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At UN, Holmes' Humanitarian Tenure Ends With Sudan Silence, Sri Lanka Questions of Good Cop, Bad Cop, Off Record Jokes

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, August 19 -- What is the role of the UN's emergency relief and humanitarian coordinator? The question is raises as the UK's Sir John Holmes ends his 3 1/2 years in the position.

  Initially the UK put him forward to head the UN Department of Political Affairs. When this was impossible, he was given the humanitarian job. But what is the relation between diplomatic politics and the humanitarian imperative?

The most recent example is the UN's silence from at least August 2 to August 13 as the Sudanese government blockaded the Kalma Camp in Darfur and starved its tens of thousands of residents.

   The UN's envoy to Darfur, Ibrahim Gambari, has said he was trying to negotiate with Sudanese authorities. But where until August 13 was ERC John Holmes?

  Similarly, when the Myanmar regime of Than Shwe was, according to UN whistleblowing staff, stealing up to 25% of post Cyclone Nargis aid through enforced foreign currency transactions, why didn't Holmes speak up until it was exposed by the Press?

These questions were not raised, much less addressed, at a heartfelt farewell reception held for Holmes on August 18. There, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's chief of staff Vijay Nambiar praised Holmes' diplomacy, using Ban's golf analogy of Holmes driving straight and accomplishing his goals in as few strokes as possible.

But is a humanitarian coordinator supposed to be quiet? In a view that has been expressed to Inner City Press by a number of non governmental organizations, the UN system needs both good cops and bad cops, the latter rattling the subject in the dock, the other offering conciliation in exchange for changed behavior.

  While some -- in the Ban Ki-moon administration, nearly all -- UN officials try gentle suasion with dictators and strongmen and cynically hardhearted developed country leaders, the job of the Emergency Relief Coordinator is to be the bad cop, to speak truth to power about access and aid.

The response, including at Wednesday night's well organized event during which Holmes was given a box of three golf balls seemingly emblazoned with the UN logo, is that the NGOs should advocate loudly, and the ERC somehow mediate between the NGOs and governments.

  But in countries like Sudan and Sri Lanka, to simply name two, the NGOs are intimidated against speaking out. Otherwise they will be thrown out. In these settings, the NGOs expect the ERC to be out in front, saying the things that they cannot say. And many feel that Holmes did not do that.

  This is not to deny Holmes' skill as a political analyst, or many miles he flew to such places as Niger, Chad and Yemen. As Wednesday night's event began, an OCHA staffer approached Inner City Press, seemingly with information about Sudan and other hotspots.

The purpose of the approach soon became clear: that the content of Holmes' upcoming speech be treated off the record, because it would “contain jokes.” This is a shame, as the jokes with the exception of one that led to groans among the audience, particularly the females, showed a side of Holmes not often seen by the public. But Inner City Press respects such unilateral and indirect requests, even as Holmes sets up his exit or legacy interviews with media thought to be uncritical of his tenure.

John Holmes engages Press on way to Sri Lanka: good cop, bad cop not shown

   In other settings, Holmes seemed to assume from such media off the record or sympathetic treatment without even asking for either. During a flight to Sri Lanka in May 2009, Ban Ki-moon told the Press that Holmes would come to the back of the plane and give a briefing about the upcoming visit to the IDP (internment) camps in Vavuniya.

  Holmes came back and spoke to a half dozen reporters, who took notes and used verbatim parts of what he said. Inner City Press asked about doubts of the UN's impartiality expressed by members of the Tamil ethnic group. Holmes said he got such e-mails and deleted them.

This seemed newsworthy, and Inner City Press included Holmes comments in a piece written hours later in a hotel in Colombo. The next morning, other members of the press corps conveyed Holmes unhappiness and anger. Inner City Press rushed upstairs and modified the article, particularly since with no Internet access in the Vavuniya camps, it would not be possible later.

   Still, Holmes was angry. Despite what he said at the time, to his credit -- and due to the structure of UN press coverage -- communications did continue in what remained of his ERC tenure.

  But the question remains: if a disfavored ethnic group cannot expect to get a hearing at the UN from the Emergency Relief Coordinator, from whom can they expect it? It is, as many pointed out on Wednesday night, a thankless and grueling job.

