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With 6432 Dead in Sri Lanka, UN Council Takes Over Press Room, UNHCR Funds Detention Camps, "Collective Punishment"

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

UNITED NATIONS, April 24 -- The UN descended into chaos on Friday on the topic of Sri Lanka. In Colombo, the UN gave diplomats an updated chart of civilian casualties, with the death count having risen to 6432 since January 20, up from 2683 as of March 7. Inner City Press exclusively published the first report, and now places online this second one, here. In response to Inner City Press' questions on Friday, UN Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe said that these UN figures "may be a reasonable estimate." Video here, from Minute 10:29.

   While the 3749 minimum additional civilians were being killed, the UN Security Council has held three informal meetings, the last on April 22 with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's envoy, Vijay Nambiar. Ban claimed the Nambiar had won a commitment from the government to a UN humanitarian assessment mission to the conflict zone. But the government of Sri Lanka has now said such a trip is not necessary or feasible.

   Friday morning, Inner City Press asked a range of Council diplomats what they would do, given this new development. One senior diplomat from a Permanent Member of the Security Council opposed to adding Sri Lanka to the Council's formal agenda told Inner City Press that Ban had made a mistake by speaking publicly about what Nambiar said he had won.  He said that his country, as supporter and funder of the government of Sri Lanka, believes that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam uses UN Council meetings to argue to civilians to stay with them in the conflict zone. Whether UN Webcasts can be seen there is not clear.

  Nevertheless, even this Council member later on Friday agreed that Council president Claude Heller of Mexico could read out his second "remarks to the press" about Sri Lanka in three days, this time encouraging the government to cooperate with the UN to visit the conflict zone.

   When Ambassador Heller read this out -- more below on how and where he did this -- Inner City Press asked, is the Council calling for a ceasefire?  No, Heller said. Video here, from Minute 15:48.

   Inner City Press asked if Heller or the Council had seen the UN's count of 6432 dead civilians. Heller replied that the Council on Wednesday had "no opportunity to discuss the casualties." Video here, from Minute 13:31. What then have they been discussing?

Amb. Heller in near-empty Council, run to near-empty press room described below

  The manner of Heller's presentation was without precedent at the UN.  In the UN's briefing room, UNHCR's representative in Sri Lanka Amin Awad was answering questions about his agency's work with the government on camps. Of the camps, he said the government was given an "aide memoire" which he would now try to make public, and that the camps "should not be collective punishment."

  Midway through, after Inner City Press had asked about charges that the UN is working with and funding detention camps in violation of international humanitarian law, suddenly Ambassador Heller and his spokesman, UK Ambassador John Sawers and other Council staffers, burst into the room. They stood along the wall, as cell phone filmed by Inner City Press.

  A note was handed to UN Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe, and she asked Amin Awad to leave the rostrum. Heller took his place, and read out his and the Council's "remarks to the press." He tried to immediately leave, but Inner City Press asked a question about the UN's casualty figures, and if the UN's Neil Buhne trip to Jaffna was the mission to the conflict zone that the UN is speaking of. Video here, from Minute 13:31.

  Heller replied that now John Holmes of OCHA is going to "the region." Does this mean the conflict zone? Heller didn't answer. He was asked if this was a formal Council statement. He called it "remarks to the press," and said it was the "best way to agree." But agree on what?

    Inner City Press is told that Heller and Sawers came out of the Security Council but found few to no journalists waiting to hear the remarks meant for them. Much of the UN press corps elsewhere, covering a committee meeting about listing companies which helped North Korea's recent launch.

  Frustrated, Heller headed for the media briefing room, figuring he'd find reporters there to hear the Council's remarks. There were perhaps a half-dozen journalists in the room, listening to Amin Awad. In fact, at the beginning of the briefing Ms. Okabe had indirectly apologized, saying that many reporters would be "watching in their rooms."

  Now the under-attended humanitarian briefing about refugees was converted into the forum for the full Council's scripted "remarks to the press." UK Ambassador Sawers showed himself -- he did not go to the rostrum or consent to taking questions -- while France's Ambassadors Ripert or LaCroix were nowhere to be seen. The U.S., it was said, was represented by Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo, with Susan Rice being in Washington, most surmised.

   Once Heller left the stage, Inner City Press asked Amin Awar about a comment Amb. DiCarlo had made, that IDP camps that do not comply with international humanitarian law should only be funded for so long. Amin Awar said that UNHCR has to be there, that there may be bilateral talks he is not privy to. Video here, from Minute 27:25.

   On the elevator going down to the UN lobby, he told Inner City Press that in Washington earlier in the week he had met with Inter-Action and testified to Congress along with NGOs. Inner City Press asked him about reports that the government of Sri Lanka is funding DC-based firm Patton Boggs to represent its interests.  I didn't know that, Amin Awar said. And so it goes at the UN.

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 nine 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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