem News, 24 Nov 2011

If and when Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) releases its report later this month, as scheduled, it will do so amid wide scepticism on many critical fronts – except, it seems, for one. The credibility, independence and the ethnic balance of the post-war commission have been well-challenged internationally, since it was established by the President last year to ostensibly help reconcile the nation.  But for the war’s tens of thousands of female survivors there has been little space and little said, by either the commission or its critics. The LLRC’s weaknesses in this area deserve greater attention. They also add significantly to the impression of an instrument trailing far behind modern truth and reconciliation efforts elsewhere.
Falling short of international standards
Many governments in…

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Update: Gender analysis of Sri Lanka’s LLRC published by local and international media, and cited in political report

Groundviews and various, Nov 2011. A renowned Sri Lankan site for independent journalism has published an abridged version of my legal study on the exclusion of Tamil women from the country’s flawed Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in ‘Long Reads’. The section publishes long-form journalism found in publications such as Foreign Policy and the New York Times . This article was later cited and quoted by the Tamil National Alliance, in its critique of the LLRC report  , and featured elsewhere, including the media site of the LLRC itself, and War Crimes Prosecution Watch. The shorter Op-Ed, written for Open Democracy , was carried by various international news sites and blogs, including the site of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ).

The power and promise of national exercises like the LLRC lies in the way that they can access the voices of those who have not traditionally been heard, and use them to build a more  inclusive collective memory….

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Advocacy for the Asian Human Rights Commission

Between 2007 and 2010 I worked in Hong Kong and various countries in Asia as advocacy programme manager for the AHRC and its sister organisation, the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), a regional NGO. This involved managing and writing advocacy strategies and content, liaising on casework with state officials and UN Special Procedures, and advocacy at high level fora, namely the UN Human Rights Council. Other activities, included field research on witness protection, violence against women and torture in various Asian countries and delivering workshops for human rights defenders. Below is a small selection of my work, taken from over a hundred articles and appeals written during my time there.

 Reports and submissions:

ASIA: Council urged to act to protect rights by protecting human rights defenders, a written statement to the Human Rights Council, Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, 23 February 2010.

PAKISTAN: Judicial obedience and a weak rule of law continue under the new government, a written statement to the Human Rights Council, 10 October 2009.

The State of Human Rights in Pakistan 2008: co-written with Baseer Naweed: authored chapters on the Right to Life; Religious Freedom and Minorities, The Rights of Women; Honour Killings and the Jirga (PDF).

Articles and statements:

PAKISTAN: The judiciary must confront suspected state agents on the issue of disappearances, 20 November 2009.

Thankless tasks: Human rights defenders in Sri Lanka & Pakistan, Article 2, Vol. 8, No. 3, September 2009 .

Between 2007 and 2010 I worked in Hong Kong and various countries in Asia as advocacy programme manager for the AHRC and its sister organisation, the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), a regional NGO. This involved managing and writing advocacy strategies and content, liaising on casework with state officials and UN Special Procedures, and advocacy at high level fora, namely the UN Human Rights Council. Other activities, included field research on witness protection, violence against women and torture in various Asian countries and delivering workshops for human rights defenders. Below is a small selection of my work, taken from over a hundred articles and appeals written during my time there.

 Reports and submissions:

ASIA: Council urged to act to protect rights by protecting human rights defenders, a written statement to the Human Rights Council, Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, 23 February 2010.

PAKISTAN: Judicial obedience and a weak…

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Pakistan’s judiciary must confront suspected state agents on the issue of disappearances

Asian Human Rights Commission , 20 November 2009.

It may have a recently-restored judiciary and an elected government that claims a strong interest in the rule of law, but Pakistan is seeing little progress in the hundreds of missing person’s cases still pending. Pakistanis continue to be regularly ‘disappeared’ after arrest.

With the police force exposed as increasingly negligent and corrupt, the responsibility of identifying such cases and intervening has long fallen to the judiciary. Judges taking suo moto action have secured the rescue of numerous persons from illegal military detention in the recent past, and this is widely believed to have been a major motive behind the sacking of the Supreme Court judges in 2007 by then-President and Army Chief, Pervez Musharraf. Yet despite the restoration of the Judiciary with its Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in March after a long civil struggle and with the support of current Chief of Army Staff General Kiyani, there has been…

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Losing Ground

October 7, 2008, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong,

150,000 Cambodians are at risk of eviction from their homes as developers exploit a corrupt system which fails to protect property rights

Losing Ground

In June 1975 waves of black-clad guerilla fighters entered Phnom Penh and emptied it – by persuasion, coercion and violence – in just a few days. The Khmer Rouge north had beaten the south, and as a first step, more than two million bewildered people were banished from the city and sent to live in the countryside. Today, facing the prospect of its first skyscraper, a rash of Special Economic Zones and numerous foreign-backed developments, Cambodia is boasting of a new era. Yet some things haven’t changed.

“See that tree?” asks Son Chhay, a bespectacled Cambodian minister, as we stand on the steps of the new national assembly building and look south. “Behind that there’s a company, 7NG Group, that’s trying to move 600 families more than 20km away. They’re…

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