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In Sri Lanka 13,130 Missing IDPs Reported But Downplayed By UN, Journalist Beaten

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

UNITED NATIONS, June 2 -- With the UN already under fire for withholding and downplaying the number of civilian casualties in Sri Lanka, another ongoing controversy has opened up concerning the number of internally displaced persons detained in the IDP camps in northern Sri Lanka. Between the May 27 and May 30 reports of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, over 13,000 IDPs simply disappeared from the camps.

   OCHA's May 30 report states that "276,785 persons crossed to the Government controlled areas from the conflict zone. This represents a decrease of 13,130 IDPs since the last report (Sitrep No.18) on 27 May 2009. The decrease is associated with double counting. Additional verification is required."

   But earlier, OCHA had praised the "improved, systematic registration being undertaken in the camps."

    UN sources in Colombo tell Inner City Press that senior UN officials above them, Sri Lankan nationals who are Sinhalese, are downplaying the 13,000 "missing" IDPs, which would otherwise be of much concern given the reports of disappearances from the camps, the seizing of teenage males for detention and females for other purposes, UK Channel 4 asserted with on camera interviews.

UN's Pascoe and Holmes, head of OCHA, questioned by Press, missing IDPs not shown

    These UN sources are surprised, since even Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is under fire for downplaying what has happened to the Tamils, that the UN would be so seemingly cavalier about 13,000 "missing" persons from almost entirely Tamil internment camps.

    Meanwhile, in further fall out, journalist Poddala Jayantha, secretary of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists' Association, was kidnapped near his home and severely beaten with sticks before being dumped in a suburb of Colombo. The government had accused him of being too sympathetic to the Tamil Tiger -- or just to the Tamils. The UN, too, has its different way of trying to crack down on journalists. Watch this site.

And see (June 5, 2009) Sri Lanka Denies IDP Reduction Reported by Inner City Press, Raises to UN

On Sri Lanka, UN Insists It Stopped Counting the Dead, Silent on NGO Expulsion, Blue Eyed Slander

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

UNITED NATIONS, June 1 -- Asked if the UN withheld its knowledge of civilians deaths in Sri Lanka in May, as it withheld satellite photos of the supposed "No Fire" Zone, the Spokesperson for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday told the Press that "the 20,000 figure is not a UN number."

   Despite some of the same doctors the UN previously relied on having still been in the Zone until the Army's final assault, Spokesperson Michele Montas said that in May there was "no way to know" how many civilians were killed.

   But when Inner City Press asked for an update on the location and condition of the doctors who remained in the Zone offering treatment and casualty figures, they were called heroes by Ms. Montas. Heroes that the UN refused to believe? Video here, from Minute 18:44.

   In the UN General Assembly, Mr. Ban categorically denied that the UN downplayed civilian deaths. Ambassadors interviewed by Inner City Press as they left the closed door briefing were generally not impressed. Unrelatedly, Inner City Press asked several whether Ban will give a more specific briefing about Sri Lanka to the Security Council, which had a number of "informal inter-active dialogues" as civilians died in the conflict zone.

  Austria's number one representative told Inner City Press he was going to meet with this Turkish counterpart, the president of the Council for June, to request just that. The U.S. number three representative Rosemary DiCarlo said that a briefing of the Council by Ban is "still possible." With the UN's credibility on the line, to dodge such a briefing would be a new low.

UN's Ban in Kandy with Mahinda Rajapaksa, (c) M.Lee

   In Sri Lanka, alongside reports of Tamil-owned shops being attacked, the Director of Sri Lanka's government Peace Secretariat Rajiva Wijesinghe is now known to have told a press conference "there are many blue eyed children in that [IDP] camp, you will know some NGOs had a jolly good time." As a low level credit-war has emerged, from who broke the 20,000 figure that the UN denies to who took the photos of the conflict zone, we'll happily source and credit the Wijesinghe quote to the Voice of America.

  Meanwhile, Sri Lankan defense sources crow that "Ranvei Tvetenes, the Head of Norwegian NGO FORUT was deported on night of Saturday 29th May, 2009." The UN screamed when some NGOs were expelled from Darfur. But the UN was silent when a more systematic expulsion took place in Sri Lanka. And now? We'll see.

From the UN's June 1 noon briefing transcript:

Inner City Press: Excuse me, but I wanted to get your response to these things that were reported in Le Monde about Sri Lanka. I heard your statement…

Spokesperson Montas: The SG has [inaudible].

Inner City Press: ...but there some very specific things. He quotes UN sources in Colombo as saying, for example, that Mr. Nambiar told UN staff and UN representatives to “keep a low profile”, that the UN should be playing a sustaining role compatible to Government. Those are quotes they ascribe to Mr. Nambiar. What I am wondering is, does that mean he didn’t say that? I mean, having looked at the article, as I am sure the UN has, and it also says that Neil Buhne, the country director said that the death statistics should only go to him, and should not be given to any other person. It sort of… it paints a pretty, you know, I am sure you’ve seen it. The Times of London has said, you know, Ban must do something, it’s like Srebrenica. So does the specifics…?

