Sri Lanka orders ICRC to reduce operations

[TamilNet, Thursday, 09 July 2009, 11:05 GMT]
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Thursday it had been ordered by Sri Lanka to scale down relief operations. As a result, the ICRC said it was withdrawing expatriate staff from the battle-scarred northeast, where it has been helping civilian war victims, AFP reported. The ICRC has had a strained relationship with the Sri Lankan government which accused the Geneva-based charity of inciting panic over civilian deaths, AFP added. As a first step, the ICRC will pull out of the Eastern Province, where rights abuses by government forces and allied paramilitaries are continuing.

The BBC’s correspondents say that the announcement is significant because if the ICRC cuts back staff considerably, it could mean that eventually there is no independent monitoring of barbed-wire ringed camps in which over three hundred thousand people are interned.

“The government of Sri Lanka has asked the ICRC to scale down its operations in the country," the charity said in a statement Thursday.

The ICRC would now re-assess its operations, which presently include providing relief to those displaced by the fighting and visiting captured rebels to ensure their proper treatment in custody.

"As a first step, it will close its offices and withdraw its expatriate staff from the Eastern Province while winding down its operations in the area. … However, the ICRC will continue its dialogue with the Sri Lankan government on issues of humanitarian concern," the charity said.

ICRC spokesman Simon Schorno told the BBC the ICRC had to respect the government's decision.

He said: "Two sub-delegations are closing, Batticaloa and Trincomalee. A total of 140 national staff and about 10 expatriates worked in these offices."

As fighting escalated in the final days of the conflict with the Tamil Tigers, the ICRC had spoken of an unfolding "humanitarian catastrophe" in the war zone amid a surge in civilian casualties.

The ICRC was the only outside agency with access to the area of combat, taking in aid and evacuating wounded people by ship, the BBC pointed out.

The ICRC and Sri Lankan government were also at loggerheads over the issue of camps for the displaced, with the charity, like many international actors, demanding "unimpeded access" to the sites.

"In accordance with its mandate, the ICRC reaffirms its commitment to address the humanitarian needs of those directly or indirectly affected by the recent conflict, including displaced people and returnees," the ICRC said.

The ICRC has had a permanent presence in Sri Lanka since 1989, the BBC reported. It first began work in the southern part of the country in the late 1980s and continued its work in other parts as the conflict between government forces and the Tamil Tigers intensified.

 

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