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On Sri Lankan Torture and Exclusion, UN Gives Run Around, HSBC into Jaffna

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, September 13 -- With Sri Lanka refusing to let even the International Committee of the Red Cross see 10,000 of the people it has detained since May, while moving to expel UNICEF's Colombo-based spokesman James Elder, at the United Nations last week Inner City Press asked what Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will in fact do.

  On September 10, Inner City Press asked about the torture of two UN system staff members, first reported on by Inner City Press, and received in return a canned statement that Ban would raise the issue to President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

   But the next day, when Inner City Press asked a Ban adviser who asked to be called only a "senior UN official" how Ban will proceed, since Rajapaksa canceled his attendance to the upcoming General Assembly meeting, two different answers emerged.

   The "senior UN official" said that "in the absence of Rajapaksa, the Prime Minister will be here. The new Ambassador, today, I think some of the issues will be raised." But moments before from the same rostrum, Ban's Deputy Spokesman Marie Okabe told Inner City Press that the day's presentation of credentials by Palitha Kohona to Ban "is not a meeting," implying that no substantive issue would be raised. It was just a photo-op:

Inner City Press: Marie, the Sydney Morning Herald has said that James Elder of UNICEF, whose visa is being revoked, is now receiving... threats by phone in Sri Lanka. Is that something that the UN is aware of, and will that issue and the issue of the two staff members that were allegedly tortured be raised by the Secretary-General to the new ambassador, Mr. [Palitha] Kohona, that he’s meeting today for the presentation of credentials?

Deputy Spokesperson Okabe: I am not aware of that report and, as you know, the presentation of credentials is not a meeting. He’s meeting a number of them -- I don’t have the whole list -- so it’s not an opportunity for him to sit down and have a meeting with them. But I mentioned to you yesterday and earlier this week that the Secretary-General, in his statement earlier this week, has said that he plans to be in touch with the President of Sri Lanka on both those issues.

Question: But is the President of Sri Lanka coming to the General Assembly? I thought he is actually not coming. So when is he going to speak to him?

Deputy Spokesperson: You’d have to ask the President of Sri Lanka whether he is coming to the General Assembly.

Question: When is the Secretary-General going to raise it to the President?

Deputy Spokesperson: I’ll let you know as soon as that happens.

  We're still waiting. British-based bank HSBC, on the other hand, is not waiting: with people still interned in the camps in Vavuniya, HSBC has bragged it is looking to move beyond Colombo and Kandy and open branch offices in Jaffna and elsewhere in the North. "HSBC is looking at opening branches in strategic locations in the North and East," its CEO for Sri Lanka and Maldives Nick A Nicolaou said.

  Some call it "banking on the bloodbath on the beach," and wonder how HSBC has to date escaped the boycott calls that have been directed at Victoria's Secret and GAP, including its ironically named Banana Republic brand.

A 2003 UN photo-op, Nicaragua's Hostage filing under watchful eyes

  With Sri Lanka reportedly on the verge of losing the EU's Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) Plus tariff concession for textile exports, some wonder if Victoria's Secret will be exposed, and the complacency of the Banana Republic shaken up. Watch this site.

Footnote: at the U.S. embassy in Colombo, even the Number 2 Ambassador Moore has left, on September 13, leaving a decided Number 3 in charge. Moore auto-tells interlocutors "I departed Colombo September 13 at the end of my assignment. I will be back on this email address in mid-October. Please contact Acting DCM Rebecca Cohn for assistance until September 30 and DCM Valerie Fowler thereafter." The Obama Administration's ambassador Patricia Butenis is not due, it's said, until the end of October...

Here was the UN's official response on September 10 to the allegations that at least two UN system staff members in Sri Lanka were tortured:

Inner City Press: There was a report today that two UN system staff members in Sri Lanka had been tortured during their incarceration. Can you give both an update on what the UN has done and whether the UN knows that these individuals have been tortured?

Deputy Spokesperson: The United Nations has been and is extremely concerned about the continuing case of two national UN staff members detained by the Sri Lankan authorities in late June. The two men were detained while deployed to Vavuniya by the United Nations without any notice to the Organization. The United Nations was immediately concerned about the “disappearance” of the staff, and protested strongly the manner of their detention, once discovered, with the Sri Lankan authorities, at many levels. The United Nations has been particularly concerned about suggestions that the two staff members may have been mistreated in the first days of their detention. If these allegations are validated, this would be a violation of Sri Lankan and international law.

The allegations were raised with the Government both orally and in writing, and the United Nations has assisted the two staff members to seek redress through the Sri Lankan legal system.

We call for due process to be swiftly applied. The Government should either notify the Secretary-General of the case and any charges against the two men and request for their immunity as UN staff to be waived, or they should be released.

I mentioned to you earlier that the Secretary-General had raised the issue when he met with the Sri Lankan President on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, shortly after these reports first came in.

The Secretary-General issued a statement earlier this week in which he said he would be contacting the President following the expulsion of the UNICEF staff member and during that conversation the Secretary-General obviously is expected to take up this case and express his serious concerns over their mistreatment. So that’s what I have for you.

We'll see.

