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When Sri Lanka Ordered Doctors Out of Conflict Zone, UN Said Nothing

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

UNITED NATIONS, April 23 -- A week after he was sent for the UN to Sri Lanka and two days after he returned, Vijay Nambiar has yet to speak to the Press about his mission. Thursday Inner City Press asked UN Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe why Nambiar skirted the media stakeout Wednesday outside the Security Council meeting on Sri Lanka, if he stopped in India on his way back to New York and if so who he met with, and if he could be made available at such a stakeout or press conference. "I don't think so," Ms. Okabe said to the last request, attempt to permit no other questions. Video here, from Minute 36:56.

  Instead, the UN's Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator Catherine Bragg took questions, with nothing allowed to be asked beyond the artificially limited humanitarian issue. Inner City Press asked Ms. Bragg about reported intimidation of doctors in northern Sri Lanka by the government, including their removal earlier this year from government payrolls if they stayed to treat patients in the conflict zone.

  Ms. Bragg said that the UN "only heard this through the NGOs" on April 22. Video here, from Minute 16:17.  But even the BBC pick up these reports, back on February 11. Does the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which operates the ReliefNet web site and oversees a separate IRIN reporting service, not even monitor BBC about the exclusion of doctors from where civilians need them?

   Another reason for the UN to check the BBC: they quoted Defense Secretary (and Presidential brother) Gotabhaya Rajapakse saying that it was not sensible to send a mission to the "No Fire" zone as called for by Ban Ki-moon. Rajapakse said "it would not be sensible to let aid agencies into the conflict zone because there was already an army operation in progress to rescue civilians."  Now what?

UN's Catherine Bragg and Marie Okabe, Vijay Nambiar not shown

  Inner City Press asked Ms. Bragg when the UN had in fact complained to the government about the 13 UN staff who, along with their families, are being detained in the government's internally displaced person's camps. I don't have that timeline, Ms. Bragg said. Her spokesperson has said the complaints began in February, but the Sri Lanka government says the first they heard from the UN was a letter on April 15 from the UN's Country Representative Neil Buhne.

   Buhne, who has been described to Inner City Press even by senior Ban Ki-moon advisers as having gotten far too close to the Sri Lankan government, has been approved by the government to head a "technical" mission to the conflict zone. Inner City Press asked Ms. Bragg if anyone other than Mr. Buhne had been considered. Ms. Bragg insisted that the UN had chosen Mr. Buhne. But there are senior UN officials who are embarrassed by him.

   Bigger picture, Inner City Press asked Ms. Bragg why her Office and the UN had not noticeably complained when NGOs and journalists were excluded from northern Sri Lanka by the government, in contrast to the noise made about 10 international NGOs expelled from Darfur in Sudan. Ms. Bragg focused on a more recent time, saying that Ban Ki-moon has issued more statements about Sri Lanka this year than any other country. Video here, from Minute 22:54.

   But these statements haven't even called for a cease-fire.  It is said that Ban will return Friday afternoon from the most recent of his many trips, this time passing through Malta. Watch this site.

Footnote: We continue to wait for the UK's formal answer to the first of the two questions which Inner City Press asked the UK Mission to the UN two questions on Sri Lanka early on April 15:

Does the UK believe that international law and the rights of UN humanitarian staff are being violated by the now-acknowledged detention of UN staff in the Sri Lankan government's “IDP” camps?

It has been reported this morning that Sri Lanka's “minister also told the British Foreign Secretary that there was concern that the LTTE would continue to consolidate its fortification of the No-Fire Zone.” Please confirm the accuracy of that, and of this and if so, does the UK interpret it as saying that an offensive on the No-Fire Zone and the civilians in it will begin? What did the UK Foreign Secretary say?

  As of this press time eight days later, the formal answer has been referral to Minister Miliband's April 12 statement, and this. On April 21, Inner City Press put the question to U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, whose spokesman the following day cleared this response:  "UN personnel should have freedom of movement and be treated with respect." But they are still detained as of this writing. As more answers arrive or are released we will report them on 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.

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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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