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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 required implementing.

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


John Holmes

 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 Lanka.

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 and otherwise.

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 purpose.

John Holmes raised no issue with that, having made clear that he saw the usefulness of alternate means of monitoring, other than a UN monitoring mission.

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 they can.

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.

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