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On Sri Lanka Detentions, UN's Top Lawyer Won't Opine, of Privileges and the Pen

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, September 16 -- While two UN system staff members remain incarcerated in Sri Lanka after what they say was government torture, in New York the UN is preparing for more countries to sign more treaties and conventions during next week's General Assembly. Inner City Press asked top UN lawyer Patricia O'Brien, during her news conference Wednesday promoting the treaty event, about the two UN system staffers. Video here, from Minute 42:01.

The Treaty Event booklet distributed at the UN lists the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the UN and the Convention on the Safety of UN and Associated Personnel. Sri Lanka has acceded to both of them, during the General Assembly meetings in 2003. But are they being complied with and enforced?

"I am not here to speak about enforcement" of the Conventions, Ms. O'Brien said. She referred to the UN's ironically titled "depository" role, and that she also advised the Secretary General on the "application of treaties."

But where do these interpretations go? In Sri Lanka, the country head for the UN made belated statements about the disappeared staff that many thought ignored the government's responsibility under the Conventions. Amin Awad did not assert that the staffers were immune, at least within the scope of their work for the UN, but only that the government should inform the UN of the detention.

"We are not going to get into interpreting specific provisions," Ms. O'Brien said.

Recently Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, under fire for weak performance including in Sri Lanka, convened his Under Secretaries Generals including Ms. O'Brien and her Political Affairs and Peacekeeping counterparts.

Afterwards the Press was told that these USGs will be taking questions more often, to explain the UN's positions. Some thought this responded to a part in the leaked memo by Norwegian diplomat Mona Juul, that Ban has chosen weak or faceless USGs.

But if the UN wants to get its position out, how can its top lawyer try to limit a rare press conference to the treaty event, not even the treaties themselves? There are also questions about the UN's involvement in the Cambodia genocide tribunal, Somalia piracy enforcement, policing the (further) abuse of the UN's name, including for commercial gain, and of the UN's and OLA's commitment to freedom of speech and of the press. To run from these questions, news conferences are now artificially limited.

UN's Ban and Ms. O'Brien, UN position on detained and tortured staff not shown

At the end, Ms. O'Brien tried to explain her refusal to answer basic policy questions by saying since she advise Ban on some matters, it is all cover by attorney client privilege. This is not a defense or justification used by the chief legal officers of other international organizations, and it ill-serves the UN, human rights -- and UN staff and the rule of law. Watch this site.

Footnote: on the lighter side, Inner City Press asked Ms. O'Brien about the incident in July in which William Kennedy Smith, at the event at which the U.S. signed the Disabilities Convention, asked for the ceremonial pen. He was refused and told that the UN has only one pen. Inner City Press asked, does the UN have only one pen? Video here, from Minute 44:28.

Ms. O'Brien replied that the UN does not have a budget to give pens, not of this quality, but might seek a budget allocation. William Kennedy Smith actually offered to buy the pen, right there. Would that comply with the law? As on so many other things, the UN's top lawyer has no comment.

* * *

After Sri Lanka Call, UN's Ban Sends Pascoe Not Nambiar, Internal "Accountability" on Agenda

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, September 14 -- On issues ranging from the detention of UN system Sri Lankan staff to the continuing detentions in the camps in Vavuniya, UN Under Secretary General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe is traveling to Colombo on September 15. Inner City Press asked Pascoe if, for example, he would also raise the video footage depicting the Sri Lankan Army conducting summary executions, and if he had seen the footage. Pascoe said yes, he has seen the film, and that issues of "accountability" will be raised. Video of press briefing here, from Minute 38:02.

   Pascoe said that accountability and investigations are "all best done if done internally." But the Mahinda Rajapaksa government has ended the investigation of the killing of 17 Action Contre La Faim aid workers, and immediately denied the video the day that it first aired. So what internal "accountability mechanisms" will Pascoe be suggesting? Pascoe said that the "range of human rights issues" need to be discussed, and that there is blame on all sides, "there is enough to go around."

  Afterwards Inner City Press asked Pascoe if he will be traveling to the internment camps at Manik Farm, and who will be accompanying him. He said his "program" is still being negotiated, and that people from his Department of Political Affairs and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs will join him.

