Sri Lanka has directed all international relief agencies, including the Red Cross, to scale down operations following the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels, the human rights minister said Thursday.
Mahinda Samarasinghe said the directive was not solely aimed at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which had first revealed the order to cut back on its work.
“We have not specifically targeted the ICRC. It is something we have told all international agencies,” Samarasinghe told AFP.
“Since there is no more fighting now, we have told them and others that they should scale down their work. It is a decision we took after careful consideration,” he added.
The ICRC handled, among other things, the swapping of dead bodies of combatants and also manned entry and exit points from the rebel-held territory before it was finally overrun by government forces in mid-May.
Samarasinghe stressed that Sri Lanka still needed help from international aid agencies to carry out relief operations for some 300,000 civilians displaced by the fighting with Tamil rebels.
“What we are looking for is to add value to what we are doing,” he said. “We have told all foreign relief organisations that we will let them bring down expatriates only if they can’t find people locally to do their job.”
The ICRC said it was withdrawing expatriate staff from the battle-scarred northeast which was the focus of the final government offensive against the Tigers.
It said it would re-assess its current operations, which most recently have centered on providing relief to those displaced by the fighting and visiting captured rebels to ensure their proper treatment in custody.
“The ICRC is in the process of reviewing its set-up and operational priorities in Sri Lanka,” said Jacques de Maio, the agency’s head of operations for South Asia.
“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.”
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 has had a strained relationship with the Sri Lankan government, which accused the Geneva-based charity of inciting panic over civilian deaths.
The two were also at loggerheads over the issue of camps for the displaced, with the ICRC demanding “unimpeded access” to the facilities.
Tens of thousands are currently being housed in the camps which are guarded by the military. Critics say they are being subjected to prison-like conditions.
The ICRC entered Sri Lanka in 1989 at the height of an uprising by Sinhalese militants who tried to topple the government. However, the rebellion was crushed by 1990 and the ICRC was invited to stay on as the military resumed fighting Tamil rebels.
INGOs told to scale down ops – ICRC says it will shut down some of its offices
The government has asked the ICRC and other international non-governmental organizations working in the country to scale down their operations as their ‘needs were decreasing’ in the country with the end of the conflict situation.
“Now the needs are different with the ending of the decades’ long conflict, so we have asked these organizations to scale down their operations in the country,” Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told the Daily Mirror.
The ICRC earlier in the day announced it was reviewing its setup and operational priorities, following the government request to scale down the operations.“The ICRC is in the process of reviewing its setup and operational priorities in Sri Lanka” Jacques de Maio, ICRC head of operations for South Asia said in a statement yesterday.
“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,” Mr. Maio said.
Minister Samarasinghe said the ICRC was engaging in ‘specialist operations’ in Sri Lanka such as handing over dead bodies. “Compared to their prior requirements during humanitarian mission, now the needs are different. Currently the needs are decreasing so in that context its operations should be scaled down in Sri Lanka,” the minister said.
But the minister said these organizations would be able to continue with other activities including resettlement and humanitarian operations.
Commenting of the extension of visas and granting new visa applications of INGOs workers, the minister said it had to be thoroughly checked in the future. “We have to look what these organizations have done in the post conflict situation and for new applications we have to see the necessity for them,” the minister said.
The ICRC has had a permanent presence in Sri Lanka since 1989. Its role in the country has evolved over the years, always in response to changing needs. The ICRC first responded to the needs resulting from an uprising in the southern part of the country in the late 1980s. Later, in connection with the conflict between government forces and the LTTE it carried out humanitarian activities which continued until earlier this year.
“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 statement said.
New office to okay visits to former conflict areas
The Government yesterday said those who intended to enter former conflict areas in the North to transport goods and conduct other activities or representatives of Local and Foreign NGOs should obtain permission from the Presidential Task Force Secretary S.B. Divaratne.
The Media Centre for National Security said coordination in this regard would be carried out at the 4th floor office located in the West Wing, World Trade Centre, Colombo 01.
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