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Sri Lanka. Protecting peace and human rights in the crisis

12.05.2020

Jannike Riesch

COVID-19 and Peacebuilding – Adapting to the ‘New Normal’

In an attempt to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, scores of countries around the world have taken measures that restrict movement. According to ACAPS (ACAPS is a non-profit project run by the Norwegian Refugee Council and Save the Children), these restrictions include lockdowns of varying degrees in over 120 countries. One of these countries is Sri Lanka. Despite the recorded number of infections being relatively low at the time (less than 50 in a country of over 21 million), the Sri Lankan government imposed a strict island-wide curfew on 20 March, ordering everyone except those working in essential services to stay home. For many districts, including the densely populated Colombo district, this curfew has been in place for over seven weeks. Moreover, Sri Lanka’s main international airport has been closed to incoming travel, with visas already granted to foreign nationals suspended.

These measures do not only have implications for the country’s economy and thousands of livelihoods heavily dependent on tourism and daily wages, but also for Sri Lanka’s fragile peace. About a decade after the end of the 26-year long civil war, societal tensions are heightened across the island, disinformation and hate speech continue to be a problem, and concerns about the infringements of fundamental human rights are on the rise.

Strengthening Reconciliation Processes in Sri Lanka (SRP)

The GIZ program Strengthening Reconciliation Processes in Sri Lanka (SRP), which is financed by the German Federal Foreign Office and the European Union, has been operating in the country since 2017. It seeks to prevent the recurrence of violence after the civil war and to promote reconciliation among Sri Lanka’s different ethnic and religious communities. While the COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted SRP’s work, the project has found ways to quickly adapt to the new circumstances.

Dealing with the pandemic – project adjustments

On the one hand, as many program activities include face-to-face workshops or meetings of larger groups at community level, SRP has adapted its mode of implementation on various occasions, for example by shifting to online workshops, carrying out more e-learning sessions, remote meetings, or virtual discussions and dialogues. On the other hand, existing activities have been altered and new activities taken up to respond to the pandemic and mitigate its impact. For instance, a series of videos addressing COVID-19-related issues, such as domestic violence, mental health, is being designed to raise awareness via SRP’s social media channels. Research to better understand and more effectively tackle hate speech in relation to COVID-19 is underway. Drawing on existing partnerships, SRP strengthens women’s self-help groups and is helping nearly 10,000 women to address psychosocial problems during the pandemic. With another local partner, SRP supports grassroots women’s and youth networks in promoting coexistence, which have now started providing essential food items to families in need.

SRP will also conduct a series of virtual discussions on the impact of COVID-19 on social cohesion. Notably, there have been instances of people from the Muslim community being denounced as ‘COVID-19 transmitters’ and their burial rights being denied, or of people having been arrested merely for criticising officials involved in the COVID-19 response. Such incidents and the concomitant crackdown on fundamental rights must be examined for their potential to hinder reconciliation and peaceful coexistence.

Monitoring developments, ensuring responsiveness

To be better prepared in the everchanging environment of this pandemic, GIZ Sri Lanka is currently setting up a monitoring system to look into aspects ranging from health care facilities to the state of the economy and the political situation in the country. Responding to this pandemic demands a high degree of flexibility and responsiveness, perhaps even more so in a post-conflict society where sustainable peace and fundamental freedoms remain elusive values and where even more work is needed to not let them slip away.

 


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Jannike Riesch has been working as a junior advisor in the project to strengthen reconciliation processes in Sri Lanka at the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH since 2019.