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Human Rights Watch greatly appreciated the opportunity recently to brief you on “accountability to beneficiaries” and the centrality of human rights to the Indian Ocean tsunami recovery efforts. We thank you for your efforts, as the United Nations’ Special Envoy on Tsunami Recovery, to keep global attention focused on the needs of the tsunami victims.

Human Rights Watch recognizes that the tsunami primarily presents a humanitarian and rehabilitation crisis and not a human rights emergency, but we believe that the protection of human rights is essential for effective humanitarian aid, a sustainable recovery, and accountability to beneficiaries. As the UN Secretary General pointed out in his recent report “In Larger Freedom”, “we will not enjoy development without security, we will not enjoy security without development, and we will not enjoy either without respect for human rights”.

Human Rights Watch supports the concept of the “build back better” approach and believes that human rights protection should be one of the benchmarks of this strategy. This means that the recovery effort should be promoting – and should be judged by whether it has promoted – greater respect for human rights than existed before the tsunami.

We outline our concerns below, providing specific examples from the work of Human Rights Watch researchers who visited the tsunami-stricken areas in Aceh, Sri Lanka, and southern India. Our researchers who visited these tsunami-affected areas, although experienced from other areas of conflict and natural disaster, were shocked by the extent of the damage to the people and the physical infrastructure. They were also impressed by the scope of the relief effort and the generosity of both citizens and foreign nationals who rushed to the assistance of the tsunami’s survivors.

In terms of your own role as U.N. Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, we would urge you to:

  • Make frequent references in your speeches, comments to the press and interventions with governments, the U.N. system, donors and others to the centrality of human rights in the “build back better” approach to tsunami recovery; emphasize that without respect for and active promotion of human rights, there can be no “build back better” or “recovery plus”;
  • Use indicators of respect for human rights, including protection from gender, ethnic, religious, and caste-based discrimination, respect for land rights, ensuring freedom of speech and association and thus participation and accountability as central indicators for the success of the “build back better” approach;
  • Insist that aid distribution and recovery programs take proactive measures to involve women in distribution and decision-making processes and that more efforts be made to recognize the special needs of female-headed households;
  • Insist that affected governments, the U.N. agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and donors bring in the necessary expertise so human rights benchmarks are incorporated into recovery programs and their implementation actively monitored;
  • Urge all affected governments, the UN system, donors and NGOs to establish improved mechanisms for consultation with and sharing of information with beneficiaries;
  • Call for the creation of mechanisms to prevent discrimination against women in assessing compensation for lost livelihood and creation of new employment opportunities;
  • Insist that all affected governments, the U.N. system and NGOs create mechanisms capable of ensuring that aid reaches all targeted beneficiaries without discrimination of any kind and that it immediately responds to incidents of discrimination;
  • Place the issue of land rights onto the agenda of the tsunami recovery program, and call for the creation of mechanisms for reviewing property claims and non-traditional forms of property;
  • Urge the government of Indonesia to minimize the Indonesian military’s role in the aid effort underway and ensure that the military’s general responsibility to provide security is not abused for military gain;
  • Urge the government of Indonesia to ensure that assistance and general recovery efforts also address the needs of persons displaced as a result of the armed conflict, regardless of political considerations;
  • Urge the government of Indonesia to ensure the civilian nature of all camps for those displaced by the tsunami, spontaneous or otherwise, including relocation camps;
  • Urge the government of India to incorporate educational and economic programs aimed at eradicating caste discrimination into its recovery programs;
  • In Sri Lanka, urge the government and the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in considering coordination mechanisms, to place the needs of all victims ahead of continuing political disputes; urge that general recovery efforts address the needs of persons displaced by the armed conflict.

Gender Discrimination:
A major concern of Human Rights Watch throughout the tsunami-affected region is the lack of participation by, and discrimination against, women. The unequal status of women and girls in all societies throughout the region increases their risk of experiencing discrimination and gender-based violence during humanitarian crises and the ensuing reconstruction period.

Human Rights Watch found that throughout the tsunami-affected area, the large majority of aid distribution was conducted through heads of communities or camp coordinators, and then through heads of households -- all traditionally male-held positions. Those at particular risk of marginalization include single, divorced, or widowed women, women in abusive relationships, unaccompanied children, and the elderly. In all the areas we visited, the economic contribution of women was, in some cases, ignored during the process of evaluating compensation; in India, this problem was compounded by considerations of caste and ethnicity.

