Aid worker blasts Sri Lankan government

An international aid worker and United Nations representative is speaking out against violence in Sri Lanka and the government’s role in it.

In front of 28 students and faculty members gathered at the Yale School of Medicine Friday afternoon, Nimmi Gowrinathan, the director of programs in South Asia for an international organization and a consultant to the United Nations, discussed the difficulties that nongovernmental organizations face in pursuing their missions. Throughout the talk, she drew on examples from aid she helped administer after the Sri Lankan Civil War. While three attendees interviewed said they found her perspective interesting, two said her speech was too one-sided.

Gowrinathan began by describing what she argued are large-scale Sri Lankan human rights violations. In 2009 the Sri Lankan government came down hard on an opposition force called the Tamil Tigers with widespread violence against the group, she said. During this purge, tens of thousands of Sri Lankan civilians were also killed, injured, raped or displaced, Gowrinathan said.

After the government declared victory over the Tigers in 2009, various nongovernmental organizations entered the country. Though their role is to provide aid and medical care to affected citizens, Gowrinathan said they often face opposition from the government. For instance, she said, the Sri Lankan government does not allow NGOs to administer prenatal care to pregnant women out of fear that aid workers would discover the largely unpunished rapes across the country.

Gowrinathan said that if the Sri Lankan government discovered that a nongovernmental worker was speaking out publicly about rights violations of this kind, the government would ban that worker’s NGO. She added that this is true in nearly every nation that engages in rights violations. Gowrinathan said volunteers usually avoid speaking in public about their concerns to avoid this outcome, even if it means leaving the stories of the Sri Lankan victims untold.

“I’m just at a point now where I’m speaking out publicly about the concerns that I have,” she said. “Sri Lanka won’t let you inside the country if you find out you’ve criticized them.”

In addition to this “tell or don’t tell” concern, aid organizations also tend to have trouble generating funds for their work, Gowrinathan said. Public donations often depend on how the public views a given disaster, she said, meaning that source of funding is often unreliable.

Gowrinathan said funding gaps prompt NGOs to turn to the U.S. government for help. Although the U.S. government has a strict rule that no aid can go to designated terrorist organizations Gowrinathan said that INGOs and NGOs work in areas outside state control, and so must contend with whatever forces are in control of a particular region.

“All NGOs that work in terrorist controlled areas work with [victims who are members of] terrorist organizations,” Gowrinathan said. “[They] have to — it’s their area.”

Gowrinathan said withholding funding because it could fall into the hands of terrorists can exacerbate the situation. Without this aid, many displaced victims are likely to join terrorist groups because they see no alternative.

Three listeners said they found Gowrinathan’s words insightful, while two others said that they were skeptical of her claims.

Erika Linnander, associate director of the Global Health Leadership Institute, said she enjoyed the talk because Gowrinathan was so willing to field questions.

But Heshika Deegahawathure ’14, a Sri Lankan citizen by birth, said he felt that Gowrinathan’s talk was somewhat biased against the Sri Lankan government. He added that terrorism is a serious problem in Sri Lanka, and the government should not be accused of human rights violations simply for trying to combat it.

“I have talked to Sri Lankan military officials — I have my security clearance pass [to do so] in my backpack right now,” he said. “They did not intentionally hit civilian populations. The [Tigers] was a terrorist organization which intermingled with the civilian population.”

The Sri Lankan Civil War began in 1983.


The article “Aid worker blasts Sir Lankan government” quoted Nimmi Gowrinathan as saying that working with terrorists is a way of life for NGOs. She later clarified that, because NGOs often work in areas outside of state control, they must contend with whatever forces are in control of a particular territory. The article also quoted Gowrinathan as saying that rape victims are particularly apt to turn to terrorism. In fact, she did not connect those two points. She discussed under-reporting of rape due to cultural stigmas, and separately discussed her academic work on understanding female terrorists. Finally, the article said that Gowrinathan is a United Nations representative. She is, in fact, the director of operations in South Asia for an international NGO as well as a U.N. consultant.


  • tmanoranjan

    I am disturbed and disheartened that YDN would publish such an inaccurate article about Ms. Gowrinathan’s talk. It is the height of irony that the central focus on her talk, the difficulties facing humanitarians working in conflict zones, is exemplified in the polarized way Robert Peck describes what he claims she said. This type of shoddy journalism further circumscribes the space needed for an open discussion about the issues facing aid work in active conflict areas.

