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At UN, Ban Assures Staff of Safety First, While Algiers Bombing Questions Persist

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, January 4 -- On the first working day of 2008 at UN Headquarters, Ban Ki-moon and his entourage walked briskly through the basement, wishing happy New Year to surprised subterranean staffers. In the control room of UN Television, Ban asked a technical question, but was not allowed to stay to follow up. The visit, surprised sources told Inner City Press, had been carefully scripted, complete with what in essence were talking points, a form of micro-managed spontaneity. On January 4, Ban took questions by video from UN staff worldwide, except from the Nairobi duty station, closed due to post-election violence in Kenya. Violence and danger were themes that Ban focused on, promising to act on a report, due January 11, about the Algiers bombing that killed 14 UN staff. The town hall meeting was closed to reporters. Inner City Press spoke with attendees, including Mr. Ban and his Myanmar envoy Ibrahim Gambari, as they left. Mr. Ban stopped to allow two young women to take photographs with him: spontaneous spontaneity, of the type that reflects well on him. They he and his flotilla got on the elevator and were gone. Some staff grumbled that the real questions weren't answered, or even asked.

            Very quickly after the Town Hall meeting, the Secretariat put on the UN's intranet their gloss on the success of the meeting, starting with long quotes of what Mr. Ban read out, then "USG Barcena then opened the floor to questions from staff, starting with the New York Staff Union." Unreported is the fact it was only at this point that a moment of silence for the staff killed in Algeria was held. Undecided, apparently, is whether any of the report on the Algiers bombing will be made public. Following the bombing of the UN's Baghdad headquarters in 2003, reporting was commissioned from, among others, former Finnish president Martti Ahtissari. Will any at least superficially outside review be conducted in this case?

            At the noon briefing of January 2, the spokesperson was asked:

Question:  Between the time that Al-Qaida in Maghreb posted on its website a threat to the UN and there was also bombing in Algiers, I think in April, that some letters were written by members of the staff in Algiers to the UN saying that they're warning of a possible attack and asking for different measures to be taken to increase security... Does the UN have a record of those letters, when were they received and what was said in them?  And in light of those letters and possibly other warnings, why was the UN still in phase I on 11 December, the lowest state of security, before the bombing attack?  Why wasn't it increased?

Spokesperson:  As you know, Mr. Veness was there until the end of the year.  I don't have with me his report yet on what happened exactly in the Algiers bombing.  As you know the head of UNDP was also there, sent immediately by the SG to really find out what had happened and the SG was there himself.  We will get a detailed report.  How much of that report will be made public, I donít know at this point.  But Iíll do my best to get you as much as possible in terms of information.

            We'll see.

Front row at January 4 town hall meeting

The following day, a supplemental statement was made:

"what was mentioned were letters written by staff members.  This we don't have any confirmation of.  And those were not received by UN Headquarters.  I checked yesterday.  What they had was probably given to the person in charge of security there, Mr. Babacar N'Diaye.  As you know, Mr. N'Diaye lost his life during the bombing.  As far as we know, there had been no threats, which explains why the alert level was at level one.  There were no threats justifying increasing the threat level.

Correspondent:  That is not what the Interior Minister said.  He said that there were threats to international organizations, including the UN.

Spokesperson:  Well, these were not transmitted to the United Nations.  That's what I'm saying."

            Wouldn't any credible agreement with a host country include a requirement that such threats be passed along? If not, what does safety mean?

* * *

Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece about the Somali National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund.  Video Analysis here

  Because a number of Inner City Press' UN sources go out of their way to express commitment to serving the poor, and while it should be unnecessary, Inner City Press is compelled to conclude this installment in a necessarily-ongoing series by saluting the stated goals of the UN agencies and many of their staff. Keep those cards, letters and emails coming, and phone calls too, we apologize for any phone tag, but please continue trying, and keep the information flowing.

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540