Disruptions to community support structures, unsafe physical surroundings, separation from families, and patriarchal aid-management structures often heighten women and children’s vulnerability to gender-based violence. The displacement that followed the tsunami has made women and girls particularly vulnerable to trafficking because of loss of family and livelihood. Problems with camp location and design may exacerbate these problems. Discriminatory practices may reduce displaced women’s independent access to aid, as well as their participation and leadership in aid distribution. In Aceh and Sri Lanka, for instance, where armed conflicts have led in some cases to heavy presence of security forces in and around camps, we have received reports of sexual assault and harassment.

In particular, Human Rights Watch suggests that the following safeguards for the rights of women and girls be implemented throughout the tsunami affected areas:

  • Promote women’s equal access to resources and decision-making processes by involving them in the aid distribution process.
  • Protect women and girls against the possibility of trafficking, both immediately and in the future. To ensure that women do not become greater victims in this tragedy, rebuilding efforts must make explicit efforts through education and proper implementation of laws to root out problems such as women’s inferior status in society and their limited access to resources.
  • Protect the right of women to hold property, and create mechanisms to properly measure and compensate the work done by women and girls.

Aceh, Indonesia
The Indonesian province of Aceh was hardest hit by the earthquake of December 26, 2004 (whose epicenter was only 90 miles away) and subsequent tsunami: over 127,000 people died in the space of minutes, with another 37,000 still missing, presumed dead. Over 400,000 people were displaced by the disaster, many of whom continue to rely on help from outside the province (and the country) for basic necessities. Large sections of the province’s western coastline remain submerged in salty, marshy, seawater, and are unlikely to be fit for agricultural development for years to come.

Even before the tsunami, the province was wracked by a three-decade-old brutal armed conflict between the separatist GAM (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or Free Aceh Movement) and the Indonesian government. Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the abuses perpetrated by both sides to this conflict over the past few years and believes that a failure to view the situation in Aceh holistically and historically, in the context of this war, could seriously stunt rebuilding and sustainable development for the future, even for those whose lives were not affected by war before the tsunami.

Our main concerns about the post-tsunami recovery and rebuilding phase in Aceh are:

  • Minimizing the Indonesian military’s role in the aid effort underway and ensuring that the military’s responsibility to provide security is not abused for other purposes
  • ;

  • Ensuring that aid to the province addresses the needs of those displaced by the conflict as well as those of tsunami survivors;
  • Ensuring that compensation for loss of land ownership and redevelopment are carried out in full and transparent consultation with the Acehnese population.

Minimizing the Indonesian Military’s Role in the Reconstruction:
Human Rights Watch’s chief concern is minimizing the role of the Indonesian military in the reconstruction process. This is not to question the selflessness and good intentions of thousands of Indonesian troops in Aceh. Human Rights Watch’s research supported the general view that the Indonesian military carried out an indispensable logistical function in the first weeks after the tsunami to save survivors, deliver aid, and clear access for humanitarian agencies.

The Indonesian military’s poor human rights record, as well as its deep involvement in corruption, cannot be disassociated from its participation in the rebuilding effort. The Acehnese population, which has suffered greatly from military abuses, cannot be expected to place its trust in the same military on matters relating to “building back better” in the province. After full-scale hostilities between GAM and the government resumed in May 2003, the Indonesian military did its best to place a veil of secrecy around the province and its actions there. Human Rights Watch has gathered substantial evidence that Indonesian security forces in Aceh have engaged in torture, extra-judicial executions, forced disappearances, beatings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and placed unnecessary limits on the freedom of movement in Aceh. Access to the provinces was denied to the international media and rights organizations, and excessive limits were placed on impartial humanitarian agencies.

Since the tsunami, the government, and the military in particular, has sought to restrict access by aid agencies and human rights monitors to some areas of the province. Some of the troubling developments noted by Human Rights Watch are:

  • Public statements from Indonesian government, military and police officials suggesting increased restrictions on aid workers (particularly foreigners) in Aceh in the coming months, and reports of Indonesian military intimidating and interfering with Indonesian aid workers;
  • Restrictions on disbursement of aid to areas or groups suspected of supporting GAM;
  • Labeling Acehnese who object to shortcomings in the aid effort, particularly as regarding the military’s role, of supporting GAM;
  • Reports of small-scale extortion of survivors and aid workers by Indonesian soldiers, as well as attempts to use the military’s financial and political influence to control reconstruction contracts.

