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UN's Holmes Expected His Comments on Tamils Would Not Be Reported, Access Conditioned on Air-Brushed Coverage?

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

UN PLANE / COPENHAGEN, May 24, modified May 26 at NGO request -- Nearing the end of UN Secretery General's Ban Ki-moon's 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 Pascoe 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.

   Holmes 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."

   Imagine 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 receive e-mails from members of a group that feels itself under fire.

   Along with four other stories, 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 Press.)

  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 part about Holmes deleting Tamils' emails and other things he said. Click here the modified story; the original was replaced on on Saturday before the UN trip to north Sri Lanka.

   Hours 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.

  "But you never said 'on background'" --

   "It 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 people remained.

  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 the record.

  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

   Inner 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 advertised as a trip by Ban Ki-moon, with no mention of Holmes. One can cover humanitarian issues without any discretionary access to the emergency relief coordinator.

  In public record press conferences, Inner City Press has in the past asked Holmes about such issues as OCHA losing $10 million 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.

Footnote: 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?

 To ensure 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.

   But 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.

   For 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 Political Affairs 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, does 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

From: [Name omitted to avoid retaliation]
To: [ ]
Cc: Inner City Press
Sent: 5/24/2009 1:12:26 P.M. Eastern Standard Time

I send this Email to U.N

If 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 control.

You all failed to save thousands of civilians, so the blood is all over your hand too.


1. When all NGOs and Media were kicked out of Vanni (Northern sri lanka), UN didn’t say anything

2. 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 kept quite.

3. Mr Nambiar went to sri lanka and never said anything to the public, WHY? I hope it is not classified!! Is it??

4. Why UN Secretary General Mr. Moon didn't go to sri lanka when urgent help was needed?

The answer given was “he is too busy” or he gave the time to GoSL to “finish off” LTTE at any cost.

5. Russia and China was blocking the formal discussion at the Security Council. Why there is no request from UN Secretary General, Mr. Moon?

6. UN has the duty to protect civilians anywhere in the world if they are killed by the state governments (Responsibility to Protect Act).

UN has miserably failed in sri Lanka.

* * *

   There followed a summary of what John Holmes told NGOs behind closed doors, which even filing from Sri Lanka we'll run in full:

John Holmes

Timing 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];

Trip will be de facto a 12-hr day; he cannot extend;

Plan 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 happen);

It's "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;

On 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...

Have 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;

On 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;

LTTE 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;

Will be pretty hard to get UN political presence in country; govt very resistant, uses "home-grown solution" language very deliberately;

On the doctors: they are in detention but are 'healthy' and 'ok, as far as one can be ok in detention' ;

On UNSC: we have not focused on that, happy to brief if requested;

The strategy is still to keep on with high-level visits, but will see how this will happen;

On numbers: we have no idea how many have died in the last three days. Generally, hard to verify numbers, so have been using "some


[Later 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 continues.

It 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."

Inner 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.

Click here for a short list, compiled on the plane, of other issues Ban might look into in Sri Lanka

Footnote / 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.

And see, a 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

13 May 2009

Dear Sir / Madam,

Heavy 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.


Regional director of Health Services

Kilinochchi (Now at No Fire Zone)

  From the UN's May 18 noon briefing transcript:

Inner 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 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 care...(interrupted)?

Deputy Spokesperson Okabe: Well, that’s the subject that I think John Holmes is going to come and talk to you about right now.

Inner 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?

Deputy 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.

But what about the doctors?

 On Thursday May 7, Inner City Press asked Associate UN Spokesperson Farhan Haq:

Inner 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.

Associate 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.

Inner 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 planning.

Associate 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?

Associate 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 ambassadors.

Question: And why wasn’t it on the schedule?

Associate 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.

  On Friday May 8, Inner City Press asked Deputy Spokesperson Okabe:

Inner 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?

Deputy 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.

 Channel 4 in the UK with allegations of rape and disappearance

  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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