SL saying ‘Yes’ to humanitarian norms – ICRC chief

by Lynn Ockersz

"There is a very interesting and positive response from a wide cross section of the Sri Lankan public, including the Army, the Police, academic circles and the Ministry of External Affairs, to awareness-raising on human rights norms by the International Committee of the Red Cross," Head of Delegation, ICRC, Sri Lanka, Yves Giovannoni said.

"We have reached a stage with the Sri Lankan armed forces, where we feel that the ICRC’s engagement with them in awareness-raising in relation to International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law could be less. In fact, it is time for a joint evaluation between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the training department of the ICRC on how the training in International Humanitarian Law has been integrated at the national level and at the level of different units. May be, we will draw some lessons and I believe the ICRC’s involvement could be decreased from the current level of engagement, Giovannoni told The Island in an exclusive interview on the occasion of 150th anniversary of the founding of the ICRC. The first meeting of the ICRC was held on February 17, 1863.

"In terms of us teaching Humanitarian Law to the Sri Lankan armed forces, I believe the Lankan security forces have today reached an appreciable level of organizing this activity by themselves. This year we will try to find out areas where this bilateral cooperation needs to be continued. We have managed to promote an interest in IHL among thousands of Sri Lanka Army officers. They are definitely sensitive to the requirements of this branch of the law," Giovannoni said.

Asked to respond to allegations in some quarters that the ICRC had a bias towards the LTTE, the ICRC Head said that wherever his organization works there are allegations of bias towards one or the other of antagonists to an internal conflict. "For that matter there were occasions when the LTTE told us that we had some partiality for the Sri Lankan government. But this is our challenge. We persist in achieving our humanitarian aims, strict political neutrality. This is a political exercise. To be neutral, you should be able to defend yourself against the accusation of being biased. Sometimes we handled it properly, sometimes less properly, but history will reveal our record," Giovannoni explained.

‘I remember the first time I came to Sri Lanka in 1992, I was amazed by the food convoys organized by the Sri Lankan government at that time to bring food to the areas controlled by the LTTE in the North. Such exercises have happened in very few conflict areas of the world. These goods were ferried by the ICRC, bearing our banner. Everybody was quite happy with this set-up. But after some time, particularly after the Tsunami, when very many humanitarian organizations had come to the country, this became a liability. "Ah, you brought goods for the LTTE," was the accusation. No, this was the food the government was providing to the people. So, you see, there are distortions one way or another. Work at war time has been very challenging in this country and to be able to preserve minimal humanitarian space has not all been easy," the ICRC chief said.

When asked to respond to the allegation that the ICRC had a hand in trying to get the LTTE leader away from the war zone in May 2009, Giovannoni said "we do not do this sort of thing. We are not working only in Sri Lanka. We work in 80 countries in the world. So, if we do such a thing, our reputation, the way stand in strictly on humanitarian affairs, our political neutrality would have been deeply affected. As Head of the ICRC, I say, based on our record, we have not been involved in this."

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