Human Rights Watch strongly urges that the Indonesian military be phased out from the rebuilding effort as soon as possible, and, where it continues to operate, that it be subject to close monitoring by humanitarian agencies, NGOs, and journalists. The military’s involvement increasingly complicates the overall rebuilding effort, particularly as fighting has resumed in some parts of the province. The military has officially reported having killed 260 GAM rebels since the tsunami; Human Rights Watch is concerned that this number includes suspected GAM supporters who have been victims of extrajudicial execution. One of the few bright spots to emerge from the tsunami disaster has been the peace negotiations currently underway between the Indonesian government and GAM in Helsinki. These talks present the best hope in a long time for a long-term political solution to the conflict in Aceh. The Indonesian government should not allow the military’s involvement and interference with the rebuilding effort hinder these negotiations.

Discrimination against Acehnese Displaced by the Conflict:
Even before the tsunami, the past eighteen months of fighting had forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee their homes. Others have been forcibly relocated by the military for operational reasons (these people, as well as those displaced by the tsunami, are under international law considered to be internally displaced persons, or IDPs). Based on official figures, it is estimated that between May 2003 and December 2004, between 125,000 and 150,000 people were displaced as a result of conflict in Aceh. At the time of the tsunami, some two thousand lived in official government sites, with tens of thousands scattered throughout the province. These highly vulnerable people often live away from the coastal areas affected by the tsunami and will have different needs and interests than those who lost their homes or were forced away because of the rising sea water.

In the first weeks after the tsunami, Human Rights Watch documented several instances when the Indonesian military restricted aid workers from traveling to areas possibly inhabited by “conflict IDPs,” citing security reasons. More recently, it appears that the military has agreed – in principle – to allow access to these areas. However, Human Rights Watch understands that in fact, few journalists and aid workers have visited these areas, in part because of security reasons, in part due to the focus on coastal areas, and in part due to discouragement by the military.

It is crucial that aid agencies conduct a thorough survey of Acehnese displaced due to the conflict, both before and after the tsunami, and to ensure that they receive adequate assistance and proper consideration in the reconstruction of Aceh.

Protecting Land Ownership and Development Rights:
Land and property rights in Aceh will probably be the most complex and sensitive post-tsunami issue that the government and international community will have to address. Full consultation with the Acehnese will be imperative if reconstruction plans are to be sustainable and accepted by local communities. Human Rights Watch found that the tsunami’s survivors had not received all of the information they need to make an informed choice about their immediate housing options. Few of the IDPs interviewed by Human Rights Watch had access to comprehensive information on the relocation plans or their alternative housing/support options.

Human Rights Watch identified the following issues relating to land use and relocation:

  • IDPs living with host families – as opposed to those in organized or spontaneous camps -- in many cases missed aid delivery from the Indonesian government or aid agencies;
  • Lack of information and fear of losing land ownership rights has spurred some IDPs to return to their place of origin in increasing numbers and erect temporary structures on the sites of their former homes. This raises the possibility of these structures becoming slum-type settlements that lack proper access to water and sanitation and community infrastructure;
  • Many IDPs have lost their documents because of the tsunami. This may become a problem if the military returns to its pre-tsunami practice of suspecting Acehnese without proper identification (particularly possession of the “Red and White” ID cards issued only in Aceh) of being members of GAM.

Of most immediate concern is that the majority of the displaced population has not received any clear information about relief or reconstruction plans. The lack of an articulated policy means that people are unable to move forward with their lives. In some cases, these plans seem to have been drawn up without any consultation with the affected populations. For instance, some relocation plans place future fishermen’s settlements some six miles from the beach.

Looking forward, aid and reconstruction should be targeted outside of the tsunami-affected region to reach persons displaced before the tsunami by the conflict and the general population affected by decades of conflict. This will avoid the risk of creating a “golden” coastline of new housing and benefits while the rest of the province remains underdeveloped and ravaged by the war.

The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004, killed more than 10,000 people in India. The roiling sea devastated large sections of coastal areas in India’s southeastern states and virtually destroyed the coastal economy.

Overall, the national and state governments––particularly the government of Tamil Nadu state, which bore the brunt of the tragedy in India––responded promptly to the crisis, immediately launching relief and rescue operations and assisting survivors, especially the fishing communities of the seashore. Notwithstanding the general professionalism of the Indian aid effort, Human Rights Watch received several reports of problems with distribution of food and provision of shelter. Such shortcomings would not necessarily be noteworthy given the size of the disaster and the ensuing relief effort, except to the extent that they highlighted systemic failures to take into account the needs of different vulnerable communities. Human Rights Watch noted the following areas of concern during the recovery and reconstruction phase in India:

  • Discrimination against Dalits (so-called “untouchables”) and members of tribal groups, particularly by tsunami survivors from other caste groups;
  • Problems in protecting the livelihood of people without assets such as wage laborers or tenant farmers;
  • Inadequate transparency and consultation with community groups in regard to future plans for long-term relocation of IDPs and development of coastal land.

