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As UK Questioned on Arms Exports to Sri Lanka, No Action at UN on Flooded Camps

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, August 19 -- As in London a House of Commons report zeroed in and requested answers on UK licensed arms sales to Sri Lanka in the run-up to this year's bloodbath on the beach, at the UN in New York UK Ambassador John Sawers emphasized that he would only take questions, including on Sri Lanka, in his capacity as the president of the Security Council for this month.

   Inner City Press asked Ambassador Sawers, since the Council earlier this year held meetings about Sri Lanka without putting it on the Council's formal agenda, about the flooding on the UN funded internment camps and the call by various human rights groups that those locked up in the camps be allowed to leave. Video here, from Minute 3:29.

   "There is no request for a meeting on Sri Lanka in any format," Sawers said adding that Sri Lanka is of concern "to a number of Council member" and will be kept "under review." But how? The lack of action by the UN at any level, even as the government in Colombo blames it for the breakdown in sewage systems in the camps, highlights the effect of the UK not having called a procedural vote to put Sri Lanka on the Council's agenda.

  If the situation in Manik Farms camps were to be happening in the camps in Darfur, the Council it seems clear would consider and speak on it. But since the UK, by Sawers' own account, chose Council unanimity over a split but winning vote to put Sri Lanka on the agenda, now ongoing abuses there are not being considered.

  It appears that Council members, even those who expressed concern earlier this year, are not even staying informed on the situation. Inner City Press asked Mexico's Ambassador Claude Heller about the flooding and he said he was not aware of it, but would look into it. While that's to be commended, is it any surprise then that Sawers replied that no request for a meeting on Sri Lanka has been made?

  After Sawers' answer, Inner City Press asked a spokesperson for the UK Mission to the UN about the House of Commons report, Scrutiny of Arms Export Controls (2009). Sawers had emphasized he would only answer as Council president, and so this troubling but UK specific report could not be asked about.

  Later on Wednesday the UK mission responded to Inner City Press that there is a review of the licenses for exports to Sri Lanka ongoing, that some licenses might be revoked. The spokesperson noted that some licenses were rejected, for example for weapons or ammunition, and said that those grants were mostly for "humanitarian or dual" use.

  Inner City Press asked how the UK could verify how the items were used, if its personnel along with all independent media were excluded from the northern part of Sri Lanka as now from the camps. The spokesperson said that the UK wouldn't reply on the media for verification anyway. But how then is the verification done?

Behind barbed wire in the Manik Farms, sewage not shown

  The spokesperson said that there has not been any discussion within the UK Mission to the UN about the situation in the camps, that such discussion might take place in London, mostly because of the Tamil diaspora there. But given the UK Mission's publicly stated decision not to call what they say would have been a victorious but split vote to put Sri Lanka on the Council's agenda, some expect a more robust response from the UK when the internment camps it is is part funding, including through the UN, become threatened by epidemics and the people not allowed to leave. We'll see.

From the House of Commons' Scrutiny of Arms Export Controls (2009)

Sri Lanka

123. In the course of our evidence sessions, we raised our concerns with witnesses on the

subject of Sri Lanka. On 11 March 2009, we asked representatives of the Export Group for

Aerospace and Defence (EGAD) to what extent they saw similarities between exporting

arms to Sri Lanka and Israel. David Hayes, Chairman of EGAD, told us that an embargo

would be “a matter for Government, not for industry”.180 However, Nigel Knowles, Vice

Chairman of EGAD, felt able to offer an argument against an embargo, citing the leverage

generated by trade. He suggested that it was sometimes necessary “to take a little grief in

order to keep a friendship”.181 We were not persuaded either by the leverage generated in

this case, or indeed the general principle. Indeed, the Campaign Against Arms Trade notes

in its written memorandum that the Defence Industrial Strategy concluded that “the

balance of argument about defence exports should depend mainly on non-economic


124. We pursued the issue of Sri Lanka with Bill Rammell at our session on 22 April

2009.183 He told us that the FCO’s judgment was that an embargo, or the threat of one, was

not the best vehicle for trying to secure a ceasefire.184 Using an embargo signalled “the end

of the diplomatic road” and demonstrated that a lot of influence had been lost.185 The

Minister told us that few licences had been granted for exports to Sri Lanka since the

beginning of 2007 which he cited as evidence of procedures being effective.186

125. The issue of Sri Lanka illustrates the difficulties faced by the Government, and by

those who, like us, scrutinise the licensing decisions made by Government, in assessing

how exports of arms might be used by the destination country at a future date, particularly

if political situation in the country at the time of the exports appears stable. Bill Rammell

told the Committees that licensing decisions were based on evidence from FCO posts,

from NGOs, newspaper and media reports and a variety of other sources.187 He said that

you make judgments based on the situation at the time; you do not make judgments for

ever and a day.”188 In its submission to us, Saferworld listed the type of weapons that had

been licensed for export to Sri Lanka from 1997 onwards, including the period of the

fragile ceasefire starting in 2002.189 During the ceasefire, a wide variety of military

equipment and weapons were exported to Sri Lanka, and, due to the extremely limited

access of international observers to Sri Lanka, it is impossible to be certain how many of

those weapons were used subsequently against the civilian population when hostilities

began to escalate again in 2006. Bill Rammell argued that few licences had been issued for

Sri Lanka since 2007, but accepted that the international community had not focussed

enough on what had been happening in Sri Lanka.190 We note the fact that in the period 1

April 2008 to 31 March 2009, 34 licences were issued for export to Sri Lanka, and we will

be keeping a keen eye on all future exports.

