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Sri Lanka : Mounting violence highlights protection needs

04-12-2001 Operational Update



 Executive summary  


  • The Sri Lankan Parliament has been dissolved, with new elections scheduled for 5 December 2001. Campaign violence and an increase of military activity in the east and along lines in the Vanni have ended a period of relative calm, increasing risks for both civilians and combatants.

  • The recent increase in violence highlights the continuing need for ICRC activities in Sri Lanka. These focus on the domain of protection, but vary widely, fitting together within the ICRC’s integrated approach to protecting and assisting victims of war. This update focuses on aspects of protection activities which are especially important in the Sri Lankan context and are unique to the ICRC approach: the role as neutral intermediary, the protection of civilian populations, and efforts to resolve the problem of the missing.



 General situation  



 Heading towards new election  


The year began with a period of relative calm, ushered in when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) announced a unilateral ceasefire. Although the government did not reciprocate the ceasefire, on the whole fewer military confrontations were observed and the LTTE refrained from making attacks in the south. These developments provided ground for Norwegian-led peace initiatives, but by mid-year optimism waned as discord between the ruling People’s Alliance (PA) and some of its allies prompted a key political party to withdraw its support to the coalition and join the opposition, leaving the government without a majority. In a climate of latent unrest, the president prorogued Parliament in July and made efforts to regain a majority. When these failed, she dissolved Parliament in October. New elections will be held on 5 December. As elections approach, the campaign has become bloody, with hundreds of violent incidents reported. A common element in Sri Lankan politics, election violence heightens tensions among polarized political groups and compromises security around the country.

In his annual Heroes'Day address delivered on 27 Novembe r, LTTE leader V. Prabhakaran for the first time implied that the LTTE is not fighting for a separate state.

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 Attacks intensify since mid-year  


On 24 July, the 18th anniversary of the 1983 anti-Tamil riots, the LTTE launched a pre-dawn attack on Colombo’s Katanayake air base. The attack spilled over to the adjacent Bandanaraike International Airport; both LTTE cadres and Sri Lankan security force personnel were killed and civilian and military aircraft were destroyed. The incident dealt a stunning blow to external trade and tourism, and signalled the end of the LTTE’s suspension of attacks in the south.

In the Vanni, the emergence of Claymore (remote-detonation) mine attacks targeting LTTE leaders culminated at the end of September with the assassination of Colonel Shankar, an important leader in the command hierarchy of the LTTE. On both sides of the lines in southern Vanni as well as in the east, deep-penetration teams have increased their attacks, and security measures taken in response have affected movements of civilians and humanitarian organizations.

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 Confrontations heat up in the East  

Since mid-year the LTTE has increased its land and sea attacks in the East: hit-and-run attacks on government positions have intensified, and in September a navy vessel was nearly sunk in an LTTE attack in Trincomalee harbour. With the increase of military activity, civilians have suffered acts of retaliation, have been caught in crossfire, and have been harassed. In Mutur area, heightened tensions communities have increased the vulnerability of the area’s Muslim population which, trapped between the two ethnic groups, is also victim to abductions, extortion, and other abuses. As the community has mobilized to defend Muslim interests, some of its more extreme elements have resorted to violence, rendering the situation even more complex and volatile.

In areas of the East under LTTE control ( uncleared areas) and grey areas where government control is not fully established, government services are unable to cover the needs of the population, and security conditions and constraints of movement hamper economic activity.

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 Conflict drags on  


Prospects for Norwegian-led peace initiatives began to fade in April when the LTTE refused to participate as long as it was banned as a terrorist organization. Government discussion of peace proposals has been frozen by the political crisis, and the escalation of military activities has further undermined the confidence that fosters negotiation.

In LTTE-controlled areas of the Vanni , the Sri Lankan security forces continue regular aerial and naval attacks, but these are conducted in areas largely emptied of civilians in earlier fighting. Otherwise, there is little change in the situation: with the area under LTTE control the government provides some food and essential goods for the population, but restrictions on movement and transport into and out of the region hamper economic development. The area’s infrastructure, already underdeveloped before the population was swollen by influxes of IDPs, is unable to cover needs. The government has difficulty maintaining public services within the area, and most of the population depends on humanitarian organizations for health care, water supply, and other basic services. In the current situation of relative calm, despite the government restrictions on goods entering the area, medical and other humanitarian activities were continued without major obstacles, but should the conflict escalate these could again become rigid, compromising vital services.

On Jaffna peninsula the military situation remains unchanged, with no recent population displacements. With full control of the area, the government maintains functional public services there, but the civilian population remains cut off from the rest of the country.

