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On Sri Lanka, UN Insists It Stopped Counting the Dead, Silent on NGO Expulsion, Blue Eyed Slander

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

UNITED NATIONS, June 1, updated -- Asked if the UN withheld its knowledge of civilians deaths in Sri Lanka in May, as it withheld satellite photos of the supposed "No Fire" Zone, the Spokesperson for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday told the Press that "the 20,000 figure is not a UN number."

   Despite some of the same doctors the UN previously relied on having still been in the Zone until the Army's final assault, Spokesperson Michele Montas said that in May there was "no way to know" how many civilians were killed.

   But when Inner City Press asked for an update on the location and condition of the doctors who remained in the Zone offering treatment and casualty figures, they were called heroes by Ms. Montas. Heroes that the UN refused to believe? Video here, from Minute 18:44.

   In the UN General Assembly, Mr. Ban categorically denied that the UN downplayed civilian deaths. Ambassadors interviewed by Inner City Press as they left the closed door briefing were generally not impressed. Unrelatedly, Inner City Press asked several whether Ban will give a more specific briefing about Sri Lanka to the Security Council, which had a number of "informal inter-active dialogues" as civilians died in the conflict zone.

  Austria's number one representative told Inner City Press he was going to meet with this Turkish counterpart, the president of the Council for June, to request just that. The U.S. number three representative Rosemary DiCarlo said that a briefing of the Council by Ban is "still possible." With the UN's credibility on the line, to dodge such a briefing would be a new low.

UN's Ban in Kandy with Mahinda Rajapaksa, (c) M.Lee

   In Sri Lanka, alongside reports of Tamil-owned shops being attacked, the Director of Sri Lanka's government Peace Secretariat Rajiva Wijesinghe is now known to have told a press conference "there are many blue eyed children in that [IDP] camp, you will know some NGOs had a jolly good time." As a low level credit-war has emerged, from who broke the 20,000 figure that the UN denies to who took the photos of the conflict zone, we'll happily source and credit the Wijesinghe quote to the Voice of America.

  Meanwhile, Sri Lankan defense sources crow that "Ranvei Tvetenes, the Head of Norwegian NGO FORUT was deported on night of Saturday 29th May, 2009." The UN screamed when some NGOs were expelled from Darfur. But the UN was silent when a more systematic expulsion took place in Sri Lanka. And now? We'll see.

Note: on Monday outside the UN Security Council, Inner City Press was interviewed by on television about the controversy over the UN's withholding of civilian casualty estimates in Sri Lanka, on which Inner City Press has reported since March. Afterwards, a UN media official tried to convince the television reporter to omit and not broadcast the interview with Inner City Press. It's amateur hour at the UN, with this behavior running alongside loud claims that the UN doesn't cover up. And there's more -- see June 2nd development, here.

From the UN's June 1 noon briefing transcript:

Inner City Press: Excuse me, but I wanted to get your response to these things that were reported in Le Monde about Sri Lanka. I heard your statement…

Spokesperson Montas: The SG has [inaudible].

Inner City Press: ...but there some very specific things. He quotes UN sources in Colombo as saying, for example, that Mr. Nambiar told UN staff and UN representatives to “keep a low profile”, that the UN should be playing a sustaining role compatible to Government. Those are quotes they ascribe to Mr. Nambiar. What I am wondering is, does that mean he didn’t say that? I mean, having looked at the article, as I am sure the UN has, and it also says that Neil Buhne, the country director said that the death statistics should only go to him, and should not be given to any other person. It sort of… it paints a pretty, you know, I am sure you’ve seen it. The Times of London has said, you know, Ban must do something, it’s like Srebrenica. So does the specifics…?

Spokesperson: These statistics that you mention, these statistics were estimates. As you know, starting in the month of May, absolutely no numbers could be verified, because the numbers we had were from the hospital people, and health people who were on the ground and were communicating with us, or our own people on the ground. In the month of May we had absolutely no way of knowing what the casualty figure was. The number of 20,000 is not a UN number.

[The Spokesperson later added that as regards to the media reports on the figure of 20,000 civilian casualties in Sri Lanka, it was verified with the concerned United Nations staff who were present at meetings of United Nations senior officials that no such internal report was made at those meetings. She emphasized that the United Nations had never underestimated the casualty numbers, nor engaged in any manner in manipulating them nor in soft-peddling the message that was communicated to the Sri Lankan Government on the necessity of avoiding civilian casualties.]

Inner City Press: Both the Times of London and Le Monde cite this to UN sources in Colombo.

Spokesperson: Well, actually, we checked. This morning, I was in touch with Colombo and they have absolutely no idea where that number came from, the 20,000 number.

Inner City Press: Okay. So I guess I mean, what, the quote they ascribed to Mr. Nambiar, I guess that the idea is somehow that staff there feel that from Headquarters the message is keep a low profile. I mean, unless both newspapers made up the quotes, somebody there said them. So I am just wondering…

Spokesperson: Well, I want you to really read what the SG said this morning. You had this text earlier…

Inner City Press: Okay.

