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On Sri Lanka, UN Has No Comment on Prison Labor, New GA President Will Not Explain

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

UNITED NATIONS, June 12 -- The UN at all levels demonstrates blindness with respect to Sri Lanka, from the use of prison labor in the now emptied out north to even recognizing the name of the country. Incoming General Assembly president Ali Abdussalam Treki of Libya on Friday took questions from the Press.

  Inner City Press asked him about two countries, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. To the latter, Libya agreed to a $500 million loan, to make up for the $1.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund delayed by reports of mistreatment of civilians. Inner City Press asked Treki, since Libya was among those blocking Security Council action, if he could imagine Sri Lanka being taken up in the General Assembly, as Myanmar has been. Video here, from Minute 17:46.

  Ali Treki latched on to the Myanmar part of the question, praising the UN's envoy to that country Ibrahim Gambari, whom he said he knew when Gambari was the foreign minister of the Sani Abacha administration in Nigeria. He said he would meet with Gambari on Friday afternoon to get a report about Myanmar. About Sri Lanka, Treki said nothing, then moved on to another questioner.

  Inner City Press followed up, asking why Libya didn't view the conflict in Sri Lanka as impacting international peace and security. Treki said it "interests the world, the human rights aspect," but that what "Asia says is very important, they tell us if what goes on in Myanmar" effects peace and security. Video here, from Minute 19:39.

   So had Treki simply refused to answer about Sri Lanka? He will be president of the UN General Assembly from September 2009 through August 2010.

UN's Ban and Libya's Ali Treki, action on Sri Lanka and prison labor not shown

   Meanwhile at the UN's noon media briefing on June 12, asked Ban Ki-moon's Spokesperson Michele Montas had read out a statement that access to the camps in Vavuniya in northern Sri Lanka is getting better and new camps are being built -- internment camps, with UN money -- Inner City Press asked for the UN's response to Sri Lankan authorities' statement that they will use prison labor in the north.

  Ms. Montas said "no comment at this point, maybe later we will see how the issue is being discussed." Video here, from Minute 18:39.

    Later Ms Montas' office sent Inner City Press the following response:

Subj: Response from OCHA on your question at the noon briefing
From: unspokesperson-donotreply [at]
To: Inner City Press
Sent: 6/12/2009 12:43:56 P.M. Eastern Standard Time

On use of prison labour in reconstruction in Sri Lanka, we have not heard these allegations and have no information.

   Apparently, the UN's "close monitoring" of Sri Lanka doesn't even read the news from Colombo, with quotes from government officials:

Prison inmates to be deployed for the redevelopment process in Sri Lanka's North

Thu, Jun 11, 2009, 11:51 pm SL Time, ColomboPage News Desk, Sri Lanka.

June 11, Colombo: Sri Lanka government is planning to deploy prison inmates for the redevelopment process in the liberated areas of the North.

Prison Commissioner General, Major General V.R Silva told the media that this would be an appropriate decision to develop the liberated areas in North.

According to statistics there are nearly 30,000 inmates are in the prisons at the moment. Most of them are able bodied people with various skills, he added.

    Yes, the skills of those in jail, including for violent crime, are those the Sri Lankan government is unleashing in the north. And the UN? They "have not heard these allegations and have no information." Watch this site.

* * *

On Sri Lanka, UN's Holmes Contradicts His Colleague's Caution, Sudan Double Standard?

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

UNITED NATIONS, June 11 -- During the bloody conflict and humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka this year, most often UN Headquarters, personified by humanitarian chief John Holmes, has sounded more cautionary notes about government conduct than has UN staff in Colombo, who face deportation or denial of visa renewals.

  On Thursday, however, Holmes was decidedly more pro-government than the UN's local spokespeople, at least Mark Cutts, who expressed concern that now people will be kept in the UN-funded internment camps for up to a year. Inner City Press asked Holmes, who chose to disagree.

  "I don't think anything has changed," Holmes said, repeating the government's statement that 80% of those detained will be allowed out of the camps by the end of 2009.

  Holmes told Inner City Press that there have for months been some semi-permanent structures in the Manik Farm camps, made of "zinc sheeting, you probably saw them yourself when you were there." Inner City Press did see the zinc structures, along with barbed wire and armed guards.

   Holmes had been briefing the UN Security Council about the situation in Sudan, with a focus on the international NGOs whose international staff members were ordered out on March 4, after Sudan's president Omar al Bashir was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. When Holmes came to speak to the Press, his assistant announced that questions should "keep to Sudan, wider issues will be address by the Secretary General in his press conference later."

   As Inner City Press has reported in recent days, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's spokespeople now say they will not comment on developments in Sri Lanka such as the deporting of Canadian MP Bob Rae, the extension of state of emergency anti-terror laws, and the country's outgoing chief justice's statement that those in the UN-funded internment camps have no protection from Sri Lanka's courts. That's a national issue, was the answer of Ban's spokespeople.

    Since Holmes focused, to the Council and press, on NGOs in Sudan, Inner City Press asked about the recent expulsion or exclusion from Sri Lanka of international staff from the Norwegian Refugee Council, Forut, CARE and Save the Children, among others. Holmes had just mentioned moves to re-admit both CARE and Save the Children (as well as Mercy Corps and "something not really an NGO, called PADCO") to Sudan.

   "It is hard to make comparisons between the two," Holmes said, apparently referring to restrictions in Sudan and Sri Lanka. "NGOs have not been expelled from Sri Lanka... There have been some visa issues for some members of NGOs' staff which we take up with the government."

   Holmes said UN agencies "have difficulties from time to time." Among those difficulties was the detention by the government of Sri Lanka of UN staff and their families, something Sudan has not done.

UN's Holmes in Sudan, Sri Lanka staff not shown
  Whistleblowers raised the issue to Inner City Press, after which Holmes said the UN had been complaining behind the scenes. In Sudan, the UN complains publicly. In fact, the government of Sri Lanka stated that the UN had not complained about its detained staff until after the issue was raised publicly by the Press in New York.

   It is hard to make comparisons between the two -- the UN is loud in its criticism of any move against UN staff in Sudan, while it stayed silent as UN staff were held in detention by the government of Sri Lanka. How then to read Holmes' upbeat assessment on Thursday? We will continue to inquire.

  Footnotes: Regarding Sudan, Inner City Press asked Holmes why UN envoy Chissano has ended his attempt to solve the problem of the Lord's Resistance Army. Holmes said Chissano "will end or has ended" this work because it is "not a very realistic hope" that Kony will sign a peace deal with the Yoweri Museveni government of Uganda. What next?

   Inner City Press is informed that, in closed door consultations, Western Council members such as Croatia insisted that there is a wider "humanitarian gap" in Sudan than even Holmes would portray. Holmes and the UN apparently feel no such pressure regarding the situation in Sri Lanka, and therefore revert to the path of least resistance, trying to not criticize the government despite what's happening to civilians. 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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