Spokesperson: These statistics that you mention, these statistics were estimates. As you know, starting in the month of May, absolutely no numbers could be verified, because the numbers we had were from the hospital people, and health people who were on the ground and were communicating with us, or our own people on the ground. In the month of May we had absolutely no way of knowing what the casualty figure was. The number of 20,000 is not a UN number.

[The Spokesperson later added that as regards to the media reports on the figure of 20,000 civilian casualties in Sri Lanka, it was verified with the concerned United Nations staff who were present at meetings of United Nations senior officials that no such internal report was made at those meetings. She emphasized that the United Nations had never underestimated the casualty numbers, nor engaged in any manner in manipulating them nor in soft-peddling the message that was communicated to the Sri Lankan Government on the necessity of avoiding civilian casualties.]

Inner City Press: Both the Times of London and Le Monde cite this to UN sources in Colombo.

Spokesperson: Well, actually, we checked. This morning, I was in touch with Colombo and they have absolutely no idea where that number came from, the 20,000 number.

Inner City Press: Okay. So I guess I mean, what, the quote they ascribed to Mr. Nambiar, I guess that the idea is somehow that staff there feel that from Headquarters the message is keep a low profile. I mean, unless both newspapers made up the quotes, somebody there said them. So I am just wondering…

Spokesperson: Well, I want you to really read what the SG said this morning. You had this text earlier…

Inner City Press: Okay.

Spokesperson: …and where he categorically, I can give you the exact quote, in fact you can get it yourself. He categorically dismissed some of those allegations.

Inner City Press: Okay. I know on Friday he met with the Turkish Ambassador and I was told one of the topics was whether he wants to brief the Security Council about Sri Lanka. That was an issue that was going to be resolved in that meeting. Does he want to? I understand some…

Spokesperson: Well, whether it’s going to be something that the Security Council is going to ask him. If the Security Council asks him to, he will. The way he did for the General Assembly today, of course.

Inner City Press: But it was said there that they sort of wanted to feel him out to see if he wants to do it. See what I’m saying? Because he did meet with…

Spokesperson: Well, if he met with the General Assembly on this, he is of course willing to meet with the Security Council on it.

Inner City Press: And then just one practical thing?

Spokesperson: Sure.

Inner City Press: There is this issue that I know he raised when he was there, of the doctors that were in the conflict zone and reported the numbers. Has there been any, has he heard anything back? Has there been any development on the status of the doctors who were detained by the Government?

Spokesperson: Well, as far as we know we understand they’re in good health for now. And we noted that they have been detained. And what I’d like to add is that these men are heroes, who have saved lives in some of the toughest conditions imaginable. And they should be receiving the maximum care and assistance possible. And the Secretary-General made clear during his visit that detaining them is not appropriate. And I think he is hoping that they will be released soon.

On Sri Lanka, UN's Dodging Comes Home to Roost, UK Could Have Put on Council Agenda

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

UNITED NATIONS, May 29 -- As UN sources in Sri Lanka were quoted that beyond the 7000 civilian killings in the leaked UN estimates that Inner City Press obtained and published at the end of April, one thousand more civilians were being killed every day in May, responses at the UN in New York grew ever more muted.

   Inner City Press asked Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe if Mr. Ban will push to brief the Security Council about the May 23 tour of Sri Lanka. Ms. Okabe would not answer, saying "I have nothing to announce." Because Sri Lanka never by vote put on the Council's agenda, all members including Russia, China, Libya and Vietnam would have to agree, to hear from Ban. But is he even asking?

Inner City Press asked UK Ambassador to the UN John Sawers would what the Security Council did and didn't do as civilian casualties mounted in north Sri Lanka. Sawers responded that "we had the votes" to put Sri Lanka on the Council's agenda, but chose not to, to preserve "unanimity." He claimed that the Sri Lankan government felt pressure from the Council and the Ban administration's visits. Apparently they would have killed even more.

In No Fire Zone, burned trees, blasted ship, (c) M.Lee 5/23/09

   At a reception at the Russian Ambassador's residence on May 28, Inner City Press asked Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative to the UN about reports of Sinhalese mob violence against Tamils. He responded that while the fears are real, the country hadn't had a death by communal violence since 1983. He said that the newspaper editor arrested after the Tamil Tigers' last attempted plane bombing of Colombo has been released. The UN says that the doctors who remained in the conflict zone offering treatment and casualty figures are still in government detention.

   On civilian death figures, at Friday's UN noon briefing, Inner City Press asked the UN's Marie Okabe is, beyond the previously leaked and published figures of 2600 by March 7 and 7000 by the end of April, the UN had compiled any figures at all in May. Ms. Okabe, alongside reading a long and convoluted answer, said "ask OCHA." And thus the run-around continues. We will continue to follow these issues -- watch this site.

 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.

* * *

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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