Spokesperson: …and where he categorically, I can give you the exact quote, in fact you can get it yourself. He categorically dismissed some of those allegations.

Inner City Press: Okay. I know on Friday he met with the Turkish Ambassador and I was told one of the topics was whether he wants to brief the Security Council about Sri Lanka. That was an issue that was going to be resolved in that meeting. Does he want to? I understand some…

Spokesperson: Well, whether it’s going to be something that the Security Council is going to ask him. If the Security Council asks him to, he will. The way he did for the General Assembly today, of course.

Inner City Press: But it was said there that they sort of wanted to feel him out to see if he wants to do it. See what I’m saying? Because he did meet with…

Spokesperson: Well, if he met with the General Assembly on this, he is of course willing to meet with the Security Council on it.

Inner City Press: And then just one practical thing?

Spokesperson: Sure.

Inner City Press: There is this issue that I know he raised when he was there, of the doctors that were in the conflict zone and reported the numbers. Has there been any, has he heard anything back? Has there been any development on the status of the doctors who were detained by the Government?

Spokesperson: Well, as far as we know we understand they’re in good health for now. And we noted that they have been detained. And what I’d like to add is that these men are heroes, who have saved lives in some of the toughest conditions imaginable. And they should be receiving the maximum care and assistance possible. And the Secretary-General made clear during his visit that detaining them is not appropriate. And I think he is hoping that they will be released soon.

On Sri Lanka, UN's Dodging Comes Home to Roost, UK Could Have Put on Council Agenda

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

UNITED NATIONS, May 29 -- As UN sources in Sri Lanka were quoted that beyond the 7000 civilian killings in the leaked UN estimates that Inner City Press obtained and published at the end of April, one thousand more civilians were being killed every day in May, responses at the UN in New York grew ever more muted.

   Inner City Press asked Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe if Mr. Ban will push to brief the Security Council about the May 23 tour of Sri Lanka. Ms. Okabe would not answer, saying "I have nothing to announce." Because Sri Lanka never by vote put on the Council's agenda, all members including Russia, China, Libya and Vietnam would have to agree, to hear from Ban. But is he even asking?

Inner City Press asked UK Ambassador to the UN John Sawers would what the Security Council did and didn't do as civilian casualties mounted in north Sri Lanka. Sawers responded that "we had the votes" to put Sri Lanka on the Council's agenda, but chose not to, to preserve "unanimity." He claimed that the Sri Lankan government felt pressure from the Council and the Ban administration's visits. Apparently they would have killed even more.

In No Fire Zone, burned trees, blasted ship, (c) M.Lee 5/23/09

   At a reception at the Russian Ambassador's residence on May 28, Inner City Press asked Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative to the UN about reports of Sinhalese mob violence against Tamils. He responded that while the fears are real, the country hadn't had a death by communal violence since 1983. He said that the newspaper editor arrested after the Tamil Tigers' last attempted plane bombing of Colombo has been released. The UN says that the doctors who remained in the conflict zone offering treatment and casualty figures are still in government detention.

   On civilian death figures, at Friday's UN noon briefing, Inner City Press asked the UN's Marie Okabe is, beyond the previously leaked and published figures of 2600 by March 7 and 7000 by the end of April, the UN had compiled any figures at all in May. Ms. Okabe, alongside reading a long and convoluted answer, said "ask OCHA." And thus the run-around continues. We will continue to follow these issues -- watch this site.

At UN, Sri Lanka Sinks Lower than the Basement, Ban Criticized on Human Rights

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

UNITED NATIONS, May 28 -- The status of interred civilians in Sri Lanka has sunk so low at the UN that even for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to be invited to brief the Security Council on his recent fly-over the conflict zone has resulted in opposition from China, Russia, Viet Nam and others.

  In a closed door Security Council meeting Thursday, these countries and others suggested that since there is no more conflict, Ban should not brief the Council but rather the General Assembly. It was arranged that Ban will meet private with Russia and Turkey, the Council presidents for May and June. At most, Ban will brief the Council in the UN's basement, put on par with Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the UN.

   Meanwhile Ban was lambasted by Human Rights Watch for having offered praise to Sri Lanka's interment camps, in a way that contributed to the vote-down of a call for a international investigation yesterday in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Inner City Press on Thursday asked Ban's Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe to respond to the Wednesday press release of Human Rights Watch, which

said that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had regrettably undercut efforts to produce a strong resolution with his recent comments in Sri Lanka. Ban publicly praised the government for "doing its utmost" and for its "tremendous efforts," while accepting government assurances, repeatedly broken in the past, that it would ensure humanitarian access to civilians in need.

Ban also distanced himself from strong language used in April by the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, John Holmes, who warned that the fighting in Sri Lanka could result in a "bloodbath." Unlike Pillay, Ban also failed to press for an international inquiry.

