Sri Lanka's war on aid workers

September 12, 2009

The communications chief for United Nations children's charity UNICEF, James Elder, has been given until September 21 to leave Sri Lanka for making statements critical of the government.

Elder, an Australian citizen, has been charged over claims he issued statements supporting the views of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

For nearly three decades, the LTTE waged an armed struggle for an independent homeland for the Tamil people in the north of Sri Lanka, before being defeated militarily in May.

Elder spoke out on multiple occasions about the shocking humanitarian crisis facing Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka. He told June 4 Australian: "The nutritional situation of children [in the camps] is a huge concern for Unicef, and restrictions on access hinder our ability to save lives."

For these kind of statements, he was labelled an LTTE sympathiser and enemy of the state.

Former Australian diplomat turned Sri Lankan foreign secretary Palitha Kohona accused Elder of being biased in favour of the LTTE. "Mr Elder was doing propaganda in support of the LTTE", Kohona told AFP on September 6.

Elder's expulsion continues Sri Lanka's long-running war on aid organisations, who are routinely banned from access to internment camps and other disaster areas by the Sri Lankan authorities.

UNICEF's attempts to appease the Sri Lankan authorities have failed to free them from state harassment. UNICEF has been involved in supporting, with the Sri Lankan government, controversial internment camps and "rehabilitation" centres for Tamil civilians.

But UNICEF has itself admitted to often being denied access to these facilities.

Many aid workers fear speaking out about conditions facing Tamil civilians, as this often means deportation and can jeopardise their aid programs.

Philip Alston, the UN's special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, told Al Jazeera on September 1: "I think the United Nations is in a difficult situation in the sense that it's really a grouping of states and the government of Sri Lanka has been very effective in terms of garnering the support of a large number of states and that does seem to have made the UN rather reluctant to speak out on these issues."

On July 9, Sri Lanka called on international relief organisations to scale down their operations in the country. This is despite the fact that more than 250,000 Tamils languish in overpopulated internment camps and many more remain in "rehabilitation centres" for their alleged involvement with the LTTE.

For a government that continues to lie about its involvement in the deaths of large numbers of civilians and continuing disasterous conditions in their so-called welfare camps, this response is not surprising. The attacks on aid workers is simply another piece of the Sri Lankan regime's wider war on dissent.

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