Holmes Expected His Comments on Tamils Would Not Be Reported, Access
Conditioned on Air-Brushed Coverage?
Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis
PLANE / COPENHAGEN, May 24, modified
May 26 at NGO request -- Nearing the end of UN Secretery
16 hour tour of Sri Lanka, during which twenty
reporters were carted in two military helicopters from Colombo to
UN-funded interment camps then over the shattered No Fire Zone, a
question that arises
is why does the UN take the Press with it?
While it should be so that the UN's work and world problems can be
covered, some UN officials apparently feel
its a quid pro quo for
propaganda. Only what they say that casts them
in a heroic light should be reported. If they do not like a story,
they can shoot the messenger or try.
So it appears to some to be with John Holmes, the UN's
erstwhile humanitarian coordinator.
On the UN plane from Frankfurt to Sri Lanka, after Ban Ki-moon tpld the
Press that Holmes and his Department of Political Affairs chief Lynn
would brief, clearly on the record, Holmes came back to chat with a
photographer. Reporters gathered around and began some Q & A. At
no point did Holmes say that it was off the record.
In fact, when
Inner City Press asked him about UN
envoy Vijay Nambiar's brother
having written an op-ed praising Sri Lanka's assault on the Tamil
north and the general who led it, Holmes said no comment. This
strongly implies that answers
that are given are on the record.
proceeded to make a series of statements that were telling and
newsworthy. He expressed his view that Tamils in Sri Lanka long ago
became disillusioned with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. He said
the LTTE or Tamil Tigers were
"only supported by the diaspora," whose members barrage him with "a
lot of email, I just delete them anyway."
for a moment a UN humanitarian coordinator saying, Rwanda's Tutsis
besiege me with emails so I just delete them.
Imagine this said in
front of at least a half dozen journalists. Several or all of them
would report it. But Holmes appeared to count on the reporters on the
trip to Sri Lanka all sharing his view, about what a burden it is to
e-mails from members of a group that feels itself under fire.
none of which drew open complaint from any other UN official, Inner
City Press ran a short piece about
Holmes' comments, uploaded well past midnight from the UN-chosen
hotel in Colombo. The comment above seemed newsworthy and reflective
of an attitude wider-shared in the Secretariat. Holmes is thought to be
among the more articulate officials of this UN, often saying things
that others in the Ban administration cannot or will not.
Inner City Press
chose to leave unreported Holmes' comments about Mahinda Rajapaksa
and his Ambassador to the UN, and other comments about the Tamil
diaspora. (Click here
for Inner City Press' coverage of Holmes first 2009 visit to Sri Lanka,
see below for mere sample of email send to UN, cc-ed to Inner City
The next morning in the hotel lobby,
another reporter told Inner City Press that Holmes was angry that what
he had said had been published, and was expressing this anger to all
and sundry, including other journalists whom he correctly thought would
do his bidding. While Holmes never said "on
background" -- a term of art in journalist and at the UN which Holmes
has used in the past -- Inner City Press
nevertheless immediately that morning modified the story, excising the
Holmes deleting Tamils' emails and other things he said. Click here
the modified story; the original was replaced on InnerCityPress.com on
the UN trip to north Sri Lanka.
later, after a Ban Ki-moon speech in an open air World Food Program
warehouse in the Manik Farm interment camp for Tamils which the UN
funds, Inner City Press approached Holmes with at least some contrition
to tell him that the story had been
changed. "I won't talk to you anymore," Holmes said preemtively.
you never said 'on background'" --
wasn't even on background,"
Holmes said. "It was a casual
conversation. It is not serious, it is not professional." Then
Holmes walked away, to be flown
over the blasted "No Fire" zone where he had already said that no
Not only was Holmes speaking to the Press on the UN plane just after
Ban said Pascoe and Holmes would brief on the record in his stead,
Holmes also was or should have been on notice of the Press'
understanding when, for example, Inner City Press asked for comment on
a UNHCR staff member still jailed by the Sri Lankan government for his
mother have rented a room to an alleged LTTE member. (Click here
for the story, which Inner City Press told Holmes had been uploaded
from the Frankfurt airport while waiting for the UN plane. A UNHCR
official approached Inner City Press in Colombo with an answer, but
following Holmes, who knows for now if it is on the record.)