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 Humanitarian response  



 The ICRC’s role  

Recent tensions change nothing in the patterns of the Sri Lankan conflict, which grinds on as it has for years: their grim confirmation of this continuation serves to underline the importance of the ICRC’s unique role and activities, developed over years of work in Sri Lanka. These focus on protection activities, working through the parties to the conflict to reinforce the measures they take to protect populations under their control and ensure that their basic needs are met. ICRC protection activities in Sri Lanka include:

  • following a population of over 1700 prisoners and detainees held in connection with the conflict, visiting them regularly to monitor their treatment and conditions, and addressing problems with authorities concerned

  • helping maintain normal civilian activity by serving as a neutral intermediary to secure the passage of civilians and go ods to and from areas isolated by conflict

  • protecting civilians in areas affected by conflict by: documenting violations of humanitarian law and using them as the basis for regular dialogue with the authorities and leaders on both sides; strengthening family links by maintaining, with the Sri Lankan Red Cross, a Red Cross message network enabling families to communicate with those members isolated by detention or front lines; and reuniting families in cases where the separation causes hardship

  • working to help families learn the fates or whereabouts of loved ones who have gone missing.

The government takes responsibility for the survival of populations cut off by the conflict, providing them as much as possible with food and essential goods and services; its capacity is augmented by the input of many humanitarian organizations, but varies with limitations determined by the different circumstances of the Jaffna peninsula, the Vanni, and the Eastern region. The ICRC carefully selects activities to complement services provided by the authorities and other humanitarian agencies, mindful not to replace them in functions that they fulfil. It focuses on those areas where, because of its neutrality, the ICRC has easier access to victims or is able to meet their needs more effectively. These are also areas where its field presence in assistance activities enhances its ability to monitor and react to protection problems. While the ICRC does provide direct food, water and sanitation assistance, shelter materials, and essential hygiene and household items for IDPs or resident populations in the first stages of emergencies, the recent lull in military activities has created little need for such assistance.

Its ongoing direct assistance programmes fill gaps in government services in the Vanni or uncleared or grey areas of the East . They include:

  • financial support for mobile health teams (MHT) and public health centres (PHC), most run by the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society: in some 30,000 medical consultations and 600 health education sessions per month they provide basic health services for a population of some 500,000 people

  • helping communities and, where possible, cooperating with local water authorities to maintain adequate water supply, rehabilitating boreholes and shallow wells and training communities to maintain them

  • distributing non-food assistance to targeted vulnerable groups in the Vanni: in 2001, distributed roofing material to 2,700 families headed by women, including an average of four to five children.

In the Jaffna peninsula , where its full control permits the government to provide more comprehensive services, the need for the ICRC’s direct assistance is limited: currently the organization offers technical and material support for the manufacture of polypropylene prostheses in the Friends in Need Society workshop for amputees.

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 Security  constraints  


Owing to both parties ’ respect for humanitarian activities, security and working conditions are generally good in the Sri Lankan context. However, in certain localities, recent tensions or disagreements with local bodies have led the ICRC to temporarily alter some of its activities. In the Vanni, assistance to families headed by women was temporarily suspended early in the year when the local council of NGOs proposed working arrangements which limited the ICRC's access to beneficiaries. When an agreement was reached allowing the ICRC access needed to monitor and evaluate its programme, activities resumed and roofing material was distributed as planned. When the withdrawal of the LTTE liaison officer in Mallawi changed the security conditions under which humanitarian organizations operate, the ICRC carefully reassessed the situation. With the exception of extremely delicate activities such as transfer of dead bodies which were put on hold, all activities continued. The situation returned to normal with the apointment of a new liaison officer.

Eastern areas of the Vanni have been declared no-go areas since the killing of Col. Shankar in the region. The ICRC office in Mutur was temporarily closed in September, following a security incident linked to rising ethnic tensions. Activities which were based in Mutur have been provisionally relocated to Trincomalee, which increases their transport time and slows operations. However, contacts were maintained with all sides with a view to reopening the office and resuming activities by the new year.

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 Neutral intermediary: helping existing services extend their reach  

In its function as neutral intermediary the ICRC monitors the passage of civilians, personnel providing needed services, or cargo over lines or other barriers created by fighting, verifying that the passage does not serve military aims. It provides transport, escorts, or other services to enable authorities or other organizations to extend their work to areas that they could not otherwise reach because of front lines or security constraints. Its impact as it performs this role, hard to quantify, reaches beyond numbers of tonnes or beneficiaries to the immeasurable benefit of strengthening and extending the reach of local and national mechanisms that meet vital needs.

