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Sri Lanka - Newsletter - March 2002

15-03-2002 Field Newsletter

ICRC as a neutral intermediary - Water assistance - Protection activities: Frequently Asked Questions

ICRC as a neutral intermediary


  ICRC as a neutral intermediary 

As they had both declared a ceasefire, the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, the parties to the conflict in Sri Lanka, requested the ICRC to act as a neutral intermediary to address and find solutions for the problems of a humanitarian nature that arise in the affected areas of the country affected by the conflict.

Accordingly the ICRC has agreed to act as a conduit for the passing of information between the parties concerned whenever there was an issue that concerned the needs and the welfare of ordinary civilians.

A major event that took place in this regard is the opening of two crossing points into the LTTE-controlled Vanni region from the government-controlled area on February 15. These two points are at Omanthai and Uyilankulam. Omanthai is on the A-9, or main arterial highway ten kilometres north of Vavuniya. Uyilankulam is on the Mannar-Vavuniya road, eight kilometres east of Mannar. The old crossing point at Piramanalankulam, also on the Mannar-Vavuniya road was closed after these two new points were opened.

The opening of these points has dramatically reduced travelling time from the southern regions to population centres in the Vanni and back. This has also permitted a larger number of people to cross the lines and also for a greatly increased quantity of goods to be transported both ways. In this manner some 300,000 people living in this area will benefit from better access to services and facilities. 

At both crossing points, as in the past at Piramanalankulam, the ICRC superintendents the zone between the Sri Lanka Army Forward Defence Lines and the LTTE lines. ICRC personnel are present from 8.30 AM to 5 PM and ensure the safe passage of civilians and lorry convoys across the lines . Civilians on foot as well as lorries cross during week days while Saturdays are reserved for trucks. As both sides accept the ICRC’s role as a neutral intermediary, it is in a position to monitor the humanitarian situation and address the problems that crop up for the people wanting to cross the lines. The ICRC confers regularly with the SLA and the LTTE to ease the passage of people and goods meant for civilian use.

Water assistance


Water Assistance 

The victims of war are not only those who lie bleeding on the battlefield but also those who are deprived of essential services because of a conflict situation. In this way many people living in war affected zones, have had no access to the most basic of amenities, such as fresh drinking water. One vital role the ICRC plays in this regard, in many regions of the world where it is operating, is to provide Water and Sanitation services to them. This is in tune with the ICRC’s Assistance Mission " to preserve or restore the living conditions of victims of armed conflict so as to reduce their dependency on outside aid and enable them to maintain an adequate standard of living in the relevant cultural context. " The ICRC also follows a policy of not replacing the existing structures but supplementing them and filling in when conditions are difficult.


The Sri Lankan Operation in the Vanni 

In Sri Lanka, water and sanitation work began in 1995 when the ICRC provided safe water to displaced people in Point Pedro, on the Jaffna Peninsula. Thereafter the operation moved into the Vanni when thousands of these displaced people moved into that region. Since then the drilling and rehabili tation of tube wells as well as the rehabilitation of open wells has been carried out in that region. In all, 173 tube wells in the Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi district have been worked on since 1996. The decision to currently concentrate on tube wells was taken because most of the traditional open shallow wells tend to dry up during the drought months. Deep tube wells rarely run dry even in the drought. Women and children are most affected by the shortage of well water, as they have to walk far to fetch their water supplies sometimes from unsatisfactory sources such as irrigation canals

Initially tube wells were dug using manual drilling equipment because mechanical equipment was not permitted into the Vanni at that time. Digging wells in this manner is an arduous task at the best of times, and each operation took at least seven days. Some of the older existing wells had bucket pumps while others had hand-pumps. The ICRC uses appropriate technology – or a mix of technology – according to the needs of the situation. These include the use of locally made hand-pumps, bucket pumps or India Mark 3 pumps when the well is deep and a high yield is required. The ICRC was the only organisation that could bring these pumps into the Vanni because of the special relationship forged with the relevant authorities. 


