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In Sri Lanka, Red Cross Barred from "Interment" Camps Despite UN's Rosy Picture

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

UNITED NATIONS, May 27 -- While the International Committee of the Red Cross went public Wednesday in Geneva with the fact that the Sri Lankan government is running interment camps to which Red Cross workers do not have access, in New York the UN's Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe said that "since the Secretary General's visit to Sri Lanka, an interim measure has been agreed" in which aid agency vehicles including trucks are allowed into all Manik Farm zones, only not in convoys and not with agency flags. Video here, from Minute 2:30.

   Inner City Press asked Mr. Okabe to square to the two statements, if there are camps that the UN has access to that the Red Cross does not. Ms. Okabe claimed that Inner City Press hadn't heard the statement by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs -- in fact, it was that very positive report that Inner City Press was questioning -- and then said that OCHA's John Holmes had spoken about food needs, to the "follow up with OCHA." Video here, from Minute 15:53.

   The question is not whether the UN has and can deliver food. The question is, even as to the camps it can visit is the UN enabling and blessing interment camps by providing funds and materiel? And what about the camps that the Red Cross has now said publicly it is being blocked from visiting -- is the UN there? Or does the UN not care, or not care that the public knows?

   From the phrasing of OCHA's update -- "since the Secretary General's visit an interim measure has been agreed" -- many infer that UN OCHA is more concerned about making Ban Ki-moon look good than about raising the red flag when civilians are being cut off from aid and monitors. The usually silent Red Cross is complaining, and the UN is saying the government is going a great job, just needs more resources. More resources for interment?

Guard in Manik Farm camp, (c) M. Lee May 2009

   Also in Geneva, the Human Rights Council's procedures allowed Sri Lanka to claim the upper hand in the debate about whether its conduct in its military offensive in the north should be investigated. Sri Lanka rushed and was the first to table a draft resolution, congratulating itself for its conduct and calling for more money. In a move that left many of the supporters of the US's joining the Human Rights Council shaking their heads, US diplomat Mark Storella urged the 47-member Council to reach a compromise, saying the United States "believes there is a basis for consensus."

  The consensus reached omitted any outside investigation, and calls for more funding for Sri Lanka. Some wondered, wasn't the US joining the Human Rights Council supposed to raise human rights standards, not just demonstrate that the Obama administration calls for consensus everywhere?

  While Tamils imprisoned in UN-funded camps in Sri Lanka want to be let go, and to live without threat of ethnic violence or oppression, Obama wants to be a friend of all the world and the UN's Ban wants so much to be relevant that he praises the Sri Lankan government efforts and funds them.

  Inner City Press has heard from local sources of Tamil store owners, for example, being besieged by Sinhalese demands for money "since you lost." The UN, which is supposed to be watching for such dangerous signs and trends, is at least publicly and at the highest levels blissfully unaware. As one source told Inner City Press, if this is the way the Sri Lankan government and majority acts while the world is (half) watching, imagine what they'll go later. Watch this site.

Back from Sri Lanka, UN's Holmes Admits NGO Killings and Restrictions Not Raised

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

UNITED NATIONS, May 26 -- Just back to the United Nations from Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's surreal tour of Sri Lanka, Inner City Press asked UK Ambassador John Sawers if the UN paying for interment camps for Tamils rounded up from throughout northern Sri Lanka compiles with international humanitarian law.

  Ambassador Sawers, rather than answer, said that there has been a "high level of attention" to the issue by the UN, by envoy Vijay Nambiar, humanitarian chief John Holmes and the visit of the Secretary General over the weekend. There's been not report to the Security Council yet, Sawers said, we look forward to that and "we'll have to consider steps after that." Video here, from Minute 6:15.

   Ban Ki-moon is still out of New York. John Holmes took questions by phone, since he was outside of the UN (some said in Upstate New York). Inner City Press asked Holmes about the people looked up in the camps who were not in the final conflict zone. "I was not aware of that," Holmes said, arguing that "the whole Vanni" or jungle area was under Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam control "so in a sense was the conflict zone." Video here, from Minute 21:15.

