Sri Lanka: Helping those who need it most
During a recent visit to Sri Lanka, Anthony Dalziel, the ICRC’s head of operations for South Asia, met government officials and discussed what could be done to help people affected by the consequences of the past conflict.
The conflict in Sri Lanka ended in 2009. How relevant is the ICRC’s work in the country now?
Having worked in Sri Lanka during its past conflict, I was interested to see for myself, and to discuss with the country's leadership what we could do to help people in a meaningful way. I was received by Mr Gotabaya Rajapakse, the Defence Secretary, Mr Lalith Weeratunga, the Permanent Secretary to the President, and by other government officials, all of whom highlighted the importance of helping people affected by the past conflict and welcomed the efforts of the ICRC. I also had the chance to travel to the north of the country to meet with female heads of household, people with disabilities and others whom we helped in 2013, often in partnership with the Sri Lanka Red Cross.
The ICRC has been working in Sri Lanka since the 1990s and has always adapted its work to meet evolving needs. Recent development efforts and the rebuilding of infrastructure have enhanced the lives of people previously affected by fighting and lack of security. Nevertheless, there are still important humanitarian needs stemming from the past conflict and the authorities have accepted the ICRC's involvement in efforts to address them. In particular, we are visiting detainees and working on issues relating to people who went missing during the conflict.
How can the ICRC help people whose relatives have gone missing?
The ICRC has been working on issues linked to people missing as a result of the conflict since its early days in Sri Lanka. For more than 20 years, we have been receiving information from families about relatives who went missing, including military personnel missing in action. All in all, we have records of more than 16,000 missing persons.
One of the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation (LLRC) is to trace the whereabouts of missing persons and reunite them with their families. The commission urges law enforcement authorities to make every effort to achieve these aims in cooperation with relevant agencies such as the ICRC.
The Sri Lankan government recently agreed to our proposal to assess the needs of the families of missing people. This assessment will make it possible to reconfirm existing cases or close cases that have been resolved. On the basis of this review, the ICRC will propose ways of meeting the families' economic, psycho-social, legal or administrative needs. Action may then be taken to complement existing initiatives, in close coordination with government agencies, the local administration and other organizations.
Who are the detainees you are visiting?
Throughout the world, the ICRC visits people held in connection with armed conflict or other situations of violence. In Sri Lanka, the ICRC has been visiting people detained as a result of past conflicts since 1989.
Currently, with the agreement of the Sri Lankan government, the ICRC is visiting people held in places of detention under the responsibility of the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prison Reform, the Terrorist Investigation Division, or the Criminal Investigation Division, and in police stations. During these visits, our delegates assess conditions of detention and the treatment of all detainees, share their observations with the detaining authorities, propose solutions to any problems and provide direct assistance to detainees when necessary. For example, during the past year, more than 10,000 detainees received hygiene and recreational items, and more than 2,200 benefited from repair work and other infrastructure support in Anuradhapura, Batticaloa and New Magazine prisons and the Boossa detention centre.
The ICRC arranges for families to visit relatives detained in connection with past conflicts and provides them with a travel allowance. In the past year, as many as a thousand detainees received visits from family members every six weeks.
You mentioned households headed by women, and people with disabilities. Why are you focusing on them?
These people are among those who most need help resuming their day-to-day lives. The conflict suddenly forced female heads of household and disabled people to fend for themselves or even support entire families. They had to find a way of earning a living without necessarily having the skills or experience.
Over the past year, often in partnership with the Sri Lanka Red Cross, we have been enabling them to start income-generating activities and helping them to develop appropriate skills. During my trip, I had the chance to visit several of the people receiving this kind of help and was always impressed by the pride and industrious nature of everyone I met – whether they were small farmers, barbers, carpenters, electricians or small shopkeepers. All of them were keen to provide for their families and succeed in their new business ventures.
What can you tell us about the ICRC’s position on alleged violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law during the conflict?
The ICRC, as a neutral and impartial humanitarian organization, takes no part in international inquiries into past conflicts. It worked in the east and north of Sri Lanka throughout the different phases of the conflict there. At the time, we endeavoured to maintain dialogue with all sides and made our position clear with regard to the conduct of hostilities, and with regard to the obligation of all parties to protect civilians and address humanitarian needs. In accordance with its mandate, on a number of occasions during the conflict, the ICRC reminded all sides of their obligation to investigate violations of international humanitarian law and take appropriate action.
Currently, the ICRC is focusing on meeting the existing needs of particularly disadvantaged people. We welcome all reconciliation and reconstruction efforts that aim to help people resume normal, dignified lives.
In 2013, the ICRC
- supported more than 1,500 patients with disabilities by making available to the Jaffna Jaipur Centre for Disability Rehabilitation the raw materials and technical expertise needed to produce prostheses and other mobility devices;
- covered the costs of rehabilitation for 70 economically vulnerable disabled people at Navajeevana orthopaedic centre in Tangalle;
- monitored 960 people held in detention facilities and rehabilitation centres under the responsibility of the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prison Reform, the Terrorist Investigation Division, or the Criminal Investigation Division, and in police stations;
- provided hygiene and recreation items for more than 10,000 detainees and former LTTE fighters released after the demobilization and rehabilitation process;
- supported repair work and other infrastructure support in the Anuradhapura, Batticaloa and New Magazine prisons and the Boossa detention centre, benefiting over 2,200 detainees;
- together with the Sri Lanka Red Cross, provided cash grants to 650 households in the Mullaitivu district headed by women or people with disabilities, helping them earn a living;
- provided cash grants to 152 former LTTE fighters who returned home from rehabilitation centres, to help them return to society and earn a living;
- worked with the Sri Lanka Red Cross to provide safe drinking water and better sanitary facilities for nearly 13,000 people, including schoolchildren, in the Batticaloa, Polonaruwa and Mullaitivu districts, by digging wells, installing water tanks and toilets and conducting hygiene-awareness and well cleaning campaigns;
- trained over 500 members of the security forces and 2,215 personnel set to be deployed on peace-support missions in international humanitarian law;
- supported the efforts of the Sri Lanka Police to include standards on the use of force in their training through workshops, briefings and train-the-trainers courses;
- provided training for Sri Lankan judicial medical officers and other forensic experts.