What the Fuck are you doing here? : Speech to Sri Lankan humanitarian agencies

Last Friday (1st of December) I gave this speech to an assorted bunch of local and international humanitarian agencies, representatives of bilateral and multilateral funders, the UN system as well as local NGOs at Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations (Formerly SLIIR).


Bet that woke you up.

Do you find them surprising, repulsive, offensive?

Now how about these words?






Humanitarian disaster.




I personally find these words more repulsive.

Language is a funny beast – we abhor the use of cuss words, yet we rarely flinch when we speak, hear, see or write of thousands of IDPs starving, denied humanitarian aid, without food, shelter or water, with their children abducted, suffering agony and trauma of a magnitude that is incomprehensible – yet real.

I have been asked to address, briefly, 3 questions.

Are we doing enough?
Do we have the knowledge?
Do we have the conviction?

ARE WE DOING ENGOUH? I guess the related question is – can we do more?

HIC maps show two Sri Lanka’s – one which eats and one which does not. Actually, that’s incorrect. One which cannot – because of blockades by the GoSL and the LTTE.

The closure of the A9 is indicative of two Sri Lanka’s – one with access to basic human needs. One cut off, starving, dying.

The peace talks show two Sri Lanka’s – one that the GoSL wishes to paint. The other of the LTTE.

Caught in the middle – citizens.

I asked recently on a talk show I moderate what national security was, if it did not protect the interests of all citizens?

How we build confidence in peace in such a polarised time? Hell, even the business community, for all their talk of supporting economic development, do not have a single mention of peace, reconciliation or democracy in their flagship CSR projects.

We need to keep the pressure of the GOSL and LTTE to return to negotiations and put an end to hostilities.

We need more international scrutiny of HR. Fight against GOSL, LTTE and Karuna propoganda by the simple submission of facts. We all have them – but we sometimes don’t use them to full effect.


We certainly have information.

HIC gives more than enough (but can someone redesign their website?!)

The donors and international community – you people – do your own information gathering.

Statements from NGOs – local and international appear as paid advertisements regularly in the papers.

WE know what’s going on.

But do others? Do the Sinhalese?

Perhaps we need to COMMUNICATE better.

CPA’s PCI shows the schizophrenic attitudes to peace amongst the Sinhala – who want peace, but don’t quite understand the importance of a process based on justice, equality and rights.

The Sinhalese believe this government is winning our war on terror.

That the LTTE is the sole perpetrator of HR violations.

That Karuna really is a democrat.

WE are drowning in information that point to the contrary, and yet the majority of those in the South are simply indifferent to what we call facts.

In other words, how do we ensure that our knowledge translates into action? As donors, INGOs, international HR activists, diplomats, UN staff, journalists and humanitarians, what will you do to ensure that knowledge resident in your laptops translates into actions that saves lives on the ground?

Let me go back:

38,000 Tamils face starvation in Vaharai, humanitarian disaster imminent

That’s a real headline. This is a real situation.

What can you do to help? We all have the information. We all have the knowledge about what we can and cannot do.

But does anything ever get done?

Recalling the first question, are we doing enough to ensure that what information we are privy to we make use of to ensure that we COMMUNICATE FIRMLY:

1. The gross incompatibility of realising MDG’s with the current socio-political dispensation is drilled into the government

2. Economic growth, despite the Central Bank’s claims, is unsustainable when succesive budgets increasingly allocate billions of rupees to destroy lives, rather than on education or social infrastructure to help reconciliation

3. Defensive offensives, or Rumsfeldian pre-emptive wars, are a waste of time, resources and human lives

4. Developing the South is contingent upon the future of those living in the North and the East

5. Federalism is good governance, and good governance is stronger democracy, which in turn is of benefit to all citizens, across Sri Lanka, and not just a solution for the ethnic conflict or for those in the N & E.

6. Human rights is non-negotiable. People’s lives are non-negotiable.

So yes, we have the knowledge, but we often don’t know what on earth to do with it, or even if we do, how to go about doing it.

The up-coming donor conference is a venue for such action.

Based on the knowledge you already have, contemplate proactive measures to support peace as well as punitive measures (going beyond sanctions and conditional aid)

Transform knowledge to action.


Well, do we?

We seemingly allow the politicisation of the humanitarian crisis by both sides to the conflict to continue

Are we only adept at supporting commissions set up that go nowhere through diplomatic speak?

How much more does it take to condemn Sri Lanka internationally and those responsible for its deplorable human rights record?

How can we maintain our conviction, when friends, colleagues and citizens are dying? In Colombo?

Perhaps the world has inspiration – if we look for it.

In the US the tide is decisively turning against the war in Iraq.

In Nepal, there is a peace agreement – even though 3 years ago, I was in Nepal meeting journalists, civil society, students and the odd Maoist to give THEM hope.

In Banda Aceh, there is peace, brought about by the same tsunami that struck us.

What do we need to do to communicate our conviction that it is only through a process of negotiations based on justice, equality and human rights that a sustainable peace for Sri Lanka will be possible?

Perhaps we need to more strongly and in more places call for a professional, impartial and international human rights field presence.

We need simple, sustained, local and international exposes of facts that clearly demonstrate the incompatibility of wanting peace and letting people starve to death.

Recalling where I started from, maybe we need to use expletives more in diplomacy and in public.

Every time the President says he is committed to human rights in Sri Lanka – let’s all say DAMN YOU LIAR.

Every time Karuna says he’s ready to put down arms and is really committed to peace, let’s all say DAMN YOU MURDERER.

Everytime Prabhakaran says that Eelam is worth starving, killing, maiming the very people he is supposedly fighting for, let’s all say, FUCK YOU TOO.

It STILL sounds outrageous doesn’t it?

But consider this – as I speak, at this very moment, thousands in Sri Lanka are starving. Without human or food security, hundreds of thousands live in conditions that we cannot imagine, much less begin to understand and describe.

People, simply, are dying.

I ask you, what is more outrageous – words or reality?

I also ask of you, is our conviction only words on reports, or are we willing to step up to the challenge, at a time when all is seemingly lost, to ensure peace with justice, peace with dignity, peace with rights?

The choice is a deeply personal one.

And today, I humbly ask all of you to begin to make those hard choices that can bring hope to my violently beautiful country.


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