Sri Lanka: Access denied -The Guardian editorial

Tuesday 8 September 2009

The Sri Lankan government is hugely dependent on outside aid in its efforts to deal with the human consequences of the war which the island had to endure for more than a quarter of a century. High military spending, collapsed tourism revenues, disrupted agriculture, reduced trade, and, to make matters worse, natural disaster in the shape of the tsunami have all undermined the economy.

The government simply does not have the resources to undertake, without international help, the work of repairing infrastructure, restoring economic life, feeding and temporarily housing large numbers of displaced people, and then returning them to their old homes in conditions approaching normality. Long before the war reached its end earlier this year, United Nations agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and scores of voluntary organisations were all present in Sri Lanka ready and anxious to mitigate the impact of the fighting on ordinary people. They were kept at arm’s length by the Sri Lankan authorities, who brooked no interference with, or oversight of, their military campaign. There was reason to hope that, with victory, this attitude would change. Unhappily, it has not. Colombo is still severely restricting access to the north, particularly to the area of the final battles, and to the camps where an estimated 280,000 people displaced by the fighting are detained.

The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, came to Colombo a week after the war ended to ask for “unhindered access” to those camps. UN agencies have instead found themselves hampered in their attempts to bring in the materials to make life in the camps bearable, particularly vital as the monsoon breaks. Voluntary agencies have similarly found themselves blocked by regulations which seem to change weekly, if not daily, while some ICRC offices have been closed down on government orders. Independent travel by journalists is banned. In addition, the government reacts with fury to any criticism, from whatever source, of its slowness in getting the refugees out of the camps and back to their homes.

The secretary general’s reward for the low-key approach he has taken to the Sri Lankan crisis since he assumed office has been to be ignored. Now the Sri Lankans have served an expulsion order on the Unicef spokesman, James Elder, after he warned that the monsoon would cause chaos and suffering in the camps. The Colombo government wants aid but it also wants to micromanage the way it is deployed and to bully those who have the job of delivering it. It is time that the donor nations and the agencies formed a united front to resist this unreasonable and ungrateful attitude.

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