  • tom_power

    i am shocked at this article for two reasons:
    1) it is very badly written from a grammatical perspective – i would have expected more from an Ivy League school student/newspaper
    2) it is bad journalism, even by the low standard that passes for journalism in this era. Firstly, it incorrectly states that Ms. Gowrinathan is a “United Nations representative”. She is not and never claimed to be. A correction should be printed/published. Secondly, the main topic of the talk and the one she spent the most time on, the difficulties facing humanitarian organizations and their staff when working in conflict affected areas and in post-war settings.

    Additionally, is Heshika Deegahawathure a friend of the ‘reporters’? The whole article seems written so that his responses could be incorporated.

  • eureka

    1. Nimmi is not a UN representative

    2.In the last 30 months post-war Sri Lanka is:
    a.No war, no peace: the denial of minority rights and justice in Sri Lanka, Report by Minority Rights Group International, 19 January 2011:
    With the end of the conflict between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE or ‘Tamil Tigers’) in 2009, normality has returned for much of the population of Sri Lanka. But for members of the country’s two main minority groups – Tamils and Muslims – living in the north and east of the country, harsh material conditions, economic marginalisation, and militarism remain prevalent. Drawing on interviews with activists, religious and political leaders, and ordinary people living in these areas of the country, MRG found a picture very much at odds with the official image of peace and prosperity following the end of armed conflict. …. ”The UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues should be granted an invitation by the government to visit the country in order to report to the United Nations Human Rights Council on the situation of minorities in Sri Lanka. …. In light of the findings of this report MRG calls on the government of Sri Lanka to respect the economic, cultural and political rights of minorities living in Sri Lanka and to ensure that they gain from post-conflict reconstruction and development projects in the areas where they live. Failure to do so may have long-term repercussions for peace and stability in the country.’’
    (UN Special Rapporteurs for i. Extrajudicial Killings, ii. Enforced Disappearances and iii. Freedom of Opinion and Expression have also been waiting for years to get into Sri Lanka.)

  • eureka
    Reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Harder than Ever, 18 July 2011: ” Two years since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka is further from reconciliation than ever. Triumphalist in its successful “war on terror”, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has refused to acknowledge, let alone address, the Tamil minority’s legitimate grievances against the state. Now, contrary to the image it projects, the government has increasingly cut minorities and opponents out of decisions on their economic and political futures rather than work toward reconciliation.Assertions that the government is moving towards reconciliation must be tested against realities on the ground, which means insisting on access. The Rajapaksas’ authoritarianism must be challenged directly and publicly, with strong messages against retrograde constitutional changes and centralisation of power.”

  • eureka
    Wanni’s post-war LEAP: TWO YEARS AFTER THE WAR, Ranga Jayasuriya, 15 May 2011:‘’Military camps have dotted the region and soldiers are manning check points at every nook and corner. Militarization of the Wanni is in full tilt. “Nothing happens here without the knowledge and connivance of the army,” confides a senior police official.’’

  • eureka

    Weekly statements by National Peace Council should give us a glimpse into the ground reality:

    OUT OF HURTING STALEMATE, 18 September 2011: ‘’Sri Lanka needs to get out of this vicious cycle. There is a need to learn from the experience of other countries that were faced with similar post-war challenges.’’
    UNIFYING TASKS FOR A FUTURE NORTHERN PROVINCIAL COUNCIL, 11 September 2011: ‘’Unfortunately, instead of empowering the provincial councils by providing them with more resources, the government has been debilitating them.’’
    AWAITING BENEFITS OF LIFTING EMERGENCY, 5 September 2011: ”The legal basis for the absence of change in the practices of the State of Emergency has been the extraordinary power vested in the Presidency by the constitution.’’
    GREASE DEVILS CHALLENGE TO POST WAR SECURITY MEASURES, 22 August 2011: ‘’But with reports that many of the suspected grease devils who have been apprehended, belong or have belonged to the armed forces, there is a breakdown of confidence in the government’s ability to preserve law and order.’’

  • eureka

    OUT OF HURTING STALEMATE, National Peace Council, 18 September 2011:
    ‘’On the surface it appears that the concerns about human rights in Sri Lanka are both unfair and exaggerated. …. Those who visit the north and east of the country where the war was fought most ferociously, and talk to the people, come away appalled at the continuing plight of those who suffered so terribly during the war. The misallocation of resources to the electorates of government leaders is grotesque. The continuation of militarized governance in the north and east, regardless of the lifting of the State of Emergency, undermines the promise of normalcy there. Election results from that part of the country bear out the disenchantment with the government. But criticism of the government is muted. Much of the media engages in self censorship not wishing to be overly critical of the government. The memory of white van abductions is still alive and the association of grease devil attacks with the government continues to perpetuate a culture of fear at all levels.’’