Execution of aid workers sparks outrageBMJ 2006; 333 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.333.7564.368-b (Published 17 August 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:368
Execution of aid workers in Sri Lanka sparks outrage
The murders of 17 aid workers in Sri Lanka earlier this month have sparked widespread international outrage and raised concerns over the future of humanitarian aid activities in the island nation where an ethnic conflict has been raging for 23 years.
Fifteen members of Action Against Hunger were found dead on 5 August in a courtyard in Muttur, a town in the eastern Trincomalee district. Each person was lying face down, seemingly shot at close range in what has been interpreted as execution-style killings. Two other members of the organisation were found dead in a car later.
Action Against Hunger has suspended its programmes in Sri Lanka and has said it will evaluate whether to continue activities in the island. A decision to withdraw from Sri Lanka will be taken in consultation with other agencies, said Benoit Miribel, the executive director.
"We have seen blunders—so called collateral damage. But this was pure and simple execution," said Jean-Christophe Rufin, honorary president of Action Against Hunger. "This is a turn in the history of humanitarian action. The future of humanitarian aid in Sri Lanka may be compromised."
The staff who were killed had been involved in programmes to improve hygiene and sanitation and access to water for more than 1000 families in the area trapped by fighting between Sri Lankan government forces and the armed opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
Since the conflict escalated in the north east of the island last month the number of displaced people has risen substantially. "This region now needs aid on an unprecedented scale," said Thuraisami Thavasilingam, chairman of a consortium of non-government organisations in Trincomalee. Local authorities believe that more than 63 000 people have been displaced in Trincomalee district alone.
The displaced people have been camping in temples, churches, and schools. "More than 6000 people have been crowded in a school in Kantalai that was designed to hold no more than 1500 people," Mr Thavasilingam told the BMJ.
"There have been no [disease] outbreaks so far, but we’re sitting on a volcano," said Gnana Gunalan, director of health services in Trincomalee district. "There are no toilets, no steady supply of water, people are not getting timely food, and the monsoon is upon us," Dr Gunalan told the BMJ.
Mr Thavasilingam said the killing of the staff of Action Against Hunger seems, not surprisingly, to have affected the morale of humanitarian agencies. "Although there have been one or two incidents in the past, we’ve seen nothing on this scale," he said.
The international humanitarian agency Médecins Sans Frontières has described the targeted killings of the aid workers as "unprecedented" and says they "constitute a worsening of the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka."
"The horrific killing of the aid workers will inflict harm far beyond Muttur," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, the largest human rights organisation based in the United States. "This attack will make survival more difficult for an untold number of people."
International humanitarian agencies have demanded an independent and transparent inquiry into the killings, with the participation of the international community, including the United Nations.
The United Nations Refugee Agency, which has been using local non-government networks to get supplies to displaced people in conflict zones, said last week that it was unable to secure aid access to certain areas of Trincomalee district, including Muttur, where civilians are reportedly trapped by military operations.
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