  Not mentioned, in the press conference or in response in the hall afterwards was Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's chief of staff Vijay Nambiar, whose objectivity was question in connection with his early trips to Sri Lanka, particularly after his brother Satish wrote an op-ed praising the strategies and acts of Sri Lankan General Fonseka, who led what even the UN's John Holmes characterized as a "bloodbath on the beach."

    Pascoe said his visit would follow up on "earlier trips by John Holmes and others" -- notably omitting Nambiar's forays.

  To some, the sudden trip seems not unrelated to recent criticism of Ban Ki-moon's performance, including in the leaked memo of Norway's Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Mona Juul.

UN's Pascoe faces taped questions on plane to Sri Lanka in May, is internal accountability best?

 On Sri Lanka, the Juul memo said

Another example of weak handling from the Secretary-General’s side is the war in Sri Lanka. The Secretary-General was a powerless observer to civilians in their thousands losing their lives and being driven from their homes. The authorities in Colombo refused to receive the Secretary-General while the war was going on, but he was an honored guest -- and he accepted the invitation -- once the war had been “won.” Even though the UN’s humanitarian effort had been active and honorable enough, the Secretary-General’s moral voice and authority have been absent.

  The memo also criticized Ban for choosing weak Under Secretaries General and not allowing them to talk. Suddenly, this week there are press briefings by Pascoe, Alain Le Roy and Susana Malcorra. Two other Ban advisers spoke Friday, but only on background. And still not Gregory Staff of UN Security, nor UNDP's Helen Clark nor Ann Veneman of UNICEF, whose Colombo based spokesman James Elder is being thrown out.

   Have Ban Ki-moon and President Mahinda Rajapaksa, unlike Ban and Myanmar Senior General Than Shwe, agreed in advance to some photogenic win-win outcome of Pascoe's trip? Perhaps for Elder to be able to remain, or some symbolic release of some of the detained, albeit not to the regions they came from? We'll see -- Pascoe said to ask him "Friday or Saturday," so the UN should provide a read-out then. Watch this site.

Footnote: before Pascoe spoke, Ban's Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe answered yes when Inner City Press asked for on the record confirmation of its earlier story of Ban's telephone call to Rajapaksa.  Pascoe then described the call as straight forward, saying that Ban and Rajapaksa "have a very good relationship." Pascoe spoke on other topics at the press conference, that we will shortly be reporting on.

* * *

UN's Ban Speaks with Sri Lankan President, Internment Continues, S. Koreans Greeted

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, September 14 -- More than a week after Sri Lanka moved to expel UNICEF's spokesman James Elder, and months after two UN system staff members were grabbed and tortured, they say, by the government, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday morning called President Mahinda Rajapaksa, sources tell Inner City Press.

  They also say the issues were raised to Sri Lanka's new Ambassador to the UN Palitha Kohona on September 11. Earlier that day, Ban's Deputy Spokesperson told Inner City Press that the formal presentation of credentials to Mr. Ban by Ambassador Kohona, reportedly denied a visa by the UK, was "not a meeting," and that issues would not be raised.

  The question, however, is what will actually change inside Sri Lanka, where the UN continues funding what UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay calls internment camps. It's said that Ban's director of the Department of Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe will tell the Press about the issue at a press conference later on Monday. But there are other questions for him as well. Watch this site.

UN's Ban presses flesh with M. Rajapaksa, changes not seen

 Footnote: On the UN's second story, between the Security Council and Delegates' Lounge, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appeared Monday morning with an entourage including chief of staff Vijay Nambiar but not his deputy, and took photos with a group in from Seoul preparing the South Korean delegation's visit to the General Assembly meetings later this month.

  Later they were escorted by one of Ban's security officers to the elevators that head to the 38th floor. Some wondered if the similar preparatory delegations of other countries are given the same treatment. Time will tell.

* * *

On Sri Lankan Torture and Exclusion, UN Gives Run Around, HSBC into Jaffna

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, September 13 -- With Sri Lanka refusing to let even the International Committee of the Red Cross see 10,000 of the people it has detained since May, while moving to expel UNICEF's Colombo-based spokesman James Elder, at the United Nations last week Inner City Press asked what Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will in fact do.

