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SL kicks out head of UNHCR

September 8, 2009

The Australia – Aussie James Elder the second to face expulsion from Sri Lanka

AnSL Australian aid worker facing expulsion from Sri Lanka is the second Australian this year to be threatened with deportation from the ethnically divided nation for speaking out against human rights violations and war casualties.

Unicef spokesman James Elder has been ordered to leave Colombo by September 21 by the Sri Lankan government, which claims statements he made highlighting the suffering of children during the war and in post-war internment camps amounted to supporting Tamil Tiger separatists.

Mr Elder’s expulsion notice, signed by former Australian diplomat turned Sri Lankan foreign secretary Palitha Kohona, came just three months after the UN’s spokesman in Colombo, Gordon Weiss, also faced deportation threats.

The two men are notable in Sri Lanka’s aid community for speaking out on human rights abuses on both sides of the conflict and highlighting civilian casualties. Their comments were in defiance of government denials that heavy bombardment of the Tamil Tiger-held north earlier this year killed civilians.

Mr Weiss became the subject of mass demonstrations in Colombo and vitriolic newspaper editorials from government mouthpieces in May for describing the last weeks of the three-decades-long conflict as a “bloodbath”.

Mr Weiss said yesterday: “There was some talk of (visa being revoked) but it never happened and my visa was ultimately extended.”

The Sri Lankan government had made no secret of its position that “you’re either with us or against us”, he said.

Local journalists have been arrested for reporting human rights concerns, others have been murdered, and the media are still refused independent access to camps where more than 280,000 war refugees are being forcibly detained.

Dr Kohona told The Australian this week Mr Elder should be treated no differently to any other Australian caught breaking the rules of a sovereign nation, and accused him of “supporting a terrorist organisation”.

His comments have raised fears for the safety of Mr Elder, a NSW-born father of three, in a nation riven with ethnic chauvinism and post-war tensions.

Unicef has strongly defended Mr Elder, labelling the allegations against him as “bordering on ludicrous”.

“Through Mr 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,” executive director Ann Veneman said in a statement yesterday. “Unicef unequivocally rejects any allegation of bias.”

Dr Kohona is a dual Australian-Sri Lankan citizen who worked as an Australian diplomat in Geneva and Canberra, as well as for the UN, before accepting a ministerial post with the Sri Lankan government. He takes up a new post today as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the UN in New York.

Sydney University’s Centre of Peace and Conflict Studies director Jake Lynch said recent statements by Dr Kohona that no victor ever faced war crimes charges rendered him “an entirely inappropriate candidate to represent a UN member state”.

“For Kohona to be seemingly boasting that he and his colleagues will not face war crimes charges and then be sent straight to the UN is an indication of the contempt the Rajapakse government has for the UN and its authority,” he said.

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