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Appeal to remove bureaucratic barriers on aid

The Appeal to remove all bureaucratic barriers on the international assistance

Sri Lanka must immediately stop imposing customs duties and other charges on international relief goods sent for tsunami victims in the country, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) urged on Friday.

More than 100 container loads of relief goods are reportedly lying idle at the port of Colombo as non-governmental organisations face difficulties in clearing the goods due to heavy customs duties, other charges and bureaucratic procedures imposed by the Sri Lankan government.

A senior United Nations official, who is currently visiting the disaster-hit Sri Lanka, and two former U.S. presidents, who are scheduled to arrive on Sunday on a separate tour, should take up the issue with the Sri Lankan authorities to ensure quick and smooth delivery of relief aid to the victims, the Hong Kong-based regional human rights group said.

"These customs hindrances are all wrong. We are deeply disturbed by these latest developments," said Basil Fernando, the AHRC executive director. "That will not only deprive local people of these goods, but also betray the good faith of the donors around the world," Fernando said.

The Sri Lankan government should take all possible measures to ease the plight of the tsunami victims rather than to make it worse, he noted.

The relief items, worth more than 100 million rupees, could be wasted if they were not cleared within a stipulated period of time as the government authorities would auction them to private buyers, according to Sri Lankan media.

Those items include clothes, wheelchairs, crutches, sleeping bags and blankets for thousands of victims. Sri Lanka recently imposed duties and other charges on overseas relief goods except medicine, infant milk food and building materials for houses.

The AHRC said no government officials should be allowed to exploit such customs measures to make money out of the relief aid.

The rights group called on Hafiz Pasha, U.N. assistant secretary general and also director of the United Nations Development Programme's Asia-Pacific regional bureau, to help solve the problem during his visit in the country.

Former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, who will begin their visit in Sri Lanka on Sunday, should also exert their influence on the Sri Lankan authorities, the AHRC said.

"They all should ask the Sri Lanka government to remove all customs duties and bureaucratic barriers and to make sure the tsunami victims are given the assistance,"Fernando said.

Many victims in Sri Lanka have criticised the government for failing to take any steps to help them in housing resettlement.

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