Community Participation 

The ICRC water access programme aims for a close collaboration with the government and the local authority to increase community involvement at all levels. A system of reporting the repair and rehabilitation needs of these communal wells have been set up that involves local NGOs and the administration. These requests are consolidated at the Government Agent’s level and then assessed independently b y the ICRC before actual work is carried out with priority given to the areas in greatest need.

In addition the ICRC promotes the formation of local water committees within the communities which are tasked with the general upkeep of the water source. The ICRC runs a half-day training programme for caretakers of the India Mark 3 pumps, with two caretakers entrusted with one pump. They are also supplied with basic tools, a handbook and Grease for their job. Last year forty caretakers entrusted with the maintenance of 20 pumps were trained in the Vanni.

Eventually the ICRC hopes to make the system more self-sustaining with Technical Officers with the required training placed in the needed areas. In October 2000 a Pilot Training Programme was run in the Vanni. It was a capacity building programme for these Technical officers in collaboration with CARE, FORUT and OXFAM where training literature and handbooks were provided. A larger scale training programme is planned for the current year. The Technical Officers will be made responsible for the maintenance, technical support and supervision of the tube wells in conjunction with the pump caretakers. 


….And outside the Vanni 

ICRC water and sanitation assistance also extends into the so-called ‘Grey’ areas, which are settlements in close proximity to the ‘uncleared’ areas of the north and east. Here government workers are often reluctant to work because of the uncertain security situation and the ICRC has filled in to provide these services. Some of these areas are in the Polonnaruwa district on the border of the Trincomalee and Batticoloa districts. Most of the wells in this area were drilled by the Mahaweli Authority between 1992 and 1994 . However due to a lack of maintenance many were not working and the ICRC has rehabilitated 142 wells in this area and they are providing water again to the needy.

Kanthegama is one such affected hamlet in Polonnaruwa. There the ICRC staff arrived one day with a compressor. They dismantled the pump in the only tube well, which was not working, and then inserted a tube. In a short while water gushed out of the hitherto dormant well, and after a few parts were replaced in the pump, things were as they should be. For the villagers of Kanthegama, it was finally a great relief to see water gushing out of the well.

Protection activities: Frequently Asked Questions


Protection activities: Frequently Asked Questions & Answers 

 The concept and goal of Protection is as follows;  


" The concept of protection encompasses all activities aimed at obtaining     full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the International Humanitarian Law   and all relevant laws which apply in situation related to armed conflicts be they of international / non international character or in situations related to internal disturbances."  

In Protection the ICRC carries out three main activities in Sri Lanka

  • Visits to persons detained in relation with the conflict by the Government Forces and the LTTE;

  • All activities aimed at re-establishing of family links of those separated by the conflict such as the exchange of family messages, re-uniting families, search for civilians and soldiers reported missing, and the transfer of mortal remains of combatants;

  • Monitoring the behaviour of the troops with regard to civilians, civilian property, and those

no longer taking part in the hostilities such as prisoners.

 What are some of the main problems thus encountered by ICRC regarding the protection of the civilian population ?  


In the year 2001 the main issue was the harassment the civilian population suffered such as death, injury and loss or destruction of their property as a consequnece of miltiary operations carried out by both par ties to the conflict. Also in some areas in particular in the eastern districts several instances of killing of civilians have been followed by ICRC delegates and discussed with the relevant authorities in order to avoid the recurrence.


 How does the ICRC intercede on behalf of the civilian population during hostilities?  


For example, when we there was shelling in the Jaffna peninsula and we learn that civilians have been affected, ICRC delegates from our office in Jaffna would intervene on behalf of those affected by taking up the issue with the relevant parties. Our action remains the same when civilians are thus affected anywhere else in the country. We share with the authorities concerned our information, observations on a particular event, in a confidential manner, urging them to adopt appropriate measures to avoid future recurrences of such situations. It is important to bear in mind, that during times of armed conflict, civilians have the right to be spared from the direct consequences of military operations such as aerial bombing, shelling or suicide attacks.