In Sri Lanka, the ICRC facilitates the following activities in its role as neutral intermediary :

  •  passage of civilians and goods into and out of areas cut off by the conflict enables isolated populations to make family contacts, engage in commerce, and gain access to education or other services not locally available: ICRC presence at the land route into the Vanni keeps lines open there, allowing over 1,000 civilians and nearly 100 government and private lorries of staple food items, consumer goods, and fertiliserto enter and leave each week; its protection of the vessel City of Trinco shuttles allow over 1,200 civilians a week to travel to and from the Jaffna peninsula in the only civilian transport available; and its vessel Jaya Gold (see below) transports cargo for humanitarian and educational programmes run by government and international agencies on Jaffna peninsula

  •  specialized medical care for patients isolated on Jaffna peninsula: ICRC vessel Jaya Gold (ECHO-funded) and connecting ground transport enable government hospitals in Colombo to provide specialized medical services for over 800 patients a year

  •  irrigation project in uncleared and grey areas of the East: ICRC escorts and proxy monitoring enable the World Bank-funded North-east Irrigated Agriculture Project (NEIAP) to reach areas where government control is not sufficient to guarantee security, improving the productivity of subsistence farmers whose livelihood has been affected by conflict

  •  other medical services in uncleared and grey areas of the east: ICRC escorts enable government vaccination teams and Eye specialists to provide health services

  •  prosthesis production in the Vanni: the ICRC brings in government-controlled materials to enable the White Pigeon workshop to manufacture prostheses .  


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 Civilian protection: reinforcing measures to prevent violations  

Populations in areas affected by conflict, particularly in the Vanni and the East, are subjected to indiscriminate bombing, acts of retaliation, harassment, and other violations of humanitarian law. With an extensive field-level presence which is augmented through its assistance programmes in the areas most affected by fighting, the ICRC closely monitors the situation of civilians, documenting allegations and reacting to violations of humanitarian law in a well-developed dialogue with authorities of both sides. Aimed at reinforcing the measures they take to ensure that combatants observe their obligations to protect civilian lives and dignity, this dialogue ranges from informal discussions with local commanders to formal reports submitted at the highest levels. Its content remains confidential. Contacts do not always yield direct results, and their impact is hard to verify or quantify, but delegates do note measures that are taken to prevent the recurrence of violations: the fact that Sri Lanka has one of the few conflicts where combatant casualties outnumber civilian ones indicates that both warring parties make efforts to spare civilians, and the dialogue with the ICRC helps them target these efforts more effectively. Recent elements of this dialogue include:

  • submission, between June and September 2001, of more than 80 representations concerning violations of humanitarian law, most in the Batticaloa region

  • submission in June 2001 of a report on the Conduct of Hostilities in the period from November 1999-December 2000

These protection activities complement the ICRC’s extensive preventive action activities that work to train members of armed, the police, paramilitary forces, the LTTE, and other armed groups to respect civilians and observe rules of combat articulated in interna tional humanitarian law. These efforts, which in the first three quarters of 2001 reached over 15,000 combatants, involved:

  • direct presentations for members of armed forces, police and paramilitary forces, the LTTE and other armed groups who are operational in areas affected by conflict

  • technical and material support for instruction in international humanitarian law provided by the Sri Lankan army within its regular training programmes for combatants .  


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 When loved ones are missing: helping families find out  


Often headed by women who in struggling to raise their children must face multiple financial, administrative, and social problems, the families of the missing represent one of the most vulnerable groups in any conflict. In Sri Lanka, many families still do not know the fate of combatants missing in action. Disappearances of civilians or detainees occurred in past conflicts and while they are no longer common, families can fear the worst until they have heard from detained relatives. The ICRC engages in a number of activities to help minimize the occurrence of the problem, obtain and transmit to families information on the whereabouts of those who are missing, and as sist families as they cope with unresolved situations. In Sri Lanka, these activities include:

  • registering prisoners and detainees, offering them a chance to contact relatives through Red Cross messages and following their course of detention until they are released

  • encouraging detaining authorities to inform families of arrests

  • collecting allegations of disappearance and pursuing them with authorities concern

  • receiving lists of the missing in action from warring parties, presenting them to the authorities concerned in order to obtain information clarifying what has happened to them

  • urging armed forces and groups to depart from a tradition of ‘no mercy war’ by sparing captured or wounded combatants and treating them humanely

  • returning mortal remains of combatants fallen on enemy territory, encouraging the authorities to keep bodies with all personal effects which could help identify them

  • encouraging armed forces and groups to require combatants to wear identification tags .  

Activities in Sri Lanka will be studied comprehensively by the institution’ ;s Missing Persons Project, recently launched to make an in-depth analysis of all strategies to help address the issue of the missing.

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 Cooperation within the Movement  


Many of the ICRC’s activities, particularly in assistance, health care and tracing are implemented in cooperation with the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS). The ICRC’s support for SLRCS mobile health teams and public health centres in the Vanni is carried out as a project delegated to the Canadian Red Cross.

The ICRC works with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to help the SLRCS develop its capacities. The SLRCS made substantial progress in its consolidation process when its General Assembly adopted a new constitution in October this year. The ICRC and the International Federation accompanied the SLRCS in the lengthy process of revision and re-drafting, in which all the branches of the National Society, including those in conflict areas, participated.

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