126. We conclude that the policy of assessing licences to Sri Lanka on a case-by-case

basis is, in our opinion, appropriate. However, we recommend that the Government

should review all existing licences relating to Sri Lanka and provide in its Response an

assessment of what implications the situation in Sri Lanka will have on how the Foreign

and Commonwealth Office judges the possible future use of strategic exports by that

country and the risk that the export licensing criteria might be breached. We further

recommend that the Government provide in its Response an assessment of what UK

supplied weapons, ammunition, parts and components were used by the Sri Lankan

armed forces in the recent military actions against the Tamil Tigers.

With UN Silent on Flooding of Sri Lankan Camps, Aid Groups Plead for Release of IDPs

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, August 18 -- While the UN refuses to address the flooding of the Manik Farms detention camps it built and is funding in Sri Lanka, the aid groups which offer services there have petitioned not only the government but also the UN to at least release those imprisoned before the September monsoon season. The UN has said nothing. At the UN's noon briefing in New York on August 17, Inner City Press asked

Inner City Press: Over the weekend there was this flooding of the UN-funded camps, quite bad, and the Government has actually blamed the UN for it, has said the UN was responsible for building the camps and for sewage and which is now backed up and has now filled up the tents. Does the UN have any response either to what it’s going to do to solve this problem and also to being blamed by the Government for the problem?

Deputy Spokesperson Montas: We’ll try to get you something from OCHA. I don’t have anything from them this morning.

  More the 30 hours later, the UN has provided no statement and no response, even to the appeal from aid groups, that

We fear that once the monsoon rains set in after September there is significant likelihood of a major humanitarian catastrophe. Increasingly there is an overwhelming consensus amongst health, shelter and water experts that significant adverse monsoon conditions will develop in IDP sites that are well beyond the present capacity of aid agencies and the government response.

Shelter and Drainage Monsoon flooding and wind will expose structural limitations, destroying or damaging the majority of shelters. Additionally inadequate drainage will increase the risk of disease, whilst the resultant water logging will severely restrict vehicle access and hamper interventions to maintain and repair shelters in many areas.

Food Flooding will contaminate food supplies and render communal cooking areas unusable, whilst wet firewood will mean that people are unable to cook for themselves. This could lead to serious food shortages and malnutrition among an already vulnerable population.

Water and Sanitation Effluent and excreta will flood many areas of the camps contaminating drinking and bathing water and intensifying the risk of epidemics of life-threatening water-borne diseases, such as cholera, typhoid and diahorrea. Many sanitation and water purification facilities will have to be disconnected as a health and safety measure, threatening the viability of other essential facilities such as shelter.

Transport Flooding will make access roads impassable preventing food, dry clothes, life-saving medicines, and essential machine parts for restoring water and other essential aid services from reaching the affected IDP population.

The breakdown of services in these four vital areas, we believe, will create an unparalleled health risk threatening many thousands of lives.

Flooding in the internment camps: what is floating in the water?

...We increasingly believe that from a technical and logistical perspective, the present high concentration of people in such a vulnerable site as Menik Farm is unworkable, unsustainable and beyond the collective capacity of Humanitarian Agencies, the UN and the Government to manage in a way that would guarantee the safety and security of the IDP population.

We therefore urge the government and the UN to consider additional response strategies to ensure the health and well-being of the IDPs, particularly:

--An accelerated resettlement programme for Menik Farm IDPs under the government’s present 180–day program.

--Instigating a host family programme for thousands of IDPs who have access family in nearby areas. We believe as many as 50% of camp residents have relatives they can stay with during the monsoon.

We hope that you will give serious consideration to these proposals and we wish to reaffirm to you our common humanitarian concern and continuing cooperation.

    But there has as of yet been no response. It appears that top UN humanitarian John Holmes is out of the loop -- his deputy Catherine Bragg is representing OCHA on the first humanitarian day event at the UN on August 19 -- while UNHCR's country representative Amin Awad has appeared to excuse the government's detention and torture of UN staff. WFP has reportedly used Sri Lanka as the dumping place for employees it should have disciplined -- click here for Inner City Press' story.

   Conditions in the camps have gotten so bad that there is talk of an attempt to break out to survive -- or to be killed by the government. This is a low point for human rights, for the UN and humanitarian law. And it just keeps getting worse....

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

 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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