Sri Lanka: increasing levels of violence cause concern
After a three-year assignment in Sri Lanka, the ICRC's outgoing head of delegation, Thierry Meyrat, talks about the ICRC's activities since the signing of the 2002 ceasefire and current concerns as violent clashes increase.
What are the most important activities that the ICRC has focused on since the ceasefire between the Sri Lankan authorities and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in February 2002?
With the signing of the ceasefire agreement, the ICRC was able to decrease its assistance programmes on behalf of the population. We entered a new phase in which development projects were to replace a number of the emergency programmes related to the conflict. For example, the ICRC had a shuttle boat that ran from the northern part of the island to the south and this ceased operation in July 2002 with the reopening of road links between Jaffna and Kandy. This was a major development that enabled people to move about again. The ICRC was requested by the two sides to be present in areas between the territories controlled by the Government and those controlled by the LTTE to ensure the safe passage of civilians from one area to another. In three areas – two on the main road linking Jaffna to Kandy and a third in the district of Mannar the ICRC therefore posted delegates on a daily basis in no-man's land in order to ensure it remained neutral territory, that no weapons bearers entered and that civilians and goods could cross without encountering problems. This has been an essential task for the ICRC since 2002 and has permitted safe and smooth passage for millions of people into the northern part of the island. This is a specific task that highlights the ICRC's role as a neutral intermediary.
The ICRC has continued some assistance programmes in the field of health, helping communities help themselves with support and training programmes implemented in four districts in the north and east in cooperation with the National Societies of various countries. The aim is to respond to an unfortunate situation where there are few medical personnel present in the north east to treat the local population. In these communities we have also been involved in water and sanitation projects and, since 2005, economic security programmes. It has been very typical of a situation of transition where there is no war but no peace either and whereby the humanitarian dimension remains a challenge.
How fragile is the peace process in Sri Lanka today?
There were many hopes in 2002 that peace would come early to the country but unfortunately this has not been the case. This means that protection work has remained very important and the ICRC has continued to visit persons detained both by the Government and by the LTTE. It has continued to follow cases affecting the civilian population too mostly relating to underage recruitment, hostage-taking and missing persons. Incidents have been fewer than they were but still numerous enough to show that the situation was not as calm as we would have hoped. This has been particularly true since 2004 onwards when Karuna followers split from the LTTE and the district of Batticaloa has been particularly tense with a number of killings. To give a figure, from February 2005 to February 2006 some 250 people were killed due to this internal violence and obviously this was a major concern to us.
Do you fear a return to full-scale conflict?
Since December 2005, the situation has deteriorated a lot in all northern and eastern districts. We do fear a renewed conflict. There are daily incidents and the role of the ICRC is, unfortunately, becoming mo re important again as people are displaced and detained. The humanitarian needs are increasing.
What does the ICRC do to try to ensure the respect for international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka?
We have continued to help the Sri Lankan government sign up to a number of international humanitarian law treaties. Sri Lanka has, for example, now joined the 1980 Convention on certain conventional weapons. This was particularly important because one of the protocols to this Convention deals with anti-personnel mines; as Sri Lanka is not yet party to the Ottawa Convention the fact that it signed the second protocol led to some measures limiting the impact of land mines -- marking areas and having them mapped for instance. So this was a positive development. In addition, Sri Lanka has become party to the 1954 Convention on the protection of cultural properties. The promotion of IHL is a core aspect of the ICRC's work and we continue a number of programmes both with the armed forces and the LTTE in the promotion and integration of international humanitarian law into their instructions, doctrines and training.