UN urges investigations of deaths and more security for aid workers

United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes has strongly urged Sri Lanka to conclude slow-moving investigations into the year-old killing of 17 humanitarian workers even as humanitarian agencies said security concerns were slowing down aid delivery.

Holmes, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, also called on the government to give better access for aid workers to communities in need and to ensure the safety of local and foreign humanitarian workers.

Describing the gunning down on 6 August 2006, of the Action Contre la Faim (ACF) employees in eastern Muttur town in Trincomalee District, as the "single worst crime committed against humanitarian workers in recent history," Holmes, who is on a four-day visit to the island, asked the government to do everything possible to prevent a recurrence of such a tragedy.

Twenty-eight NGO staff killed

The killing of the ACF workers who were trapped in their office during fierce fighting between the security forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is the most high-profile of at least 28 murders of members of non-governmental organisations, including Caritas and Terre des Hommes, since January 2006.

"We have never lost so many development agency workers as we have since 2006," noted Jeevan Thiyagarajah of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies. "This is part and parcel of the unfinished conflict that we have here."

''We have never lost so many development agency workers as we have since 2006.This is part and parcel of the unfinished conflict that we have here.''


A special Commission of Inquiry set up by President Mahinda Rajapakse to probe human rights abuses has taken up the ACF case as one of its first investigations.
UN calls for "full force" investigation

Holmes said, "I repeat the call of the [UN] Secretary-General to the Government of Sri Lanka to investigate this murder with the full weight and force of the justice system," he told a gathering aid agencies marking the first anniversary of the murders. "They were not the first humanitarian aid workers to die in this country. They have, sadly, not been the last."

"The government takes seriously its responsibility to ensure the protection of all these workers," said Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe. "Ensuring security is, however, extremely difficult given the complex, constantly evolving situation with which we are faced."

"The security of our staff gives us great concern now," said Loan Tran-Thanh, ACF's head of mission in Sri Lanka. The agency has scaled down its operations in the troubled eastern districts of Batticaloa and Trincomalee over the past year and has even removed its name board from its office in the capital Colombo.


Photo: Action Contre la Faim (ACF)
Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lankan Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, said at the ACF commemoration: "The Government takes seriously its responsibility to ensure the protection of all these workers.”


"This climate of intimidation is slowing our work down dramatically," said Chris Bleers, acting country director of the Norwegian Refugee Council which, like other agencies, has increased security measures in the wake of heightened hostility to aid workers. "It has impacted on our ability to react quickly to emergencies."

Process "too slow"

The ACF's coordinator of its international network, Benoit Miribel said: "We would like to know the truth. We are confident that the government will do the maximum, but the process is too slow."

Like the ACF employees, 16 of whom were from the Tamil community and one of whom was a Muslim, two Sri Lanka Red Cross volunteer workers abducted and murdered by unknown gunmen in June were also local employees working in the strife-torn north and east of the island. The latest attack was on 23 July in the northern Jaffna peninsula, when a national employee of the Danish Refugee Council was shot dead.

Since the conflict between government troops and the LTTE escalated last year, aid workers have increasingly found it difficult to reach people in need of emergency assistance and are at risk from armed combatants.


Photo: Action Contre la Faim (ACF)
John Holmes, the UN’s Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and its emergency relief coordinator, strongly urged Sri Lanka to conclude slow-moving investigations into the year-old killing of 17 humanitarian workers


In Batticaloa where some 159,000 people sought shelter in welfare camps when hostilities flared up in March, the problem of resettling them has been compounded by continued lack of access for many NGOs and the presence of armed groups.

Humanitarian agencies complain that the militiamen threaten workers and demand materials and equipment meant for the displaced people.

In the wake of the attacks, aid agencies have overhauled security procedures, especially regarding travel with foreign staff always accompanying local colleagues and restricted night-time movement. In Batticaloa, at least one expatriate staff member is stationed in NGO offices to deal with the threats made by armed groups.

"There are a number of groups who perceive NGOs in a negative light" said the Norwegian Refugee Council's Jake Zarins. "They are complicating our activities and we find it difficult to operate at full level."

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