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South Asia: Researchers call on governments, aid agencies to protect the human rights

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Researchers call on governments, aid agencies to protect the human rights of vulnerable groups in countries affected by the 2004 tsunami

HONOLULU (June 6) -- An international team of researchers today reported that five months after the December 2004 tsunami, significant human rights problems persist in areas affected by the tidal wave.

In surveys of tsunami survivors and aid workers in five tsunami-affected countries - India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Thailand - the researchers found that vulnerable groups, including women, children and migrants, are suffering from violence and exploitation.

The findings, along with recommendations for action, were released following a two-day meeting of researchers and aid workers this weekend (June 3 and 4) in Bangkok, Thailand.

The meeting, "After the Tsunami: Human Rights and Vulnerable Populations," was sponsored by the University of California, Berkeley's Human Rights Center; the University of Hawaii's Globalization Research Center; and the East-West Center, an internationally recognized research and education organization in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Researchers from the sponsoring organizations found that abuses are being caused by a lack of protection for individuals who lost their homes and are living in displacement camps; aid distribution is often lacking or discriminatory because of corruption, favoritism and poor management; decisions about relief, relocation and reconstruction aid are largely taking place without consultation with the affected communities; and in Sri Lanka, where armed conflict is ongoing, children are being recruited to serve as combatants. In both Aceh, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, adults are living in fear among warring groups.

According to the researchers, these are abuses that contravene the United Nation's Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and other international human rights agreements.

The researchers today called on governments, donors and aid agencies engaged in tsunami relief and reconstruction efforts to take an approach that is centered around the best interests of survivors. They also recommended several measures that should be taken to protect vulnerable groups from further exploitation and violence.

For more information, contact: Laurel Fletcher of UC Berkeley, on cell at 510-388-6435 in Bangkok. Phil Estermann of the East-West Center on cell at 66-4-761-5806 in Bangkok. Eric Stover of UC Berkeley on cell at (510) 684-8283 in Berkeley

The researchers' full statement follows.

Statement from "After the Tsunami: Human Rights and Vulnerable Populations," a meeting on June 3-4, 2005, in Bangkok, Thailand:

"The tsunami caused widespread death, destroyed thousands of communities and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. The humanitarian relief effort undertaken by governments, international organizations, local nongovernmental groups and private citizens has been monumental. We applaud these efforts that have brought a measure of relief to the hundreds of thousands who suffered losses. However, no amount of aid, however generous, can mask the fact that natural disasters, similar to armed conflicts, tend to make vulnerable populations even more vulnerable.

During March and April 2005, we undertook preliminary research in tsunami-impacted areas and examined how governments, and local as well as international NGOs, may create or worsen human rights abuses - particularly as they affect women, children and other vulnerable populations. The study found four overlapping areas of concern that will need to be monitored closely during the reconstruction phase in the region:

- Protection of Vulnerable Groups. Women, children and other vulnerable groups are particularly at risk of exploitation, violence and discrimination in all of the tsunami-affected countries. In all the countries surveyed, cramped living conditions in temporary housing have surfaced such problems as sexual violence, alcohol abuse and physical violence. These living conditions deprive people of their dignity; despite the massive influx of aid, little has changed for many survivors in the four months since the tsunami.

In the Maldives, security at IDP (internally displaced) camps is deficient, making women and children fearful of attacks by drug abusers. Soon after the tsunami, Burmese migrant workers in Thailand went into hiding because they feared being arrested and deported by the authorities. In Sri Lanka, children are at risk of recruitment or abduction by the Tamil Tigers to become child soldiers.

- Equity in Aid Distribution. Our research teams found disparities in the distribution of aid by governments and non-governmental organizations to survivors in every country they visited. These disparities, largely resulting from corruption, favoritism and poor management, have caused ruptures in communities that, in some cases, have erupted in violence. In Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, it is not uncommon to find that fishermen in one village have received aid to rebuild their damaged boats, while fishermen in a nearby village have received no assistance. In Indonesia, the military has threatened to withhold aid from some villagers who wish to return to their home communities. In Sri Lanka, reconstruction has proceeded at different rates depending upon ministerial influence. In the Maldives, response to survivors may depend on the whims of a particular island chief.

- Lack of Community Participation. In every country surveyed, researchers found that decisions about relief, resettlement and reconstruction aid are largely taking place without consultation with the affected communities. In Sri Lanka, this has led to street demonstrations against local authorities. Many tsunami survivors in Aceh, Indonesia, where an armed conflict is ongoing, fear reporting their concerns to the police and military authorities because of past human rights abuses. Thai survivors criticized what they called the government's "cash response approach," which sought to give survivors a meager one-off payment rather than engaging them in the long-term process of rebuilding their communities.

Accordingly, we recommend the following:

1. Establish a human rights monitoring and protection project based in the region for the next two years.

This project should work in collaboration with government agencies, local nongovernmental groups and aid organizations to prevent the recruitment of children as combatants. It should also track the status of vulnerable groups as they struggle to rebuild their lives over the next two years. It should research and monitor several critical areas, including livelihood; physical safety and protection; access to aid; health education, including information about sexually-transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS; access to healthcare, including psychosocial and reproductive health services; land rights and tenure; education; inheritance; housing; skills training and employment. The project should generate policy recommendations to improve reconstruction efforts. It should also bring cases of serious violations of human rights to the attention of local and national authorities, international organizations and the media.

2. Conduct a survey of tsunami-affected areas to assess the process of aid distribution.

Our preliminary survey found that there was considerable discontent on the part of tsunami survivors about the process of aid distribution. Nearly everyone we spoke to felt that government relief efforts required greater accountability and transparency. The ultimate purpose of the survey should be to determine if the aid distribution process was conducted properly, fairly, efficiently and if any vulnerable groups were overlooked. The survey should seek opinions from those affected by the tsunami about how the process of reconstruction could be implemented to meet their needs and how they could be integrated into decisions affecting their communities.

3. Establish mechanisms to ensure involvement of communities in reconstruction.

Our study found that two major concerns among survivors are the lack of transparency in decision-making and the lack of communication to them about their future. Governments and other agencies involved in reconstruction need to develop a more consultative and transparent process of decision-making. These mechanisms should always include the leadership and participation of women.

For more information, contact:

Karen Knudsen (808) 944-7195
Email: knudsenk@EastWestCenter.org
Bruce Bottorff (808) 944-7204
Email: bottorfb@EastWestCenter.org
East-West Center

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UC Berkeley Media Relations
(510) 642-5685