Holmes said he hadn't previously heard of the the humanitarian UN
system staffer's case -- typical -- but that "if the facts are as you
say." Such legalistic constructions, and Holmes' "no comment" to
the question about Satish Nambiar, implied that what Holmes said was on
In any event, different understandings of whether a comment is on the
record or not are common, particularly at the UN, where almost always a
perfunctory apology resolves the matter, and nearly
invariably a modification of the underlying articles does. Why is
Holmes or this Tamil topic, or Holmes and
this Tamil topic, so different?
Press, standing, questioning Holmes, who
minutes later claimed he was off the record
City Press came to Sri Lanka to cover the recent slew of deaths and
the inhuman UN-funded interment camps, not Holmes. In fact, it was
as a trip by Ban Ki-moon, with no mention of Holmes. One can cover
humanitarian issues without any discretionary access to the emergency
In public record press conferences, Inner City
Press has in the past asked Holmes about such issues as OCHA losing
to Myanmar's Than Shwe regime (and Zimbabwe) due to currency exchange
manipulations and OCHA not
advocating, at least publicly, for UN system humanitarian
staff detained and arrested by the Sri Lankan government. Perhaps
Holmes' advocacy on these issues was... off the record. Watch this site.
the symbiosis between media and UN was shown again during the flight
from Colombo. At first it was said that Ban would brief the gaggle of
reporters during the refueling stop in Bahrain. Holmes came half way
back and stood in the aisle. On the record? Off the record?
that Holmes' sensitivities wouldn't leave other reporters with fewer
quotes, which is the coin of this realm, Inner City Press stayed in
the back of the plane, awaiting Ban's appearance to ask about the
status of the doctors who in the conflict zone had offered treatment
and casualty numbers and are now detained, which Holmes said -- on the
record? -- would be raised.
Team Ban, apparently, went another way, summoning a few reporters for
one on one interviews for their local markets. Such access can better
be linked to positive coverage, they seem to feel.
Holmes, most symbiotic is the
British media, one outlet of which
was heard musing earlier this month, Holmes says he'd like to come on
at 1:15, but do we have any questions for him? Holmes is known to be
closely following the British Parliament scandals.
While some in humanitarian circles say
that ever since when at the UK government's nomination Holmes entered
the UN's Ban administration he really wanted the Department of
job, that might explain not only his comments assessing Tamil support
for the LTTE in a way a humanitarian coordinator shouldn't but also
his sensitivity to actual reporting of what he said without having
uttered the required "off the record" or "background." Or, they wonder,
Holmes still have his eye on a future in the UK?
While he is at the
UN, at least in the top humanitarian post, he shouldn't tell different
stories to NGOs and the press, or if
he does, he shouldn't be surprised it gets reported. The focus here
is, after all, the protection of civilians, not politics.
Here is a mere sample email sent to UN, cc-ed to Inner City Press
PLEASE DO NOT DENY THIS FACT
[Name omitted to avoid retaliation]
[ ] @un.org
Inner City Press
5/24/2009 1:12:26 P.M. Eastern Standard Time
send this Email to U.N
the entire World and the United Nations (UN) want to crush the LTTE,
you all should have planned it properly and NOT to depend on
government of sri lanka (GoSL). UN should have planned it properly to
build the accommodation and medical facility for all the 360,000
civilians expected to flee from the war zone. These displaced people
should be under international watch, but NOT under sri lankan army
all failed to save thousands of civilians, so the blood is all over
your hand too.
DO NOT DENY THIS FACT. Because:
When all NGOs and Media were kicked out of Vanni (Northern sri
lanka), UN didn’t say anything
UN told the GoSL not to use heavy weapons into the safety zone. At
that time you all knew what is happening to the civilians and all
Mr Nambiar went to sri lanka and never said anything to the public,
WHY? I hope it is not classified!! Is it??
Why UN Secretary General Mr. Moon didn't go to sri lanka when urgent
help was needed?
answer given was “he is too busy” or he gave the time to GoSL to
“finish off” LTTE at any cost.
