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On Sri Lanka, UN Dodges on Satellite Cover-Up and Arrest of Staff, UN TV

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

UNITED NATIONS, May 2 -- As in Sri Lanka death and disappearances continued last week, in New York the UN Secretariat dodged questions after question on the topic, apparently wishing that the government would just “finish the job,” as one UN official put it to Inner City Press. At the UN's noon media briefing on Monday, April 27, Inner City Press asked the first question of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson Michele Montas:

Inner City Press: On Sri Lanka, I wanted to know in light of the Secretary-General’s announcement last week that there will be a mission into the conflict zone by a humanitarian assessment, is that going forward or has it, as some of the reports have it, been blocked by the Government?

Spokesperson Monas: This is what John Holmes is trying to arrange.

Inner City Press: Currently, it was announced that it had been agreed to. Was it then un-agreed to?

Spokesperson Montas: It was agreed to. We don’t know where things are at this point. Mr. Holmes is there and he is the only one who has the answer to your question.

Inner City Press: And just also on Sri Lanka, I learned, and maybe you won’t know this off hand, but that in late 2008 two UN staff members were arrested by the Government. It now seems or I have been told and the UN didn’t say anything publicly, but some think they’re still being held. One is a UNHCR protection officer in Vavuniya; and the other one is a UNOPS driver; both arrested by the...[inaudible].

Spokesperson: I don’t have that information. We can certainly have it for you. All I can say is that right now we have 13 staff members who are in the zone of conflict; and that is really all I have.

   But the UN had more than 13 staff members in the conflict zone -- it's that at least 13 were detained in the government's IDP camps. On the two arrests, two days later John Holmes said that was the first he had heard of it.

UN's Montas and Holmes, answer in UN staff arrested in Sri Lanka not shown

 On Tuesday, April 28, Inner City Press asked Ms. Montas:

Inner City Press: I wanted to know if the UN has any response to the Government’s barring and denial of a visa to the Swedish Foreign Minister. There was a three-country team there. Does the UN think that was a useful move?

Spokesperson: We don’t have any reaction at this point on this.

Inner City Press: And Mr. Holmes had announced a $10 million CERF grant to Sri Lanka. Given the issues that have arisen about the camps and detention and lack of freedom of movement, [are] there any kind of conditions on that money? And was there any development on the 13 UN staff members still held in the camps?

Spokesperson: We have no new development on the 13 staff members. They are still there. I can also add that Mr. Holmes stressed yesterday -- when he spoke publicly -– he stressed with Government officials the need for a humanitarian pause to conduct an assessment of the conflict and to bring in emergency supplies, including food and medical supplies. And he also asked for access to the screening points and the need for the release of those 13 UN staff members, and approximately 207 members of non-governmental organizations who are also trapped in the area. But you can ask further questions. In terms of the Fund itself, you can ask Mr. Holmes tomorrow, since you’ll get a chance to talk to him tomorrow afternoon.

Inner City Press: Maybe I didn’t understand correctly, but when Mr. [Vijay] Nambiar [the Secretary-General’s envoy to Sri Lanka] returned, it seemed like the Secretary-General put out a statement that there had been a commitment by the Government to allow a humanitarian team into the conflict zone. Since it hasn’t happened yet -– and there’s some confusion about what was actually committed to -– I just want to ask again if it’s at all possible to have some opportunity with Mr. Nambiar that he speak to the press and say what took place over there. Since he was the envoy.

Spokesperson: I think what Mr. Nambiar has said was reflected in the statements we put out. He had received the agreement of the Government. So I don’t have any further comments on that. In terms of what had actually happened since Mr. Holmes met with the President, you can ask your question to Mr. Holmes.

Inner City Press: But Mr. Nambiar -– since Mr. [Ibrahim] Gambari [and other] various envoys that the Secretary-General sends, they almost always brief the press. And you always say, “We’ll make the request”, and then they’re possible. Is there some reason -– can Mr. Nambiar brief or can he give some statement of why he’s not doing it?

Spokesperson: He doesn’t have to do it, you know. Everything he said was reflected in the statements we put out.

   So despite the salary of a UN Under Secretary General, and the urgency of the situation in Sri Lanka, “he doesn't have to do it.” On Wednesday, April 29 Inner City Press asked Associate Spokesman Farhan Haq

Inner City Press: I wanted to ask about Sri Lanka first. There is a controversy about a UNOSAT document that’s come out that the UN had satellite photographs from Sri Lanka of, it’s called a damage report of craters in the no-conflict zone caused by artillery. So some are asking why the UN had these satellite photos and didn’t release them in this conflict as it did in Gaza and other situations. Are you aware of it, and can you explain what the policy of the UN is in releasing satellite photos of conflict zones?