   Interviews in the camps, even under the watchful eyes of Sri Lankan soldiers and seemingly pro-government UN personnel nevertheless revealed that people were swept into the camps. The goal, if not to move members of the Sinhala majority into the now-vacated areas, is to screen anyone who lived under the LTTE for whether they support Tamil separatism or autonomy. Should the UN be assisting in such ideological if not ethnic cleansing?

   Holmes insisted that "there is no question of the UN funding the sweeping up," the UN is "only providing emergency relief in the camps." But if the camps are being used, not as a temporary fix to a natural disaster but to ethnic and ideological screening, providing food and money -- and in the case of UNOPS, planning the camps and helping build them -- makes the UN's role more direct, and problematic.

   Inner City Press asked Holmes if Ban Ki-moon, in his meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaka, has raised the issue of press freedom, including of the editor will last year, and other reports who have been harassed, arrested and disappeared, and of the aid workers, including from Action Contre la Faim, who have been killed, allegedly by pro-government militias. No, Holmes said, neither issue was raised by Ban in his meetings. He did not say, why not?

   The government's proposed Memorandum of Understanding it wants NGOs to sign would require them to provide information on all their clients, which these NGOs don't do anywhere in the world. Since a number of NGOs have told Inner City Press that they are not in the best position to fight the proposed MOU, as they are working in Sri Lanka; they would like to see John Holmes and OCHA take the lead in fighting back the intrusive NGO. Holmes admitted that the "MOU was not raise by the Secretary-General," and said that the issue had been set on the side. He did not say, by whom?

Tamil IDPs in Manik Farm await UN's Ban with baited breathe, May 23 (c) M.Lee

   Since some NGOs have expressed concern about the publication statements about what they expect from Holmes' OCHA -- to fight back against the MOU, for example -- and in light of major NGOs' summary from last week that John Holmes "had objected to the trip, as many of you know," Inner City Press asked Holmes about this position, and to explain it. Holmes replied that "I did not say to the NGOs that I was against the visit, I simply said that there were some tricky presentational aspect about which we were very well aware and that we would be dealing with while there, and which I think we did successfully."

   Apparently, Holmes was comfortable with the "presentational aspects" of children in the camps being forced to sing "Ban Ki-moon" to the Secretary General, and of Ban acceding to Rajapaksa's demand that they meet not in the capital but in the Buddhist shrine town of Kandy, which many say was a message to Tamils, we win, you lose. In fact, there are reports of Tamil shopkeepers in Colombo being besieged by Sinhala mobs and told to pay money, since "you lost." The UN should be countering such trends, not covering them up or, worse, stoking them.

   Lynn Pascoe was also at the briefing, but said less. When Inner City Press asked about reports that Tamil MPs were barred by the government from entering the Colombo airport's VIP lounge for the meeting they had been promised with Bank Ki-moon, Pascoe said he is investigating those reports and will "pass on to Maria" [Okabe, the Deputy Spokesperson] what he learns. Inner City Press asked about the symbolism of the visit to Kandy. Pascoe said it was a misperception and that "when a government says where, it's their decision."

   Inner City Press asked both Pascoe and Holmes if they thought the forcing children in the camps to sing to Ban Ki-moon was appropriate. Pascoe said that he's seen children waiting in the sun for longer than he could put up with, and not only in camps. Video here, from Minute 34:34. Holmes did not answer about the appropriateness of the forced signing and flag waving in the UN-funded camps. Watch this site.

Footnote: as the Human Rights Council in Geneva takes up the question of Sri Lanka, not only is there a pro-Rajapaksa resolution, now there is a Swiss proposed compromise, which would ask the Rajapaksa administration to investigate itself...

 Channel 4 in the UK with allegations of rape and disappearance

  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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