Feature Article

Holmes whitewashes Sri Lanka’s ‘slaughter’

[TamilNet, Saturday, 21 February 2009, 23:44 GMT]
Within a day of Human Rights Watch’s damning report stating that “Sri Lankan forces are shelling hospitals and so-called safe zones and slaughtering the civilians there,” the UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Sir John Holmes, went out of his way to avoid criticising the hardline Mahinda Rajapaksa regime and instead praised the “good cooperation” between the government and the UN agencies vis-à-vis the needs of the displaced Tamil population. Instead, he blamed the LTTE for the continuing suffering of the Tamil civilians in Mullaiththeevu.

John Holmes
HRW said Friday that Sri Lankan government forces in the past two months have repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled areas crowded with Tamil civilians and casualties have skyrocketed with two thousand deaths and five thousand people being maimed or injured.

However, Sir Holmes said: “it is hard to say how many of those killed are civilians and who is responsible for any particular incident.”

Throughout his presentation, Sir Holmes scrupulously avoided blaming the Colombo government in his press conference Saturday, which he jointly held with Sri Lanka’s Human Rights minister Mahinda Samarasinghe.

Instead, Sir Holmes blamed the LTTE entirely for the plight of the Tamils in Mullaiththeevu where an average of 40 people are presently being killed each day by Sri Lankan bombardment.

Indeed, through his presentation, Sir Holmes stressed his nearness to the government’s position, often hailing the Human Rights Minister by his first name, and lauding Colombo’s conduct vis-à-vis the displaced Tamils who arrived outside the region being bombarded.

Conversely, Sir Holmes, who had in 2007 been denounced by the Rajapsksa regime as a ‘terrorist’ in the pay of the LTTE for expressing concern for humanitarian aid workers in Sri Lanka, was this year very much in favour in Colombo.

Sir Holmes began his presentation to the press Saturday by condemning the LTTE air attack on Colombo on Friday – but did not mention the two dozen Tamil civilians killed in retaliatory Sri Lankan artillery bombardment – and by praising President Rajapaksa for inviting him to visit the island.

On Friday HRW reported that in the past two months, “Sri Lankan forces have repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled areas crowded with displaced persons. This includes numerous reported bombardments of government-declared "safe zones" and of the remaining hospitals in the region.”

Sir Holmes, however, on Saturday limited himself to “extreme concern” for the people trapped in Mullaiththeevu, which he described simply as “a pocket where the military conflict is still continuing.”

Sir Holmes singled out food shortages in Mullaiththeevu as an important area for the UN agencies and the Sri Lankan government: “At the moment, what is getting through is clearly inadequate to deal with the number of people there and their needs because there hasn’t been food getting through for some time now. We have to increase it significantly as the days go by.”

What Sir Holmes left out was that food shortages in Mullaiththeevu stem primarily from the government’s blockade on humanitarian food convoys which has ensured no food, medicine or relief material has been allowed in for several months.

HRW said Friday: "All civilians who manage to escape the Tamil Tigers are held by the government in squalid military-controlled camps and hospitals with little access to the outside world … The government seems to be trying its best to keep its role in their ordeal away from public scrutiny."

The HRW report said: “displaced persons are increasingly escaping from the battle zone to what they hope is safety within government-controlled areas. Instead, they are finding government internment centers masquerading as "welfare villages." While the government for security reasons should be screening new arrivals, it is instead secretly taking away LTTE suspects to arbitrary detention or possible enforced disappearances.”

“All displaced persons crossing to the government side are sent to internment centers in Vavuniya and nearby locations. … These are military-controlled, barbed-wire camps in which those sent there, including entire families, are denied their liberty and freedom of movement,” HRW said.

However, Sir Holmes expressed satisfaction with the camps and transit camps which he visited, saying: “There is good cooperation going on between the Government, UN agencies and NGOs about this, including access to the transit centres, and the other centres elsewhere and we hope very much that would continue including access to various screening points so there is confidence about what is happening to people as they arrive.

HRW’s report protested that “the Sri Lankan government has indicated that the ethnic Tamil population trapped in the war zone can be presumed to be siding with the LTTE and treated as combatants, effectively sanctioning unlawful attacks.”

Sir Holmes, meanwhile, said: “I discussed with the government the need to make sure that everything is done to win the peace and to make sure the opportunity which is there to make a new start and create a fully integrated democratic polity is taken with all the sections of the population and again I was interested to hear the constructive answers of the kind Mahinda [the Minister] was just giving.”

The below is a transcript of Sir John Holmes’ statement to the press.

