The displaced still await a new home displaced | Sunday Observer

The displaced still await a new home displaced

It has been a decade in to their displacement and hundreds of families are still waiting with new hope—for a new home.

Returning lands in Sampur under the current regime in 2016 was a great achievement for the affected community that has been displaced for years. According to former Eastern Province Governor Austin Fernando, 825 families and 12,000 individuals were displaced in Sampur.

How many years have passed without us getting any help? We will be happy back in Sampur…… There’s nothing like home. We just want our homes back. We are waiting …. hoping …

-Victims in Sampur 

(CPA Documentary of Sampur land issue, 6 April, 2016)

Many people were displaced and sinking in misery without hope for years in Sampur. It was a hallmark in the land releasing history in post war Sri Lanka, as it has given a glimpse of hope ending the decade long struggle in getting back lands.

Releasing of lands is one of the acute issues pertaining to the post war period in Sri Lanka.

A decade has passed, since marking the end of the thirty-year-war on terrorism. Moving from a tragic past, there are a number of issues that require attention that needs immediate intervention.

Restitution

Restitution should be addressed in a broad manner in gaining the trust of victims and aggrieved persons.

Restitution constitutes a form of reparation and legal literature states “The term restitution refers to an equitable remedy (or a form of restorative justice) by which persons or groups of persons who suffer loss or injury are returned as far as possible to their original pre-loss or pre-injury position.”

According to Roth-Arriaza “Restitution involves the return of property belonging to survivors that has been unjustly taken away from them”.

The Government has a huge responsibility with regard to releasing lands which has been occupied by the military and police. Land occupation includes both state and private land occupation in the North and East.

The Reparations Bill passed on October10, 2018 and restitution via land releases is one of the key areas of focus under reparations. The right to receive reparations is a human right.

In October 2015, at the 30th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Sri Lanka co-sponsored a resolution in which it pledged to address longstanding issues relating to the conflict, including prompt return of occupied land. Co-sponsoring this resolution, the Government of Sri Lanka is now responsible and committed to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka.

This was also in accordance with the Consultation Task Force final report which was handed over to the Government on January 3, 2017.

Categories of land disputes vary from state to private lands - viz. misplacement of documents of lands, landless and requesting for a land, boundary disputes or access to property disputes due to the death of original owner, secondary occupation of lands in conflict affected areas, boundary disputes which the neighbour has overlapped on his parcel of private land, state occupation of land and request to utilise it for ‘public purpose’, disputes in dividing state land within the family, secondary occupations of state land in which private parties have encroached especially on private temple lands that are held by a religious trust.

“Restitution should, whenever possible, restore the victim to the original situation before the gross violations of human rights law or serious violations of international humanitarian law occurred. Restitution includes, as appropriate: restoration of liberty, enjoyment of human rights, identity, family life and citizenship; return to one’s place of residence, restoration of employment and return of property.” - Former Eastern Province Governor Austin Fernando -

Expediting land release

In January 2016, a Committee headed by the Secretary of Defence was appointed by President Maithripala Sirisena to expedite the release of lands, reconstruction and resettlement work in the North. Followed by a committee to expedite land releases.

Studying the land released statistics issued by the government it is evident that there is a drastic improvement in land releases from 2015 onwards. Despite the fact that the Lessons Learnt and the Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) has stressed the importance on land restitution, the issue of land restitution has been almost absent till 2015.

Land released data from 2015 to January 5, 2019 (private and state both) are as follows:

2009 to 2015 (Jan) - 41,658.65 acres of land

2015 - 27,478.76 acres of land

2016 - 7,883.76 acres of land

2017 - 5,160.59 acres of land

2018 - 5,797.10 acres of land

2019 Jan 01 to 2019 Jan 25 - 1243.02 acres of land Occupied by the Forces

As at January 25, 2019 28,910 acres being occupied and the most significant changes in data were seen in state and private lands occupied by the Forces.

According to the data, 25,379 acres of state land has been occupied, whereas the occupation of private lands are very low compared to the number of acres of state land given as 3,531 acres.

The government has planned to release 1,861.82 acres of private and state land. The government hopes to release slightly more acres of state land than private land, and the data will be 1,434.97 acres of land and 426.85 acres of land respectively. .

Currently 28,910 acres of land are being used and it is interesting to note that 88% of it is state and 12% of it is private land.

However, given the stark contrast in land releasing between state and private land, it is apparent that state land releases have taken a backseat over releases of private land and positively, only 12% of private lands are to be released.

Issues

Issues related to land releases are numerous and returning the home of an individual is a key remedy in the light of sustainable reconciliation. As a responsible government, it should recognise the violations and restore rights, namely - right to movement, right to property, right to self-determination and right to an adequate standard of living.

Moreover, the right to property is recognised and protected internationally, having been included in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Owning a land in one’s country is recognised as an essential requirement and is one of the ways to eliminate poverty and rebuild the lives of those who are deprived of it.

Vagle and de Medina-Rosales state that “Conducting a restitution process in the aftermath of an armed conflict is thus a fairly new endeavour and is likely to be of topical interest in the future.

Return to one’s place of residence or restoration of livelihood is considered lifting up the victims physically and psychologically.

No human being is willing to be displaced or bereft of shelter.

It is discernible that the discharging of lands will inevitably lead to the re-establishment of the livelihoods of those victimised, bringing forth new hope and prospects to their lives.”

Equal citizens

The psychological triumph one can receive by owning a land is immense, as the support they receive from their immediate community and social circles will restore in them much confidence, thereby paving the way to heal and rebuild the wounded souls of the victimised.

This would undoubtedly benefit them in various ways. With the improvement of land releasing it is paramount to acknowledge that the current regime has worked towards gaining the trust of victims and have recognised them as equal citizens with the same rights and privileges.

For sustainable peace and reconciliation, it is pivotal to address durable national solutions with land releasing disputes, such as livelihood support and infrastructure development to make the land releasing process more fruitful.

There should be more emphasis on surveys regarding land occupation and land releases and also access to current surveys in order to have a clear perception concerning the topic.

Reparations, including the restitution of land if implemented aptly, can contribute to long-term peace building efforts and prevent further marginalisation of war–affected communities. Closing upon a decade of war, the victims are yet in adversity and distress. In this light every process in transitional justice needs to be upsurged in maintaining a healthy political situation in the country, despite hindering the process of transitional justice.

The writers are directors of the Secretariat of Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanism

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