Russia and China was blocking the formal discussion at the Security
Council. Why there is no request from UN Secretary General, Mr. Moon?
UN has the duty to protect civilians anywhere in the world if they
are killed by the state governments (Responsibility to Protect Act).
has miserably failed in sri Lanka.
followed a summary of what John Holmes told NGOs behind closed doors,
which even filing from Sri Lanka we'll run in full:
of the trip is "tricky," point is not to "join the
celebrations"; will have to be careful. [In-house, JH had
objected to the trip, as many of you know];
will be de facto a 12-hr day; he cannot extend;
is to go to camps; overfly conflict zone, depending on weather
conditions; meet President and other high-level officials; speak to
press; hopefully meet with civil society (not certain that would
"pretty clear there's nobody in the conflict zone, other than
soldiers." UN has flown over, nothing to be seen from
helicopter. Still, possible to have bodies/people in hiding;
overcrowding in camps: NGOs/UN has to be clear about what we want. Do
we want to move them to another camp or not? Clearly we want quick
returns but in the meantime...
not heard anything about [threat of] suspension of humanitarian
activities; just got off the phone with UN in SL; ICRC had raised
possibility but backed down;
disappearances: not clear how many are sinister. Known that hard-line
cadres are given over to police and are sent to rehabilitation
centres. Reasonably clear that GoSL will try to make sure remaining
LTTE top leadership won't make it out alive;
lower cadres are not really separated from civilians, all enter camps
together, which is not necessarily a good thing, because all are then
viewed as suspects;
be pretty hard to get UN political presence in country; govt very
resistant, uses "home-grown solution" language very
the doctors: they are in detention but are 'healthy' and 'ok, as far
as one can be ok in detention' ;
UNSC: we have not focused on that, happy to brief if requested;
strategy is still to keep on with high-level visits, but will see how
this will happen;
numbers: we have no idea how many have died in the last three days.
Generally, hard to verify numbers, so have been using "some
on, an OCHA staffer advised NGOs to press the issue of MoUs, also to
create more space for the pro-active Holmes.]
...There is no real push-back to the exclusion of vehicles from the IDP
camps. The minutes say that ICRC (the Red Cross) "backed down."
While some UN sources have told Inner City Press that UN staff are
threatening a de facto boycott, Holmes told the Press on the plane
ride to Sri Lanka that this is not the case, that access and work
appears that the Secretariat may not even push to have Ban Ki-moon
briefing the Security Council upon his return to New York. Then
again, in April Ban Ki-moon was only in New York three times, for a
total of five days. A lot is being "phased out."
City Press will be accompanying Ban and Holmes on their whirlwind
tour May 23 and will report on it in real time to the degree possible
given the host country's control of the tour and the lack of internet
access. Watch this site.
here for a short list, compiled on the plane, of other issues Ban might
look into in Sri Lanka
/ full disclosure: this reporter has been granted a visa, albeit for
only two days, gratis by the
Sri Lankan mission to the UN. A request for more
than two days resulted in instructions to write a letter, which will
be considered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Colombo “after a
background check.” Watch this site.
May 13 Inner City Press debate on Sri Lanka, here
Ambulance aflame in "No Fire" Zone, May 13, 2009
In the final week of
fighting we ran this message, from Dr. Sathiyamoorthy
Sir / Madam,
battle started since 5.30 am. Many wounded civilians were brought to
hospital and hospital is not providing services because hospital was
under shell attack. Few staff reported duty. nearly thousand patients
are waiting to get daily treatment. But even simple wound
dressing and giving antibiotics problems. So many wounded have to
die. In the ward among patients many death bodies are there.
Looking hospital seen and
hearing the civilians cry really disaster. Did
they make any mistake do the world by the innocent. But the
important sta[keholders] are just listening the situation and not
helping the people.
director of Health Services
(Now at No Fire Zone)
From the UN's
May 18 noon briefing transcript:
City Press: on Mr. Nambiar. Can you say whether while he is there
the issue...there are some saying that there are many people that are
now injured in the (inaudible) care in what had been called the no
fire zone; and that the ICRC has no access. Is this something
that...is this in the case there some doctors who used to report on
the casualty figures who have gone missing as reported in the
Guardian and the Independent. Are these issues, I mean you mentioned
he’s talking about the IDPs instead of post-conflict; what about
people that are actually at this moment sort of dying without medical
Spokesperson Okabe: Well, that’s the subject that I think John
Holmes is going to come and talk to you about right now.
