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UN: Sri Lanka


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UN's Post Sri Lanka Failure Rights Up Front Leaves Complacency in Place

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, December 19 -- The UN says it has learned from its "systemic failure" in the final stages of the conflict in Sri Lanka, and has announced a "Rights Up Front" action plan. Perhaps the UN will improve.

  But the UN does not seem to have faced the problems that led it to be silent, and to partner with silencers, on the war crimes in Sri Lanka.

  When UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson presented "Rights Up Front" in the UN Press Briefing Room on December 19, he said very little about Sri Lanka.

  Since another participant in the plan, UN Human Rights official Ivan Simonovic, recently spoke at more length and said the UN stayed silent in order to retain access, Inner City Press asked Eliasson about this.

In 2008, UN humanitarian staff left Kilinochchi. Residents said then, we will now be killed in a war without witnesses. And that is what happened. But since the UN no longer even had access to the north, why did the UN stay silent?

  Not able to be asked about at Eliasson's December 19 press conference was that the UN actively CONCEALED the death statistics it had in early 2009. Inner City Press was leaked a copy of a UN OCHA estimate of over 2000 civilians killed and asked then-UN Spokesperson Michele Montas about it. She denied the document existed. But it had the OCHA letterhead.

  This is the performance that should be addressed. If not, as happens so often, the UN will keep congratulating itself and it will happen again.

  A smaller but telling example: it is public record that the UN Secretariat's "partner" (or Censorship Alliance) the United Nations Correspondents Association actively ordered Inner City Press to remove from the Internet a story about how UNCA screened inside the UN a Sri Lanka government film denying war crimes after UNCA's president had a previous financial relationship with Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative.

  But ironically the UN automatically gave the first question to Eliasson on December 19 to this same UNCA; there was mutual congratulation about the previous night's Censors' Ball. While one of Eliasson's staffers - departing, we're sad to hear - came over to whisper "We thank FUNCA too" (referring to the new Free UN Coalition for Access), that's not the point.

And in fact, when the UN put out its transcript of Eliasson's briefing, they omitted the words "Free UN Coalition for Access," while leaving in, more than twice, UNCA: the UN's Censorship Alliance. Compare transcript to (UN) video, here, from Minute 22:06. This is the second time it happens with an Eliasson briefing. What does it mean?

 What does it mean that later on December 19 in a UN seminar on UN Peacekeeping, Sri Lanka's seat was occupied by military figure Shavendra Silva? Photo here.

The very same complacency that existed in 2009 remains intact, or nearly intact, in the UN today. So will this UN put "Rights Up Front"? Watch this site.

Here's UN transcription, from which they cut out the "Free UN Coalition for Access," video at 22:06

Q: I wanted to be sure to ask, to try to figure out what the UN is actually learning from its systemic failure in Sri Lanka. I have heard Ivan Simonovic say that the UN stayed silent in order to keep access in the country, but in fact in late 2008 the UN left Kilinochchi and other parts of the north, essentially having no presence there. So, I am wondering: why, if you can say more, why did the UN stay silent, and even today, I mean this month, there was a protest in Trincomalee, there was a crackdown by the Government - and I am wondering was it raised with Gotabaya Rajapaksa when you met with him? What is the ongoing role of the UN in Sri Lanka?

And on South Sudan, can you confirm that the UN has asked Uganda to mediate between the two sides? They have given a readout of a call, and I wondered if the UN has reached out to Riek Machar and if not, is the UN too close to the Government in South Sudan to reach out to its opponents? Thank you.

DSG: When it comes to what happened in the last phase of the horrible conflict in Sri Lanka in 2009, I want to refer to reports that were made at that time and to Charles Petrie’s report. When he talked about systemic failure, he meant not only the Secretariat, but also Member States. There was a responsibility not least from the Security Council’s side. And we decided to accept those observations on the failures; I will not go further into that because we saw as our major task to take this very seriously and to take it one step further and draw lessons from Sri Lanka, but also Rwanda reports, military reports of the past, and say ‘how can we be more concrete?’ and really, make a serious attempt to make sure that we send a message to Member States that we now have to increase the level of attention on situations that will arise in the future, out of this frustration of saying “never again”. Just the fact that you say “never again” and have done so a number of times shows that we have failed, we continue to fail. So actually, this is a pretty forward-looking… we haven’t spent more time than the earlier inquiries on what happened in Sri Lanka. We have said we accept those reports and then: ‘what can we do to make sure that we do it better if it happens again?’

DSG: I forgot to answer your question on the South Sudan. I know of no requests from the United Nations side to Uganda. I know that President [Yoweri] Museveni plays a very important role. The Secretary-General and President Museveni have talked and I am sure that President Museveni, like other African leaders with influence on the Government of Sudan and other political personalities in Sudan will use their influence in the direction that I just pointed to. But, I know of no request for mediation. Our own Special Representative will do her best to be in contact with of course the Government primarily, but also if possible, with the other side. We are certainly only interested in one thing, and that is to stop this very dangerous crisis to turn into an even deeper crisis.

[DSG takes copy of UN Charter from his pocket] It’s in my pocket, you know.


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