|No Hiatus in Sri Lankan Humanitarian Aid Programmes and Social Services|
|Wednesday, 17 September 2008|
by:Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
Over the last month, Amnesty International has issued a number of statements about Sri Lanka. Its latest is entitled ‘Blocking Aid Workers Endangers Trapped Civilians’, and is replete with quotes from a gentleman named Sam Zarifi, who has taken the place of the previously ubiquitous Yolanda Foster. Yolanda’s concern with Sri Lanka had not been confined to her Amnesty hat. Right through August, she had been one of the key players in trying to orchestrate a letter of complaint to the Secretary General of the United Nations with regard to Sri Lanka.
That letter was finally sent it seems over the signatures of several Sri Lankan Non-Governmental Organizations. It was not however sent to Sri Lankan government officials and, at the time of Amnesty’s September 11th demarche, it had not even been shown to the Sri Lankan Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. It had however been sent to heads of various UN agencies in addition to the Secretary General, including Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, the most senior Sri Lankan now working in the UN system. She had been encouraged to pass this around, but refrained from doing so.
The UN in Sri Lanka revealed that the petition, for such it was, had also been patronized by some members of what is termed the Coffee Club, a collection of International NGOs who functioned in LTTE controlled territory. The main movers however, apart from Yolanda and a couple of her Sri Lankan associates, were Alan Keenan of the International Crisis Group, and Peter Bowling of what is termed the International Working Group on Sri Lanka, which functions from an address in Upper Street, North London, and is considered close to the LTTE. In sending the letter, they also proposed a further appeal in coming weeks.
And so such appeals follow. Having made a great fuss about what they claimed was a humanitarian crisis whilst international agencies were present in the Wanni, now this group has to pretend that things are indescribably worse, now that the agencies are leaving. Throughout these critiques, they have totally forgotten the fact that the Sri Lankan government has taken the prime responsibility throughout for ensuring humanitarian assistance, and it will continue to do the same in the future.
Given the claims of these agencies, it has almost been forgotten that, throughout the period of LTTE control, the Sri Lankan government provided basic social services such as health and education. It ran the administration through its own appointed government servants, whose salaries it continues to pay, and who continue to be accountable to government. It was these officials who orchestrated assistance also to displaced persons, and throughout the last few months, they have sent several reports of special needs, with requests for funds to government. Of course, much assistance has been provided by international agencies, and in particular the UN’s World Food Programme, but the seminal role of government in all this should not be forgotten, nor that it continued to meet a substantial part of the bill.
The financial assistance of the UN and others will continue. Indeed, initially the government had been happy for WFP to continue, but the UN objected to this. However the ICRC, which works under different conditions, will continue, so for those who fear that there will be no independent accounts of the situation, the continuing ICRC presence should set their minds at rest.
Incidentally, it should be noted that the Sri Lankan government too has benefited from the presence of these observers. The fact that there have been hardly any claims of civilian casualties showed the great care exercised by the armed forces; the failure of the LTTE to make things up outrageously, despite their skill in propaganda, may have been due to the fact that independent observers were present and could clarify matters – as when for instance, in response to a recent claim about shelling that damaged the Mullaitivu hospital, UN officials were able to report that the shells fell several hundred feet away.
Why then, given the obvious advantages to the government of the continuing presence of foreigners, did it ask them to leave? The answer lies in a couple of recent incidents, coupled with the fact that the LTTE had taken to setting up its military offices near to UN and NGO offices, so that the chances of collateral damage had increased. Obviously, any such damage would be used to brilliant effect by LTTE propagandists.
In addition to this, the recent takeover of the vehicles of the NPA made clear that the LTTE would no longer be restrained by a sense of obligation. There are those who suspect some connivance in this, and certainly the late reporting of the incident and the initial report of a small number of vehicles, before the forces made it clear they knew many more had been taken, could rouse suspicion. But even if it is assumed that all employees of the organization were clean on this issue, that makes the effrontery of the LTTE even more marked, and clearly it could extend to others too in the future. Given current suspicions, that would cause even more damage, whereas one would hope to work productively with all these NGOs in a post-conflict situation, where the long-suffering people of the Wanni will have grave emergency and other needs.
Finally, there was the incident at the very end of August, when a FORUT vehicle was hit by a claymore. Though the LTTE alleged it was an army Deep Penetration Unit, the circumstances suggested that the LTTE was responsible. A convoy had left the Sri Lankan checkpoint at Omanthai in broad daylight, but it was kept for three hours at the LTTE checkpoint, and only released after dark. It was hit soon afterwards, which makes it unlikely that the Sri Lankan forces were responsible. Also the blast hit only one vehicle, which had only the driver in it. Leaving aside the suspicious nature of this waste, in a context in which there were complaints that insufficient fuel was being allowed for these NGOs, it is at the very least interesting that there was so little damage, which was then promptly presented as the responsibility of government forces. Given the desperation of the LTTE now, and their lack of qualms as far as NGOs go, one could easily anticipate a much worse incident which would be used to point fingers at the government.
Under the circumstances, it made sense for the government not to run risks, but to encourage the NGOs too to move to Vavuniya, in the Northern Province, so that they can continue to help productively, whilst being ready to work with the IDPs who, it is hoped, will be allowed by the LTTE to come to safety. Meanwhile, as noted, the ICRC, which is in a much better position to withstand pressures, will continue to operate, which will immeasurably help the Sri Lankan government to fulfill its obligations by its people. Generous donors such as the Japanese Government, which to a great extent kept the WFP programme going, will also doubtless continue with their assistance.
Of course the greatest responsibility in this regard will continue to be that of the Sri Lankan officials who, for meager government salaries, continue to do their duty by our people. They will continue to maintain ordinary social services whilst also dealing with the special needs of the displaced. The best anyone can do then, in the present circumstances, is urge the LTTE first to let the people go to safety, second to abandon their destructive struggle so that the government can improve the services it has provided throughout these years, and give all our people better opportunities.
Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process
|Last Updated ( Monday, 09 March 2009 )|
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