Yolanda Foster, Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka researcher, challenged UN agencies working in that country during a panel discussion on ‘humanitarian challenges in the 21st Century’ held at UN Forum, a conference hosted by the UN Association of the UK on 12 June 2010.

The discussion was chaired by Sir Nicholas Young (Chief Executive of the British Red Cross) and Foster was joined on the panel by representatives of UNICEF UK, the UN Refugee Agency and the World Food Programme.

A key focus of the session was to highlight the difficulties humanitarian agencies face when operating in complex emergencies. Sri Lanka’s long-running conflict – which reached a bloody end in May 2009 – is a prime example. The Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) barred access to the conflict zones and has since severely restricted the work of the ICRC and UN agencies are able to undertake with the hundreds of thousands of war survivors. Repeated calls for a ceasfire, including by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, went unheeded and both the GoSL and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) displayed callous contempt for civilian life.

While the operational context was extremely difficult – UN officials faced harsh censure and even expulsion for venturing any criticism of the conduct of the war – NGOs such as International Crisis Group have pointed to severe failings in the UN’s work. These include the withdrawal of agencies from certain areas as early as November 2008, and tacit support for the detainment camps through cooperation with the GoSL, prioritising direct humanitarian access over wider and no less serious human rights concerns.

After showing horrific images on the conflict and camps, Foster drew attention to the inability of the UN and the international community to prevent the massive loss of life in the final stages of the conflict. She then challenged her fellow panellists, asking whether the UN could have done more to protect civilians both during and after the conflict.

You can listen to the discussion on the United Nations Association website here (duration 61mins) or download the Podcast by clicking here. (9.5MB)