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UN official receives phone threats after speaking about Tamil camps – SMH

[MISC, Friday, 11 September 2009 14:33 No Comment]

AN AUSTRALIAN United Nations official has received anonymous threats to his safety days after being branded a terrorist sympathiser by the Sri Lankan Government and ordered to leave the country.

UNICEF’s spokesman in Sri Lanka, James Elder, must leave Sri Lanka in less than a fortnight after having his visa revoked.

This week Sri Lanka’s former foreign secretary, Palitha Kohona – also an Australian citizen – accused Mr Elder of ”doing propaganda” in support of the Tamil Tigers’ insurgency.

Dr Kohona’s comments have raised fears about the safety of Mr Elder and his family in a country where ethnic tensions remain high just months after the end of a long-running civil war.

The Herald understands Mr Elder received intimidating phone messages that included violent language after it was announced his visa would be cancelled on September 21.

It is not suggested that Dr Kohona is behind the threats to Mr Elder’s safety.

Dr Kohona, who worked for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for more than a decade before returning to Sri Lanka, has just become Sri Lanka’s representative to the United Nations, which employs Mr Elder.

Even if the Sri Lankan Government reverses its decision to expel Mr Elder, Mr Kohona’s comments appear to make his position in Sri Lanka untenable. The Tamil Tigers are a prescribed terrorist organisation in many countries, including Australia.

After more than 25 years of fighting, separatist Tamil Tiger rebels were routed by the Sri Lankan army in May.

Mr Elder, who has been UNICEF’s spokesman in Sri Lanka for more than a year, made frequent statements to the media about the plight of children caught up in the conflict and subsequently sent to camps for Tamil refugees.

Sri Lanka has stridently resisted international pressure to allow an investigation into allegations of a high civilian death toll and war crimes during the closing stages of the conflict. It is estimated that between 7000 and 20,000 civilians were killed in the final weeks of the war and that many of the victims were children.

The Australian Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, has not criticised Sri Lanka for cancelling Mr Elder’s visa but has praised UNICEF’s work on the war-torn island and urged Colombo to co-operate with the UN.

"Australia considers it essential that the Sri Lankan Government work constructively with UN agencies to address Sri Lanka’s challenges," a spokeswoman for Mr Smith told the Herald yesterday.

Mr Elder has received strong support from the highest level of the UN.

The Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, said he ”strongly regrets” the decision and will take up Mr Elder’s case with Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

”The United Nations is working impartially to assist the people of Sri Lanka, and the Government should be supporting and co-operating with its efforts,” he said.

There was great tension between Sri Lanka and the UN in the bloody climax to the civil war in the first five months of this year.

The spokesman for the UN in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss, who like Mr Elder is Australian, has also faced threats of deportation.

The head of Colombo’s National Peace Council, Jehan Perera, said Mr Elder’s expulsion showed the Sri Lankan Government had not yet moved on from its war mindset.

”This is not at all a constructive or justifiable action on the part of the Sri Lankan Government because Mr Elder was speaking out about children who are in a very difficult situation,” Mr Perera said.

”The Government should not have punished him for that.”

Professor Sandy Gordon, a South Asia specialist at the Australian National University, said Mr Elder’s expulsion was a troubling signal about the post-war attitude of the Sri Lankan Government.

”I worry about Sri Lanka,” he said. ”It seems some of the basic trappings of democracy are being eroded there.”

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