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In Sri Lanka, UN Hires Lawyer for Arrested Staff, But Will It Protect Anyone?

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

UNITED NATIONS, July 1 -- After more than a week of silence by the UN about two of its staff members grabbed up by Sri Lanka's government, on July 1 Inner City Press again asked Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson Michele Montas about their fate. This time, Ms. Montas had an answer. The UN has "hired a lawyer who has visited" the UN staff, who are "still detained in Colombo." Video here, from Minute 21:15.

  The head of the UN Refugee Agency in Sri Lanka Amin Awad issued a strange statement saying in essence that the government is free to detain staff as long as procedures are followed. But despite top UN humanitarian John Holmes' statement that unlike international staff, national staff members of the UN are not immune, the Staff Union disagrees. They criticize Awad's statement, and counter that national staff have immunity within the scope of their work.

  Troublingly, sources in Sri Lanka describe to Inner City Press even the torture of UN staff, and of doctors disappeared by the government after remaining in the conflict zone offering treatment and casualty figures. A Red Cross worker who had been in the conflict zone has been killed in Jaffna, where now newspaper editors face death threats.

   Is all of this consistent with Ban Ki-moon and Majinda Rajapaksa's Joint Statement? At the UN, answers like the hiring of a lawyer to work on the case of grabbed-up staff are only given if the questions keep being asked. Apparently, the UN would rather the questions stopped.

UN's Amin Awad, grabbed-up UN staff not shown

  In fact, lawyers in Sri Lanka who represent those accused of Tamil Tiger sympathies have themselves been labeled as traitors by the country's military. The UN has already shown it cannot protect its own staff in Sri Lanka. Can it even protect the lawyers it hires for its staff? Watch this site.

Footnote: Inner City Press asked outgoing Turkish Ambassador and Security Council president Baki Ilkin if he thought the Council's sessions on Sri Lanka, held in the UN's basement, had helped in any way to protect civilians in Vanni. "There is no gauge," he said, but :"everything the Security Council does or says -- or doesn't do or say -- has an impact." Video here, from Minute 2:33.

  In one view, the Council's refusal to put Sri Lanka on its agenda, and relegation of the issue to ill-attended basement session has the impact of emboldening the Rajapaksa government to make its final assault in the Vanni, and to now use UN funds to detain Tamils in camps and grab up UN staff. Everything not done or not said has an effect. Watch this site.

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Chile on ICC and "Nationalist" Guerrillas in Sri Lanka, UN Mum on Camps It Funds But Claims To Not Control

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

UNITED NATIONS, June 29 -- As Chile joined the International Criminal Court on June 29, Inner City Press asked the Minister Secretary General of the Presidency of Chile Jose Antonio Viera-Gallo if he thought the ICC should investigate this year's surge of civilian death and detentions in Sri Lanka. Viera-Gallo called it a situation of combat against a "nationalist" guerrilla force which should in the first instance be investigated by the government of Sri Lanka.

   "If the government cannot do it," he said, "it is easy -- a member state should request it, or any person, to the prosecutor." Video here, from Minute 9:44.

  But far from being "easy," the UN has not even been able to stop or comment on Sri Lanka disbanding its own investigation into deaths before this year, including of 17 Action Contre La Faim aid workers near Trincomalee.

   On June 26 Inner City Press asked the UN's top humanitarian John Holmes, who has previously spoken about the ACF killing, why he or his department OCHA had not commented on the disbanding of the investigation. Holmes said it hadn't been confirmed.

  On June 29, Inner City Press asked Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson Michele Montas about OCHA's disputed reports on the number and location of those being detained in northern Sri Lanka. "Those are not UN camps," Ms. Montas answered.Video here, from Minute 23:57.

UN's Ban and Chile's Heraldo Munoz, Sri Lanka investigations and value of UN funding for camps not shown

   While Inner City Press had not called them UN camps, it gave rise to the question: what percentage of the funding of the camps comes through the UN?

  Ms. Montas said she would get that percentage. Inner City Press asked, if it is over fifty percent, can they be viewed as UN camps? "That is a hypothetical question," Ms. Montas said. For now. Watch this site.

Footnotes: Chile's Viera-Gallo said that in Latin America there have been no serious crimes of late, and all governments have independent courts, oblivating the need for ICC inquiry. This was said just after the Honduras court decisions leading to the ouster of President Zelaya, and in the face of immunity offers in Colombia.

  Inner City Press also asked Chile's Ambassador Heraldo Munoz about the three person investigation he will head up for the UN of the murder of Benazir Bhutto. Will the report of investigation be made public? He said he will answer later. But here's a question for now: the UN can put together a three person investigation for the murder of a political leader, but nothing for tens of thousands of civilians?

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UN Runs Scared of Sri Lanka, Says National Staff Not Immune -- But Genocide Suspects Are

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

UNITED NATIONS, June 26 -- As the Sri Lankan government locked up an astrologer who dared make predictions that President Rahinda Rajapaksa didn't like, the UN in New York stayed silent. Inner City Press asked, for the third time, what is being done about the two UN staff members who were grabbed up by the government using unmarked vehicles.

   Associate Spokesperson Farhan Haq said he was aware of the question, but that they still have no answer. Inner City Press asked, isn't it the UN's position that its staff members have immunity? Haq acknowledged that it normally the position. But why not in Sri Lanka?

   In fact, the UN Mission in Kosovo actively invoked immunity on June 26 in favor of a person changed with genocide. When Agim Ceku was arrested in Bulgaria, based on an Interpol warrant, it is reported that a UN documentary showing was made in order to get Ceku released. Inner City Press asked Haq about this as well on Friday. Haq said to ask the UNMIK mission.

   Inner City Press immediately put questions to them, but has received no answer. Immunity for those charged with war crimes and genocide, but no defense of immunity for UN staff in Sri Lanka. Why not?

Kosovo's Ceku and UN flag, get out of jail free card not shown in Sri Lanka

   At the Security Council on June 26, speeches went on all day about the protection of civilians. While the UN's top humanitarian John Holmes appeared to downplay Sri Lanka in his initial testimony, other than saying that "the weapons have finally -- and thankfully -- fallen silent in Sri Lanka," the underlying report notes its in 30th paragraph the

"repeated use of heavy weapons by Sri Lankan armed forces in attacks on area containing large numbers of civilians, including the so-called 'no-fire zones,' with reports of multiple strikes on medical facilities."

   Even though the report went on about LTTE refusal to let civilians go, Sri Lanka in the Security Council debate criticized the report. Holmes in his rebuttal was conciliatory, but said that the definition of armed conflict comes from international jurisprudence and applies to Sri Lanka.

   When Holmes emerged from the Security Council at 6:30 p.m., Inner City Press waited to ask him a few questions. "You've got to be kidding," he began, before to his credit answering four questions.

   Did he or the UN do anything about the MV Ali ship of humanitarian aid that was blocked by Sri Lanka? No, Holmes said. But he's heard that it may be unloaded in India and thence to Sri Lanka. This has yet to happened.

   Any update on the detained doctors? No, Holmes said.

   What about the disbanding of the inquiry into the killing of, among others, the 17 Action Contre La Faim aid workers? Holmes said the UN had yet to receive formal notification of the disbanding, and might comment if and when notification is provided.

   What about the detained staff? Holmes said the UN is asking. Aren't they immune? Only international staff are, Holmes said. We will have more on this.

Inner City Press' June 18 debate on Sri Lanka, click here

 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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