THE I C R C
Our last report (No.4) presented some views about the role of the ICRC shared by several of our southern friends, particularly because they were relevant to the issue of the safety of Tamil prisoners. The main intention was to provoke thinking on the matter rather than to give a thoroughly researched conclusion. We emphasise that our friends are responsible persons, who are sympathetic to the plight of Tamils and some of them have taken a stand in confronting the National Defence Fund. Also, while being positive about the role of the ICRC in the current war, they feel that the ICRC could have been more effective in the South. As for killing of prisoners by the forces, opposition members have raised questions in parliament during the past few weeks. Only the extent seems to remain in question.
Another group of friends has expressed strong protest over the piece. They have said it was unbalanced and have made the following points: The ICRC is experienced at tracing prisoners not officially accounted for and because of the confidentiality observed by the ICRC, the state has no difficulty in making un official prisoners official. Prisoners not known to exist have been traced while looking for others and once identified by the ICRC, prisoners are fairly safe. The Amnesty is in the first place not allowed into this country and can only publicise information without necessarily being able to save prisoners. They said that the ICRC has saved many prisoners and hoped the people would not be discouraged from making representations to the ICRC. They also denied that the ICRC could not be blamed for the killings which followed their arrival as they needed time to set up a machinery. Criticisms of the ICRC they felt was damaging as many Sinhalese chauvinists would like to get rid of the ICRC, and are saying that it is helping the LTTE.
On the other side, it is maintained that there is little danger that the ICRC will be seen as pro-LTTE and that the ICRC was seen to be more useful to the government. This was owing to the fact that the ICRC reported to the head of state - President Premadasa. It was the government they say who derived propaganda mileage from the ICRC presence and not the LTTE or the JVP. The president was able to point to the ICRC presence to suggest that little was amiss on the human rights front, while no substantial change had been effected. In the meantime they say, some NGOs who were closely watching the governments conduct, became less disappointed expectations. They say that this situation would have been rectified, if instead of leaving the initiative with the government, the ICRC had, through the press, told the public what to expect and what not to expect. Unreal hopes were fed when the government was able to give the impression that all was going to be well because the ICRC was here. This was put to the ICRC by a group of university teacher who met the ICRC. These persons far from being hostile to the ICRC were only hoping to make it more effective. Some of them routinely advice students on how to make effective use of the ICRC when their fellows get into trouble. The ICRCs denial through the press of the governments claim that the LTTE was preventing the ICRC from taking food to Jaffna, is the kind of thing that will enhance faith in its impartiality.
In the meantime, undeserved use of the ICRC to boast the governments image, can come not just from the government but also from quarters committed to liberal democracy. This comes in the wake of a breakdown of civil society through terror and confusion among those who believed in liberal values. Recently, President Premadasa was the chief guest at the annual sessions of the Bar Association. The President of the Bar Association in his speech heaped almost unqualified praise on Premadasa - as sharing their values, having the highest regard for the judiciary, and the associations appreciation of his respect for human values. The same speech praised the government for having invited the ICRC in response to a call by the Association. It was also a speech which was diplomatically balanced. It hoped for a resolution of conflicts by negotiation rather than by violence and spoke of lawyers having been killed or threatened for appearing in Habeas Corpus and Fundamental Rights cases.
But in the reporting of this by the state media, it was the praise of the president that was prominent, and the latter was reduced to virtually small print. The casual reader would either read the praise, become angry and form his suspicions about the ICRC, or would take it that all was well.
That is why we have argued that it is futile for essentially powerless individuals to think that the state can be changed through flattery and diplomatic dealing, however well-meant. Such diplomacy naturally leads to complacency and insensitivity.
In such a society, where even nominally independent and influential civilian bodies have been reduced to ineffectiveness through a climate of terror, there is a greater need for international organisations like the ICRC to make sure that their role is not misunderstood.
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