  Earlier this summer, the Permanent Representative of a Permanent Five member of the Security Council complained on Holmes behalf about what was called the pay, even the need to call one's own taxi.

   It is a tough job, but literally hundreds of well qualified advocates would like to have and do it. To listening to the shrill complaints of disfavored groups without turning away may be exhausting, but it is the job.

  Speaking truth to power might feel mechanical, especially to a long time diplomat. But it is the job. How will incoming Baroness Valerie Amis do? Watch this site.

Footnote: as Holmes takes up his new post at Ditchley in the English countryside, Vijay Nambiar joked that it should allow the UN to be invited more to speak there. One can imagine Holmes writing about his time as ERC; he is known as a stylistic stickler, echewing split infinitives and such buzzwords as "ongoing."

  But in any such publications, one would hope to see this good cop / bad cops model, and specific situations like Sri Lanka and Sudan candidly addressed. We wish Holmes well, and we'll be watching.

* * *

Sudan Was Emboldened By UN Silence on Jebel Marra and IOM Expulsions, US Susan Rice Darfur Focus Not Shown

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, August 13 -- With the UN belatedly speaking out about Sudan's blockade of Kalma Camp for all of this month, and of Jebel Marra since February, some have concluded that silence from the UN and also the US emboldened Sudanese authorities to starve perceived opponent directly under the nose of a $1 billion peacekeeping operation, UNAMID.

Not only did the UN remain silent -- it even reportedly tried to stifle the voices of those being starved. At the August 13 noon briefing at the UN in New York, Inner City Press asked

Inner City Press: Regarding Sudan, following yesterday’s statement that Ibrahim Gambari [the Joint African Union-United Nations Special Representative for Darfur] did not threaten internally displaced persons (IDPs), another report has surfaced there. The quote had him saying that the IDP spokesman, Yagoub Fouri, says that Mr. Gambari refused a letter the IDPs had written and wanted it delivered to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

It also quotes a Sudanese newspaper, Al-Sahafa, saying that Gambari said it’s really only a matter of time until the six are turned over if conditions are met. Those are two separate issues. I’m pretty sure Mr. Fouri did say this, about the letter, but can you state whether Mr. Gambari was aware of a letter that the IDPs in Kalma camp wanted it delivered to the Secretary-General and whether any such letter was delivered to the Secretary-General?

Spokesperson Martin Nesirky: I’m not aware of that particular part of your question...the specific point that you mentioned about the letter, I’d have to find out — I don’t have anything on that.[The Spokesperson later said that no such letter has been yet received by the Secretary-General.]

  Later on August 13, after the media and nearly all others had left the UN in New York, outgoing humanitarian coordinator John Holmes issued a press release belatedly bemoaning the blockade of Kalma, exclusion from Jebel Marra since February and that “two International Organization for Migration (IOM) staff were also expelled on 17 July 2010.”

  Why do we call this belated? Back in July -- on July 16th, in fact -- Inner City Press asked about these IOM expulsions, and the UN had nothing to day. From the July 16 transcript:

Inner City Press: In Sudan, there are these reports that the Government made persona non grata, are throwing out, two representatives of the International Organization for Migration. Does the UN have concerns about the expulsion of these humanitarian workers?

Associate Spokesperson Farhan Haq: We don’t have any comment about the treatment of this. We are aware of the reports, and we’ll check up on what was behind this decision and what the facts are on that. But we don’t have anything to say on that just yet.

And nothing was said by the UN until August 13, nearly a month later. What message did that send to Omar al Bashir and other Sudanese authorities?

   Likewise, while the US called for an emergency Security Council meeting on the violence in Kalma Camp in early August, it never followed up with any meeting once Sudan blockaded the camp. Now comes news that the US Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration wants to become Ambassador to Kenya, and thus might lose his Sudan portfolio.

   The same report says that Hillary Clinton agreed to Gration's plan to prioritize the South Sudan referendum over Darfur. While claiming that Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice disagreed, she herself denied any disagreement when asked by Inner City Press, and she has not called, or had her deputy ambassadors call, for any Council meeting since Kalma was blockaded.

