Protecting or Facilitating?

A review of the humanitarian response to IDP detention in Sri Lanka, 2009

All too often however, humanitarian organisations were poorly equipped with
the time, skills and attitudes to address a situation where the state was not
representing the interests of the population. In these cases, supporting the
vulnerable means contesting state agendas, even where there are institutional
costs. Only by nurturing the capacity to maintain their independence will
humanitarian organisations be able to ensure their work is really serving the
interests of their beneficiaries – rather than the political interests of others.

by Roger Nash, Fieldview Solutions, 2012

Fieldview SolutionsProtecting_or_Facilitating-Sri_Lanka_2009

When Humanitarian Response Facilitates State Abuses:
A review of the humanitarian response to IDP detention in Sri Lanka, 2009

Should we deliver assistance to desperate people even when we know we
are facilitating human rights abuses? What if it is our actions and support
that make the abuse possible? Should we refuse to participate, withholding
our support from those in need? Do we speak out about the horrors we see,
risking expulsion from the country? Or do we keep quiet to maintain our
presence and our access? These were some of the questions humanitarians
struggled with in Sri Lanka in 2009 when they were asked to support the
creation of “closed” militarised IDP camps. These camps would ultimately
detain 300,000 people for nearly six months.

The paper below is based on an independent review of the decisions and
considerations made by NRC in early 2009. The opinions expressed are the
author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of NRC.

1 Introduction
After more than 25 years of sporadic fighting, the Sri Lankan civil war reached an
apocalyptic climax in May 2009. Nearly three hundred thousand people were
displaced by the last spasms of conflict, emptying the entire area formally
controlled by the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). These people had been subjected to
sustained shelling from the Sri Lankan army and held captive by the LTTE. When
they crossed the front lines they arrived in government-controlled areas
exhausted, dehydrated, injured and in shock, often unaware of the fate of missing
family members.

The displaced population was forced into massive, overcrowded and underprepared
camps. These camps were military-controlled places of internment,
surrounded by barbed wire and with complete restriction on movement in or
out. Conditions in the camps were life-threateningly poor, especially at the outset
and were made poorer by the sheer numbers of people. Although many of the
internally displaced persons (IDPs) had family they could have stayed with and
other possible sources of support, they were unable to leave the camps to access
them. It was only six months later, after major donors began to threaten
withdrawal of support, that significant improvements were made towards
freedom of movement for the IDPs.

These detention camps were funded, created and maintained almost entirely by
international humanitarian assistance. Shelter, water, food, sanitation, cooking
implements and almost everything else were provided through an enormous and
expensive humanitarian operation that provided seemingly open-ended funding
and support to a government policy of illegal mass-internment.

It would have been very expensive and very difficult logistically for the
government to maintain the camps on their own. Food would have been almost
impossible to provide on the scale required while it would have been extremely
damaging to Sri Lanka’s reputation to detain so many people without the
legitimacy provided by international support. As one donor representative
expressed it, “This was a humanitarian crisis being maintained by the
humanitarian imperative”.

Was this an example of the humanitarian community doing harm? How did it
happen that the international community bankrolled the indefinite detention of
nearly 300,000 people? What were the alternatives? How did the humanitarians
find themselves in this dilemma in the first place?

Questions like these prompted the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) to
commission an independent review of its support for the Sri Lankan IDP camps
during 2009. This comprehensive review was based on first hand experience in
the camps as well as interviews with IDPs, NRC staff, local and international
NGOs, UN, donors and Sri Lankan political analysts. It aimed to help NRC be
better prepared to face dilemmas about engagement in future complex
situations. It examined the decisions of the NRC team, the overall context they
found themselves in as well as the structural factors that played out in Sri Lanka.

The present paper is a shorter summary of the key points raised by this review…

6 Conclusion
The Sri Lankan Government’s oppressive policies towards the IDPs during 2009
were viable due to the humanitarian support they received. NRC wrestled
actively with the dilemma of whether to work in the camps, firstly engaging and
eventually withdrawing in September. In contrast, senior management of the
biggest humanitarian actors saw little practical alternative but to work where
they were requested.

The consistency of the humanitarian failure to consider alternatives goes beyond
the institutions and individuals involved and is reinforced by the entrenched
ways of working or “habits” of the humanitarian system.

Few humanitarian actors had the institutional infrastructure to challenge state
planning. Delivering assistance in a conflict context was complicated enough and
was made even more difficult by the controlling measures of the Sri Lankan
government. Humanitarian organisations generally didn’t have spare time in
their schedules to cope with additional state obstruction of visas, permits or
access. They didn’t have analysts with dedicated time to evaluate the long-term
consequences of compliant approaches to delivering assistance. They didn’t have
institutional practice holding them to account and forcing them to address such
questions. The present was challenging enough.

Humanitarians were not assisted by the vocabulary used to frame the debates.
Both “humanitarian imperative” and “principles versus pragmatism” are
simplified expressions that fail to capture important elements of the relevant
arguments and act to squeeze the complex range of possible options into
misleading false dichotomies.

In comparison, the institutional interests of continuing delivery were the
elephant in the room, rarely mentioned but deeply embedded in organisational
practice. The severe consequences for programme delivery of upsetting the Sri
Lankan authorities were clear to all and much discussed.

The appropriate humanitarian response to suffering – both present and
anticipated – is to act in a way that minimises that suffering. This can be through
provision of goods and services, but it can also be through dialog, advocacy or
disengagement. Ultimately humanitarian organisations need the capacity to
make complex assessments, sophisticated analysis and evaluate delicate tradeoffs
in order to decide how they can most effectively alleviate suffering over the
long term. Such judgements cannot be reduced to absolutes by over-simplified
rhetoric.

All too often however, humanitarian organisations were poorly equipped with
the time, skills and attitudes to address a situation where the state was not
representing the interests of the population. In these cases, supporting the
vulnerable means contesting state agendas, even where there are institutional
costs. Only by nurturing the capacity to maintain their independence will
humanitarian organisations be able to ensure their work is really serving the
interests of their beneficiaries – rather than the political interests of others.
These lessons continue to have relevance in Sri Lanka today where assistance to
conflict-affected communities remains tightly controlled by the military and
subject to manipulation for political ends.

Leave a Reply

Comment Guilelines Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. No personal attacks.

  • (will not be published)