Sri Lanka: UN relief chief calls on Government to probe aid workers’ murders

6 August 2007 –

Terming the killings a year ago today of 17 Sri Lankan aid workers “probably the single worst crime committed against humanitarian workers in recent history,” the top United Nations humanitarian official called on the Government to investigate “with the full weight and force of the justice system” the crime that has seemingly become a cold case.

“A full year has passed since this crime. No one has been apprehended or charged, and in many ways we seem little nearer to the truth,” UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said at a ceremony marking the anniversary of the execution-style killings of the workers from the French organization Action against Hunger in northeastern Sri Lanka, where Tamil separatists and the Government have waged a decades-long war.

“What we need to know is who did this and why if we are to have any chance of preventing a repeat in the future. Revealing the truth about this crime is not only important for its own sake, but because the massacre was a terrible assault on the key principles of humanitarian action throughout the world,” he told those gathered at UN headquarters in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital.

He stressed that humanitarian assistance is neutral and impartial. “We help people regardless of ethnicity and religious background, and try to help them solely on the basis of their needs in their hour of distress,” he said. “I cannot think of another incident where so many members of a single humanitarian agency were murdered at the same time in such a dreadfully deliberate and calculating way,” he added.

The aid workers, who were providing assistance to survivors from the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, were in the town of Mattur when they were forced to lie on the ground and shot in cold blood.

“The killers should remember what these humanitarian agencies did for Sri Lanka in one of its darkest hours – in the hours, weeks and months after the tsunami struck. Humanitarian organizations, staffed overwhelmingly by Sri Lankans, provided food and shelter, rebuilt homes, helped people restart their livelihoods. Political beliefs did not matter, nor did race or religion,” Mr. Holmes declared.

“We must together say ‘enough.’ Enough of the murder of humanitarian workers, wherever they take place. Enough of the idea that they should ever be a legitimate target for any side in a conflict. Enough of denying them the protection and support that every side should provide, no matter how intense the conflict.”

Noting that the deaths of the 17 had not, sadly, been the last, Mr. Holmes voiced the hope that that the anniversary would finally serve as a wake-up call to all those who take too lightly the unique role of humanitarian workers.

“Their sacrifice must not be in vain,” he concluded. “So we owe it to them and to their memory to continue this work, to keep helping those in need in Sri Lanka. We must go on upholding the principles to which they dedicated their lives. Sri Lankans, with the international community, must continue to strive to help and heal, rather than divide and destroy. The devotion of these 17 humanitarians, and the price they paid for it, demand no less.”

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