Associate Spokesperson: As far as this particular question goes, I would urge you to wait until 3 p.m., when you will have John Holmes, who’s been leading our response to this over the last few days, and he’ll talk to the press about the situation in Sri Lanka.

Inner City Press: Has he also been in charge of things like this, like the release of satellite photos by UNOSAT?

Associate Spokesperson: He’s been dealing with the humanitarian issue on the ground, which is our focus. And so I’d ask you to try him out first.

Inner City Press: Also on Sri Lanka, can you first of all confirm that the Secretary-General has been asked to brief the Council tomorrow afternoon on Sri Lanka? And also, that at the luncheon that you discussed that the exclusion of Sweden’s Foreign Minister was raised to Ban Ki-moon, and if so, what’s his position on it?

Associate Spokesperson: I am not aware whether the issue of Mr. [Carl] Bildt was raised. Beyond that I would suggest that, for questions about what’s on the Council’s programme, to check with the Council Presidency whether this will be put on their programme. I do believe that this is something that some members of the Council have raised, but check with the Council Presidency whether this is actually going to be put on the programme for tomorrow or not.

   As we'll see -- or, note -- while the Council session did take place the UN did not send even a single UN TV camera, and then deflected all questions back to the Security Council, which has not spokesperson. On Thursday, April 30, Inner City Press asked Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe

Inner City Press: I wanted to –- there’s this controversy about satellite photographs that were taken in Sri Lanka from the air, that UNOSAT, apparently on behalf of UNITAR [United Nations Institute for Training and Research], got, but didn’t release to the public. So many people have started to ask, why did they release photos of Gaza, not of this photo?

I tried to figure out yesterday, Mr. [Carlos] Lopes [UNITAR Executive Director] said he has -– that there was a difference of how the photos -– who they were produced for. In Gaza, they were made for donors. It wasn’t clear to me who they were made for in Sri Lanka. Mr. Holmes said he has no problem with them being released, it’s up to UNITAR. Who is ultimately –- that’s a UN agency. Who decides that the photographs should be or shouldn’t be released, and why aren’t they being released?

Deputy Spokesperson: I don’t have anything beyond what Mr. Holmes told you about this.

Inner City Press: Mr. Holmes threw it back, I guess, to another part of the UN agencies. So we don’t have UNITAR here every day, so I guess I’m asking you on behalf of the UN system…

Deputy Spokesperson: UNITAR has not provided us with an explanation, so I recommend that you ask them directly.

Inner City Press: But he answers, Mr. Lopes answers to Ban Ki-moon, right? It’s a UN…

Deputy Spokesperson: I don’t have anything from them, so if you need an immediate answer, I would suggest you go to them.

   By week's end, no further explanation had been offered, nor photos made available. On Friday, May 1 Inner City Press asked Ms. Okabe:

Inner City Press: Yesterday, Mr. Holmes in his briefing of the Council mentioned his concerns and, I guess, the UN’s concerns about a memorandum of understanding that the Sri Lankan Government is trying to impose on non-governmental organizations that will require them to report information on everyone -- on people that they serve. Can the UN either provide a copy of the document or say more -- whether it has accepted conditions like this in any country in which OCHA does the mediating between NGOs and groups?

And, also, there was a lack of a UNTV camera yesterday. There was an informal interactive dialogue at the end of which the President of the Council came out to make a speech, which he thought was to the world, but somehow the decision was made not to have a camera. Who made that decision?

Deputy Spokesperson: As you mentioned yourself, Matthew, it was not a consultation or a meeting of the Security Council, so you’ll have to address that question to the Security Council President. I can’t comment on John Holmes’ comments during that session as it was not an official meeting. It was a closed interactive session, as you mentioned. And OCHA has provided the update today about the very dire situation in Sri Lanka. The Secretary-General’s concerns remain the same on this. So any further conversations about OCHA’s relations with NGOs, you should probably take up with OCHA directly.

Inner City Press: But the previous informal -- with the same exact format -- there was a camera and they started at exactly the same time. So I guess my question is, are you saying that it’s entirely up to the presidency?

Deputy Spokesperson: Please, address the Security Council on this issue.

   And so the week of UN noon briefings ended with another run-around on Sri Lanka. The Security Council didn't meet on Friday, and Russia takes over this month. This is all a new low for the UN Secretariat. Watch 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.

* * *

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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