Discrimination against Dalits and Tribals:
As was apparent in the aftermath of the tsunami, caste-based discrimination remains endemic in India, despite five decades of legislation to end it. Dalit groups identified some problems during the initial stages of the relief process, when they complained that Dalits were not provided proper and adequate guidance to access relief camps, were not given a fair share of relief aid, and were sometimes abused when they demanded their share.

Most local aid workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that it was not the government or the relief agencies that were primarily to blame for discriminating against the Dalits, tribals, and other lower caste groups, but rather the higher caste groups within the community itself, particularly the Meenavar fishermen whose community had borne the brunt of the tsunami. The Indian government quickly addressed some of these problems, while pointing out that the more serious issues reflected long-held practices of caste discrimination.

But in keeping with the “build back better” approach, Human Rights Watch urges that the government of India, the state and district administrations, voluntary groups and donor agencies to take steps to implement existing government policy and ensure that rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts address, and avoid aggravating existing caste-based discriminatory practices and use education and legislative measures to decrease existing discriminatory practices.

Potential Problems in Providing Sufficient Livelihood:
The Indian government now faces the daunting task of helping survivors establish viable, sustainable livelihoods. Because the fishing industry is the basis of much of the economy of the region, reviving it should be a matter of priority. The challenge is to use this opportunity for large-scale development to alleviate some of the residents’ long-standing economic and social problems.

Human Rights Watch observed the following problems during the initial relief and recovery phase in the tsunami-affected areas in India:

  • In some areas, planning for economic redevelopment has not considered the needs of those who do not own land or other tangible assets, such as tenant farmers and agricultural laborers, many of whom are from disfavored castes. While the fishing industry is the key economic sector in the region, thousands of other Indians derive their livelihood from other related means. Not surprisingly, the Dalit and tribal community are more vulnerable to the pauperizing effects of the post-tsunami economic downturn and are most likely to be overlooked in the reconstruction process.
  • Women are not adequately considered and compensated in most economic redevelopment plans. Women from the fishing community actively contributed to the family livelihood. Many women agricultural laborers have also lost their livelihood. Most women have resisted a transition into basket weaving or sewing offered by NGOs since these vocational offerings often provide low and irregular income. They also reinforce stereotypes about women’s work.

Weaknesses in the relief operations should not be repeated during rehabilitation. Ensuring that the entire community is supported is crucial because the land is expected to remain unfit for cultivation for several years, which leaves many of these people without a livelihood and in real vulnerability to a food crisis.

Lack of Consultation for Redevelopment and Relocation:
Over 200,000 homes were fully or partially destroyed in India’s mainland as a result of the tsunami, and countless lives uprooted and shattered. At least 647,556 persons were displaced and moved to emergency shelters. The Indian government has raised several plans for relocating populations from coastal areas, and for redeveloping this area. Human Rights Watch found that many people affected by the tsunami had not received adequate information or been adequately consulted, about the redevelopment process or possible relocation. In particular, Human Rights Watch identified the following problem areas:

  • Communities who reside in the proposed coastal 500-meter buffer zone have not been adequately consulted about their needs and wishes. Relocation should not only be viewed in the context of disaster prevention but also in relation to its impact on livelihoods. The need for fishing communities to be near the sea is an obvious concern.
  • Due to inadequate consultation and implementation of existing regulations regarding land use, there is widespread suspicion that the tsunami will be used as an excuse to shift the fishing community away from the beach only to make way for more lucrative tourism property deals. Between Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu state, and Pondicherry, there are already beach resorts and entertainment parks. While there have been attempts to relocate the original inhabitants of the area, who have customary uses and traditional rights for access to the sea, the Tamil Nadu government has not yet asked existing hotels, resorts or industrial facilities that have encroached on coastal lands to comply with the regulations.
  • There have been inadequate efforts to protect the rights of landless laborers and tenant farmers. Once the government begins to acquire land to relocate those living near the coast, the owners of that land will be compensated. Having already been left without a livelihood, those earning wages from the land will receive no such compensation. This issue is of particular concern to Dalit communities, who frequently are tenants and so do not have property documents.
  • The economic value of women has not been properly measured and thus may be inadequately compensated. Many women worked to support the fishing industry, as well as in the informal sectors. This is particularly problematic for female-headed households.

In order to address the damage of the tsunami to the residents of India’s coastal areas, as well as the many communities whose livelihood is based on trade with these areas, it is necessary to utilize a transparent and fully consultative process responsive to the needs of the entire affected population.

