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On Sri Lanka, Malcorra Explains Ban Blacking Out His Position & Silva Inaction

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, November 15,updated with transcript -- A day after the UN released a partially blacked out report on its actions and inactions in Sri Lanka, and an hour after Inner City Press published material deleted after the "penultimate" version, including the removed Executive Summary, a press conference was held by report author Charles Petrie and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's chief of staff Susana Malcorra.

  Inner City Press asked about the absence of Malcorra's predecessor Vijay Nambiar, who was Ban's envoy to Sri Lanka and coaxed out surrenderees who were subsequently killed, a matter glossed over in Petrie's report. Video here from Minute 10:53.

  Malcorra answered that with a question, why Inner City Press would ask for the presence of Nambiar and not other officials.

  Well, former humanitarian chief John Holmes, exposed in redacted portions of the report arguing against using the term war crimes -- reminiscent of the Clinton administration's hair splitting on "acts of genocide" in Rwanda -- was not there, but he no longer works for the UN. Nambiar does.

   Inner City Press asked why Holmes' recommendation to not use the term war crimes (and not release casualty figures his department had collected) was blacked out of the report.

  Malcorra responded that the Secretary General decided that some material should be redacted, because it concerned confidential cables or meetings or put staff members in jeopardy.

  But one sample redaction, in Paragraph 173, are of Ban's own comments, that the Sri Lankan "Government should be given the political space to develop a domestic mechanism" of accountability.

   This does not concern staff safety, and it seems strange to argue that Ban blacked out his own comments to not chill his own future deliberation.

  When Inner City Press got to ask about this redaction, Malcorra insisted that it was twisting what she said. Video here from Minute 31:33. But how is this redaction justified?

  In fairness, Malcorra argued that the UN's view Sri Lanka as a humanitarian and not human rights issues. This is one way to describe the UN keeping silent to retain access.

  But the UN under John Holmes left Kilinochchi in 2008. That was not humanitarian. That was not access. In self-criticism, Inner City Press vaguely heard of the pull-out in 2008 and asked about it then, but did not follow through with more until early 2009. Bad instincts; efforts to be redoubled.

  But when Inner City Press did follow up, in March 2009 waving around a leaked OCHA report of 2,683 civilians killed in northern Sri Lanka, the UN denied the document existed. The Petrie report, even as redacted and "balanced," usefully establishes that was false.

  Charles Petrie said changes were made to make the report "more balanced." But it was supposed to be an independent report into the UN's own performance, not to be "balanced" with official's desires to conceal their mistakes.

  Petrie said that Malcorra is "championing" the report and recommendations. That is not at all clear.

  Inner City Press asked about Ban having accepted one of the Generals associated with the killings in Sri Lanka, Shavendra Silva, as a Senior Adviser on Peacekeeping Operations. Malcorra made the old defense, that member states decided it.

 But a lesson of the Ban's UN's failure in Sri Lanka is that hiding behind members states is not a sufficient defense for a UN Secretary General. Silva appeared with Sri Lanka Ambassador (and former UN official) Palitha Kohona at a war crime defense film screening in the UN's own Dag Hammarskjold Auditorium, fallout written up by the SLC, here.

  There is more to be said on all this. Watch this site.

Here's from the UN's November 15, 2012, transcript:

Spokesperson Martin Nesirky: Okay, questions please? I wanted to see if there’s someone from [United Nations Correspondents Association] who wishes to ask a question on behalf of the Correspondents Association. That’s the usual tradition.

Question: On behalf of [United Nations Correspondents Association], Madame, thank you for coming here. My question would be — the report is very critical of the Security Council as it is as well of the United Nations Secretariat system. What can the Secretary-General do about them to change their attitude....

Spokesperson Nesirky: Matthew, yes?

Inner City Press: Sure, I wanted to ask you. I’ve seen a list of things that were taken out of the report between the penultimate version and the final version. A lot of them have to do with concealing the number of casualties. It seems like this was a decision that was made at Headquarters. I was sitting in room 226, I remember with an [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] document saying that there were 2,683 people killed in a certain timeframe in 2009 and the then Spokesperson so oh that’s not a real document. And the redacted portions of the report revealed that there was some tension in Headquarters, whether it revealed numbers. So, I wanted to know, what have you learned from that, in terms of actually revealing numbers. And also, one of the redactions actually has the Secretary-General himself saying let’s give the Rajapaksa Government more time to bring accountability. And I wanted to know if either of you think that there has been accountability.

