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Sri Lanka versus United Nations

September 17, 2009

Read the second part of Sept 16th SMH editorial.

TO KICK out one Australian working for the United Nations, as the Sri Lankan Government has just done with the UNICEF official James Elder, would be a coincidence. When we learn that another Australian with the UN, Peter Mackay, from the technical body UNops, has been expelled and that a third Australian with the UN in Colombo, Gordon Weiss, is threatened with the same fate, it becomes a disturbing and insulting trend.

Strangely, the Sri Lankan diplomatic chief handling these expulsions, the Foreign Secretary, Palitha Kohona, is also an Australian citizen and previously worked for our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Whether Mr Kohona has advised the President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, that Australia is a soft target for his anti-Western foreign policy line, is something that only Mr Kohona can enlighten us about.

To add a public accusation that Mr Elder was ”doing propaganda” for the now defeated Tamil Tigers, while the UN official and his family are still in the country packing up, has been a nasty twist. It could signal the attention of the notorious men in white vans who have been beating up, abducting and murdering government critics with impunity during Mr Rajapaksa’s time in office.

Colombo’s charges of pro-Tiger partisanship by UN officials carry little weight outside its own government circles and its cowed media. The Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, told Parliament this week that he had studied Mr Elder’s offending remarks and that ”they do not cause me any difficulty”. Indeed, Australia’s position is like that of other democracies: relief that the war with the sinister Tamil Tigers is finally over, concern at harm to civilians during the conflict, and mounting worry that 250,000 Tamil civilians remain in harsh internment camps four months after the conflict ended. To which might be added a deep concern at continued repression of critical minds, like the Tamil journalist J.S. Tissainayagam, just sentenced to 20 years’ jail for ”causing communal disharmony”.

Mr Mackay’s expulsion, in particular, suggests Mr Rajapaksa is trying to brush away the lingering accusations that war crimes were part of his offensive against the Tigers. Colombo has been unconvincing in instantly rejecting as a fabrication a smuggled mobile-phone video of apparent executions of bound men by its forces. Through his own experience behind the lines and then through satellite pictures, Mr Mackay contradicted the Government’s claims it was not knowingly shelling trapped civilians.

When he moves to the United Nations shortly as Sri Lanka’s ambassador, Mr Kohona will find he represents a government carrying little trust, as much as the world welcomed the apparent end of the Tiger insurgency.

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