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On Sri Lanka, UN Speak of Siege, Calls Cease-Fire Unrealistic, Only Private Diplomacy

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis
see Sri Lankan government statement, Inner City Press update 4/18

UNITED NATIONS, April 15 -- As military action recommences in northern Sri Lanka, the UN's top humanitarian John Holmes on Wednesday repeated government assurances that it would be in "siege mode." Inner City Press asked Holmes, given his estimate of 100,000 civilians trapped in 17 square kilometers, if the UN is asking for a cease-fire. Holmes said that "a cease-fire is not available, we are trying to achieve something realistic." Video here, from Minute 23:14.

   Holmes acknowledged that UN staff members -- who he pointed out are "local" or "Sri Lankan national" staff -- are held without freedom of movement in the camps set up by the government. Inner City Press asked him why he and the UN did not speak publicly about these detentions until being asked about it. Holmes said that the UN chose "private diplomacy." 

But see, Sri Lankan government statement, Inner City Press update

Asked twice if there are other countries in which UN staff are being similarly held but the UN is saying nothing, Holmes said "I can't think of a similar possibility at the moment." Video here, from Minute 6:26.

   Left unexplained is why the UN is treating Sri Lanka's government different than, for example, those of Sudan or Israel, condemned by the UN for harming civilians while fighting armed opponents and for any detentions no matter how short in duration.

John Holmes of the UN, speaking of siege but not cease-fire

  While the UN expends significant time and diplomatic capital seeking political solutions in Darfur and the Middle East, it is unclear what if anything is being done in the case of Sri Lanka. Inner City Press asked Holmes to comment on Sri Lanka's loud ouster of Norway from a mediating role. "I don't think it's a very helpful step," Holmes said, adding that Norway like anyone else if free to contract the LTTE Tamil Tigers if they wish. Video here, from Minute 17:58.

   But it is for precisely such contact, combined with damage to a Sri Lankan embassy in Oslo, that Norway was denounced by Colombo. It is such denunciations which seemed to have worked to make the UN much quieter about abuse of civilians and even UN staff in Sri Lanka than the UN would be in any other country.

  Inner City Press asked Holmes if the lack of media coverage has made his humanitarian coordination job more difficult with respect to Sri Lanka. He acknowledged that it has, saying that the lack of press access and of images from "major press outlets" limits knowledge and concern, but it's "beyond our control." The UN can presumably control what it says, for example speaking out about the detention of its staff and the exclusion of the press, much less control its funding of detention camps that violate international humanitarian law. We will continue to follow this.

Footnote: Inner City Press asked the UK Mission to the UN two questions on Sri Lanka early on Wednesday:

Does the UK believe that international law and the rights of UN humanitarian staff are being violated by the now-acknowledged detention of UN staff in the Sri Lankan government's “IDP” camps?

It has been reported this morning that Sri Lanka's “minister also told the British Foreign Secretary that there was concern that the LTTE would continue to consolidate its fortification of the No-Fire Zone.” Please confirm the accuracy of that, and of this and if so, does the UK interpret it as saying that an offensive on the No-Fire Zone and the civilians in it will begin? What did the UK Foreign Secretary say?

  As of press time five hours later, the answer has been referral to Minister Miliband's April 12 statement. As more answers arrive we will report them on this site.

  Click here for a new YouTube 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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