Sri Lanka
The tsunami affected most of the coastal area of the island, killing some 31,000 people and devastating the local economies based on fishing and tourism. As the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, the country appeared to be edging closer to a breakdown of the February 2002 ceasefire in the country’s twenty-one-year civil war between the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government. This war has cost more than sixty thousand lives and has resulted in numerous atrocities by both sides, and has effectively divided the country into an LTTE-held area in the northern and eastern sections of the island and government controlled areas.

Generally, the government and the LTTE were able to provide immediate assistance to those in need. But the inability of the LTTE and the government to agree on a joint response to the tsunami has been the largest obstacle to implementing a suitable redevelopment and reconstruction program. Both sides seem intent on deriving military and political advantages from the response to the tsunami – without adequately taking into account the needs of the affected populations. Human Rights Watch identified the following principal concerns about Sri Lanka’s response to the tsunami:

  • Political tensions between the government and the LTTE hampered coordination of the aid and reconstruction efforts.
  • Immediately after the tsunami, political considerations resulted in discrimination against disfavored groups. In particular, there are credible reports that the LTTE favored pro-Tamil Tiger elements in the population under its control.
  • The massive effort on behalf of tsunami victims highlighted the government’s failure to address the longstanding needs of Sri Lankans displaced by the armed conflict.

In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, it appeared possible that the LTTE and the government would resume their stalled peace negotiations, but those hopes are fading. And there is good reason to fear that disagreements over the disbursement of the tremendous international aid pouring into Sri Lanka will aggravate the tensions. Proper handling of the recovery effort is thus not just of significance to the thousands whose lives were directly or indirectly harmed by the tsunami, but also to the country as a whole.

Political Tension between the LTTE and the Government:
The inability of the LTTE and the government to agree on a joint mechanism for disbursing tsunami aid has greatly hampered the aid effort. The government and LTTE have effectively distinct areas of control, and so far there has been very little coordination of aid and recovery efforts between these areas. Many donors are reluctant to provide aid directly to the LTTE because of concerns that it will be redirected to LTTE military forces or legal restrictions prohibiting aid to the LTTE. At the same time, the LTTE is eager to use this opportunity to improve its political standing. There are efforts afoot to create this joint mechanism before a donors’ meeting on May 17. However, these efforts are complicated by strong opposition from within the coalition government, as well as a bloody factional dispute between the LTTE and a splinter group in the east.

Human Rights Watch views the following issues as particularly relevant to the tsunami recovery effort, particularly before the onset of the annual monsoons in late May or June:

  • Ensuring that the LTTE allows adequate disbursement of tsunami aid by humanitarian organizations to people affected by the tsunami in LTTE-controlled areas. Human Rights Watch understands that in some northeastern coastal areas, tsunami survivors are still without adequate shelter.
  • Preventing the recovery effort from becoming politicized or misused for military advantage. There are reports that the LTTE in particular has attempted to silence its civil society critics or to harass people simply on the suspicion of sympathies for other Tamil political entities.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga has publicly committed her government to reaching an agreement with the LTTE regarding a joint mechanism for coordinating tsunami relief. While it is clear that some cooperation between the government and the LTTE is a matter of practical necessity, Human Rights Watch believes that such any joint mechanism should include commitments by both sides to respect the fundamental rights of the affected population.

Reconstruction of Coastal Areas:
The tsunami destroyed an estimated 115,000 homes and business in Sri Lanka. Nearly 500,000 people lost their homes; of this group, most live with family and friends but some 100,000 people are still in cramped, stifling tents or camps. We understand that these survivors have received little, if any, information about their options for returning to their homes or being relocated.

  • The Sri Lankan government has embarked on a relocation and coastal rebuilding program aimed at protecting the coastal areas from the impact of another tsunami. Those who lost their homes due to the tsunami, as well as those who would be affected by the buffer zone, have not been adequately consulted about these plans, nor informed about compensation mechanisms. There is widespread suspicion that large landowners and tourist facilities will be able to take over the beachfront at the expense of the coastal communities.
  • The LTTE has also imposed a coastal buffer zone (ranging from 330 yards to 550 yards), with little, if any, consultation with the local populace.
  • The government and the LTTE should take advantage of the tsunami reconstruction effort to address the problems and needs of persons displaced by the armed conflict. Conflict IDPs have been excluded from many plans for reconstruction, and there have been reports of tension between conflict IDPs and tsunami survivors.

We thank you for your attention to the concerns outlined in this letter and look forward to engaging further with you and your staff to resolve them. We would emphasize our availability to meet with you or them to further discuss the concerns raised.

Yours sincerely,

Iain Levine
Program Director

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