On Sri Lanka, UN’s Holmes Contradicts His Colleague’s Caution, Sudan Double Standard?

UNITED NATIONS, June 11 — During the bloody conflict and humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka this year, most often UN Headquarters, personified by humanitarian chief John Holmes, has sounded more cautionary notes about government conduct than has UN staff in Colombo, who face deportation or denial of visa renewals.

On Thursday, however, Holmes was decidedly more pro-government than the UN’s local spokespeople, at least Mark Cutts, who expressed concern that now people will be kept in the UN-funded internment camps for up to a year. Inner City Press asked Holmes, who chose to disagree.

“I don’t think anything has changed,” Holmes said, repeating the government’s statement that 80% of those detained will be allowed out of the camps by the end of 2009.

Holmes told Inner City Press that there have for months been some semi-permanent structures in the Manik Farm camps, made of “zinc sheeting, you probably saw them yourself when you were there.” Inner City Press did see the zinc structures, along with barbed wire and armed guards.

Holmes had been briefing the UN Security Council about the situation in Sudan, with a focus on the international NGOs whose international staff members were ordered out on March 4, after Sudan’s president Omar al Bashir was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. When Holmes came to speak to the Press, his assistant announced that questions should “keep to Sudan, wider issues will be address by the Secretary General in his press conference later.”

As Inner City Press has reported in recent days, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s spokespeople now say they will not comment on developments in Sri Lanka such as the deporting of Canadian MP Bob Rae, the extension of state of emergency anti-terror laws, and the country’s outgoing chief justice’s statement that those in the UN-funded internment camps have no protection from Sri Lanka’s courts. That’s a national issue, was the answer of Ban’s spokespeople.

Since Holmes focused, to the Council and press, on NGOs in Sudan, Inner City Press asked about the recent expulsion or exclusion from Sri Lanka of international staff from the Norwegian Refugee Council, Forut, CARE and Save the Children, among others. Holmes had just mentioned moves to re-admit both CARE and Save the Children (as well as Mercy Corps and “something not really an NGO, called PADCO”) to Sudan.

“It is hard to make comparisons between the two,” Holmes said, apparently referring to restrictions in Sudan and Sri Lanka. “NGOs have not been expelled from Sri Lanka… There have been some visa issues for some members of NGOs’ staff which we take up with the government.”

Holmes said UN agencies “have difficulties from time to time.” Among those difficulties was the detention by the government of Sri Lanka of UN staff and their families, something Sudan has not done.

Whistleblowers raised the issue to Inner City Press, after which Holmes said the UN had been complaining behind the scenes. In Sudan, the UN complains publicly. In fact, the government of Sri Lanka stated that the UN had not complained about its detained staff until after the issue was raised publicly by the Press in New York.

It is hard to make comparisons between the two — the UN is loud in its criticism of any move against UN staff in Sudan, while it stayed silent as UN staff were held in detention by the government of Sri Lanka. How then to read Holmes’ upbeat assessment on Thursday? We will continue to inquire.

Footnotes: Regarding Sudan, Inner City Press asked Holmes why UN envoy Chissano has ended his attempt to solve the problem of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Holmes said Chissano “will end or has ended” this work because it is “not a very realistic hope” that Kony will sign a peace deal with the Yoweri Museveni government of Uganda. What next?

Inner City Press is informed that, in closed door consultations, Western Council members such as Croatia insisted that there is a wider “humanitarian gap” in Sudan than even Holmes would portray. Holmes and the UN apparently feel no such pressure regarding the situation in Sri Lanka, and therefore revert to the path of least resistance, trying to not criticize the government despite what’s happening to civilians. Watch this site.

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

Excerpts;

Most recently Ban went to Sri Lanka, and saw Tamils locked up in internment camps. Since returning to New York, Ban’s Spokespeople have resisted commenting on the plight of these defenseless people, who are being locked up with UN funds.

Inner City Press asked, what about the outgoing Sri Lankan chief justice’s comment that the people in the camps have no legal protection, cannot get the jurisdiction of Sri Lankan court? Ban’s Associate Spokesperson dryly called this a “national issue.” So much for voice for the voiceless. Some say, apologist for governments.

More substantively, Ban or his Spokesperson’s Office seem to have decided to try to cut off questions about the year’s bloodiest conflict, Sri Lanka. On May 23, the UN’s Ban Ki-moon signed a Joint Statement with Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa. Ban has since said that he is closely monitoring compliance.

But only this week, his Spokespeople have refused to comment on the deporting of Canadian MP Bob Rae, the extension of state of emergency anti-terror laws, and the country’s outgoing chief justice’s statement that those in the UN-funded internment camps have no protection from Sri Lanka’s courts. That’s a national issue, was the answer of Ban’s spokespeople.

What does Mr. Ban himself think? One hopes to get an answer.

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