John Holmes reveals his Hyde
STATEMENT: John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary General for
Humanitarian Affairs, also known as the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator
(ERC), must be a man who lives in splendid isolation despite the
position he holds, or he must have blinded himself to all the
humanitarian tragedies seen around the world until he set foot on Sri
Lanka earlier this week.
In one of the most outrageous and ill-informed statements made by a
person who is expected to know better from experience, he has made a
private condemnation of Sri Lanka made public through an international
news agency, which was quite in contrast to his public statements about
the country before the entire media.
I was present at the media briefing at the conclusion of his
three-day visit to Sri Lanka at 11 am last Thursday (Aug 09), where he
spoke soon after his meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa whom he
briefed about his visits to Jaffna and the East, and particularly about
what he saw at Batticaloa and Vakarai, where UN relief agencies and NGOs
are engaged in relief work among the people who have returned to their
home after the Government took over the area from the LTTE.
He noted that his visit had a positive outcome, said there was an
opportunity to move forward constructively on humanitarian assistance,
and that certain recommendations and machinery had been suggested that
Not in a single word did he indicate the decidedly dark and damaging
condemnation of Sri Lanka he had made some hours before on the situation
facing humanitarian workers in the country.
In an interview with Reuters late on Wednesday night (Aug 08) this
same John Holmes had said that Sri Lanka
is among the most dangerous
places on earth for humanitarian workers.
To quote him as reported by Simon Gardner, Reuters Bureau Chief in
Colombo, he had said: “There is concern...about the safety of
humanitarian workers themselves and the record here is one of the worst
in the world from that point of view”.
It would be charitable to think that John Holmes had forgotten on
Thursday morning when he came before the Sri Lankan and foreign media
what he had told Reuters not many hours ago late on Wednesday night.
If there was any such forgetfulness, there was the Reuters Bureau
Chief too present at the Oak Room of the Cinnamon Grand, which would
have jolted his memory.
But what he said and his demeanour before a packed house of media
representatives did not in any way betray his view that Sri Lanka is
among the most dangerous places on earth for humanitarian workers.
He did mention the killing of the 17 aid workers in Muttur last
August and said he hoped the inquiry into this and the killing of two
Red Cross workers more recently would be concluded soon.
He also mentioned, almost in passing that in all 34 aid workers had
been killed here since January 2006. Yet, possibly drawing on his own
experience in dealing with humanitarian affairs as the UN Emergency
Relief Coordinator he did not rush into his overwhelming condemnation of
Sri Lanka of the night before.
One has to surmise whether this was because of the presence of a
large body of media professionals there who would have probed any such
statement and exposed his poor judgment, if not his devious purpose in
making such a statement, unlike in the cosy comfort of an unquestioning
Reuters correspondent, eager to make a story at whatever cost to Sri
The Jekyll and Hyde nature of John Holmes, with Hyde taking over late
on Wednesday night and Jekyll speaking to the media on Thursday morning
is a compelling comparison.
Yet, one does not expect a UN Under-Secretary General to be flaunting
such Jekyll and Hyde characteristics, in dealing with a country that
from his own admission in public had gone to great extents to explain
things to him and sought to work together with the UN and its
organizations to resolve the many problems it faces, both humanitarian
Calculated to damage
What is more evident is that whatever first hand experience he may
have had during his brief visit to this country, he had come here with a
clear the clear intent of damning the image of this country and its
Government, in much the same way that Human Rights Watch had done with
its latest report on Sri Lanka, published the same day that John Holmes
arrived for his visit, which also was calculated to coincide with the
first anniversary of the Muttur killings.
Drawing comparisons with other countries with much larger crises is
not the most rewarding in the current context, yet it would be wrong to
ignore the fact that just as John Holmes was delivering his prepared
text to Reuters about the situation vis-…-vis humanitarian workers here,
the Afghan government was still struggling to obtain the release of the
21 South Korean Christian humanitarian workers held hostage by the
Taliban there, after two of the original 23 hostages had been killed.
There was little diplomacy seen in this John (Hyde) Holmes as he
clearly accused the Government of offences involving human rights, in
his night-time chat with Reuters, quite in contrast to the many cordial
and friendly comments he had to make about the Government and the people
from government he met, when speaking in public to the media. One
example is his comments on the Government’s rejection of the call for a
UN rights monitoring mission.
He tells Reuters: “It would be good for Sri Lanka’s international
image that there is that kind of monitoring mission to demonstrate,
which the government say, they have nothing to hide in this area”.
What he said to the more open and larger media was that there are
different views with regard to monitoring, and that what is needed is to
dissipate the concerns expressed by human rights organizations regarding
issues in Sri Lanka.
In fact Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe who chaired the media briefing
explained that what the Government sought to do was strengthen and build
the capacity of local institutions to carry on the tasks of monitoring
and oversight rather than have outside missions coming here for the
John Holmes raised no issue with that, having made clear that he saw
the usefulness of alternate means of monitoring, other than a UN
Integrity and Reuters
These many contradictions in his statements to Reuters and to the
larger media raise many questions with regard to the integrity of this
person who travels with diplomatic immunity, as a great humanitarian
apostle in a world faced with so many crises.
As one reads his comments made to Reuters, together with what he has
said to a larger media audience, and the report of his meeting with
President Mahinda Rajapaksa issued by OCHA - the UN Organisation
Coordinating Humanitarian Agencies - it is evident John Holmes has been
working to an agenda of his own, which has as its main item the causing
of as much damage as possible to the image of Sri Lanka and its
Government among the international community.
It is difficult to see any other reason behind the many differences
between his night-time revelations and his daytime observations.
His comments to Reuters are as tendentious and unsubstantiated as the
many such sweeping observations made by Human Rights Watch in its latest
report on Sri Lanka.
It would appear that Sri Lanka will have to be at the receiving end
of such deliberate twists of fact, as the LTTE sees increased threats to
its hold over the Tamil people in the north of Sri Lanka, and these
knights of the humanitarian league leap to its rescue in whatever way
The duplicity of John Holmes cannot be condemned without a word about
the role of Reuters. It is interesting that Reuters had waited till
after John Holmes finished his media briefing to release what it
considered as its hottest news, which it obtained many hours earlier.
Obviously the deadline did not matter to Reuters, when it was a story
that affected the image of Sri Lanka so badly. One does not see Reuters
bringing its own knowledge and experience in Sri Lanka, in blandly
stating what John Holmes had to say.
It is also not strange that Reuters forgot the ethics of journalism,
especially the need to ask for some comments from the Government on
specifically what John Holmes told its Colombo Bureau Chief. It would
appear that both John Holmes and Reuters are happy in the cloak of Hyde.