Back to Magazine

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 other.

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.

Building confidence

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 harbour.

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
Harasha Gunewardene is ICRC press officer in Colombo.

Top | Contact Us | Credits | Current issue | Webmaster

2001 | Copyright