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At UN, Food and Aid to Interment Camps Debated, Pleas for Pakistan, Political Reception

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

UNITED NATIONS, May 29 -- The relation between politics and the humanitarian impulse is at the UN constant, usually under the surface but of late right out in the open, particularly in Asia. In Sri Lanka the UN provides funds for camps into which the government sweeps Tamils and does not let them leave. UN Humanitarian Coordinator John Holmes has said that through time, funding will depend on compliance with international law. On May 28 Inner City Press asked Sheila Sisulu, the World Food Program's Deputy Executive Director for Hunger Solutions, about Sri Lanka, as well as Myanmar and North Korea, leading to a final question: would the UN aid and assist a concentration camp? The answer was yes, we must help people, leave the politics for later. Video here.

The issue, of course, is whether by providing aid the UN is actually complicit. If interment camps could not be set up absent the UN's aid, is giving it up without conditions not encouraging interment? Similarly, if a military regime like Myanmar's chooses to export for profit the rice that it grow while its people starve or get fed by the UN, is this a "market based solution," as Ms. Sisulu's colleague Henk-Jan Brinkman, WFP Senior Advisor for Economic Policy, also said on Thursday?

The two represents two views in WFP: while Mr. Brinkman said markets and exports like Myanmar's could ultimately serve the poor, Ms. Sisulu condemned the practice of lower income countries like Madagascar leasing tracts of land to grow food for South Korea, or the UAE. But would WFP buy or accept food from such colonial farms? This, she didn't answer.

So the UN will give money to military regimes, or to set up interment camps, in the name of the humanitarian impulse. The one country Ms. Sisulu acknowledged WFP is pulling back from, North Korea, it is only because the government said "leave." Inner City Press asked about monitoring of where the aid is going. Ms. Sisulu said the DPRK programs are being scaled back, for that reason and others. What others? Well, the government of Kim Jong-il wants only development assistance, nor humanitarian aid. Inner City Press asked Ms. Sisulu if WFP agrees that North Korea is feeding its people well. It is not our place to say, said Ms. Sisulu. At least she is consistent.

Surreally, after this bull session on hunger, Thursday ended uptown at the Russian end of Security Council presidency reception. There, amid caviar and vodka, the talk turned to Sri Lanka and the UN's Humanitarian chief John Holmes, who earlier launched and briefed about a "flash appeal" for Pakistan. Inner City Press asked Holmes how the UN calculates the payments to the host families who are taking in up to 90% of those displaced, and how the Swat Valley cities damaged by shelling and now reports of land mine laying will be rebuilt. Holmes danced around each, said there are no casualty figures at all.

While Inner City Press has written, and maintains, that the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs should, if anywhere, be the place open with a bleeding heart to cries of anguish, even the derivative emailed anguish from diasporas from hot spots. Another correspondent countered that everything is political. In the corner, the Ambassadors of both Russian and then the UK spoke with their Sri Lankan counterpart. Yes, everything is political. 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.

Back from Sri Lanka, UN's Holmes Admits NGO Killings and Restrictions Not Raised

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

UNITED NATIONS, May 26 -- Just back to the United Nations from Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's surreal tour of Sri Lanka, Inner City Press asked UK Ambassador John Sawers if the UN paying for interment camps for Tamils rounded up from throughout northern Sri Lanka compiles with international humanitarian law.

  Ambassador Sawers, rather than answer, said that there has been a "high level of attention" to the issue by the UN, by envoy Vijay Nambiar, humanitarian chief John Holmes and the visit of the Secretary General over the weekend. There's been not report to the Security Council yet, Sawers said, we look forward to that and "we'll have to consider steps after that." Video here, from Minute 6:15.

   Ban Ki-moon is still out of New York. John Holmes took questions by phone, since he was outside of the UN (some said in Upstate New York). Inner City Press asked Holmes about the people looked up in the camps who were not in the final conflict zone. "I was not aware of that," Holmes said, arguing that "the whole Vanni" or jungle area was under Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam control "so in a sense was the conflict zone." Video here, from Minute 21:15.

   Interviews in the camps, even under the watchful eyes of Sri Lankan soldiers and seemingly pro-government UN personnel nevertheless revealed that people were swept into the camps. The goal, if not to move members of the Sinhala majority into the now-vacated areas, is to screen anyone who lived under the LTTE for whether they support Tamil separatism or autonomy. Should the UN be assisting in such ideological if not ethnic cleansing?

   Holmes insisted that "there is no question of the UN funding the sweeping up," the UN is "only providing emergency relief in the camps." But if the camps are being used, not as a temporary fix to a natural disaster but to ethnic and ideological screening, providing food and money -- and in the case of UNOPS, planning the camps and helping build them -- makes the UN's role more direct, and problematic.

   Inner City Press asked Holmes if Ban Ki-moon, in his meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaka, has raised the issue of press freedom, including of the editor will last year, and other reports who have been harassed, arrested and disappeared, and of the aid workers, including from Action Contre la Faim, who have been killed, allegedly by pro-government militias. No, Holmes said, neither issue was raised by Ban in his meetings. He did not say, why not?

   The government's proposed Memorandum of Understanding it wants NGOs to sign would require them to provide information on all their clients, which these NGOs don't do anywhere in the world. Since a number of NGOs have told Inner City Press that they are not in the best position to fight the proposed MOU, as they are working in Sri Lanka; they would like to see John Holmes and OCHA take the lead in fighting back the intrusive NGO. Holmes admitted that the "MOU was not raise by the Secretary-General," and said that the issue had been set on the side. He did not say, by whom?

Tamil IDPs in Manik Farm await UN's Ban with baited breathe, May 23 (c) M.Lee

   Since some NGOs have expressed concern about the publication statements about what they expect from Holmes' OCHA -- to fight back against the MOU, for example -- and in light of major NGOs' summary from last week that John Holmes "had objected to the trip, as many of you know," Inner City Press asked Holmes about this position, and to explain it. Holmes replied that "I did not say to the NGOs that I was against the visit, I simply said that there were some tricky presentational aspect about which we were very well aware and that we would be dealing with while there, and which I think we did successfully."

   Apparently, Holmes was comfortable with the "presentational aspects" of children in the camps being forced to sing "Ban Ki-moon" to the Secretary General, and of Ban acceding to Rajapaksa's demand that they meet not in the capital but in the Buddhist shrine town of Kandy, which many say was a message to Tamils, we win, you lose. In fact, there are reports of Tamil shopkeepers in Colombo being besieged by Sinhala mobs and told to pay money, since "you lost." The UN should be countering such trends, not covering them up or, worse, stoking them.

   Lynn Pascoe was also at the briefing, but said less. When Inner City Press asked about reports that Tamil MPs were barred by the government from entering the Colombo airport's VIP lounge for the meeting they had been promised with Bank Ki-moon, Pascoe said he is investigating those reports and will "pass on to Maria" [Okabe, the Deputy Spokesperson] what he learns. Inner City Press asked about the symbolism of the visit to Kandy. Pascoe said it was a misperception and that "when a government says where, it's their decision."

   Inner City Press asked both Pascoe and Holmes if they thought the forcing children in the camps to sing to Ban Ki-moon was appropriate. Pascoe said that he's seen children waiting in the sun for longer than he could put up with, and not only in camps. Video here, from Minute 34:34. Holmes did not answer about the appropriateness of the forced signing and flag waving in the UN-funded camps. Watch this site.

Footnote: as the Human Rights Council in Geneva takes up the question of Sri Lanka, not only is there a pro-Rajapaksa resolution, now there is a Swiss proposed compromise, which would ask the Rajapaksa administration to investigate itself...

 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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