"Secretary-General Ban shares the blame for the Human Rights Council's poor showing on Sri Lanka."

   Nearly 24 hours after this press release went online, Ms. Obake said that the UN hadn't seen it. Video here, from Minute 11:50. She said however that on these issues "the Secretary General has been very clear in public, perhaps more clear in private." Perhaps.

UN's Ban looking up - toward a Security Council or GA "informal dialogue"?

  After the noon briefing, the following arrived:

Subj: Your questions on Sri Lanka
From: unspokesperson-donotreply [at]
To: Inner City Press
Sent: 5/28/2009 2:17:18 P.M. Eastern Standard Time

Just to add to what we already said at the noon briefing:

The Secretary-General has repeatedly said wherever serious and credible allegations are made of grave and persistent violations of international humanitarian laws, these should be properly investigated.

In addition, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, while noting that the Human Rights Council will not agree to set up such an inquiry at this point, says that more information will come out, more evidence will emerge about what did and did not happen. So an international inquiry could still happen further down the line. The Office also said that international human rights law is quite robust -- there are different ways and means to get to the truth and provide some measure of accountabilty. Sometimes it takes years, but this Session and this resolution do not close any avenues.

   But Ban's speech upon arrival in Sri Lanka on May 22, and his Joint Statement with the government exiting the country the next day, speak for themselves.

   In a briefing primarily about Pakistan, Inner City Press asked the UN's top humanitarian John Holmes if the doctors who remained in the conflict zone to offer treatment and casualty figures are still being detained and interrogated by the government of Sri Lanka. They are, almost Holmes said they have received ICRC visits. Yesterday the head of the ICRC said that his Red Cross has no access to some Sri Lankan "interment" camps. Holmes said that he disagrees. Who is one to believe? Watch this site.

In Sri Lanka, Red Cross Barred from "Interment" Camps Despite UN's Rosy Picture

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

UNITED NATIONS, May 27 -- While the International Committee of the Red Cross went public Wednesday in Geneva with the fact that the Sri Lankan government is running interment camps to which Red Cross workers do not have access, in New York the UN's Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe said that "since the Secretary General's visit to Sri Lanka, an interim measure has been agreed" in which aid agency vehicles including trucks are allowed into all Manik Farm zones, only not in convoys and not with agency flags. Video here, from Minute 2:30.

   Inner City Press asked Mr. Okabe to square to the two statements, if there are camps that the UN has access to that the Red Cross does not. Ms. Okabe claimed that Inner City Press hadn't heard the statement by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs -- in fact, it was that very positive report that Inner City Press was questioning -- and then said that OCHA's John Holmes had spoken about food needs, to the "follow up with OCHA." Video here, from Minute 15:53.

   The question is not whether the UN has and can deliver food. The question is, even as to the camps it can visit is the UN enabling and blessing interment camps by providing funds and materiel? And what about the camps that the Red Cross has now said publicly it is being blocked from visiting -- is the UN there? Or does the UN not care, or not care that the public knows?

   From the phrasing of OCHA's update -- "since the Secretary General's visit an interim measure has been agreed" -- many infer that UN OCHA is more concerned about making Ban Ki-moon look good than about raising the red flag when civilians are being cut off from aid and monitors. The usually silent Red Cross is complaining, and the UN is saying the government is going a great job, just needs more resources. More resources for interment?

Guard in Manik Farm camp, (c) M. Lee May 2009

   Also in Geneva, the Human Rights Council's procedures allowed Sri Lanka to claim the upper hand in the debate about whether its conduct in its military offensive in the north should be investigated. Sri Lanka rushed and was the first to table a draft resolution, congratulating itself for its conduct and calling for more money. In a move that left many of the supporters of the US's joining the Human Rights Council shaking their heads, US diplomat Mark Storella urged the 47-member Council to reach a compromise, saying the United States "believes there is a basis for consensus."

  The consensus reached omitted any outside investigation, and calls for more funding for Sri Lanka. Some wondered, wasn't the US joining the Human Rights Council supposed to raise human rights standards, not just demonstrate that the Obama administration calls for consensus everywhere?

  While Tamils imprisoned in UN-funded camps in Sri Lanka want to be let go, and to live without threat of ethnic violence or oppression, Obama wants to be a friend of all the world and the UN's Ban wants so much to be relevant that he praises the Sri Lankan government efforts and funds them.

  Inner City Press has heard from local sources of Tamil store owners, for example, being besieged by Sinhalese demands for money "since you lost." The UN, which is supposed to be watching for such dangerous signs and trends, is at least publicly and at the highest levels blissfully unaware. As one source told Inner City Press, if this is the way the Sri Lankan government and majority acts while the world is (half) watching, imagine what they'll go later. 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

Feedback: Editorial [at]

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Other, earlier Inner City Press are listed here, and some are available in the ProQuest service, and now on Lexis-Nexis.

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