UNAMID drives in circles, Susan Rice not shown

   In any event, either the US nor UN is doing much as the prospects for the referendum on independence in South Sudan continue to worsen. On August 12, Inner City Press asked the UN about South Sudan, still without any answers:

Inner City Press: In South Sudan, the SPLM [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement] has said two things. They’ve said that there is a total standoff in choosing the leader of the Referendum Commission, and if this isn’t… they’ve basically said the UN should be involved. They’ve also said that this movement of tribes into the Abyei region is akin to ethnic cleansing. They’ve said, the spokesman for the SPLM has said, “We are asking the UN to get involved”, presumably on both of those issues. So, I’d asked you yesterday about very fact-specific things on South Sudan, but what is UNMIS [United Nations Mission in Sudan], are they aware of this request, that they become involved in the Commission to make sure that there’s not a deadlock, and what about the deaths of 23 people?

Spokesperson Nesirky: On the deaths, I do have some guidance, which I will be able to provide you shortly. I don’t have it right now. I do know that I have some guidance for you. That’s the first thing. [He later added that UNMIS has informed his Office that, according to the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army), on 8 August, a vehicle carrying their soldiers and some civilians was ambushed by armed gunmen in Koch County, Unity State. As a result, 23 of them were reportedly killed and some others wounded. UNMIS has been in touch with the South Sudan authorities and wounded soldiers in order to ascertain the fact and circumstances surrounding the incident. UNMIS is assisting the South Sudanese authorities in further investigating the incident. Overall, it should be stressed that UNMIS has been engaging the Government of Southern Sudan in order to address disputes by peaceful means.]

On the broader question that you’ve raised, I will find out. On the question of the deaths that you mentioned yesterday and the helicopter, I do have something. I don’t have it here. [He added later, regarding the helicopter incident, that, as this is a complaint regarding a violation of the ceasefire agreement, UNMIS has initiated an investigation by the Ceasefire Joint Military Committee.]

While these answers were added after the August 12 briefing, on August 13 even when asked against about South Sudan and the referendum, Nesirky had nothing to say. Watch this site.

* * *

In Darfur, UN Denies Threatening IDPs, Defends Ending Humanitarian Reports, No Access to Jebel Marra

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, August 12 -- On Darfur, even when the UN belatedly provides some answers about the ongoing starvation of internally displaced people by the Sudanese government, it simultaneously dissembles about what six IDPs say were threats by the UN to turn them over to the government.

In the Kalma Camp, the six IDPs said

Joint Special Representative Ibrahim Gambari met them on Wednesday in presence of a government delegation led by state minister for humanitarian affairs Mutrif Sideeg... Gambari asked them to accept the presence of joint patrols formed by the Sudanese government and the hybrid peacekeeping mission. 'If you refuse to accept this deal I will have no choice but to hand you over to the Sudanese authorities,' Gambari told them.”

While UN spokesman Martin Nesirky denied this account on Thursday, when Inner City Press asked if Gambari had asked the IDPs to consent to searches of the camp by Sudan government authorities, only then did Nesirky read out a second part of his prepared guidance. Video here, from Minute 12:35. As subsequently provided to Inner City Press by the UN Spokesperson's Office:

Further to your questions at today's Spokesperson's Noon Briefing regarding Kalma camp in Darfur...

Joint Special Representative Gambari (JSR) met with the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kalma yesterday on a joint visit with Government of Sudan officials with whom he has been holding consultations on issues related to recent developments in Kalma. Contrary to press reports, the JSR did not "threaten" the IDPs. UNAMID will not hand over the six IDP leaders in question without a reassurance that certain preconditions as to their rights are met.

The JSR stressed the protection of civilian mandate of UNAMID and emphasized the need for sustainable peace in Darfur for all its populations. He highlighted that IDP camps are designed to provide shelter for vulnerable populations. Criminality and proliferation of weapons is not acceptable in Kalma and or any other IDP camp. He reassured the IDPs that all issues related to the Kalma incident are being discussed with a view to mutually-acceptable outcomes for all parties.

What are the “certain preconditions” under which the UN would turn over these IDPs to the Sudanese government? Watch this site.

