"We Don't Want Development, We Want Our Rights!"

Sep 27, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

The message shouted from an elder woman inside Zone 2's internment camps in Sri Lanka was clear as she angrily harassed a humanitarian worker attempting to install latrines that would signal a longer, more permanent, residence in unlivable internment camps . It's a message that is perhaps best directed at the United Nations and donor countries who, in the case of Sri Lanka, have chosen "access" to hundreds of internally displaced civilians over "advocacy" in their best interests.

With small pockets of civilians uprooted by a bloody end to Sri Lanka's protracted civil war resettled in their home districts, the majority of the 300,000 Internally Displaced People (IDPs) from the minority Tamil population remain in sprawling internment camps with dwindling supplies of fresh water, quickly spreading communicable diseases, and up to three families in one tent . The camps are, however, equipped with ATM machines -- reinforcing within the camps what has become obvious outside of the camps. Those with money have power.

The actors with money: The Government of Sri Lanka (2.5 billion US$ wealthier after the approval of a recent International Monetary Fund loan), the UN, and donor countries (primarily China). Since they have neither the money nor the representation to influence their own destiny, Tamil civilians must rely on the UN as their voice. It is an option many in the camps trust less than the promises of a militaristic regime responsible for their captivity. Most of the animosity is directed at Secretary General Ban Ki Moon- who was notably silent as their loved ones perished in the final days of fighting. In a leaked memo, Norwegian Deputy Ambassador Mona Juul says of Sri Lanka, "the Secretary-General's moral voice and authority have been absent."

Why the silence? Perhaps because discussions in the Security Council of Tamil civilian lives were relegated to the basement of the UN, as opposed to Darfurian lives which are allowed consideration on higher floors. Perhaps because Sri Lanka was never an item on the Security Council Agenda, despite having the votes necessary. Some speculate it is the hardline position of the Secretary General's advisors, bolstered by a Human Rights Council debate deeming the Sri Lankan war an "internal matter". Officially, the UN laments that its lack of leverage on behalf of the affected civilians is derived from the growing influence of China and India on the island. In broad macroeconomic terms the Asian powers, capitalizing on the ill-gotten gains of peace, are certainly engaged in a fiscal duel for dominance in Sri Lanka. However, in development aid, most of their funds are dispersed through the UN - and a quick survey of any of the camps will reveal that UN tents far outnumber those provided by the Chinese government. The omnipresence of UN staff on the ground should imply a natural mandate in the debates around resettlement, but it is a power the organization has been hesitant to embrace.

It must be noted that in these internment camps there are sympathetic government soldiers (one lieutenant reportedly consistently siphons off food from rations to ensure children in his care are well-fed), and committed local UN staff -but all are beholden to a leadership which seems deaf to their concerns. While outside humanitarian groups are not (are never) entirely innocent, in Sri Lanka they too have been subsumed under the dominance of the UN (recently accused of not sharing crucial information). What is the message being conveyed by the actions of power players at the UN? That in a "post-conflict" environment, only a victor's justice is available to a marginalized constituency.

Talking heads and a growing number of colored rubber bracelets have tried to convince us that "development" will solve all problems, ethnic or otherwise. But what happens when in order to maintain a presence in a country, and access to displaced civilians, the largest outside "development" actor forgoes its responsibility to advocate for rights guaranteed in the Geneva Convention? While the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are no longer the focal point for Tamil nationalism, separatist sentiments remain high among a population who will no longer accept the exchange of humanitarian aid for political rights.

The assassinated Sinhalese journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga predicted in January of this year, "A military occupation of the country's north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering "development" and "reconstruction" on them in the post-war era." As Tamils around the world are now being recruited into "power-sharing" discussions and "trust-building" exercises, it is important to recognize that a significant amount of power remains in the hands of the UN, an institution that the minority Tamils once trusted with their lives.

The monsoon rains this fall are predicted to trigger a humanitarian crisis as every existing concern outlined by human rights groups (poor sanitation, collapsing tents, lack of medical care) will be exacerbated by massive flooding. Local and international NGOs have warned that no amount of money poured into the overcrowded camps will prevent the loss of thousands of civilian lives. Logistically, at least 100,000 (approximately 1/3) of the displaced civilians must be evacuated to their original homes in the Northern and Eastern districts before the onset of the rains. It seems that only when the international community recognizes the limits of "development" will Tamil civilians, inadvertently, be granted the most basic of rights- the right of return.