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At the UN, Harms to Civilians in Colombia, and by UN, Are Raised but not Resolved

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, June 22 -- While Civilians and Armed Conflict were debated for four hours in the Security Council on Friday, a small diplomatic skirmish broke out between the UN's humanitarian chief John Holmes and one of the countries he mentioned in his briefing: Colombia.

            Colombia had not been among the 31 countries which signed up in advance to speak during the debate. But Mr. Holmes speech, in a paragraph that ended with the word "Colombia," referred to the targeting of civilians "in order to create a climate of fear" and to "assassinations, disappearances and other violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law by those bearing arms in places as far apart as Sri Lanka and Colombia."

            Colombia then came forward, to say that Holmes had listed these problems "without distinguishing which players are involved." Blaming "illegal armed groups" -- just as, minutes before, Myanmar had blamed "terrorists" -- the representative of Colombia said that Mr. Holmes' statement should "not be understood as a reference to the legitimate armed forces of the Colombia state." Video here.

            But who knows better what Mr. Holmes meant, than Mr. Holmes himself? At the debate's conclusion, Holmes said that he "noted" the statement of Colombia. Afterwards, while reporters waited at the stakeout microphone, Mr. Holmes rushed up the stairs interior hallway, turned north and then down the stairs back to the main hall. The route's only rationale was to avoid the stakeout and reporters. A spokesperson explained that since the debate had gone longer than expected, Mr. Holmes had to leave. But one hopes that the question of governments, and even the UN's, roles in harming civilians will be clarified and addressed by the UN.

Sir John Holmes: Upstairs, downstairs, Colombian (and UN) questions not shown

            For example, the UN's mission in Haiti is periodically alleged to harm civilians during its search for what it calls gang leaders. In Somalia, Mr. Holmes' own humanitarian coordinator Eric Laroche said that the UN should take a change and fully back the Transitional Federal Government, which was restored to Mogadishu only by the Ethiopian Army. When these two forces started shelling civilian neighborhoods, what blame was borne by their supporters, including the UN?

            It is hoped that these questions can be addressed. It seemed to be one of the purposes of Friday's four hour debate. But at the UN, "debate" means pre-written speeches. Usually the post-debate stakeout with the press can help sharpen the issues. Perhaps Mr. Holmes will find time to answer these questions.

Jan Egeland in Bolivia

            Meanwhile, it was announced at Friday's UN noon briefing that Mr. Holmes' predecessor Jan Egeland was on non-publicized UN mission to Bolivia in late May. Inner City Press asked if Mr. Egeland, who is also slated to work for a Nordic think tank / non-governmental organization, has been doing any other work for the UN since he left. The answer given was that Bolivia was the first task, but that the Spokesperson's office would check as to any other missions.

From the 8 p.m. transcript:

Inner City Press: You mentioned Jan Egeland went to Bolivia. Has he engaged in other missions for the Secretary-General since taking the post, because thatís the first that I heard of it?

Spokesperson: Yes, well, probably it is the first one, but I'll check for you whether there are others planned for him. [The Spokesperson later confirmed that this was Mr. Egelandís first visit.]

  And the other hand -- and there always is one -- OCHA on Thursday provided detailed information about the situation in Gaza and the West Bank, click here for some of that. To be continued.

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