Sri Lankan minister must resign from WHO presidency for humanitarian catastrophe, demands activist group

PRESS RELEASE

Geneva, May 20, 2009 — Sri Lankan health minister Nimal Siripala De Silva, elected president of this week’s annual session of the World Health Organization, should end the humanitarian disaster plaguing 300,000 civilians in the war-torn north, or be pressured to step down by the organization’s 193 member states, said UN Watch, a Geneva-based human rights group.

“At a critical time when the WHO needs the world’s trust to fight a global pandemic, the U.N.’s most important health assembly simply cannot be headed by a government that blocks humanitarian emergency relief to thousands, creates conditions leading to the spread of diseases, and seizes doctors,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch and an international lawyer.

“Just as we condemn the terrorism of the Tamil Tigers, we urge Mr. de Silva to acknowledge his government’s role in the appalling suffering of its civilians, and to take immediate action,” said Neuer, whose group has also been urging the Human Rights Council to address the crisis by calling an emergency session.

“How can the World Health Assembly take seriously a president who allows his own people in displaced persons camps, especially children, to be hit by contagious diseases, including reported cases of chickenpox, hepatitis A and dysentery?”

The London Times reported today that the Sri Lankan Government has blocked access to aid workers trying to help the nearly 300,000 civilians displaced by the fighting, raising the prospect of a humanitarian catastrophe. (Click for Times article)

The Times reported that “an estimated 80,000 people—mostly Tamil, many of them sick, malnourished or suffering from battlefield wounds—were making their way on foot from the war zone in the north to government-run camps that are already swamped.”

The UN is reportedly not being allowed any access to them, while “accounts of conditions inside the camps— gained from testimony recorded covertly by aid workers—and the journey to them are horrifying.”

Physicians for Human Rights called on the Sri Lankan government “to ensure the protection and freedom of movement of all civilians and medical personnel in the conflict zone.”

Three doctors who entered no-go zones and defied the government to report on the suffering of civilians, and who spoke of the continuous shelling of areas with large concentrations of civilians, are now missing.

Physicians for Human Rights said it had been told the Sri Lankan government was detaining doctors “incommunicado, possibly in retaliation for adhering to their ethical obligation to protect the lives of their patients in all circumstances.”

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