There is also, since this time General Shavendra Silva, one of the participants in the military campaign, was named as a senior advisor on peacekeeping operations. In fact, he was standing right where you are in an [United Nations Correspondents Association] screening of a film denying war crimes. So, what I’m wondering is when you say what have you learned, what have you learned given that there were sort of excuses made for accepting one of the alleged perpetrators.

And the last question I want to ask is why Mr. Nambiar, there is a mention twice of the white flag killings in the report. It says that Mr. Nambiar received assurances from the Government that people that surrendered wouldn’t be killed. But, there is an enormous amount of controversy, whether he personally should have spoken out after these people were killed. And some people don’t believe that he got the assurances or that, but what I’m wondering is, was that appropriate? And in terms of accountability, he’s a senior UN official, why isn’t he here?

Ms. Malcorra: First of all, let me divide your questions. If I understood correctly, you referred to the penultimate version versus the last version?

Inner City Press: Yes.

Ms. Malcorra: I cannot talk about that. I didn’t see the penultimate version. I only saw the last version. So, I will ask Charles to refer to that and to some other specific requests on the report. And then I will take up the rest.

Mr. Petrie: I think, Matthew, you are talking more about the redaction because between the penultimate version and the final version actually there was no substantive difference in terms of facts and even argument. What we were trying to do is to find language that would make the report more balanced and more acceptable in terms of the message that we were trying to give. Your point on Mr. Nambiar and the white flags incident, we actually went through it and went into it in great detail and talked to a number of people involved. And the report sort of presents our assessment of the event and the fact that the [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam] undertook these discussions, or this request, at the very, very last minute.

And it was almost physically impossible for Mr. Nambiar to get there. In terms of the efforts with the Government and with the discussions, our sense is that there was an honest attempt to try and get the Government to accept the surrender of the [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam]. But, it just didn’t work. It failed. But I do think, in a way, I would say your questions for me seem more linked, less to the penultimate version, and more linked to the redaction issue.

Ms. Malcorra: Which I will take up myself because that’s not… that was not on you, it was on us.

Inner City Press: And the Silva issue?

Mr. Petrie: And…?

Inner City Press: And the Shavendra Silva issue?

Ms. Malcorra: I will get to that, yeah, I hear you.

Inner City Press: Okay.

Ms. Malcorra: On the redacted version, there was a decision taken after a discussion with the Secretary-General regarding how is it that we are going to make this report public. The report has references to documents related particularly to the policy committee meetings and the deliberations, but also to some of the code cables that are of a strictly confidential nature. The Secretary-General felt, and I fully share his view, that there was nothing that will change the transparency to show the report if we took out those aspects that have a clear relation to documents of internal use that were fully available to the Panel, which only indicate how open and available every single person and every single document was, but didn’t necessarily add any value, but also put the Organization at risk by sharing publicly in such a short term internal documents.

You all know for sure that Governments have normally a time-bound limitation on accessibility to certain documentation and that time is normally quite long. Most Governments have 30 years or so. We don’t have that in the United Nations. But, we decided that it was only reasonable to mark out those references to exchange of documents like code tables that had very, very specific information of a confidential nature that was used by the Panel to make its assessment, but it was not necessarily something that we want to make to be public.

The other thing that we did, also, is look to some cases where there were references to a staff that even though the staff member may not be there, the name, it could put that person in jeopardy vis-à-vis his or her personal safety. So that you may find a couple of markers on that. We feel that this is a responsible way to be transparent. We feel about this very strongly and we would like to have a shared view with you all, because as much as we want to push the envelope of transparency as the Secretary-General does, we also need to be responsible vis-à-vis the ability of the Organization to handle and manage its own internal affairs. So, I will pose this to you. That was the criteria; it was an internal decision taken by the Organization, and we stand by that.

