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As Death Spikes in Sri Lanka and Press is Deported, UN Sees No Evil, Getting Late for Visit

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

UNITED NATIONS, May 10 -- As the pace of civilian death in North Sri Lanka picked up over the weekend, the government moved to deport journalists who exposed the mistreatment of Tamil displaced people in the UN-funded camps. Back on May 6, Inner City Press asked the spokesperson for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon:

Inner City Press: British Channel 4 has put forward a video shot inside one of the camps that’s apparently funded and has some UN involvement, in which people on camera say that there are dead bodies on the ground for two to three days, and that young women were being disappeared from the camp and were being used as, for “comfort women”. What’s the UN’s response? It’s a pretty specific report; it says it’s a camp, it has people on camera. Does the UN... [interrupted]?

Spokesperson Michele Montas: You already know I do not comment on press reports, Matthew.

Inner City Press: That’s a video. I mean, it’s a video of people saying UN people being...[interrupted].

Spokesperson Montas: I don’t have any response. We’ve said, I think extensively; the Secretary-General has spoken yesterday about his own position on Sri Lanka and the humanitarian situation there, and we’ll just stick to that.

Inner City Press: I guess I just want to know, is that an accurate... [interrupted]?

Spokesperson Montas: I have not seen it, Matthew. I don’t think the Secretary-General has seen it either.

   Despite professions of caring about the killings and the camps, the UN has yet to speak about the expose, or the deportation of the journalists. Ironically, on May 6 after the exchange above, Ban Ki-moon read prepared remarks at a World Press Freedom Day reception at the home of French Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert. Afterwards he was asked if in his phone conversation with Sri Lanka's president, he had brought up press freedom. No, the answer came, among other comments. Now the president's brother has felt free to arrest and deport reporters.

All throughout last week, the UN dodged Sri Lanka questions. On Monday May 4, Inner City Press asked Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe:

Inner City Press: On Sri Lanka, there are the reports of the hospital, the last remaining hospital in the conflict zone, being shelled. Given how widespread these reports are, has the UN been able to either find anything out about that? And also do they have any response to the Government of Sri Lanka saying that the UNOSAT photos which were then leaked and then pulled back in, show shelling of the conflict zone by the Government air force?

Deputy Spokesperson: I think that on your questions, on both questions about the activities in the conflict zone, our reports are not independent confirmations, so I don’t think I have anything further than what the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has given us and what I read earlier, which is our continued concern for the heavy fighting in the zone and its impact on the roughly 50,000 or more people we fear are trapped in there. As for information as to whether we can confirm an attack on a hospital you mentioned; again, because we’re not in there, I don’t think we have first-hand confirmation of that. But, the fact remains that we’re very, very concerned about the humanitarian situation of those who are left inside that zone. The question about the satellite imagery, I think there is an update that has been provided by UNOSAT, which I can provide to you later. And my understanding is that they’re releasing some of these images, that’s the latest I had heard.

   But after the briefing, Inner City Press was told to ask OCHA spokesperson. The satellite images had yet to be released, and nothing has been heard from them since.

UN's Ban Malta, not Sri Lanka
 After asking Ban Ki-moon himself about Sri Lanka on May 5, on Tuesday May 6 Inner City Press asked the Spokesperson:

Inner City Press: yesterday at the stakeout, Gareth Evans, former Australian Foreign Minister, said that in his meeting with the Secretary-General the issue of Sri Lanka and the responsibility to protect had arisen. Did it? I mean, can you confirm that? And does the Secretary-General think that this responsibility to protect concept now applies in Sri Lanka? Has he asked Ed Luck to get involved? And also, has a team to visit the conflict zone, as has been promised, has a team been named by John Holmes or OCHA?

Spokesperson: I can get that information for you. The responsibility to protect, as you know, is a concept which has not yet become an effective mechanism, doesn’t have an effective mechanism to carry out that General Assembly resolution. The Secretary-General and Ed Luck -- you mentioned his name -- have been working on the mechanism, to create the mechanism, to make that concept an active one. Whether it could apply in this case, I could ask for you whether this was discussed.

   While no follow-up was given, Inner City Press later that day asked Ban's R2P advisor Ed Luck about Sri Lanka. Luck said it applies to both side. But so far nothing has been done. On Thursday May 7, Inner City Press asked Associate 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.

  While Ban Ki-moon is working on his issues as a trip to Manama, Bahrain, after a news-less trip to Malta, the killing of civilians accelerates in Sri Lanka. 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, did not respond to the invitation to visit Sri Lanka, or the accelerating rate of civilians death over the weekend, during which no statement issued about Sri Lanka. 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.

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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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