The black and white of the (mis)information industry
is this strange thing about skin colour. If you are white, you can do no
wrong, you are above-board, intelligent, good hearted etc etc, at least
that’s what certain high-ranking people on the global stage seems to
believe. I am talking specifically about James Elder, UNICEF’s
Communications Director in Sri Lanka, who has been asked to leave the
island by September 21, 2009.
UNICEF has howled in protest: “Through Elder, UNICEF has consistently
spoken out against the suffering of children on both sides of the
intense hostilities earlier this year and called for their protection.
UNICEF unequivocally rejects any allegation of bias.” UNICEF vows the
continue to uphold its mandate in Sri Lanka, to advocate and speak out
on behalf of vulnerable children and women.
Is Elder really ‘unbiased’ though? In an article posted on April 23,
2009, Elder writes about the horrors of war. That’s ok. War is horrible.
But surrender was out of the question. A ceasefire with a cornered
terrorist was out of the question.
Only those ignorant about the LTTE or were complicit in its political
project would have thought otherwise. If Elder was sticking to the
UNICEF mandate, he would have spoken about the thousands of children
recruited for combat purposes by the LTTE. He didn’t. That’s impartial?
That’s ‘concern for vulnerable children’?
Elder talks about the efforts of aid workers in IDP camps but says
zilch about the efforts of the Government. The aid workers worked, yes,
but they only ‘complemented’ the work of the state agencies, including
the Security Forces. Elder does not mention the fact that the Government
had legitimate reason to restrict access of aid workers including those
in UN agencies because there have been innumerable instances where such
people have helped the LTTE. James Elder does not mention this fact.
The Government is correct to be wary of loose-cannons located in the
premises that house UN agencies. Gordon Weiss, Elder’s predecessors
(elevated to the post of communications chief of the UN office in
Colombo ‘for good work’), has been found guilty of leaking totally
unsubstantiated information about the conflict to the international
media, causing much damage to the country’s image.
The man was given to quoting ‘doctors’ serving in LTTE-held areas,
who have since confessed that they were forced to lie by the LTTE. The
UN later retracted all these statements, including a horror-mongering
one about 20,000 people have been killed in a matter of a few weeks. And
we are supposed to believe that UNICEF and other UN agencies are always
Elder was not mandated to make ‘public’ statements. That’s taking
refuge in the broader meaning of ‘communications’ and surreptitiously
expanding mandate arbitrarily. There is no mandate for UN agencies like
the UNICEF to ‘interpret’ policy or make public statements that contain
interpretation and projection. There are agencies that do have the right
to examine, comment and call for action and even this only in fairly
well specified forums.
The General Assembly, Security Council, Human Rights Council and the
Political Affairs Department have a broad mandate in this regard, not so
UNICEF. Elder was not a diplomat, as some newspapers and commentators
believe. He was just another information officer. Well, a mis-information
officer, as it turns out.
The UN has a role to play but it is selective in affirming its
mandate. This is why Boutros-Boutros Ghali was not allowed a second
time, as has been ‘usual’, as UN Secretary General. Why not? Well, the
man criticized the USA and Israel in relation to the question of
Palestine and the gross violation of human rights against the
The USA used the veto option. Boutros had to go. See? When you talk
about certain humanitarian issues, it is ok, while in other instances it
But I am digressing. There is a white-skin issue here. The UN offices
in Colombo appear to be peopled by a critical number of people who are
rabidly anti- Government and anti-Sri Lanka in general. Plants.
That’s what they are. These white people who give all white people a
bad name, seem to think that the colour of their skin gives them Viceroy
status in this island.
A friend of mine who calls himself Alvis in Wonderland asked some
pertinent questions regarding ‘white people’ (suddhas in common
parlance). One could protest that he was engaging in crass
generalization but then again, one could insert the qualifier ‘some’
(which is appropriate) with the added caveat ‘extremely powerful’ to
precede ‘suddha’. Anyway, this is what Alvis had to say:
“Can someone explain the common Sinhala term in the expression,
“Acting the Suddha,” or “Talking like a Suddha”? For I’m trying hard to
understand this snafu: five Cubans trying to prevent terrorist attacks
on their country are imprisoned for life by the USA, while the same USA
gives refuge to a man (named Posada?) who bombed a Cuban civilian
airliner killing Guyanese students?
I ask for an explanation of the Sinhala term, for it is apparent,
that some white folk can hold the world hostage (threatening to blow the
earth up a hundred times over with their nukes), engender daily mass
murder in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, and yet claim to care for the
rights of humans, and, yes, even quadrupeds. Is this what
‘Acting/Talking the Suddha” means? Immortal Teflon?
A bloated balloon of flatulent righteousness? Is this why USA also
means United Snakes or United Slaves of Amnesia? And if Obama today,
continues the embargo to isolate that proud island, can we conclude that
he is George Bush III but with a blush, and that in fact, one doesn’t
need to be pig’mentally challenged to “Act the Suddha”?
He is right. That’s why there is a category called ‘Kalu-Suddhas’
(Black-whites, or ‘brown sahibs’). The Government should not be blind to
this reality. People like Weiss and Elder compel the Government to keep
a watchful eye on their activities.
Perhaps the Government, in terms of diplomatic niceties, would be
reluctant to exercise that kind of vigilance. That’s the Government’s
business. The people of this country do not require permission from Ban
Ki-moon or the Government to keep their eyes open. Call it community
policing or something else; it better be done. We better do it. Sorry
ladies and gentlemen in the UN system in Colombo, you’ve asked for it.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be contacted at