  On September 10, Inner City Press asked about the torture of two UN system staff members, first reported on by Inner City Press, and received in return a canned statement that Ban would raise the issue to President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

   But the next day, when Inner City Press asked a Ban adviser who asked to be called only a "senior UN official" how Ban will proceed, since Rajapaksa canceled his attendance to the upcoming General Assembly meeting, two different answers emerged.

   The "senior UN official" said that "in the absence of Rajapaksa, the Prime Minister will be here. The new Ambassador, today, I think some of the issues will be raised." But moments before from the same rostrum, Ban's Deputy Spokesman Marie Okabe told Inner City Press that the day's presentation of credentials by Palitha Kohona to Ban "is not a meeting," implying that no substantive issue would be raised. It was just a photo-op:

Inner City Press: Marie, the Sydney Morning Herald has said that James Elder of UNICEF, whose visa is being revoked, is now receiving... threats by phone in Sri Lanka. Is that something that the UN is aware of, and will that issue and the issue of the two staff members that were allegedly tortured be raised by the Secretary-General to the new ambassador, Mr. [Palitha] Kohona, that he’s meeting today for the presentation of credentials?

Deputy Spokesperson Okabe: I am not aware of that report and, as you know, the presentation of credentials is not a meeting. He’s meeting a number of them -- I don’t have the whole list -- so it’s not an opportunity for him to sit down and have a meeting with them. But I mentioned to you yesterday and earlier this week that the Secretary-General, in his statement earlier this week, has said that he plans to be in touch with the President of Sri Lanka on both those issues.

Question: But is the President of Sri Lanka coming to the General Assembly? I thought he is actually not coming. So when is he going to speak to him?

Deputy Spokesperson: You’d have to ask the President of Sri Lanka whether he is coming to the General Assembly.

Question: When is the Secretary-General going to raise it to the President?

Deputy Spokesperson: I’ll let you know as soon as that happens.

  We're still waiting. British-based bank HSBC, on the other hand, is not waiting: with people still interned in the camps in Vavuniya, HSBC has bragged it is looking to move beyond Colombo and Kandy and open branch offices in Jaffna and elsewhere in the North. "HSBC is looking at opening branches in strategic locations in the North and East," its CEO for Sri Lanka and Maldives Nick A Nicolaou said.

  Some call it "banking on the bloodbath on the beach," and wonder how HSBC has to date escaped the boycott calls that have been directed at Victoria's Secret and GAP, including its ironically named Banana Republic brand.

A 2003 UN photo-op, Nicaragua's Hostage filing under watchful eyes

  With Sri Lanka reportedly on the verge of losing the EU's Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) Plus tariff concession for textile exports, some wonder if Victoria's Secret will be exposed, and the complacency of the Banana Republic shaken up. Watch this site.

Footnote: at the U.S. embassy in Colombo, even the Number 2 Ambassador Moore has left, on September 13, leaving a decided Number 3 in charge. Moore auto-tells interlocutors "I departed Colombo September 13 at the end of my assignment. I will be back on this email address in mid-October. Please contact Acting DCM Rebecca Cohn for assistance until September 30 and DCM Valerie Fowler thereafter." The Obama Administration's ambassador Patricia Butenis is not due, it's said, until the end of October...

Here was the UN's official response on September 10 to the allegations that at least two UN system staff members in Sri Lanka were tortured:

Inner City Press: There was a report today that two UN system staff members in Sri Lanka had been tortured during their incarceration. Can you give both an update on what the UN has done and whether the UN knows that these individuals have been tortured?

Deputy Spokesperson: The United Nations has been and is extremely concerned about the continuing case of two national UN staff members detained by the Sri Lankan authorities in late June. The two men were detained while deployed to Vavuniya by the United Nations without any notice to the Organization. The United Nations was immediately concerned about the “disappearance” of the staff, and protested strongly the manner of their detention, once discovered, with the Sri Lankan authorities, at many levels. The United Nations has been particularly concerned about suggestions that the two staff members may have been mistreated in the first days of their detention. If these allegations are validated, this would be a violation of Sri Lankan and international law.

The allegations were raised with the Government both orally and in writing, and the United Nations has assisted the two staff members to seek redress through the Sri Lankan legal system.

We call for due process to be swiftly applied. The Government should either notify the Secretary-General of the case and any charges against the two men and request for their immunity as UN staff to be waived, or they should be released.

