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Cablegate: Staffdel Ahuja Briefed On Humanitarian Situation

VZCZCXRO7707
OO RUEHBI
DE RUEHLM #1163/01 3660628
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 310628Z DEC 08 ZDS ZUI RUEHSD #0177
FM AMEMBASSY COLOMBO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 9094
INFO RUEHKA/AMEMBASSY DHAKA PRIORITY 1201
RUEHIL/AMEMBASSY ISLAMABAD PRIORITY 8200
RUEHKT/AMEMBASSY KATHMANDU PRIORITY 6416
RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON PRIORITY 4620
RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI PRIORITY 2479
RUEHNY/AMEMBASSY OSLO PRIORITY 4575
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO PRIORITY 3681
RUEHCG/AMCONSUL CHENNAI PRIORITY 8843
RUEHBI/AMCONSUL MUMBAI PRIORITY 6228
RUEHON/AMCONSUL TORONTO PRIORITY 0802
RUEHGV/USMISSION GENEVA PRIORITY 3071
RHHMUNA/HQ USPACOM HONOLULU HI PRIORITY
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHEHAAA/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEHBS/USEU BRUSSELS PRIORITY

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 COLOMBO 001163

C O R R E C T E C COPY - CAPTION ADDED

SENSITIVE

SIPDIS

DEPARTMENT FOR SCA/INS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL PTER PHUM MOPS CE
SUBJECT: STAFFDEL AHUJA BRIEFED ON HUMANITARIAN SITUATION
IN THE NORTH AND PROGRESS ON CHILD SOLDIERS

Ref: (A) Colombo 1102, (B) Colombo 1071, (C) Colombo 985

COLOMBO 00001163 001.2 OF 003

1. (U) SUMMARY: During her December 11-16 visit, House Foreign
Affairs Committee (HFAC) staff member Jasmeet Ahuja met with
Government of Sri Lanka, NGO, UN, and international organization
representatives to assess the humanitarian situation in the North.
Humanitarian access issues for the UN and NGOs remain a serious
concern. Through UN and GSL convoys into the North, the basic food
needs of internally displaced persons (IDPs) are being met, but the
delivery of non-food relief items is being hampered by the GSL. A
recent agreement with the GSL to utilize the remaining NGO local
staff in the Vanni to deliver and monitor humanitarian assistance is
a small step in the right direction; however, the GSL continues its
negative approach to NGOs through taxation, visa restrictions and
public criticism. During a trip to Vavuniya, Ahuja was briefed on
high levels of paramilitary violence and visited a makeshift IDP
camp. In Colombo, GSL officials assured Ahuja that the TMVP would
follow through on their pledges to give up the use of child soldiers
completely.
End Summary


Government Pressure Mounts on NGOs
----------------------------------

2. (SBU) On December 11, NGO representative briefed HFAC staffer
Jasmeet Ahuja on humanitarian issues in the North and the increasing
pressure the government is placing on their operations. NGO
representatives explained how their quick exit from the Vanni
following a Ministry of Defense directive had forced them to leave
behind equipment. The government and nationalist media outlets have
spun this as a concerted effort by the NGOs to assist the LTTE. NGO
reps reported that rather than forcing them to leave the country and
then incurring bad publicity the government was engaged in a more
subtle effort to impede and undermine their work in the country. As
an example, one NGO reported that the government had attempted to
withdraw money from their bank account without their prior approval
to pay back taxes. (Note: We are investigating these reports and
the legal grounds for such moves and will likely raise it with the
government at the next CCHA meeting in January. End Note)
Ambassador sympathized with the NGO representatives and encouraged
those present to be more proactive with public outreach campaigns,
suggesting that most Sri Lankans were unaware of the considerable
amount of NGO work that is done outside the conflict-affected North
and East.

3. (SBU) Despite tension at the national level, NGO representatives
praised the low-profile but effective collaboration between their
Vanni-resident local staff - now known officially as "volunteers" -
and the two Government Agents (GAs) in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu,
districts that are still at least partially under LTTE control. In
September, when expatriate NGO and UN staff were ordered out of the
Vanni, only non-Vanni resident Sri Lankan staff members were allowed
to leave. The majority of Sri Lankan NGO staff remained in the
Vanni. An agreement has been worked out between the GSL and the
NGOs allowing these local staff members to continue their
humanitarian relief activities with the blessing and loose
supervision of the GAs, organizing themselves by sector
(water-sanitation, shelter, food, education, etc.) The "volunteers"
have access to communication facilities so that there is some
information flowing out on the situation in the Vanni and whether
food is reaching the people in need. According to the NGOs, the GAs
publicly adhere to Ministry of Defense instructions not to ask NGOs
for support, but privately - for example, after the recent flooding
- the NGOs are the first place the GAs look to for help. In a
separate meeting with Ahuja, Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa,
stated that the reason the Vanni-resident staff are now known as
"volunteers" -- i.e. civilians without official connections to their
former employers -- is to avoid a repeat of the mid-2006 killing of
ACF aid workers during ongoing hostilities in Muttur.

4. (U) NGO representative noted that water and sanitation supplies
and fuel were critical needs for the informal humanitarian

COLOMBO 00001163 002.2 OF 003


assistance volunteer network attached to the GA offices in the
Vanni.


Vavuniya Plagued by Paramilitary Violence
-----------------------------------------

5. (SBU) During a visit to Vavuniya on December 12-13, Ahuja was
briefed on the impunity with which paramilitaries operate in the
region. As an example, contacts in the region told Ahuja that just
days prior to her arrival an elderly woman was killed with an axe in
front of her family at home approximately 200 meters from a Sri
Lanka Army post outside of Vavuniya town. Four unidentified masked
men had called her by name at the door, yet at the time of Ahuja's
visit no one had been arrested for the crime.

