Sri Lanka, MSF Amidst All-Out War

by Fabrice Weissman,, accessed June 2019
In Claire Magone et al. (ed.), Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed. The MSF Experience, London, Hurst
& Co, 2011.

Sri_Lanka_MSF_Amid_All-Out_War 2011

On 18 May 2009, the Sri Lankan government’s crushing victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam (LTTE) put an end to twenty-six years of civil war. Described by the government as the world’s
largest humanitarian operation, the victorious Colombo offensive was praised as a model by many
foreign military commentators1keen to demonstrate that a determined democratic army could vanquish
a “terrorist” movement. In reality, victory came at the price of thousands of civilian deaths, and the
enlisting of humanitarian organisations into a counterinsurgency strategy based on forced
displacements and internment. MSF’s experience reveals the hard choices that all-out war imposes on
aid organisations…

Making a Choice

Following a visit by head office in June 2009, the French section chose to stay put, although they were
fully aware of the role the government had assigned them: contribute to maintaining public health
order in the internment camps, the main function of which was to monitor and control “dangerous”
populations and stifle any fresh surge in Tamil nationalism.21 Having decreed the abolition of minorities
and thereby dispensed with taking their political aspirations into account,22 the Rajapaksa
administration sought to reduce the citizens from the Vanni to beneficiaries of the state’s humanitarian
benevolence, well-cared for, well-fed, well-housed and, most importantly, well-guarded. The Menik
“Farm” symbolised this policy, which extended beyond the barbed wire, as illustrated by the Ministry of
Defence’s decision to recruit 50,000 extra soldiers after the war was over. This last initiative lent
credence to critics of the regime who denounced a pacification of the Vanni in the form of long-term
military occupation…

At the end of the day, MSF adopted a policy of opting for the lesser evil, aimed at improving the condition of survivors of an all-out war that no political power seemed capable of checking.
Translated from French by Nina Friedman

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