In Sri Lanka, UN Has Casualty Estimate But Won't Release, Why
No Cease Fire Call Is "Theoretical Question," Ban's Office Says
Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of
Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis
NATIONS, February 17 --
With civilians dying daily in the conflict
between the government of Sri Lanka
and the Tamil Tiger militia, on Tuesday Inner City Press asked Ban
spokesperson Michele Montas for the UN's estimate of civilian deaths,
whether it is higher or lower that the 1200 figure used in the Gaza
earlier this year. Ms Montas replied
that "we are trying to save people, not count bodies." Video here,
from Minute 22:48.
But Inner City Press, as well at least one
Tuesday UN noon briefing, have been informed of an informal UN estimate
civilian death, higher than that in Gaza. Ms. Montas was asked, and
that the withholding of the UN estimate is politically motivated. Inner
Press reiterated the yes or no question, is the estimate higher or
the figure that UN used in Gaza. "I cannot tell you," Ms. Montas
said. "I have to go back and see. We have no observers." Video here,
from Minute 26:40.
Inner City Press has asked for confirmation
has invited Ban for a visit, and asked if that meant to the whole
including the Vanni region, or only to a portion. Ms. Montas confirmed
invitation, but said that no decision has been made. Watch this
The death and destruction a child observes, the UN cannot or will not
Ms. Montas had read out a statement that the
calls on the Tamil
Tigers and the government to "refrain from fighting in areas of
concentration." Inner City Press inquired into the phrasing, different
that the cease fire calls issued by Ban Ki-moon regarding Gaza, the
other recent conflicts. Ms. Montas called it a "theoretical
question." But when Inner City Press last week asked Ban Ki-moon
if he was calling for a cease fire in Sri Lanka and if not, why not, Ban
answered that he couldn't, because Sri Lanka is not on the Security
This is ironic, because in 2007 --
before being told
by Sri Lanka's
president and his senior advisor that the end of the Tamil Tigers is
the UN will just look the other way for a time -- Ban Ki-moon did call
cease fire in Sri Lanka, which wasn't then on the Security Council's
either. Even Ban's office backpeddled on
February 13, acknowledging that he has the power to call for a cease
not the will?
From the transcript
February 17, 2009 UN noon briefing -
City Press: There are reports from Sri Lanka today that the President
that he has invited Ban Ki-moon to visit the country.
I wanted to know if you are aware of that
invitation and if it includes the whole country or only parts of the
country. And then also, does the UN
system have any estimate of the number of civilian casualties caused by
side since this most recent upsurge in conflict has begun in Sri Lanka? Some say it’s well over a thousand or larger
than it was in Gaza. What is the number…?
Spokesperson: We don’t have an
exact count. As you know, we have some
people from the UN
-- I just read a note on this -- who are themselves trapped in that
the civilians are trapped. We don’t have
an overall evaluation; we have no way of knowing what the exact count
City Press: Is that something that the
UN is trying to do? I mean, at what
point, I guess what level of casualties would…?
Spokesperson: We’re trying to
Spokesperson: Right now, what
we’re trying to do most is
not counting bodies; it’s trying to save the living.
Right now, we have been calling for civilians
to be allowed to leave the area of fighting.
We have been asking that they be able to do so
without being harmed in
any war and we have denounced the fact that some of them were shot at
City Press: I heard the statement that you said; and you said that the
Secretary-General or the UN calls for them to refrain from fighting in
civilian concentration. Is that a call
for a ceasefire and if not, why not, given the level of civilian
Spokesperson: We have been
asking for the hostilities to
City Press: In all areas? Not just in
the areas that those people come out of…I’m sorry to belabour the point…
Spokesperson: Our concern is
about the civilian areas. Our concern is
that these people be allowed
to leave the area; including our own people who are also trapped with
population in there. And you know they
went in there to help. They were
carrying food and all the essentials to the Vanni area where civilians
are. So, to us what is foremost is
civilian lives. Whether you want to call
it a ceasefire or not, it seems to me it’s a theoretical question.
City Press: There has been a lot coverage saying that actually over the
the UN statement became decidedly…obviously the LTTE has done a lot of
things, but all the statements have been about … UNICEF said that they
recruiting child soldiers, the UN said that they’re firing; there
to be any commentary on the Government’s actions. So,
I guess I just want to say that the
tenor, some are saying…
Spokesperson: Well, this is what
we get from ground, from
people on the ground in the UN agencies who are witnessing these
City Press: But not the number of casualties?
Can you identify…
No, that we have no way to evaluate, really.
I mean, we don’t have observers there counting
bodies; no, we don’t.
City Press: No, not counting bodies. But
would it be helpful to have observers?
Spokesperson: It could be
definitely helpful [to have
access to the people in need]. And in
terms of the invitation, yes, the Secretary-General received an
go to Sri Lanka. He has not made any
decision on when and whether he will go.
Question: Just a follow-up to
Matthew’s question. In the region, it’s
well known among
journalists that UN experts have done a calculation on the bare minimum
civilian casualties but that they are not releasing these figures,
for political reasons. And I wondered
why those figures aren’t being released when in Gaza, there were
Spokesperson: The difference is
that, in Gaza, we have
9,000 people who are, working there.
There is a whole UNRWA contingent, as you know, in
Gaza. Now, whether it is for political
would say I deny what you said. It is
not for political reasons. It is simply
because we cannot confirm those numbers.
Those are estimates and we cannot actually broadcast
estimates if we are
not sure of what they are. These
evaluations were made for the simple purpose of knowing how many people
assisting, but they were not reliable in any way. They
were just estimates. That’s what they are. We cannot be issuing numbers that we’re not
City Press: I’m sorry to ask this; is the estimate higher or lower than
number the UN came out with for Gaza?
Spokesperson: That I cannot tell. I have to go back and see.
I cannot tell you at this point.
Spokesperson later clarified that the
United Nations does not generally issue casualty figures.
When the recent United Nations flash appeal
for Gaza was launched, for example, it attributed its casualty figures
Palestinian Ministry of Health.]
12 debate on Sri Lanka http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/17772?in=11:33&out=32:56
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