* * *

As Sri Lanka Expels UNICEF Spokesman for Camp Comments, Ban Meeting Moot

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, September 5, updated Sept. 8 -- Two days ago we predicted that the government of Sri Lanka would expel UNICEF's Colombo-based spokesman James Elder, and said that the UN would have questions to answer. Now it has happened, and unnamed UNICEF officials are quoted that they will raise the issue to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Ban met with Sri Lanka's minister of human rights while in Geneva, ostensibly about the internment camps, the coming monsoon season and "accountability." Inner City Press asked Ban's Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe on September 4:

Inner City Press: I wanted to ask you about reports in Sri Lanka that in the [inaudible] IDP camps, that despite all counting, the governing agent of the [inaudible] district says that 10,000 people suddenly are not accounted for in the camps and only 2,000 are subject to visits from the ICRC. Is that something that OCHA or the UN, which has some involvement in the camps, can speak to?

Deputy Spokesperson: Specifically, on that incident or on the reports that you are mentioning, I suggest that you follow up with the agencies involved, but for those of you who may not have heard, yesterday, in Geneva, the Secretary-General did meet with the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights of Sri Lanka and they discussed the conditions in the camps for internally displaced persons, particularly with the approaching monsoon season. They also discussed the return of IDPs as well as the importance of free movement of people among the camps and free movement of UN and international humanitarian workers. They talked about the importance of reconciliation and they also discussed accountability, particularly in the light of recent accusations of extrajudicial executions.

Inner City Press: But did they discuss the issue of actual IDPs missing…?

Deputy Spokesperson: I think this covers a wide range of the bigger picture of the situation there.

Unless you're one of the people gone missing... Regarding the meeting, either Ban was not forceful, or he has no sway with the Sri Lankans -- less than 48 hours after this meeting, which Okabe called big picture, a UN system spokesperson in Colombo was expelled. Now what will Ban do?

UN's Ban and Geneva meeting, expulsion not shown

UNICEF, at least at the top level, is hardly forceful in its uploading of international humanitarian law. UNICEF director Ann Veneman in a recent online Q&A session -- this way she can choose which questions to answer, unlike in the UN briefing room she has not appeared in for months -- was asked

Q: What is UNICEF doing to help the children held as prisoners in camps in Sri Lanka?

Veneman: UNICEF is providing humanitarian assistance in the camps for internally displaced people in Sri Lanka, including safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, vaccinations and nutrition assistance. It is also involved in providing protection for children in the camps, especially those who have been separated from their families and are at risk of neglect, abuse and exploitation. We continue to be greatly concerned about children who have been impacted by conflict in Sri Lanka. UNICEF also works throughout Sri Lanka supporting health, education and protection programmes for children.

Did she not read the word "internment"?

Flashback: Inner City Press' September 3 prediction stated that "something else that Ban Ki-moon may have to be asked to respond to is what Colombo sources say is the impending expulsion of UNICEF's James Elder, for speaking, how ever diplomatically, about the problems in the UN-funded internment camps." Now what?

Update: And then three days later:

From: unspokesperson-donotreply [at]

Sent: 9/8/2009 12:35:43 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time

Subj: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sri Lanka

Statement Attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

The Secretary-General strongly regrets the decision of the Sri Lankan Government to expel Mr. James Elder, Spokesman for UNICEF in Sri Lanka. The Secretary-General expresses his full confidence in the work of the United Nations in Sri Lanka, which includes making public statements when necessary in an effort to save lives and prevent grave humanitarian problems. The United Nations is working impartially to assist the people of Sri Lanka, and the Government should be supporting and cooperating with its efforts.

The Secretary-General will take up this issue with President Rajapaksa at the earliest opportunity and will continue to urge him to implement all the commitments made in their joint statement after the Secretary-General’s visit to Sri Lanka in May.

We'll see.

* * *

Two UN Views of Sri Lankan Killing Video, Holmes in Norway Putting Out Fires

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, September 3 -- In the wake of the Norwegian memo which criticized the UN's Ban Ki-moon for lacking "moral authority" during his visit to Sri Lanka and since -- a critique that Ban dodged during his pass through Oslo this week -- UN humanitarian coordinator John Holmes arrived to take a second attempt to blunt the issue. First, Holmes offered praise to Norway, telling Aftenposten it "is one of the most important countries in this area, both in terms of assistance and expertise. Therefore, I try to stop by occasionally to talk with Norwegian leaders."

   He didn't say when the last of these "occasional" visits to Oslo was. The timing, right after the Norwegian memo which specifically named Holmes as wanting the UN's political or chief of staff job and criticized Ban's "silent" diplomacy style, was hardly subtle.

   In fact, Holmes used the Aftenposten interview to deny wanting any other job, and to say that, just as Ban is contrasted unfavorably with the flashier Kofi Annan, he acknowledges that his predecessor Jan Egeland was more strident, that he "used the media actively... I'm more of a type that is set in the doors."

   Notably, Holmes was more explicit that Ban Ki-moon's spokespeople have been about the leaked video depicting the Sri Lankan Army committing summary executions, saying that "We have received a guarantee from the government that it will be created an independent body to investigate such incidents. So far they have not kept [their] word. If nothing happens, we have to do something... the government has only 'weeks or months, not years, to initiate such an investigation."