6. (SBU) According to reliable sources, since October 1, 88 cases of
disappearances and 22 abductions have been reported to the Human
Rights Commission in Vavuniya. During Ahuja's visit, doctors at
Vavuniya's hospital continued their strike of several days,
reportedly to protest extortion demands made by the paramilitaries.


GSL Ill-Prepared for Large IDP Inflows
--------------------------------------

7. (SBU) Embassy contacts in Vavuniya told Ahuja that international
organizations lack systematic access to the screening process for
IDPs entering GSL-controlled Vavuniya from the Vanni. Reports
indicate that 421 IDPs were processed at Omanthai in late November
after their villages were overrun by the ongoing Sri Lanka Army
operations in northern Vavuniya. These IDPs are now being housed
temporarily in three Government-administered sites in Nellukulam and
Menik Farm.

8. (SBU) During her visit to one of the two temporary Menik Farm
sites, a public school building, IDPs who were living in classrooms
cleared of desks reported to Ahuja that they had wanted to leave the
Vanni and that they felt more secure at Menik Farm, although they
hoped to be allowed to move in with families or friends in the area.
Meanwhile, the temporary shelters the GA has committed to
constructing on 60 acres of nearby land have not been completed.
Aside from crowding - up to 25 persons sleeping in a classroom -
living conditions at the site were reported to be adequate: the GSL
provided three cooked meals per day, IDPs had access to portable
toilets and outdoor bathing facilities, and access to medical care
was provided on site twice a week and through transport to a nearby
hospital for more complicated cases. No protection issues were
raised, although IDPs might have been reluctant to do so in group
interviews.

9. (SBU) According to reliable sources the GSL has struggled to
process and house the 400+ recent arrivals and is not ready for a
large-scale influx of IDPs, despite claims they will be able to
handle up to 50,000 new displaced civilians.

"Emergency" But No "Crisis" in the Vanni
----------------------------------------

10. (U) Knowledgeable sources reported that the situation in the
Vanni was an "emergency" but as of yet had not reached the level of
a crisis; however, these same contacts expressed concern that the
situation could deteriorate further. Contacts in Vavuniya told
Ahuja that monitoring the distribution of food relief, including
USG-supported commodities sent to the Vanni through WFP convoys, is
difficult. Only ICRC has a continuing presence in the Vanni and UN
staff only have access to the Vanni as part of the food convoys that
are scheduled to run weekly, but in practice move once every 10
days.

11. (SBU) Some sources speculated that GSL-imposed barriers to
better monitoring was intended to limit the food supplied to the
civilian population to survival amounts in order to expedite the
exit of IDPs from the Vanni into GSL-controlled territory.

COLOMBO 00001163 003.2 OF 003

12. (SBU) Ahuja visited the logistics hub for the WFP's convoys,
through which 4,990 metric tons of food relief - most of it financed
by the USG - had been transported to IDPs in the Vanni. Artillery
fire had halted the last convoy for more than an hour on its way in
from Vavuniya near the edge of what is known as "no-man's land," and
staff had seen evidence of shelling along the road when they
returned the next day. WFP plans to feed an IDP population of
between 200,000 and 230,000 with its food relief; current
limitations on monitoring distribution make it difficult to assess
whether this is adequate.

13. (SBU) In a December 14 meeting in Colombo, Ministry of Foreign
Affairs, Director General for Europe, Kshenuka Senevirathna stressed
to Ahuja that the government has not stepped back from its
responsibilities and will take care of IDPs who are their citizens.
Senevirathna reported that the government has 2-3 weeks of buffer
food stocks in the Vanni and pointed to the GSL's proven ability in
handling a similar situation in the East during intense fighting
there as proof that the GSL is capable of managing the humanitarian
situation in the North.

Working with the TMVP to Fulfill
Its Child Soldier Commitments
--------------------------------

14. (SBU) In a meeting with Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa,
Ahuja asked Rajapaksa whether he believed the TMVP will meet the
requirements of the Action Plan TMVP leader Karuna signed on
December 1 pledging a cessation of child recruitment and the release
of those children currently serving the paramilitary organization
(ref A). Rajapaksa expressed confidence that the TMVP would comply,
noting that there were two approaches, one legal and the other to
cut MOD financing for the TMVP camps to ensure they fulfilled their
commitments. At the same time he attempted to create wiggle room
for the government in the future by suggesting that some of the
children on UNICEF's rolls may already have left the TMVP and thus
will not be able to be identified.

15. (SBU) In her meeting with Ahuja, MFA Director General
Senevirathna commented that just because the TMVP has joined the
political process doesn't mean the Sri Lankan government condones
child soldiers. She criticized the international community for
holding the GSL responsible for actions of the TMVP.

16. (SBU) COMMENT: We will continue to push the GSL on the need for
improved humanitarian access to the North for the UN and the NGOs, a
needs assessment on the ground, non-food relief items, and
monitoring of relief by international organizations and NGOs. As we
have pointed out to the government in public and in private,
paramilitary violence and poor living conditions in IDP camps
continue to act as disincentives for the Vanni's civilian population
to move to government-controlled areas. We noted with interest
Rajapaksa's confidence that the government had enough control over
the TMVP to assure its compliance with the Action Plan signed with
UNICEF. If true, we hope that the GSL will use that leverage, not
only to release child soldiers but also to bring under control the
systematic extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances that
are associated with TMVP activity in the East. End Comment

17. (U) Staffdel Ahuja has cleared this cable.

Moore

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