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.
CLARIFICATION AND CORRECTIONS: Oct. 18, 2011
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.