On the question of the General and him being part of the [specialized agency], that is my understanding; first of all the decision on the [specialized agency] was not something that the Secretary-General took. The process was very clear. He requested the different regional groups to propose names, and the Secretary-General only transferred that as a convenor of the [specialized agency]. Then, as you well know, there was a very, very strong discussion within the [specialized agency] which left the situation in a way that the General did not participate in the deliberation of the [specialized agency]. So, again, we have worked in a very transparent and open way, and it was left to the members of that group to take a decision on how they will operate themselves.

On why is it that Mr. Nambiar is not here — well, here’s not here as no one else who has been involved in the review is here. I don’t know why you point out Mr. Nambiar, but no one from that review is sitting here. The ones who are sitting here are the Chair of the Panel and the Chef de Cabinet on behalf of the Secretary-General and this is, we believe, the way to put before you the conclusions.

The one last thing I want to make, just to make it clear, is that the panel review is a review that takes stock of what the experts did in their own report and takes it from there, so this is not, the Panel did not [do] an assessment of the findings of the expert panel. They just used their findings to make their own assessment of the internal management and internal handling of the system.

Inner City Press: I wanted to bring this… Maybe at the end.

Spokesperson Nesirky: I’ll come back to you....

...Spokesperson Nesirky: Matthew?

Inner City Press: I wanted to ask you about the redactions because I take staff safety as one of the things you cited seriously. As you probably know, the way it was put up, it was possible to see behind the redactions and, therefore, if I can, in paragraph 173, what was taken out was a direct quote from the Secretary-General, not about staff members, him saying the Secretary-General said that “the Government should be given the political space to develop a domestic mechanism.” That’s why I’m asking you, do you think that that mechanism has come to anything? Another redaction has Mr. Holmes saying that we shouldn’t call it a war crime, and it’s taken out. That doesn’t seem to be about safety. It really does seem to be just what you said about kind of self-serving. So, I’ve seen the executive summary as well, and it seems it’s nothing about staff safety. It’s just a harder hitting version. Why did you take it out?

Ms. Malcorra: Because I used two arguments and you took only one, Matthew. This is a typical situation, Matthew, that where I like to be very straight with you. I said to you that there were two issues. One was documents of internal purview that were strictly confidential. I said that was the first issue and the second one was staff safety. Didn’t I say that?

Inner City Press: If a major failure is the head of [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] saying let’s not call it a war crime, why would you redact that? Who does that protect?

Ms. Malcorra: Because, because as a general proposition what we are saying there is a principle that discussions that are reflected in the policy committee papers should be of a strictly confidentiality. You will argue that that is something that should not be the case. Then how do you have senior managers coming together to have a very straight conversation and be reflected if this is not of a confidential nature? The important point I would like to make, and I would appreciate you making, is that this documentation was fully available to the panel and the panel was able to make its assessment based on the documentation. So why do you always twist things in a manner that doesn’t recognize the huge, huge attempt to make sure that all the available information was ready to be reviewed by the panel, and you just twist that in a manner that only makes the point that we are trying to protect ourselves. It’s just really something that disturbs me profoundly.

Mr. Petrie: There is nothing in the executive summary that is not in the report, and the reason it was taken out was the question of do you need to have a four-page or five-page executive summary when you have a 28- or 30-page report. So, in terms of trying to hide or take out information from the penultimate report, it didn’t happen. I mean, you will find everything in the executive summary in the report. So, that’s definitely not an issue. Again, I think, as I was saying before, it’s a very hard report and it’s an incredibly unpleasant report to read. It was a very difficult report to write as a UN official, former UN official. Very difficult report to read, which meant that we did spend a lot of time on language to try and get as careful a balance as possible to ensure that the essence of the message was understood and not sort of lost through language.

I think what’s remarkable about what we’re seeing right now is the fact that I’m saying very little, and I am the chair of the panel, and the fact that it’s actually Mrs. Malcorra, the UN, that is actually championing the report. And I think for us that’s a clear demonstration of having accomplished the task; it’s sort of an additional dimension of having accomplished the task that we were asked to accomplish about six months ago or eight months ago.

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