Published On: Wed, Feb 26th, 2014

Sri Lanka: Meaningful assistance for the people who need it most


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 play a role in helping 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 addressing the needs of 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 women heading households, people with disabilities and others whom we assisted in 2013, often in partnership with the Sri Lanka Red Cross.

The ICRC has been working in Sri Lanka since the 1990s and has constantly strived to adapt its activities to meet evolving needs. Recent development efforts and the rebuilding of infrastructure have changed for the better 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 loved ones have gone missing?

The ICRC has been striving to address the issues linked with persons 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 about military personnel missing in action. All in all, we have records of more than 16,000 people reported missing.

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.

Accordingly, the Sri Lankan government recently agreed to our proposal to assess the specific needs of the families of missing people. Our doing so will also 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, as well as 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 that may have been encountered 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 works and other infrastructural 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?

We believe these people are among those who most need help resuming their day-to-day lives. As a result of the conflict, women heading households and disabled people suddenly had to fend for themselves or even support entire families. Among the many challenges they had to cope with was that of finding a way to earn a living on their own without necessarily having the skills or experience usually involved.

Over the past year, often in partnership with the Sri Lanka Red Cross, we have been helping them to overcome this challenge by enabling them to start income-generating activities and by 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. On a number of occasions, 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 aiming to help people resume normal, dignified lives.

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