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No Tangible Progress in Investigations into Murdered Aid Workers

by IRIN [UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs], July 3, 2007

The ACF murders, the largest number of humanitarian workers killed since 22 UN employees died in Baghdad in August 2003, have highlighted the dangerous working environment of humanitarian workers in Sri Lanka...

However, despite the efforts to carry on, ACF and some other humanitarian agencies have chosen to scale down or sometimes totally suspend work due to concern for the safety of their staff.

COLOMBO , 3 July 2007 (IRIN) - Members of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) could not believe the horrible scene when they arrived at the quiet bungalow only days after fierce fighting between government forces and Tamil Tigers in Muttur town, Trincomalee District. Fifteen bodies, shot at close range, lay sprawled on the front yard of the house which served as the office for Action contre la Faim (ACF), the French non-governmental organization. In all, 17 local ACF workers had been shot and killed in the eastern coastal town on August 4 2006.

The ACF murders, the largest number of humanitarian workers killed since 22 UN employees died in Baghdad in August 2003, have highlighted the dangerous working environment of humanitarian workers in Sri Lanka. CHA statistics show that at least 33 local humanitarian workers - from organizations including Hudec, World Concern and the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation - have been killed or are missing and presumed dead, since January 2006. Scores more have been abducted, intimidated and released. CHA officials told IRIN that getting complete figures has proven difficult, with agencies sometimes reluctant to divulge details for fear of reprisals.

"The Muttur incident brought home the dangers faced by the humanitarian community here," CHA head Jeevan Thiyagaraja told IRIN. "It was the worst incident in a situation that was deteriorating then and has been ever since."

Death of two Red Cross workers

 

Red Cross workers in Batticaloa grieved over their two killed colleagues when they arrived back in Batticaloa District for the funeral

On 3 June 2007 two volunteers from the Sri Lanka Red Cross were abducted in Colombo and killed. In both the ACF case and that of the Red Cross workers no arrests have been made although investigations by police continue and, in the ACF case, a Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry is investigating as well. The ACF case is also being heard at the magistrate's court in Kantale Town, Trincomalee District.

"We are hopeful that some sort of positive conclusion will come from the investigations," Sri Lanka Red Cross (SLRC) Director-General Neville Nanayakkara said. "President Rajapakse himself promised me that, and we are waiting for the next meeting with him." President Rajapakse had ordered the police to complete a preliminary inquiry within 14-days of the recovery of the bodies, but no major breakthrough has been made to date.

The SLRC, like all humanitarian agencies faced with murders and abductions, said that its work had not been affected. "This is what we do, help people in need - the work goes on," Nanayakkara said.

Blerim Tuffa, programme officer for Halo Trust, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) conducting mine clearance in Jaffna Peninsula, expressed much the same sentiment: "Obviously we are saddened, but our work goes on, there is no stopping that." Four Halo workers, abducted by unknown persons in Jaffna between November 2006 and February 2007, are still missing.

ACF scales down operations

However, despite the efforts to carry on, ACF and some other humanitarian agencies have chosen to scale down or sometimes totally suspend work due to concern for the safety of their staff. "We evaluated the security situation after Muttur and our offices in Jaffna, Trincomalee and Muttur have been closed," said Loan Tran-Thanh, ACF Sri Lanka head of mission. "They will not be open soon - Muttur is still fresh in our memory."

Only one ACF office now operates outside Colombo - in Batticaloa District and under special rules in which ACF work is restricted to a 15km radius from the office. "Our rules were strict before, we are even stricter now," Tran-Thanh said. "Every time we work in the field, an expatriate staffer must be present."

Rise in anti-NGO sentiment

The International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) and many UN and non-governmental agencies have expressed concern about the rise in anti-NGO sentiment in the country, including in some media. "The media has also become increasingly hostile to international non-governmental organisation (INGO) and NGO community, with regular reports accusing them of supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)," the IFRC stated in its 29 June Tsunami Semi-annual Report. Such media reports have been forcefully rejected by UN agencies and NGOs alike, which note that false accusations can put humanitarian workers at increased risk.

The fear of abductions and killings of humanitarian workers is, in some instances, dissuading staff from taking assignments in high risk areas, according to some humanitarian officials. "If there is not going to be any breakthrough in the investigation, parents will not send their children as volunteers with the Red Cross," says Nanayakkara. "They think it is too dangerous."

Increased international focus on plight of aid workers

The plight of humanitarian workers in Sri Lanka has been receiving increasing international attention. The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists has even sent a special observer to attend the Muttur court proceedings investigating the deaths of the ACF staff. In a 22 June, UN Security Council meeting on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, John Holmes, under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said deliberate and unacceptable attacks on aid workers had continued in Sri Lanka and that they should be investigated.

"Killing humanitarian staff and arbitrarily denying access violate international humanitarian law. It also threatens the lifeline to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people," Holmes told the UN Security Council. "I propose that we should follow and assess more systematically the reasons for and consequences of such denials or restrictions and report instances of grave concern back to this Council."

For most Sri Lankan aid workers, according to CHA's Jeevan Thiyagaraja, a speedy conclusion to the investigations into those who have been killed would be a crucial first step in re-instilling confidence and a sense of security within the humanitarian community. "If we know that justice is served, then at least a lot of the anxiety would go away."

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