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As UN Accused of Spying in Sri Lanka, Satellite Photo Withholding Continues

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

UNITED NATIONS, May 4 -- With civilian deaths continuing in Sri Lanka's conflict zone, the UN says it cannot confirm the number or cause of casualties, nor formally release satellite photographs showing craters from shells dropped from the remaining air force on the island: the government's.

   Last week, Inner City Press questioned top UN humanitarian John Holmes about why the UNOSAT photos of April 19 were withheld, when photos of Gaza were released in real time during that conflict. On May 4, after Inner City Press asked about it again at the UN noon briefing, the following arrived as an e-mailed response:

Subj: From OCHA, for you
From: Deputy Spokesperson at
To: Inner City Press
Sent: 5/4/2009 6:43:45 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time

UNOSAT produces a complex range of satellite–derived products and analyses in support of work of the UN in response to and recovery  from natural disasters and complex emergencies. These are based on the interpretation of commercially available satellite imagery from medium to very high resolution.

As a matter of principle, UNOSAT publicly posts maps, data and analytical reports in order to facilitate access to geographic  information by the international humanitarian community, in  particular during natural disasters in order to facilitate planning.

In cases of conflict and complex emergencies UNOSAT follows the advice of the UN humanitarian entities in charge of operations on the ground to maximize the efficiency of humanitarian aid.

This approach was applied to the UNOSAT analyses of the situation within the conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka. Two specific maps were publicly posted by us in February and March 2009, which were intended to facilitate planning to receive the displaced.

As concern continued to mount about the situation of IDPs on the ground in the conflict zone, UNOSAT continued to commission imagery showing the position of civilians.  

  While appreciated, the response only raises more questions, or sharpens them.

UNITAR's Carlos Lopes on April 29, release of photos not shown

 Particularly if UNOSAT (and UNITAR, which runs it) released February and March photos, why did they not release the April 19 photos and analysis? Inner City Press was told by UNOSAT's interlocutors at the UN in New York that new photos will be released, but as the UN closed on May 4, they had not been released, as least not where and as earlier month's photos were.

  In Colombo, the government was dispute the leaked photos, and pro-government press was accusing the UN and Ban Ki-moon of "spying." This has been raised to the UN; we'll see what they do next. 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.

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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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