The United Nations is trying to fight an order by the Sri Lankan authorities to expel a senior official representing the world body’s children’s charity who the government has accused of making “unfounded” statements about the war to crush Tamil rebels.
James Elder, a Colombo-based spokesman for Unicef, has been given two weeks to leave the country after the government cancelled his visa. He had initially been told to leave tomorrow but was given a fortnight stay after appeals by the UN.
During the closing stages of the war to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) earlier this year, Mr Elder appeared regularly in the media warning of the “unimaginable hell” facing the hundreds of thousands of civilians caught up in the conflict. The UN estimated that up to 10,000 civilians were killed and thousands more wounded as government troops ended a decades-long civil war.
In April, as troops advanced on the LTTE’s final stronghold where up to 50,000 children were among the trapped civilians, he told The Independent: “Children trapped in this area face immense physical, mental and emotional trauma. The living conditions are dire, with children lacking basic essential such as water, food and medicines.”
Mr Elder last night declined to comment but Sarah Crowe, a regional spokeswoman for Unicef, said officials were protesting the decision. There is a degree of bewilderment, given that his spokesman’s visa had been renewed for a year in July. “This is not about one person, but we stand by the statements that James made,” she said. “[He] has been Unicef’s voice advocating on behalf of those who do not have a voice - children and the most vulnerable.”
Yet the Sri Lankan authorities remain steadfast. Speaking from Colombo, foreign secretary Palitha Kohona, said Mr Elder had made a series of “unfounded statements” that echoed TamilNet, a Tamil news website said to be supportive of the LTTE. “How can a UN official do this. A UN official should have an absolute commitment to impartiality,” said Mr Kohona. “He was expressing his views in a very unprofessional manner.”
Campaigners say that alongside the military operation to destroy the LTTE and kill its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, the government has fought an equally determined struggle to limit independent reporting of the conflict. Reporters were prevented from getting anywhere near the war zone, except on strictly-escorted visits, and the Red Cross was the only aid agency permitted continued access.
Visits to the vast camps where up to 280,000 civilians remain interned behind razor wire and armed guards, are similarly controlled. Reports in Sri Lanka suggest it was comments that Mr Elder made about conditions in the camps - recently besieged by monsoon floods - that particularly angered the authorities.
Such was the restrictions placed on independent monitors and the media that many believed the conflict effectively became a war without outside witnesses. Earlier this year, the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said the government had achieved an “almost total blackout of independent and objective reporting” of the war. Last week a Tamil journalist was convicted under anti-terror laws and sentenced to 20 years in jail with hard labour after writing articles critical of the government.
The decision to expel Mr Elder, an Australian passport holder, comes as the Sri Lankan authorities have rejected as “fake” video footage purporting to show the summary execution of Tamil prisoners. In a statement, the foreign minister Rohitha Bogollagama said: “[This is] a deliberate and sinister attempt to cause embarrassment and bring disrepute to the government of Sri Lanka. It is indeed deeply regretted that despite the government of Sri Lanka refuting these allegations, some sections of the international community are repeating these allegations which appear to be an orchestrated campaign against Sri Lanka.”