“Thank you very indeed Mahinda and thank you very much indeed for all of you for being here this afternoon. Let me start by condemning last night's air attack by the LTTE on Colombo and expressing my condolences to the families of the victims of that attack. And let me also start by expressing my gratitude to the Government of Sri Lanka, for the President in particular, for inviting me here and agreeing to my coming at short notice, and also for the arrangements which were made for my visit, including the arrangements … for my visit to Vavuniyaa, which is a complicated business from a logistical and security point of view. I am also grateful for the extremely good access I was able to have to all levels of the government, from the President down, and for the very constructive discussions we were able to have. I was also able to meet other shades of opinion, different political parties, including meeting with the leadership of the TNA a few minutes ago.

“As you all know, my mandate for the United Nations is a very much a humanitarian mandate and what prompted me pay this visit in particular is the extreme concern we have about the fate of the civilian population trapped in the Vanni pocket – if I can call it that - where the military conflict is still continuing; and that population is obviously in very difficult situation; dangerous situation; and suffering very badly. I think there is a particular responsibility on the LTTE in this context to allow that civilian population to leave, freely, and not to prevent them from moving by violence or any other means, and I also call on the LTTE to stop the practice of forced recruitment, particularly of children.

“There is also, of course, the responsibility on the government as well as on the LTTE to do everything within their power, everything possible, to avoid civilian casualties. As Mahinda [the Minister] was saying the government has explained to me the measures they have been taking to avoid civilian casualties and to try to pursue a zero casualty policy and taking the risks that sometimes means for the armed forces. And I listened to that very carefully. I fear the reality is still that significant numbers of people are being killed and injured everyday in that pocket even if it is hard to say how many of those are civilians and who is responsible for any particular incident.

“So, I have urged the government and the LTTE to do everything possible to intensify further their efforts to prevent civilian casualties. I have also urged and continue to urge all concerned to do everything they can to ensure a peaceful and orderly end to this conflict to avoid the risk of a final bloody battle which would be terrible in everybody's point of view and would inevitably condition the future, politically, as well as the military situation. Meanwhile, we are very concerned to make sure that sufficient food and medical supplies can get into the civilian population who are trapped there and I am glad that we are beginning to see some arrivals of food and medical supplies through the sea route and we will be working very carefully and intensively with the government to increase that supply for the people who are still trapped as long as they are trapped; the World Food Program, particularly, will be making efforts to increase the supplies of food. At the moment, what is getting through is clearly inadequate to deal with the number of people there and their needs because there hasn’t been food getting through for some time now. We have to increase that significantly as the days go by.

“It was also very useful to be able to visit Vavuniyaa yesterday to see something for myself of the centres which have been set up, both the centre at Manik Farm and some of the transit centres in Vavuniyaa in schools and other things and have a good appreciation of what is being done on a practical basis to look after the IDPs as they arrive and the physical arrangements that have been made.

“I discussed with the local authorities and of course with the central government here the need to step up the arrangements for both the people who have already arrived there, the 32,000, 35,000 however many there may be at the moment in Vavuniya and need to move them out of the schools into other centres but also to make sure that we have the arrangements in place for what might be another large wave of people arriving if the civilian population is able to get out of the pocket I was just been talking abut because otherwise there is a danger that there is a large population will arrive and we will be all somewhat overwhelmed by that. There is good cooperation going on between the Government, UN agencies and NGOs about this, including access to the transit centres, and the other centres elsewhere and we hope very much that would continue including access to various screening points so there is confidence about what is happening to people as they arrive.

“I have also raised a number of other specific concerns about what is happening to the people who have already arrived in Vavuniyaa, in particular about freedom of movement in and out of the transit centres and the camps, and about the presence of the military inside these [inaudible] camps and the need to ensure arrangements for family re-unification and the government has assured me these issues will be tackled and resolved, particularly as the registration process is completed in the next few days and temporary ID cards can be issued.

“I was also encouraged to hear the kind of messages that we were hearing yesterday and what I heard from the President this morning and which Mahinda was repeating just now, about the governments commitment to treat all Sri Lankan citizens alike and to look after all Sri Lankan citizens and in particular to make sure that the people can go back to their original homes as soon as possible. I think that’s the objective of all of us. And I think in general it will be good to move in a direction of civilianisation of the camps but also the area as soon as that becomes possible in terms of security.

“Just a couple of final points,

“I announced today we will be contributing 10 million dollars from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), which I control from New York, which is an emergency respond fund, to the emergency needs of the population, for UN agencies and IOM as well.

“And one final point,

“Obviously, I discussed with the government the need to make sure that everything is done to win the peace and to make sure the opportunity which is there to make a new start as it were and to create a fully democratic polity is taken with all sections of the population and again I was interested to hear the constructive answers of the kind Mahinda was just giving.”

“So let me stop there and I am very happy – we are happy – to answer questions”


Chronology:


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