18 January 2014

The black and white of the (mis)information industry

[As Geneva 2014 beckons, there's a palpable upping of ante by the usual suspects, UK and USA and now India.  This time, however, both the UK and USA are in the dock, considering the damning report on prisoner abuse and other human rights violations in Iraq.  It has caught Foreign Secretary saying things that ought to make David Cameron blush considering his high handed moral posturing in and with regard to Sri Lanka.  It's not a new story though.  I wrote about this black-white business more than three years ago and thought a re-visit would not be out of order. Read on.]

There is this strange thing about skin colour.  If you are white, you can do no wrong, you are above-board, intelligent, good hearted etc etc, at least that’s what certain high-ranking people on the global stage seems to believe.  I am talking specifically about James Elder, UNICEF’s Director of Communications in Sri Lanka, who has been asked to leave the island by September 21, 2009. 


UNICEF has howled in protest: “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. UNICEF unequivocally rejects any allegation of bias.”   UNICEF vows the ‘continue to uphold its mandate in Sri Lanka, to advocate and speak out on behalf of vulnerable children and women. 

Is Elder really ‘unbiased’ though?  In an article posted on April 23, 2009, Elder writes about the horrors of war.  That’s ok.  War is horrible.  But surrender was out of the question.  A ceasefire with a cornered terrorist was out of the question.  Only those ignorant about the LTTE or were complicit in its political project would have thought otherwise.

If Elder was sticking to the UNICEF mandate, he would have spoken about the thousands of children recruited for combat purposes by the LTTE. He didn’t.  That’s impartial? That’s ‘concern for vulnerable children’?  Elder talks about the efforts of aid workers in IDP camps but says zilch about the efforts of the Government. The aid workers worked, yes, but they only complemented the work of the state agencies, including the security forces.  Elder does not mention the fact that the Government had legitimate reason to restrict access of aid workers including those in UN agencies because there have been innumerable instances where such people have helped the LTTE.  James Elder does not mention this fact.  That’s ‘impartial’? 

The Government is correct to be wary of loose-cannons located in the premises that house UN agencies.  Gordon Weiss, Elder’s predecessors (elevated to the post of communications chief of the UN office in Colombo ‘for good work’), has been found guilty of leaking totally unsubstantiated information about the conflict to the international media, causing much damage to the country’s image.  The man was given to quoting ‘doctors’ serving in LTTE-held areas, who have since confessed that they were forced to lie by the LTTE.  The UN later retracted all these statements, including a horror-mongering one about 20,000 people having been killed in a matter of a few weeks.  And we are supposed to believe that UNICEF and other UN agencies are always ‘impartial’! 

Elder was not mandated to make public statements.  That’s taking refuge in the broader meaning of ‘communications’ and surreptitiously expanding mandate arbitrarily.  There is no mandate for UN agencies like the UNICEF to interpret policy or make public statements that contain interpretation, projection etc.  There are agencies that do have the right to examine, comment and call for action and even this only in fairly well specified forums.   The General Assembly, Security Council, Human Rights Council and the Department of Political Affairs have a broad mandate in this regard, not so UNICEF.  Elder was not a diplomat, as some newspapers and commentators believe.  He was just another information officer. Well, a mis-information officer, as it turns out. 

The UN has a role to play but it is selective in affirming its mandate.  This is why Boutros-Boutros Ghali was not allowed a second time, as has been ‘usual’, as UN Secretary General. Why not? Well, the man criticized the USA and Isreal in relation to the question of Palestine and the gross violation of human rights against the Palestinians. The USA used the veto option. Boutros had to go.  See?  When you talk about certain humanitarian issues, it is ok, while in other instances it is not. 

But I am digressing.  There is a white-skin issue here.  The UN offices in Colombo appear to be peopled by a critical number of people who are rabidly anti- Government and anti-Sri Lanka in general. Plants. That’s what they are.  These white people who give all white people a bad name, seem to think that the colour of their skin gives them Viceroy status in this island. 

A friend of mine who calls himself Alvis in Wonderland asked some pertinent questions regarding ‘white people’ (suddhas in common parlance).  One could protest that he was engaging in crass generalization but then again, one could insert the qualifier ‘some’ (which is appropriate) with the added caveat ‘extremely powerful’ to precede ‘suddha’.  Anyway, this is what Alvis had to say:

“Can someone explain the common Sinhala term in the expression, “Acting the Suddha,” or “Talking like a Suddha”? For I’m trying hard to understand this snafu: 5 Cubans trying to prevent terrorist attacks on their country are imprisoned for life by the USA, while the same USA gives refuge to a man (named Posada?) who bombed a Cuban civilian airliner killing Guyanese students? I ask for an explanation of the Sinhala term, for it is apparent, that some white folk can hold the world hostage (threatening to blow the earth up a hundred times over with their nukes), engender daily mass murder in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, and yet claim to care for the rights of humans, and, yes, even quadrupeds. Is this what ‘Acting/Talking the Suddha” means? Immortal Teflon? A bloated balloon of flatulent righteousness? Is this why USA also means United Snakes or United Slaves of Amnesia? And if Obama today, continues the embargo to isolate that proud island, can we conclude that he is George Bush III but with a blush, and that in fact, one doesn’t need to be pig'mentally challenged to “Act the Suddha”?

He is right.  That’s why there is a category called ‘Kalu-Suddhas’ (Black-whites, or ‘brown sahibs’).  The Government should not be blind to this reality.  People like Weiss and Elder compel the Government to keep a watchful eye on their activities. Perhaps the Government, in terms of diplomatic niceties, would be reluctant to exercise that kind of vigilance.  That’s the Government’s business.  The people of this country do not require permission from Ban Ki-moon or the Government to keep their eyes open. Call it community policing or something else; it better be done. We better do it.  Sorry ladies and gentlemen in the UN system in Colombo, you’ve asked for it. 

[First published in the Daily News, September 16, 2009]
 
Malinda Seneviratne can be contacted at msenevira@gmail.com

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