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In Sri Lanka, Doctors Detained As UN's Ban to Visit with Press, Ethnic Aid

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

UNITED NATIONS, May 18 – As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon prepares to visit Sri Lanka May 22-23 in what some call a victory tour, his top humanitarian coordinator John Holmes acknowledged that in some previous rebuilding in eastern Sri Lanka, groups of people were moved into previously Tamil areas. He specified so-called “high security zones near the port of Trincomalee” as having “issues of that kind.” Video here, from Minute 41:51.

   Inner City Press, which has now been invited by the UN to accompany Mr. Ban on his trip, asked Holmes what safeguards the UN has that aid money and debt relief are not diverted into Sri Lanka's war effort or the movement of people on an ethnic basis. “We do our best,” Holmes said. His answer focused on post-Tsunami aid, but Inner City Press is told that there were few to no safeguards that money freed up by debt relief was not devoted to the war in the north.

   Inner City Press asked about reports that doctors previously in the “No Fire” zone had been detained by the government for having reported casualty figures. Holmes answered that “I am aware of stories” the doctors were “somehow segregated, I can't confirm them, I believe they may be in the camps.” Video here, from Minute 35:40.

  But Sri Lankan authorities have confirmed that they have arrested the doctors, charging them with providing false information. Now what will the UN do?

   Given Holmes' rosy assumption, since disproved, that the doctors were still in the general IDP camps, one is not sure what weight to give to his and the UN's assumption that no live but wounded civilians remain in the conflict zone. This assumption, as now reported elsewhere in the media, appears based on Sri Lankan's military drone footage shown to the UN. And the clock is ticking.

UN's Ban happy in Laos last month, Sri Lanka May 22-3 not yet shown

  After Holmes' press conference, Inner City Press sought comment from an NGO long active in northern Sri Lanka. Nimmi Gowrinathan of Operation USA told Inner City Press that

“in the coming weeks the impact on Tamil civilians of the UN's failure to act will be come increasingly clear. The UN should act immediately to protect the lives of physicians currently in military custody and push for a humanitarian intervention to prevent any further loss of life... Reports claim that over 20,000 civilians are in need of urgent medical care.

"Immediate access should be given to medical teams of the ICRC, now waiting just outside of Mullativu. While the longer term issues of reconstruction and rehabilitation should be addressed, urgent attention should be paid to the civilian population that now has no access to proper medical care.”

    While UN envoy Vijay Nambiar remains in Sri Lanka, it was not clear Monday what he was doing or raising. Inner City Press asked Deputy UN Spokesperson Marie Okabe if Nambiar was raising the now-confirmed issue of the detained doctors. 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? Watch this site – on May 19, Inner City Press has been told by the UN to seek a visa from the Sri Lankan Mission in New York.

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 14 transcript:

Deputy Spokesperson Okabe:  ...the very fact that he’s sending his Chef de Cabinet again to underscore his message I think speaks loudly on what the Secretary-General in his personal capacity is trying to do to bring an end to the situation on the ground.

Inner City Press: A follow-up on the Chef de Cabinet.  There has been substantial criticism, not just that because Mr. Nambiar comes from India, but because his brother, an Indian General [Satish] Nambiar recently wrote an op-ed praising the offensive of the Sri Lankan Army in the north and General [Sarath] Fonseca who’s led it.  Is the Secretariat aware of this criticism and how does it address it?  Also, that Mr. Nambiar went before he got a commitment to visit an open conflict zone and it never took place.  What’s the, I guess, the response and why isn’t Ban Ki-moon himself going if he’s invited and the French and others have said he should go ASAP?

Deputy Spokesperson Okabe:  Matthew, as you know the Secretary-General’s position on going to Sri Lanka has been reiterated from this podium many times this week.  And the fact that Mr. Nambiar happens to be of a nationality does not in any way get in the way of his work as a UN official.  As you know, everybody from the UN does come from one country or another; but once they sign on to work at the UN they go as UN officials.

Inner City Press: Isn’t there generally a sort of an unwritten rule of not, for example, I mean, when Mr. Gambari was going to do Nigeria, are you unaware that they see that... within diplomats in the UN often say that a person from a country too close to a conflict is not the right person to be sent.

Deputy Spokesperson Okabe:  Mr. Nambiar is not from Sri Lanka.

 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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