Another day…another Aussie gets kicked out of SL
Sri Lankan government evicted UN diplomat during Tamil Tiger endgame
Field operative Peter Mackay forced out for briefings that challenged official death toll, Guardian hears
A senior UN diplomat was expelled from Sri Lanka for providing detailed rebuttals of government “wartime propaganda” during the final battles against Tamil Tiger rebels, the Guardian has learned.
In July Peter Mackay, an Australian citizen, was given two weeks to leave the country, despite having a visa that ran until the summer of next year.
The diplomat, who was monitoring the conflict, had put together briefings for embassies in Colombo that challenged Sri Lanka’s official civilian death toll and its arrangements for relief operations.
News of his expulsion comes days after the UN chief, Ban Ki-Moon, denounced Sri Lanka’s decision to expel Unicef’s communications officer, James Elder, from Colombo for “supporting terrorism”.
Elder had spoken out on child casualties and malnutrition rates during the fighting and criticised the inadequate provisions for war refugees once the battles were over.
Mackay, a field operative who worked for Unops – the technical arm of the UN – was a less familiar face to the media. But he played a key role in keeping the outside world informed about the number of civilians killed in the final months of the war – deaths that Sri Lanka was keen to play down.
Mackay collected high-resolution satellite images showing that the number of people trapped on beaches where the Tigers made their last stand was far higher than that claimed by the government.
The data showed that not only were more people in danger than the government admitted, but that the food and medicine sent to the “no fire zone” were inadequate.
Mackay was also in touch with local staff and put together briefings, using eyewitness reports of the war, which led the UN to warn of a “bloodbath” in the final weeks of fighting.
The diplomat is seen as a legal timebomb by the Sri Lankan government as he could personally take the stand and testify that the army shelled non-combatants – action considered to bea war crime under international law.
Mackay’s experience and knowledge of rebel territory made him the ideal UN candidate to record how the war was being fought. He was stranded behind Tamil Tiger lines on a mission to rescue 100 local staff and their families and was repeatedly bombed for 10 days in January, despite desperate calls to army commanders by his superiors imploring them to stop firing.
His presence, however, attracted the attention of Sri Lanka’s military. In a letter sent in late July, the authorities gave him two weeks to pack up, saying that his “adverse activities had come to the notice of the intelligence services”.
A senior UN source confirmed that Mackay had been asked to leave, adding that “the issue was taken up through diplomatic channels with the government, but their decision remained unchanged”.
The expulsion of two UN officials in the matter of a few weeks sets an unprecedented record for the Sri Lankan government, which is still smarting from criticism of its “take no prisoners” approach to defeating the Tamil Tigers in May – ending 26 years of civil war.