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Sir John Holmes -I did not say that I had not heard such allegations, but that I had not at the time seen significant evidence to support allegations which were being made by TamilNet and others…

One of the lesser known Agatha Christies, as I recall, had a rather strange title, ‘Why didn’t they ask Evans?’ The plot hinged on the fact that the parlour maid had not been asked to witness a will – the reason for this was that the man who made the will was an imposter.

I was reminded of this story when I read the Darusman Report and saw how it had left out the testimony of those best equipped to speak about what had happened in Sri Lanka. The records of the ICRC had not been considered, it seemed, nor the evidence of senior UN personnel as to their interactions with the Sri Lankan government.

The reason for this I believe is that senior UN personnel were usually very proper in their approach, as I noted in my dealings with them. There were a few exceptions, but these were people who had come from outside the system and saw their future too as lying in confrontation with sovereign states. Those who had worked in public administration or held academic positions in which they were authorities were much more straightforward. Thus Neil Buhne who was Resident Coordinator of the UN in Colombo, Walter Kalin who was Special Representative of the Rights of the Displaced and who had been largely responsible for the Brookings Guiding Principles on the subject, Adnan Khan and his predecessor who looked after the World Food Programme in Colombo, Tine Staermose of ILO and Dr Mehta and his predecessor of WHO, all saw their role as developmental and humanitarian, to work together with an elected government rather than in opposition to it.

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When I was asked by al-Jazeera Television to be interviewed with regard to an article in the Guardian about the latest Channel 4 film on Sri Lanka, they kindly sent me a link which showed previous stories on Sri Lanka. The most prominent below the current story was an article by Gethin Chamberlain entitled ‘Civilians held in Sri Lanka camps face disease threat’.

The name and the headline brought back many memories of the tremendous threats Sri Lanka faced back in 2009. The article was written by Gethin Chamberlain in Menik Farm on April 20th that year. This was part of an effort we made then to show journalists what was going on. Most of them reported honestly, in particular the Indian journalists, who were able thus to assuage the fears of many of those in Tamil Nadu who might have succumbed to negative propaganda.

In that sense those of us who wanted an open policy with regard to journalists were justified. But we were not helped by Gethin Chamberlain and a few others, who somehow seemed determined to denigrate Sri Lanka at every conceivable opportunity. The headline he used on April 20th exemplifies this approach, with its highlighting of a ‘disease threat’.

But we were used to this by then. For several months before this, we had read reports that noted that there had been no epidemics amongst those the Tigers had forcibly taken with them when they retreated, despite the crowded and unsanitary conditions in which they were forced to live. But most such articles predicted an epidemic soon, though when nothing of the sort occurred, there were no plaudits for our health services, which we kept going throughout the war. Similarly, there were constant warnings of possible outbreaks of disease at Menik Farm, with no appreciation by journalists of the fact that they were proved wrong. Not unsurprisingly, none of them picked up on the appreciation extended by the UN to the Sri Lankan government for having avoided the catastrophe that had been so confidently predicted.

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After the diversion created by Radhika Coomaraswamy’s effort to distract attention from the actual ICES escapades, it may be useful to return to less purposive threats to our efforts to deal with terrorism. In this regard I should reiterate that I believe that the International Committee of the Red Cross is amongst the most innocuous of the agencies that engage with countries in difficult situations.

They are supposed to be apolitical, and generally they live up to this reputation. However they are sometimes dragooned into a political role, as when claims are made by some countries that assistance cannot be provided for rehabilitation unless there is a monitoring role prescribed for the ICRC.

In general this would not seem a problem. However, admirable though the ICRC generally is, at the beginning of 2009 they decided to engage in a political role in Sri Lanka, or what they themselves would term advocacy. They issued a series of bulletins, which sounded deeply critical of the Sri Lankan government and its armed forces, and naturally these were made use of by the Tigers and their sympathizers.

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John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator, UN OCHA

Perhaps the least insidious of the agencies which worked in Sri Lanka to substitute itself for National Sovereignty was OCHA, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance. This has been functioning in the country for just a few years now, having come in I believe after the tsunami, but it had soon converted itself into a central clearing house for much of the humanitarian assistance the country received.

 It did this through a mechanism termed the Common Humanitarian Action Plan, a phenomenon I first came across a couple of years ago, when I took over as Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. The CHAP was supposed to be coordinated by our Ministry, but it turned out that we were largely ignored in its formulation. The procedure that had been followed previously was that OCHA held what it termed consultations with local stakeholders, presented us with a draft, and asked for our approval within a ludicrously short time.

As Head of the Peace Secretariat I had received some information about projects under the plan, but I found that nothing was forthcoming when I asked for further details. Some international organizations for instance, which seemed to have given rather a lot of money to strange entities in the North, claimed that these were recognized agencies, but these claims could not be substantiated. Of course our own mechanisms were shaky, with no clear procedures laid down about how local organizations should be registered and monitored, but it was sad to find out that OCHA was equally if not more incompetent about keeping records.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

April 2014
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