UN's Ban and Gambari, reports of threats to IDPs (and Darfur Humanitarian Reports) not shown

Finally, these answers came in from UNAMID's Officer-in-Charge of both the Media Relations Unit and the Publications Unit, Christopher Cycmanick:

Inner City Press 1. I was told re Kalma Camp that international NGOs are barred, but some local NGOs get in. What percentage of the humanitarian work is impacted by the ban on INGOs?

OCHA: Due to increased insecurity and tension within the Kalma Camp the work of International NGO's and Humanitarian Agencies is not taking place. The last batch of humanitarian assistance reached the camp some 11 days ago. No proper estimate of impact on humanitarian programs in Kalma can be given without gaining access.

Inner City Press 2. Are the same or other restrictions in place at the Zalingi Camp?

UNAMID: There are no such restrictions in Zalingei. Humanitarian organizations maintain full access to the camp.

Inner City Press 3. What can you can about lack of humanitarian access to eastern Jebel Marra?

OCHA: Access to eastern Jebel Marra remains closed to humanitarians with very few exceptions.

Inner City Press 4. What access do UNAMID peacekeepers have?

UNAMID: Mission Peacekeepers do not have access to the Jebel Marra area because of the prevailing security situation and restrictions/denial of access from both Government of Sudan and rebel movements.

Inner City Press 5. Can you confirm reports of firing into Kalma Camp by people in government vehicles, and if UNAMID responded, what did this response consist of?

UNAMID: Sporadic firing in Kalma camp was reported, but this firing was done by some camp resident. There were no reports or evidence of firing by “people in government vehicles”. UNAMID Police is conducting 24/7 patrols in the Camp to increase security.

Inner City Press 6. Less immediately pressing, on humanitarian, the UN used to publish a "Darfur Humanitarian Profile" every quarter. It seems that these documents ceased appearing (with no explanation offered) after the Jan 1, 2009 report (reflecting conditions as of October 2008). Why is the UN no longer organizing and promulgating what data it has, as it used to do with the "Darfur Humanitarian Profiles"?

OCHA: Information continues to be collected and disseminated on the humanitarian situation in Darfur. The Darfur Humanitarian Profile was produced with broad participation of humanitarian organizations working in Darfur. The expulsion of 13 international NGOs from Sudan in March 2009 and increased relocation of remaining NGO staff in remote locations (largely as a result of insecurity) have critically reduced humanitarian presence on the ground. As a consequence, efforts to produce reliable data at the level of the DHP became untenable. OCHA continues to seek ways to restore reliable data collection in remote locations.

Inner City Press 7. Q: What data do the UN / UNAMID have on Global Acute Malnutrition? Why isn't it being collated and released publicly? Please provide your most recent data for the three Darfur states.

OCHA: A limited amount of malnutrition data for Darfur has been verified, which will be available in the next 1-2 days. Remaining data is still in the process of verification and will be released once verification is complete.

So not even UN peacekeepers have been able to access Jebal Marra. What about the protection of civilians mandate?

Inner City Press has asked for the malnutrition data and the “certain preconditions” under which UNAMID would turn over the six IDPs to the Sudanese government, and has posed the following additional questions:

What was ever found out about how had taken the Russian helicopter pilot?

Any movement on the Security Council's call for DPKO / UNAMID to reach a “full understanding of the facts” underlying the violence in Kalma Camp?

Watch this site.

 Click here for an Inner City Press YouTube channel video, mostly UN Headquarters footage, about civilian deaths in Sri Lanka.

Click here for Inner City Press' March 27 UN debate

Click here for Inner City Press March 12 UN (and AIG bailout) debate

Click here for Inner City Press' Feb 26 UN debate

Click here for Feb. 12 debate on Sri Lanka

Click here for Inner City Press' Jan. 16, 2009 debate about Gaza

Click here for Inner City Press' review-of-2008 UN Top Ten debate

Click here for Inner City Press' December 24 debate on UN budget, Niger

Click here from Inner City Press' December 12 debate on UN double standards

Click here for Inner City Press' November 25 debate on Somalia, politics

and this October 17 debate, on Security Council and Obama and the UN.

* * *

These reports are usually also available through Google News and on Lexis-Nexis.

Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece about the Somali National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund.  Video Analysis here

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