I mentioned to you earlier that the Secretary-General had raised the issue when he met with the Sri Lankan President on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, shortly after these reports first came in.

The Secretary-General issued a statement earlier this week in which he said he would be contacting the President following the expulsion of the UNICEF staff member and during that conversation the Secretary-General obviously is expected to take up this case and express his serious concerns over their mistreatment. So that’s what I have for you.

We'll see.

* * *

As Sri Lanka Expels UNICEF Spokesman for Camp Comments, Ban Meeting Moot

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, September 5, updated Sept. 8 -- Two days ago we predicted that the government of Sri Lanka would expel UNICEF's Colombo-based spokesman James Elder, and said that the UN would have questions to answer. Now it has happened, and unnamed UNICEF officials are quoted that they will raise the issue to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Ban met with Sri Lanka's minister of human rights while in Geneva, ostensibly about the internment camps, the coming monsoon season and "accountability." Inner City Press asked Ban's Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe on September 4:

Inner City Press: I wanted to ask you about reports in Sri Lanka that in the [inaudible] IDP camps, that despite all counting, the governing agent of the [inaudible] district says that 10,000 people suddenly are not accounted for in the camps and only 2,000 are subject to visits from the ICRC. Is that something that OCHA or the UN, which has some involvement in the camps, can speak to?

Deputy Spokesperson: Specifically, on that incident or on the reports that you are mentioning, I suggest that you follow up with the agencies involved, but for those of you who may not have heard, yesterday, in Geneva, the Secretary-General did meet with the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights of Sri Lanka and they discussed the conditions in the camps for internally displaced persons, particularly with the approaching monsoon season. They also discussed the return of IDPs as well as the importance of free movement of people among the camps and free movement of UN and international humanitarian workers. They talked about the importance of reconciliation and they also discussed accountability, particularly in the light of recent accusations of extrajudicial executions.

Inner City Press: But did they discuss the issue of actual IDPs missing…?

Deputy Spokesperson: I think this covers a wide range of the bigger picture of the situation there.

Unless you're one of the people gone missing... Regarding the meeting, either Ban was not forceful, or he has no sway with the Sri Lankans -- less than 48 hours after this meeting, which Okabe called big picture, a UN system spokesperson in Colombo was expelled. Now what will Ban do?

UN's Ban and Geneva meeting, expulsion not shown

UNICEF, at least at the top level, is hardly forceful in its uploading of international humanitarian law. UNICEF director Ann Veneman in a recent online Q&A session -- this way she can choose which questions to answer, unlike in the UN briefing room she has not appeared in for months -- was asked

Q: What is UNICEF doing to help the children held as prisoners in camps in Sri Lanka?

Veneman: UNICEF is providing humanitarian assistance in the camps for internally displaced people in Sri Lanka, including safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, vaccinations and nutrition assistance. It is also involved in providing protection for children in the camps, especially those who have been separated from their families and are at risk of neglect, abuse and exploitation. We continue to be greatly concerned about children who have been impacted by conflict in Sri Lanka. UNICEF also works throughout Sri Lanka supporting health, education and protection programmes for children.

Did she not read the word "internment"?

Flashback: Inner City Press' September 3 prediction stated that "something else that Ban Ki-moon may have to be asked to respond to is what Colombo sources say is the impending expulsion of UNICEF's James Elder, for speaking, how ever diplomatically, about the problems in the UN-funded internment camps." Now what?

Update: And then three days later:

From: unspokesperson-donotreply [at]

Sent: 9/8/2009 12:35:43 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time

Subj: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sri Lanka

Statement Attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

The Secretary-General strongly regrets the decision of the Sri Lankan Government to expel Mr. James Elder, Spokesman for UNICEF in Sri Lanka. The Secretary-General expresses his full confidence in the work of the United Nations in Sri Lanka, which includes making public statements when necessary in an effort to save lives and prevent grave humanitarian problems. The United Nations is working impartially to assist the people of Sri Lanka, and the Government should be supporting and cooperating with its efforts.

The Secretary-General will take up this issue with President Rajapaksa at the earliest opportunity and will continue to urge him to implement all the commitments made in their joint statement after the Secretary-General’s visit to Sri Lanka in May.

We'll see.

Inner City Press' June 18 debate on Sri Lanka, click here

  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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