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.

Apart from Walter and Tina, who were devoted to their work, my personal favourite amongst those I came in contact with occasionally was John Holmes, the British diplomat who was in charge of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, OCHA as it was generally known. I had heard about Sir John before I met him, through a mutual friend at Oxford who said he had got the position as a consolation prize, when the New Labour government decided to appoint someone else as Head of the Foreign Office. Later I realized that Sir John would obviously not have suited New Labour. Though he could be tough when he had to be, he was essentially a kindly man, and the intrigues and cover ups that New Labour demanded would have been beyond him.

Anti-air shots are fired in Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka, Feb. 20, 2009. Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels launched an air attack on the capital Colombo Friday night, with one aircraft being shot down and another one dropping a bomb on a government building, defense officials said. (Xinhua/Liu Yongqiu)

My affection springs largely from the fact that we were together when the Tigers launched their final assault on Colombo. This was in I think February 2009, and we were at a dinner hosted by Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe when all hell broke loose. Though we were safe enough as it turned out in the Galle Face Hotel, Neil Buhne and his colleagues kept getting urgent messages, and it transpired that there had been a risk to colleagues who were at the Transasia, where as usual many of the so-called humanitarian workers had gathered to enjoy themselves.

During all this flurry, Sir John remained quite calm, so that I was reminded of Hilaire Belloc’s Colonel Fazackerly, whom no ghost would scare. Sir John had heard of Belloc, who was also a Balliol man, though I fear one can no longer count on literary awareness even in Oxford graduates – my Dean told me recently that a couple of fellows, in English I believe, had never heard of Zuleika Dobson. I later sent Neil the poem, and suggested he pass it on to Sir John, whose insouciance under possible danger had done Balliol proud.

My dealings with Sir John on his first visit to Sri Lanka had not however been so happy. I met him only briefly, for he ran late, and in the end asked me to see him at his hotel just before he left. I had wanted to discuss with him the excessively critical reports that OCHA brought out, because I thought political discussion was not part of the OCHA mandate. Sir John disagreed, but granted that comments should be impartial. I have a recollection of him waving his arm magisterially at the rather overbearing man who headed OCHA in Colombo at the time, and declaring that there should be balance. Miraculously, from the following week there was some balance.

Earlier there were constant reports of unrest in government controlled areas, but it seemed that Kilinochchi was an oasis of calm. For the first time, after Sir John’s visit, OCHA reported continuing tension in Kilinochchi, which led me to remark on the fact that it had emerged out of nothing. More serious of course was the suppression by the UN, which I brought up with Neil Buhne, of the forcible recruitment by the Tigers of one person per family. He told me that the UN had not suppressed this, and he was sure he had seen it noted somewhere – he was relatively new at the time – but he honestly admitted later that that had been in internal documents. Sadly, he could not get a more courageous stand from his colleagues responsible for media activity, but under his guidance the previous excessive indulgence to terrorism – as evinced by the UNICEF head who allowed the Tigers to do what they liked with a  million dollars, and thought they were justified in continuing to recruit youngsters under 18 – changed.

Jeyaraj Fernandopulle 1953 – 2008 Minister of Highways & Road Development

Sir John meanwhile had caused controversy with a comment which has continued to provide grist to the mill of those who have Sri Lanka in their sights for attack. Most recently Gordon Weiss – who was supposed to be working for OCHA – declared that Holmes remarked ‘in 2008 that the country was one of the most dangerous places in the world in which to be employed in humanitarian work’. This comment, which was given to journalists before his final press conference contrary to an earlier assurance, led to hostility towards him from several Sri Lankans, including Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle who was accused of calling him a terrorist – though I presume what he meant was that Sir John was advancing a terrorist agenda.

While tempers simmered, I thought I should write to Sir John myself, explaining why I thought his remarks inappropriate. The statistics he used had been inflated by the deaths in Mutur of several employees of the French agency Action Contre la Faim, but their inclusion seemed inappropriate because it was ACF that had sent the workers into a very dangerous situation, when all other aid workers were withdrawing. He answered very politely, enclosing documents about procedures to be followed with regard to humanitarian workers, which I studied carefully. I discovered that ACF had breached all relevant regulations by sending 17 workers into a conflict area without any international staff, and I pointed this out. Sir John did not reply, but I did not take the matter up when we next met, for there were clearly more important issues, and on those he seemed keen to assist without prejudice.

I had often wondered about the incident, and I thought it appropriate now, nearly four years later, to ask him about it. I had asked our Acting High Commissioner in London to arrange a meeting when I was there in early July, and we had dinner together, in a much less fraught atmosphere than at the Galle Face Hotel in 2009. I asked him then why he had addressed journalists contrary to his promise. His answer was that he felt the Sri Lankan government had not kept its part of the bargain with regard to publicity and that his private conversations with ministers and officials had been distorted and used in the press to claim he had made points in discussion which he had not made. His comments then were a way of redressing the balance.

Mahinda Samarasinghe overheard the arrangement and challenged it and Louise..stood by her commitment and refused to go along with the clandestine arrangement.

That struck me as unfair, in that obviously comments by Sir John would get massive publicity unlike anything we said, and an emotive phrase such as he used was bound to cause controversy. My own view was that he had been manipulated, just as nearly happened with Louise Arbour, who had made a pledge not to address the press on her own,  but whose staff were about to take her away for a private press conference at the end of her visit. Fortunately Mahinda Samarasinghe overheard the arrangement and challenged it and Louise, who was on her toes after it had been indicated that we knew what some of her staff were trying to do, stood by her commitment and refused to go along with the clandestine arrangement.

Still, even if Sir John should not have reacted by breaking his commitment to what he saw as improper behavior on the government side, there was a reason for his own aberration. The issue certainly did not seem worth pursuing, given too that more recent events had convinced me that he was basically a decent man. This perhaps explains why he was not asked by the panelists appointed to advise on accountability issues for information about the period they covered. He told us that he had been interviewed by them early, but mainly about procedural issues.

He seemed to agree that many positive things had happened in the area with which he was particularly concerned, namely the Humanitarian Action Plan, and that the panelists had not taken these into account. But what struck me most forcefully was what seemed a clear assertion that there had been no credible allegations of rape at the time. The certainty with which he expressed this made me feel it was even more worrying that the panelists should have seen fit to make such grave allegations, even if more tentatively than in their other outrageous pronouncements, in this connection.

I thought however that I should check with him as to his precise position, and he noted that, ‘on the rape allegations, 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 about rape and other mistreatment of Tamils escaping from the LTTE-held zone’.

Obviously a dinner table conversation with Sir John is not evidence, and my report of it may not seem credible, quite unlike the allegations that the panelists reproduce with such gusto with no possibility of checking their sources. Though I have bent over backwards to say nothing that he might disagree with, it is possible that his emphases might have been different in his own account of our discussion. It is also possible that he might have been more careful had he assumed I would write about our discussion, though I would have thought he must have known I had sought him out not just because I enjoyed his company, but also to seek clarification about his role in and his responses to allegations about a period in which he had played such a significant part.

The Darusman Panel

Apart from the positive impression he created again when he met, and while appreciating the fact that he has to exercise care as a former UN official who still occupies an official position in Britain, I am appalled at the bald fact that the panellists do not seem to have spoken to him about the allegations they have advanced. That, and his awareness that the good work the government and the UN did together is being challenged, suggest that the panelists are as callous about the UN system as they are about a democratically elected government and the people it is trying to take forward.  

Daily News 2 August 2011

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