 How does ICRC protect fighters who are no longer taking an active part in combat ?  

Here we focus on those fighters who fall into the hands of the opposing party. First, his or her life must be spared and all necessary measures taken to capture the fighter. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, after intense battles, the ICRC is more involved in carrying out the transfer of mortal remains of fallen fighters than in visiting captured prisoners. With regard to the transfer of bodies, international humanitarian law is clear. The mortal remains of fallen combatants shall not be mutilated but respected.

 What is ICRC’s role in the transfer of mortal remains of soldiers/cadres ?  


After intense fighting, upon the request and agreement of the fighting parties, the

ICRC, in its role as a neutral intermediary, transfers the mortal remains of fallen cadres / soldiers from the battlefield to the appropriate side via a humanitarian corrido. According to the Law of Armed Conflict, all fighting parties shall collect and transmit all elements, which will facilitate their identification such as ID discs, personal effects, et al. Generally, it is indeed a matter of concern to us, that far too few of such ID elements are being handed over to the ICRC by the fighting parties along with the mortal remains of fallen fighters. It should be kept in mind that each name of fallen soldier / fighter whose body is handed over to the fighting party he belongs will increase the list of combatants Missing In Action and will subsequently increase the sorrow if the families.


 In 2000, ICRC transferred 209 SLA & 270 LTTE combatants. In 2001 111 SLA & 170 LTTE .

 What is the situation regarding the protection of those detained and taken prisoner because of the conflict?  


At present ICRC delegates visit some 1000 persons in the custody of Government Forces and

7 in LTTE custody. According to international humanitarian law, it is mandatory for both parties to ensure humane treatment and conditions of detention fo r those in their custody. They should be offered, ithe possibility of maintaining contact with their families and assuring them of their whereabouts especially via the exchange Red Cross messages (RCM’s). In 2001 2129 RCMS were collected by ICRC delegates to be transmitted to next-of-kin among them 1063 the majority of which were written by detainees under LTTE custody. After each visit to the detainees, ICRC delegates share with the detaining authority ICRC concerns pertaining to their treatment, conditions of detention, whenever deemed necessary and the authorities are urged to take all necessary measures to improve the detainee’s situation. It should be noted that the implementation of the ICRC recommendations always remains under the solely responsibility and willingness of the detaining authorities.

 There is much public discussion about the issue of Child Soldiers. What is ICRC’s response?  


International Humanitarian Law is quite definite on this : Parties to a conflict shall refrain from recruiting children under 15 years of age, for integration into their troops.  This implies that they shall not be incorporated either forcibly or voluntarily . And those between 16 and 18 who would have been already recruited, shall not be sent, in priority, to the battlefield.Practically, this means that when ICRC delegates are approached by a family member regarding the case of a boy or a girl under the age of 15 years who has been recruited, the ICRC, with the consent of family member concerned, and on his or her behalf, will intercede with the appropriate party, i.e. LTTE, in order to lead the m to take necessary action to enable the child to return home. Such issues are of grave concern to the ICRC throughout the country, and in particular in the Wanni and East. It should be underlined that in all instances where boys and girls under the age of 15 years have not returned home, the ICRC will regularly renew its request from the relevant authorities. In parallel, ICRC will regularly meet the families and share their sorrow and frustrations. Here again, it should be reminded that the responsibility of allowing the recruited children back home lies entirely under the responsibility of the relevant authorities.

 What is ICRC’s role regarding alleged abduction of civilians (fishermen, businessmen, etc) in conflict areas ?

Taking into consideration that such a situation arises because of the conflict, the ICRC will first try to ascertain the whereabouts of the person allegedly to have been abducted with the parties concerned. Having gained access, we next re-establish family links by facilitating exchange of Red Cross Messages as some measures of reassurance for the families. Furthemore and whenever deemed necessary, the ICRC continually raises its concern with the relevant authorities regarding the humanitarian consequences of such abductions which affect the community to which the abductees belong to.

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