UN recalls Sri Lanka envoy over protests

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Indy Politics

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said yesterday that he was recalling the senior United Nations official in Sri Lanka and closing an office in Colombo because of anti-UN protests there led by a government minister.

Mr Ban said it was unacceptable that Sri Lankan authorities had failed to prevent the disruption of work by UN staff in the country's capital.

Sri Lanka has objected to Mr Ban's appointment last month of a three-member panel to advise him on whether war crimes were committed at the end of the country's 25-year war with the Tamil Tiger separatists, which government troops won in May 2009.

Protests outside the UN office in Colombo have been led by the construction minister, Wimal Weerawansa, a nationalist ally of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. On Thursday, Mr Weerawansa launched a hunger strike on the third day of the protest.

Mr Ban "finds it unacceptable that the Sri Lankan authorities have failed to prevent the disruption of the normal functioning of the United Nations offices in Colombo as a result of unruly protests organised and led by a cabinet minister of the government," according to a statement read by the UN spokesman Farhan Haq.

Mr Ban was recalling the UN resident co-ordinator in Sri Lanka, Neil Buhne, to New York for consultations and decided that the UN Development Programme regional centre in Colombo, the principal UN office there, would be closed, Mr Haq said.

He said Mr Ban had made clear that the panel he had appointed was "advisory and not adversarial".

Hunger strikes to bring attention to a cause are a frequent tactic in Sri Lanka and south Asia, but rarely end with the strikers dying. Mr Weerawansa has nonetheless vowed that he will keep the strike and protest going until Mr Ban removes the panel.

The protest briefly turned violent when protesters skirmished with police who were trying to escort UN staff out earlier this week. The office was then closed on Wednesday.

Mr Weerawansa, a hardline nationalist ally of President Rajapaksa, has asked Sri Lanka's allies to come to its aid. "I urge progressive nations like China, India and Russia and other friendly nations to pressure Ban to abolish the panel," he said.

The government strongly objected to Mr Ban's appointment on 22 June of the body to advise him if war crimes were committed at the end of the war with the Tamil Tiger separatists.

Sri Lanka views the panel as a violation of its sovereignty and a hypocritical application of double standards by Western governments that are engaged in the "war on terror".

It is also concerned that the body is a precursor to a full-blown investigation.

Mr Ban says the panel is merely intended as a resource to help Sri Lanka's reconciliation efforts after thousands of Tamil civilians died in the final months of the war. Sri Lanka's government, led by the Sinhalese ethnic majority, says the casualty figures are hugely inflated.

Meanwhile, rights groups took advantage of the anniversary of the war's end to renew a push for an international probe into what they say are tens of thousands of civilian deaths, and Sri Lanka is under pressure from the West over its rights record.

The government denies that soldiers committed any crimes.