Crossing the lines
by Harasha Gunewardene
Protecting civilians remains an essential
part of humanitarian work. Here in Sri Lanka, the ICRC escorts
them across the front line.
Initiating a dialogue between warring parties on mutual humanitarian
concerns is crucial to proctecting victims of conflicts, especially
when weapons replace all other means of communication. Since
1989, the ICRC has served as a neutral intermediary between
the warring parties of Sri Lanka.
Since 1989, the ICRC has provided vital assistance to the
people in warring Sri Lanka. The organization's humanitar-ian
services include relief for thousands of civilians affected
by the conflict, visits to detainees, re-establishment of
family ties and dissemination of rules for behaviour in combat.
In addition, the fighting parties often call on the ICRC to
act as a neutral intermediary.
Rights of families
Both the Sri Lankan Security Forces (SLSF) and the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) recognize the ICRC's role as
a neutral intermediary in the difficult search for combatants
or civilians missing as a direct result of the conflict. Close
relatives left without news can contact any ICRC office in
Sri Lanka to make a formal tracing request. These forms are
submitted to the relevant authorities, the SLSF or the LTTE,
for tracking of missing persons. Besides providing a much-needed
humanitarian service, the tracing procedures allow the organization
to maintain an ongoing dialogue with those at war with each
Tracing missing persons due to war is a practice of international
humanitarian law. Families have the right to know the fate
of their loved ones. However, families of missing civilians
and soldiers do not always receive the answers they seek,
as Pierre Barras, protection coordinator, points out. "In
Sri Lanka, unfortunately, we submit more tracing requests
to the authorities than the answers we receive from them.
It is up to the authorities to change this situation."
Serving as a neutral intermediary sometimes requires performing
unusual tasks like towing large vessels.
ID tags are crucial for all combatants. These tags are worn
by Sri Lankan soldiers and LTTE fighters.
|Another way to relieve
the anguish of families of dead fighters is to facilitate the
transfer of their bodies. An agreement is required from opposing
sides. The ICRC, in its capacity as a neutral body, seeks the
necessary security guarantees from both the SLSF and the LTTE.
Security guarantees include ensuring that no military engagement
is launched within the immediate vicinity of the transfer operation.
Bodies are identified through ID tags worn by all soldiers and
LTTE fighters. In Sri Lanka, identification of bodies is not
always possible. In such cases, it is up to the warring parties
to collect and to transfer to the ICRC, personal effects of
a fallen soldier. This is crucial. An unidentified body prolongs
the suffering of the family and places the dead on the missing
in action (MIA) list. According to international humanitarian
law, both sides are obliged to record all items of intrinsic
and sentimental value found on combatants killed in action.
Between 1995 and mid-2001, the ICRC transferred the remains
of 1,516 bodies of SLSF soldiers and 1,099 bodies of LTTE fighters.
The daily presence of delegates on both sides of the front
line at Piramanalankulam near Vavuniya crossing point ensures
the safe passage of civilians, humanitarian workers and governmental
convoys with food and other essential items to and from the
Vanni region. Over 300,000 residents and internally displaced
people in this area have suffered enormously as a result of
the persistent military conflict. "ICRC services are
essential to ensure the smooth functioning of all cross-line
activities to and from the Vanni," emphasizes K. Ganesh,
the Vavuniya government representative.
During the first six months of this year, 1,464 governmental
trucks ferried 69,000 civilians in this region. Over the years,
the ICRC has played its role as a neutral intermediary in
supervising the release of detainees by the LTTE from the
Vanni (and earlier Jaffna), and subsequently escorting them
to the south where they are reunited with their families.
Apart from the periodic release of SLSF soldiers held by the
LTTE in the Vanni, the organization also facilitates the return
of released farmers and fishermen, as well as crews from foreign
merchant vessels captured by the LTTE off the Sri Lankan coast.
In 1997, the 37-member crew of the North Korean vessel Mo
Rang Bong were released and transferred to Colombo. However
they did not want to return to North Korea without their ship.
They appealed to the LTTE for the release of the ship, via
the ICRC. The LTTE responded favourably and the ICRC tugged
the Mo Rang Bong from the Mullaitivu coast to Trincomalee
The organization also monitors the World Bank-funded Northeast
Irrigated Agriculture Project (NEIAP). In May 2000, the World
Bank and the ICRC signed an agreement whereby the latter acts
as a neutral intermediary in proxy monitoring of the NEIAP.
The project includes the rehabilitation of 400 irrigation
schemes, 1,200 kilometres of rural roads and 300 villages
in the districts of Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee. Initial
assessments of over 50 sites have been completed in these
areas. The ICRC's involvement helps to establish a climate
of confidence between the parties in government- controlled
areas and those areas that are under LTTE control. The NEIAP
project is an extension of the former National Irrigation
Rehabilitation Project (NIRP), that benefited from ICRC facilitation
between 1997 and 2000. Also funded by the World Bank, it included
the rehabilitation of irrigation tanks in the same districts.
Here, too, delegates acted as neutral intermediaries between
the World Bank, the Irrigation Ministry, farmers' associations,
irrigation workers and the LTTE.
Sri Lanka has been torn by conflict for nearly 18 years and
the prospects for a peaceful resolution remain bleak. Hundreds
of thousands of people continue to live with the uncertainty
and threat imposed by war. Until there is tangible evidence
of a turn towards peace, the ICRC must remind warring parties
of their obligations under international humanitarian law
and assist them. It must continue to provide vital humanitarian
services to the people of Sri Lanka.
Harasha Gunewardene is ICRC press officer in Colombo.
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