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Government restricts movement to Vanni by UN, NGO and INGO staff

Jul 17, 2010 9:18:21 PM- transcurrents.com

by Namini Wijedasa

It is more than one year since the war ended but the government from the end of June 2010 has introduced new restrictions on movement to the Wanni by staff of UN agencies, NGOs and INGOs.

Why? While there is no official explanation — as is often the case now — it is speculated the government is worried that negative reports about the ground situation in the Wanni would reach the international community via these “agents”. It was pointed out that similar fears had once led to restrictions on entry to IDP camps.

Asked how the nature of their work has changed since June, local UN sources said the new restrictions had taken them by surprise. UN and other vehicles had suddenly been turned away by the army at Omanthai checkpoint saying they now needed defence ministry permission to enter the Wanni whereas earlier authorization from the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on Northern Development had sufficed.

“At the end of June, no vehicles and staff were getting through,” said an authoritative source in Vavuniya. Instructions had been sent to the security forces headquarters in Vavuniya that no NGO or UN vehicles should be allowed through to the Wanni without defence ministry permission. There had been no advance notice.

“This is one of the problems we face, the frustration of not being officially notified that the government is going to change the access requirement,” said a UN official, on condition of anonymity. Another said that activities in the Wanni reached a “standstill” as NGOs and UN agencies tried to figure out the new system.

“Some work has been going on with people who are based in the Wanni getting access and limited supplies have been going through,” he said. “But there have been no major deliveries since June and we don’t know why these restrictions were introduced”

Earlier, it was also possible to inform the security forces headquarters in Vavuniya and to arrange permission locally. As long as the projects had PTF approval, staff and vehicles could go through. Since the change, however, defence ministry authorization is required for each trip and staff member. Given the large number of trips and staff members involved, this would mean endless time-wasting at the ministry of defence for no explicit reason.

UN sources said there was now indication from the government that the restrictions would be eased “somewhat” from Monday. “We have been told that some UN staff will be permitted to enter the Wanni on the basis of 24-hour advance notification provided to the security force headquarters in Vavuniya but we don’t know how the system will work in practice,” said one of the UN officials earlier quoted. “We will test it only on Monday. Hopefully it will go back, more or less, to the old system.”

But authoritative sources said these changes have been approved only for some UN staff of some UN agencies and that this was not acceptable to the organization. “There are some issues with the list,” the official said. “We are hoping it will be all UN staff and that the procedure will be applicable to NGOs as well.”

Laxman Hulugalle, head of the NGO Secretariat, denied that there were new restrictions on movement of UN agencies and non-governmental agencies in the Wanni. He said the PTF had earlier forwarded their applications for approval to the defence ministry; the only difference now was that the organizations were required to do this themselves. He dismissed speculation that the government was worried about negative reports reaching the international community via UN agencies or NGOs.

Hulugalle also denied rumours that a re-registration of all NGOs was on the cards. “Some NGOs are registered, some are working without registration,” he said. “We are looking at all of them but nothing has been decided.” Meanwhile, the proposed new act to regulate NGOs is shelved for the moment, he claimed.

Meanwhile, a senior UN official said he did not think the access restrictions were related to the setting up of an advisory panel on accountability for war crimes by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “I don’t think the panel helped the mood,” he guessed. “I think they just decided to put in another layer of control.”

“We have experience this before at the Omanthai and Medawachchiya checkpoints but that was in a conflict situation,” said one UN worker, on condition of anonymity. “This is a peacetime situation and the government needs us in there to help with some of the things that are their priorities like getting people back to their homes, just providing the very basics of what is needed.”

As for the spat between the government and the UN secretary-general over the expert panel, it is learnt that the UN agencies in Sri Lanka are “trying to keep the operational separated from the more diplomatic elements this has taken on”.

“We are concerned with regard to being able to carry out our ongoing activities,” said one UN source, also opting to remain unnamed. The conversation between the UNSG and the government is happening at a different level. “But its impact on our work is of great concern to us,” this source said. “We are back to business as usual but we will be diligent in terms of monitoring this and seeing how it impacts on how we are able to do regular work.” - courtesy: Lakbima News -