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UK's Hi Tech Miliband Is Asked of Somalia and Sri Lanka, by Twitter, Yes or No

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, March 10, updated -- It's all the rage in diplomatic spin: UK foreign secretary David Miliband is taking questions by Twitter today, during his two day stay in Boston. The UK consulate there has been soliciting questions, saying they will be answered throughout the day.

  At the UN in New York, Inner City Press has asked Miliband questions at the Security Council stakeout, several times receiving wordy answers the meaning of which was not entirely clear.

  Perhaps the format of 140 characters -- less with all the hash marks -- in the questions and especially the answers will make Miliband's meaning more clear. Here are two questions tweeted to the UK consulate as per their instructions on Wednesday morning by Inner City Press:

1) Has UK cut aid to WFP in #Somalia, and if so what is required for the aid to hungry Somalis to be resumed? #askfs

2) If #SriLanka refuses to investigate war crimes does UK think the UN should name a panel of inquiry as in Guinea? #askfs

  The background to the first question is that while the UN and its Mark Bowden have publicly questioned the restrictions on aid by the U.S., which says funds are being diverted to Al Shabaab, the UK's position is less clear. And with the UK's John Holmes in charge of the UN's humanitarian operations, some wonder if his office would point the finger at the UK.

  In the past week, Inner City Press has asked the UN's spokesman Martin Nesirky, himself a Brit, for an update on restrictions on UN system operations and funding in Somalia, and to explain UN envoy Ould Abdallah's call for the UN to return to Mogadishu when, apparently, he can't. Still there have been no answers. At least on the first question, perhaps Miliband can answer.

Miliband and Sawers saunter pass stakeout, Twitter not shown

  On the second question, Miliband's then-UN Ambassador John Sawers, before he returned to London and spy-hood, told Inner City Press that the UK had "had the votes" to put Sri Lanka on the Security Council's agenda during the blood bath on the beach stage of the conflict in the Spring of 2009, but chose not to, in the name of Council unity, perhaps on other issues.

  Sawers' successor Mark Lyall Grant speaks much less frequently to the press at the Council stakeout. So the question must go to the traveling Miliband. Watch this site -- and Twitter, @innercitypress, click here.

Update: while UK Foreign Secretary David Milliband did not, as UK embassies in the U.S. had appeared to promise, respond to Inner City Press' timely submitted question about the investigation of and accountability for war crimes, the following was later received:

Subject: Sri Lanka
From: Brian.McGuigan, British Embassy, Washington
To: Inner City Press
Date: Fri, Mar 12, 2010

Matthew, We're sorry that the Foreign Secretary was not able to answer your question on Twitter. We'd still like to give you a response from the British Government, however.

This was a war without witness. The UK supports any credible process to address possible violations of international humanitarian law by both sides to the conflict. Such a process could advance the prospects of national reconciliation. Whatever the outcome of the UN process, the GoSL retains primary responsibility to investigate possible war crimes committed on its territory and we urge it to do so.

* * *

Susan Rice of US Insists UN "Misconstrues" Somalia Aid Restrictions

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, February 19 -- Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the UN, accused the UN's humanitarian coordinator for Somalia Mark Bowden of "misconstruing" US restrictions on aid. Ambassador Rice asserted a "diversion of resources" to the Islamist group Al Shabab. Since it is on US terrorism lists, US law requires the restrictions the US is demanding.

   But what are these U.S. restrictions? Bowden, while publicly complaining about them, would not provide any description. Rather, he said that when he went to Washington to discussed them with US aid officials, they told him the issue was "above [their] pay grade."

  Inner City Press asked Ambassador Rice about precisely this quote. She insisted that it is Al Shabab which is responsible for the lack of aid. Video here, transcript below.

  But what of Bowden's quoting of US aid officials? A US State Department official in Washington, described as "irritated," has said of Bowden, "We're going to talk to him." The quote reminded on UN observer of "something from the Sopranos," or the Mafia film "Good Fellas."

 When Bowden's boss, top UN humanitarian John Holmes, stood before a UN microphone on Thursday evening, Inner City Press asked him to explain what Bowden had said, and to describe the US restrictions to which the UN is publicly taking exception.

  But Holmes responded that the message was only that the UN needs more funds. Even pressed, he declined to follow or back up Bowden. Video here, last question.

  Was this "good cop, bad cop," an observer mused afterwards. Or was Holmes showing his political stripes, declining to criticize the U.S. as, for example, his predecessor Jan Egeland did after the tsunami?

Susan Rice back on Jan. 26, US Somalia aid restrictions not shown

  Following Ambassador Rice's two responses to the Press about Somalia, she went in to a Security Council meeting about Haiti. Speaking first, from a prepared text, was the UN's John Holmes. So goes diplomacy at the UN.

Footnotes: While Ambassador Rice also took two questions about Iran's nuclear program, the Press was not able to ask for her views on developments in Sudan and Darfur, or on anti-democratic moves in Niger and Cote d'Ivoire, nor the incorporation of a presumptive war criminal into Guinea's interim government. But the answers on Somalia, although of a piece with Washington's script, were appreciated.

  Thursday a UN official told Inner City Press that "Susan Rice, as an expected future Secretary of State, is playing it safe. She will not, for example, criticize [former South African president Thabo] Mbeki about Sudan." Until questions are asked, and answered, we'll stick to an open mind.

From the US Mission to the UN's transcript:

Inner City Press: On Somalia, the U.N. has said that the U.S. is politicizing aid, and has made restrictions that make it impossible to feed people in southern Somalia. Could you say what the restrictions are and what the reasons for them are?

Ambassador Rice: Well, first of all we utterly reject that claim; we think it's false and unfounded. The reason why aid is not now proceeding to the people of southern Somalia is one reason alone and it's quite clear: it's Al Shabaab's attacks on WFP and other U.N. agencies, its kidnapping of innocent relief workers, its extortion of funds which prompted WFP on January 5th to take the decision that it could not and would not continue to deliver life saving assistance in southern Somalia. That's an unfortunate development but it is a direct consequence of Al Shabaab's attacks and efforts. The U.S. is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to Somalia, we have been consistently over many years, and in 2009 we contributed $150 million in humanitarian assistance to Somalia. So, as I said we reject that claim as false and unfounded.

Inner City Press: One follow up, Mark Bowden of the UN had said when he traveled to Washington and met with USAID officials they said to him that the decision was above their pay-grade and was being made by the State Department on a political basis.

Ambassador Rice: He's conflating and misconstruing two different things. The reason why the people of Somalia in the South are not able to receive the assistance that we and others have traditionally provided at present is because WFP took a decision, a decision they felt compelled to take and we understand why they had to take it, that they could no longer continue to provide assistance safely, given Al Shabaab's harassment, attacks, and terrorist activities. The question of how the U.S. government has responded, and we have been in discussions with humanitarian delivery agencies about the fact that we have grave concerns about the diversion of resources to Al Shabaab and other terrorist organizations in contravention of U.S. law. And we have had those discussions, they have been ongoing but nonetheless, the U.S. provided $150 million of humanitarian assistance to Somalia last year. We remain, as we have been for many years, the largest donor, and what is precluding the delivery of assistance to people in southern Somalia is Al Shabaab.

 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.

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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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