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On Sri Lanka, UN Official Describes "Nightmare Scenario," Treaty Official "Knows Better"

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

UNITED NATIONS, March 25 -- While the UN allows Sri Lanka's government to claim that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who said that both the Tamil Tigers and the government might be guilty of war crimes, "is not the UN," in New York on March 25 a senior UN official described to Inner City Press what the UN is trying to do about Sri Lanka.  The trapped civilians, who the official said are being shot at by both the Tamil Tigers and the government, must be extracted. But how?

 The official described a plan to convince both the Tamil Tigers and the government, which have so far refused, to accept a cessation of fighting and international observers to get the civilians out.

  What we are afraid of, the UN official said, is a nightmare scenario in which in a final drive against the Tigers, tens of thousands of civilians are killed and the UN looks guilty, like in Srebrenica. This must be avoided.

  The official said that Norway has been trying to talk with both sides, quietly, to broker such a deal. But the UN is growing dubious that Norway has the necessary connection. The US, he said, offered its military strength but was rejected.

   US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice on March 20 told Inner City Press that the US favors the Security Council getting full information on the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka. On March 25, Austria's Ambassador to the UN told Inner City Press that a way is being devised to let this happen.

   The UN official also described what he called a strategy of letting "the Tamil diaspora" know that any support of the Tamil Tigers might subject them to war crimes prosecution. This gambit seems to ignore something that the Sri Lankan government and is supports brag about, that the country's refusal to join the International Criminal Court makes it -- and crimes on its territory -- unreachable by the International Criminal Court. The threat against Tamil Tiger supporters, then, must involve the War on Terror.

  Recently long-time UN official Lakhdar Brahimi wrote an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune warning of the mounting dangers to civilians in Sri Lanka, and urging Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to demand access to the conflict zone and to appoint a special envoy.

   The envoy named by the UK, Des Browne, has been denied entry to the country. Following Ban's meeting with the UK's Gordon Brown on March 25, Ban said that Sri Lanka was one of four country conflicts they discussed. The others were Sudan, Afghanistan and Myanmar. Brown offered some specifics on Sudan and Afghanistan, but nothing on Sri Lanka.

At right, then-UN
Palitha Kohona, now denies UN HCHR is UN

  Inner City Press sought to ask for a read-out, but the two men took only four questions. Afterwards, Inner City Press asked both the UK Mission spokesman and Ban's spokesperson for a read out of the meeting, which will be reported on this site upon receipt, as well any response to the unanswered portion of the questions Inner City Press asked at the UN noon briefing on March 25:

Inner City Press: There was a statement by the Foreign Secretary of Sri Lanka that the country has received no criticism from the UN of how it’s conducting its conflict in the north.  He says that Ms. [Navi] Pillay, the Human Rights Commissioner, “is not the UN”, and apparently implies that, in the discussions between the President and the Secretary-General, there’s been no criticism whatsoever of any action of the Government.  I wanted to know, is that consistent with your understanding of those calls?

Spokesperson Michele Montas:  As far as I know, a number of issues were raised.  Humanitarian issues were also raised.

Inner City Press:  And also, the Foreign Ministry of Sri Lanka has put out a statement condemning the OCHA document that says there were 2,683 deaths, saying it’s entirely unverified and asking the UN to retract it.  Is the UN considering retracting its own document that’s that specific on numbers?

Spokesperson:  As far as I know, OCHA is standing by its numbers.

Question:  Okay.  Neil Buhne was quoted as saying that he is not standing by it.  He’s been quoted in Sri Lanka saying that he doesn’t stand by the number.  Maybe he’s been misquoted.  The Resident Coordinator, Neil Buhne, has been quoted as saying that he doesn’t stand by the number.

Spokesperson:  So he is saying that it’s just an evaluation?  That’s what I said earlier…

[The Spokesperson later said that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is not in a position to verify numbers put out by local groups on deaths.]

Inner City Press:  He’s saying it was a report for donor countries, not meant for public distribution, whatever that means.

Spokesperson:  Okay.  I can verify what those numbers meant.

Inner City Press:  That would be great.  Then just one factual thing is that the Voice of America has in a report said that the Government of Sri Lanka makes it such that international employees of NGOs as well as independent journalists are prohibited from travelling to the north.  So I know in your report you’d said how the Red Cross and WFP are delivering this aid.  Is it your understanding that, as in Darfur currently, that international staff of NGOs can’t go to that region?

Spokesperson:  I can ask the people there for you.  We can ask for more information.

[The Spokesperson later said that only national United Nations and non-governmental organization staff were in the conflict zone.]

Inner City Press:  Okay, that’d be great.  I’d appreciate it.

   It should be noted that Sri Lanka's foreign secretary Palitha Kohona, who said the UN High Commission for Human rights "is not the UN" himself served in and led the UN's Treaty Section. "He knows better," one official told Inner City Press. More than one officials questioned Neil Buhne's performance in Sri Lanka, one said that Buhne has been "captured."  On that, Inner City Press has repeatedly asked the UN for more information about its staff member forcible recruited into the Tamil Tigers -- for the record, for those pro-government activists who claim that any question about civilians is support for the Tamil Tigers, such recruitment is to be condemned.

Footnote: By happenstance, Inner City Press ran into former UN Peacekeeping chief Jean-Marie Guehenno on March 25 in front of the UN and asked him about Sri Lanka and Brahimi's proposal, would Guehenno consider the post.  Guehenno called the situation in Sri Lanka serious, and with a serious face said he would consider such an assignment, UN envoy to Sri Lanka. He said he has not been assigned any cases since taking up his post as Under Secretary General for Regional Cooperation. (Inner City Press joked that USG for Lost Causes might be a good title; Guehenno jokingly gave himself a promotion to Deputy SG for Lost Causes.)  Many hope that northern Sri Lanka and the civilians trapped are not a lost cause. Watch this site.

Click here for Inner City Press March 12 UN 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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