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On UN's Sri Lanka Trip, Holmes Did Not Favor It, NGOs Phase Out Work

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

SRI LANKA, May 23, modified May 26 at NGO request -- As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his top humanitarian official John Holmes are whisked via military helicopter to government selected camps for Internally Displaced People and a mere fly-over the beach-front Zone of Death, minutes of a meeting earlier in the week in New York between Holmes and non-governmental organizations show that Holmes did not favor the trip.

  The minutes also show that some of the NGOs, including convener Crisis Action, plan to "phase out" their work on Sri Lanka. Doubts about the UN's and international community's including civil society's commitment to those who suffer in Sri Lanka, Tamils and others, can only grow.

   Before the phase out, and after the Government of Sri Lanka barred NGOs and the UN from using any vehicles to service IDPs in the large camps of Menic (or Manik) Farms in north Sri Lanka, a joint statement calling for access was issued May 21 by a group of NGOs including Oxfam, ASB/Solidar, Acted, Danish Refugee Council, ZOA Refugee Care, Forut, UMCOR, Relief International, Handicap International, Save the Children, Welthungerhilfe, CARE, World Vision Medical Teams International.

  Further below the radar, there are Tamil NGOs which face dissolution or not working in Sri Lanka.

   Before the 24 hour trip to Sri Lanka, Holmes met with a hand-picked group of NGOs in New York. Afterwards an internal summary was issued, which attendees leaked to Inner City Press, ostensibly disturbed by the approach taken at the meeting and by the UN. The memo began, "please find below notes from yesterday's meeting with John Holmes. Let me now if you have any questions. This is true especially in light of some of us (Crisis Action included) phasing out our Sri Lanka work very soon."

UN's Holmes and Pascoe being questioned by Press on plane

   There followed a summary of what John Holmes told NGOs behind closed doors, which even filing from Sri Lanka we'll run in full:

John Holmes

Timing of the trip is "tricky," point is not to "join the celebrations"; will have to be careful. [In-house, JH had objected to the trip, as many of you know];

Trip will be de facto a 12-hr day; he cannot extend;

Plan is to go to camps; overfly conflict zone, depending on weather conditions; meet President and other high-level officials; speak to press; hopefully meet with civil society (not certain that would happen);

It's "pretty clear there's nobody in the conflict zone, other than soldiers." UN has flown over, nothing to be seen from helicopter. Still, possible to have bodies/people in hiding;

On overcrowding in camps: NGOs/UN has to be clear about what we want. Do we want to move them to another camp or not? Clearly we want quick returns but in the meantime...

Have not heard anything about [threat of] suspension of humanitarian activities; just got off the phone with UN in SL; ICRC had raised possibility but backed down;

On disappearances: not clear how many are sinister. Known that hard-line cadres are given over to police and are sent to rehabilitation centres. Reasonably clear that GoSL will try to make sure remaining LTTE top leadership won't make it out alive;

LTTE lower cadres are not really separated from civilians, all enter camps together, which is not necessarily a good thing, because all are then viewed as suspects;

Will be pretty hard to get UN political presence in country; govt very resistant, uses "home-grown solution" language very deliberately;

On the doctors: they are in detention but are 'healthy' and 'ok, as far as one can be ok in detention' ;

On UNSC: we have not focused on that, happy to brief if requested;

The strategy is still to keep on with high-level visits, but will see how this will happen;

On numbers: we have no idea how many have died in the last three days. Generally, hard to verify numbers, so have been using "some


[Later on, an OCHA staffer advised NGOs to press the issue of MoUs, also to create more space for the pro-active Holmes.]

   ...There is no real push-back to the exclusion of vehicles from the IDP camps. The minutes say that ICRC (the Red Cross) "backed down." While some UN sources have told Inner City Press that UN staff are threatening a de facto boycott, Holmes told the Press on the plane ride to Sri Lanka that this is not the case, that access and work continues.

It appears that the Secretariat may not even push to have Ban Ki-moon briefing the Security Council upon his return to New York. Then again, in April Ban Ki-moon was only in New York three times, for a total of five days. A lot is being "phased out."

Inner City Press will be accompanying Ban and Holmes on their whirlwind tour May 23 and will report on it in real time to the degree possible given the host country's control of the tour and the lack of internet access. Watch this site.

Click here for a short list, compiled on the plane, of other issues Ban might look into in Sri Lanka

Footnote / full disclosure: this reporter has been granted a visa, albeit for only two days, gratis by the Sri Lankan mission to the UN. A request for more than two days resulted in instructions to write a letter, which will be considered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Colombo “after a background check.” Watch this site.

And see, a May 13 Inner City Press debate on Sri Lanka, here

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 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?

 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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