   Later on September 3, after receiving word of Holmes' statement from a fellow journalist in Oslo, Inner City Press asked Ban's Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe if the Secretariat, to which President Mahinda Rajapaksa made his supposed commitment, would finally be clearer about the need to investigate the presumably war crimes in the video footage.

Glasses-less UN's Ban hears point from Holmes, killing video not yet shown

Inner City Press: yesterday Ambassador Rice said that the US was deeply concerned about that video from the Sri Lankan army apparently conducting summary executions and said more information is needed. I’m just wondering, I couldn’t figure out from what you’d said, what has been said from here before. The Secretary-General said he’s concerned about human rights violations, including this video, but notes the Government’s rejection of it. Does the Secretary-General believe that there should be an investigation, if not by the Government, then by an outside source about the…?

Deputy Spokesperson: If you look at that statement a little bit more carefully, I think it talks about the three points that were agreed between the Secretary-General and the Sri Lankan Government, one of which talks about the need to establish a proper mechanism to look into these violations. And of course any allegations as serious as those made in the video would be part of such an inquiry like that. And, as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, we may have something further. The Secretary-General in Geneva is scheduled to be meeting with the Sri Lankan Minister for Disaster Management, I believe, the correct title I may not have at the top of head right, but that meeting should be going on right now. And so we may have a readout on that for you.

[The Deputy Spokesperson later said that the Secretary-General met in Geneva with Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lanka’s Minister for Disaster Management and Human Rights, to discuss such matters. They discussed the conditions in camps housing internally displaced persons, particularly with the approaching monsoon season. They also discussed the return of internally displaced persons, as well as the importance of the free movement of people among the camps and free movement of United Nations and international humanitarian workers. They talked about the importance of reconciliation. They also discussed accountability, particularly in light of the recent accusations of extrajudicial executions.]

   So Ban and Samarasinghe "discussed accountability, particularly in light of the recent accusations of extrajudicial executions." What did they discuss? Watch this site.

Footnote: something else that Ban Ki-moon may have to be asked to respond to is what Colombo sources say is the impending expulsion of UNICEF's James Elder, for speaking, how ever diplomatically, about the problems in the UN-funded internment camps....

At UN, Susan Rice Calls Sri Lankan Executions Disturbing, No Council Session Set, Rajapaksa No Show, HG Error

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, September 2 -- Three months after the UN Security Council held informal session about the conflict Sri Lanka, the newly released video footage depicting the Sri Lankan Army committing summary execution has not led any Council member, including the United States, to propose that the situation be discussed on the Council agenda. But, U.S. Ambassador and Council President for September Susan Rice told the Press, "these reports are very fresh and that could change." Video here, from Minute 24.

  At Ambassador Rice's month-opening press conference, Inner City Press asked her about Sri Lanka, the video, and the critique in the leaked memo of Norwegian Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Mona Juul that Ban Ki-moon lacked "moral authority" when he made his trip to Sri Lanka, like his visit to Myanmar. Video here, from Minute 21:50.

   Ms. Rice did not respond about the Juul memo, but said that the video reports are "very disturbing" and "of grave concern," that the U.S. would like more information as it formulates its national response. That is awaited, as is a response to the 20 year jail term for J.S. Tissainayagam, an Amnesty International prison of conscience whom U.S. President Obama on World Press Freedom Day on May 1 called an "emblematic example" of a reporter jailed for doing his job.

Susan Rice in UN helicopter, of the kind that flew over Sri Lankan "bloodbath on the beach" and camps

  Ms. Rice's press conference kicks off a month in which President Barack Obama will come to the UN for the General Assembly session. Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa had been scheduled to come along with a large entourage. But reportedly Karuna and others in his party were denied visa. Now, Rajapaksa will apparently not come, leaving the Prime Minister to represent the country.

  In the latest speakers' schedule for the General Assembly, which Inner City Press is putting online here, Sri Lanka is listed as speaking on September 26 along with other countries represented at the Head of Government. There is only one problem: the Sri Lanka Prime Minister is not the Head of Government, that is a post that President Rajapaksa holds as well as being Head of State.

  Inner City Press asked UN Associate Spokesperson Farhan Haq if the "head of government" notation was an error by UN Protocol. Haq responded diplomatically that it is the responsibility of member states to give accurate information. Watch this site.

From the U.S. Mission to the UN's transcript

Inner City Press: ...this Mona Juul memo that many people have spoken about, talking about where the U.N. stands in terms of what she called a lack of moral authority on Myanmar, Sri Lanka and even Sudan... on Sri Lanka, there's this video that came out of the army apparently shooting, you know, naked prisoners. Do you expect the Council to take that issue up in any way?

Ambassador Rice: ...With respect to Sri Lanka, again speaking in a national capacity, these reports are very disturbing. They're of grave concern. We'd like more information as we formulate our own national response.

And to date, going back now to Council President, I'm not aware of a Council member proposing that this be discussed on the Council agenda, but obviously these reports are very fresh and that could change.

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

  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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