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As Sri Lankan Army Toured UN's Holmes, Questions Left Unanswered

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

UNITED NATIONS, February 22 -- In Sri Lanka and beyond, questions about the UN's impartiality and commitment to civilians swirled in the wake of Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes' whirlwind government-controlled visit to a camp for internally displaced persons. While in New York, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's spokespeople had been declining to answer questions until Holmes left Sri Lanka, even when he did, the questions raised were not answered. Is it true, as locals say, that Holmes did not even have his own translator, but relied on the government? Given twelve hours to answer this basic question, the UN provided no answer.

   Despite a statement at Friday's UN noon briefing that Holmes would provide answers before his conveniently back-to-back trip to Colombia, Holmes spokesperson told Inner City Press he had not been and could not be contacted, and as of Sunday afternoon was "en route to Bogota."

  UK Ambassador John Sawers at the UN on Friday spoke of a Security Council briefing once Holmes return from Sri Lanka. But apparently Holmes left immediately for Colombia. Perhaps he can find another destination after that, and his spokespeople will still be unable to reach him.

  Inner City Press asked the UN to confirm or deny that Holmes relied on the Sri Lankan government's Minister of Relocation to translate, and that when a woman said her son was abducted by the Army, the Minister told Holmes she had said the son was taken by the Tamil Tigers. No answer. Did Holmes or the UN keep tape recordings of what was said to him, so that non-government translators could hear them? No answer.

  Before Holmes left Sri Lanka, he offered praise to the government. But locals speak of precarious "safe zones" that make a mockery of the responsibility to protect, and of continuing civilian death.  Locals ask, is Holmes, by his statements and his controlled visit, legitimating these breaches of the very international humanitarian laws he is charged with upholding?

Bombing near makeshift IDP camp in Sri Lanka, impact of UN's visit not shown

  On Friday February 20 in New York, UN spokesperson Michele Montas told Inner City Press, "Mr. Holmes is there now, and as I said, he is better able than anybody to answer that question.  He is going to come here this weekend, and then he is going to fly again to Colombia.  But we’ll try to get him to come and talk to you between those trips."

   On Sunday February 22, before it was said Holmes would head to Colombia, Inner City Press submitted the following questions to Ms. Montas and three of her colleagues, including Holmes' spokesperson:

   These are questions on deadline for Mr. Holmes, about his time in and statements on Sri Lanka:

--did he speak with displaced or impacted people outside the presence of government officials?

--who did the translation(s) for him?

--were tape recordings of what was said, in original language, kept?

--what evidence of violations of international humanitarian law by the Sri Lankan armed forces, as well as the LTTE, did he observe or become aware of?

--what were the interactions between Mr. Holmes and the Sri Lankan armed forces, including but not limited to travel, presence during interactions with displaced or impacted people?

--please list the individuals and organizations which whom Mr. Holmes met, and provide his schedule / itinerary

  In light of UK Ambassador Sawers' and others' statements Friday with regard to Security Council briefing after Mr. Holmes' departure from Sri Lanka, when would Mr. Holmes be available for such a Council briefing?

  Holmes' spokesperson replied that "will take some time. Asking counterpart in Sri Lanka."

  But what happened to Holmes having some answers, between trips? Inner City Press wrote again

to provide an opportunity to respond on deadline to a criticism UN OCHA has or should have been aware of, please confirm or deny that Mr. Holmes during his visits to camps during this trip relied on government Minister of Resettlement Rishard Badurdeen and government staff for translation.

  Separately, please comment on the assertion that when one woman complained her sons had been abducted by the Army,  Mr. Holmes was told that she said LTTE had abducted or shot her sons, and state whether Holmes or OCHA have kept original tape recordings of what was said to him.

  Did Holmes not have an independent Tamil-English translator of the UN system?

  Was Holmes accompanied by Rishard Badurdeen, Basil Rajapaksa, Mahinda Samarasinghe and Palitha Kohonna, and whom if anyone did he speak, among displaced / impacted people, out of the presence of these four or their security details?

  And, with all due respect, is Mr. Holmes in New York today? Could he devote some minutes to these questions?

  Holmes' spokesperson responded again, that Holmes was already en route to Bogota and somehow could not have been, and could not be, reached. Can it be that neither Holmes nor anyone traveling with him has a BlackBerry or cell phone or any way to say, for example, "no, I had my own translator"?

  When UN's responses are received, they will be reported on this site. [They were, on Feb. 23, click here.]

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

Click here for Inner City Press Nov. 7 debate on the war in Congo

Watch this site, and this Oct. 2 debate, on UN, bailout, MDGs

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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