City Press: Burt can you say whether Mr. Nambiar, I guess I am just
wondering... -- John Holmes is not there, Mr. Nambiar is -- is this
an issue that the UN is urgently raising with the Government or not?
Spokesperson Okabe: The Chef de Cabinet’s visit, as we mentioned
to you, focuses exactly on the same issues that I just mentioned;
which are the United Nations’ and the Secretary-General’s
concern. Now, obviously the immediate humanitarian needs on the
ground are the utmost priority for all of us.
what about the doctors?
May 7, Inner City Press
asked Associate UN Spokesperson Farhan Haq:
City Press: I wanted to ask about this invitation that’s been made
to the Secretary-General to visit Sri Lanka. First I wanted to ask
if on Monday when he met with the Ambassador of Japan, whether he was
briefed on a visit by Mr. [Yasushi] Akashi to Sri Lanka and was urged
by Japan that he should take this visit. And I also wanted to know
whether he would be in New York 11 May for the Middle East debate,
and 15 May to meet with the Chinese diplomats, that in fact this is
one reason that he is considering not going, as I have been told by
senior Secretariat staff.
Spokesperson Haq: Well, first of all, we don’t announce the trips
of the Secretary-General until they are close to occurring. And in
that regard, I don’t have anything to announce about a trip to Sri
Lanka at this stage. At the same time, as Michèle told you
yesterday, and is still true for today, if the Secretary-General
believes that visiting Sri Lanka can have an impact in terms of
saving lives there, he will certainly try to go. So he is
considering that. But part of what he is studying is what the impact
of a potential trip would be.
City Press: But if he had that belief, that would be without regard
to attending the 11 May Middle East thing or the 15 May meeting with
the Chinese diplomats? I am told that’s a major factor in his
Spokesperson: Scheduling is a separate issue. What we’re talking
about is the decision of whether or not to go. And certainly if he
can make a difference and can save civilian lives, which is what his
priority has been on this case, then he will go. At present, we
don’t have anything to announce at all in this regard, though.
Question: Just one last
one on that. I wanted to know, can you at least
confirm that he met with Ambassador Takasu on Monday in his office
inside the Security Council? Can you give a read-out of that meeting
and say why it wasn’t on his public schedule?
Spokesperson: I can confirm that he met with the Permanent
Representative of Japan. He did that, yes. It was in his office in
the Security Council. We don’t provide readouts of meetings with
Question: And why wasn’t
it on the schedule?
Spokesperson: It came up all of a sudden when he had a bit of free
time in between other appointments on a fairly hectic day.
May 8, Inner City Press asked Deputy
City Press: On the invitation by the Government of Sri Lanka to the
Secretary-General to visit, is there any progress in thinking? In
the alternative, is the Secretary-General, is he considering invoking
Article 99 or responsibility to protect or making some other move of
some type on the situation in Sri Lanka?
Spokesperson: I have nothing beyond what we’ve been saying from
this podium this week on Sri Lanka, including what the
Secretary-General himself has said earlier this week.
What Ban said
did not involve calling for a cease-fire. Watch this site.
4 in the UK with allegations of rape and
for an Inner City Press YouTube channel video, mostly UN Headquarters
footage, about civilian
in Sri Lanka.
Click here for Inner City
Press' March 27 UN debate
Click here for Inner City
Press March 12 UN (and AIG
Click here for Inner City
Press' Feb 26 UN debate
12 debate on Sri Lanka http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/17772?in=11:33&out=32:56
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.
* * *
usually also available through Google
News and on Lexis-Nexis.
for a Reuters
AlertNet piece by this correspondent
about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click
for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece about the Somali
Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an
undefined trust fund. Video
Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017
earlier Inner City Press are listed here, and some are available
in the ProQuest service, and now on Lexis-Nexis.
2006-08 Inner City Press, Inc. To request
reprint or other permission, e-contact Editorial [at]