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UN's Ban Dodges Questions While His Spokesperson Blocks and Ignores Them

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

UNITED NATIONS, July 10 -- Returning from a two week tour through Asia, including five days in his native South Korea, Ban Ki-moon on Thursday held a half hour press conference. Again from his opening statement and the questions allowed, one would not know of the growing dissatisfaction about his 18-month tenure from throughout the UN system. As simply three examples, member states in the General Assembly were told they would be consulted before Ban names a new human rights commissioner. Wednesday Ban's spokesperson said that consultation will only take place after Ban names the winner. The spokesperson, despite having a list of journalists who'd signed up to pose questions, did not allow one on this. Nor on the controversy about Ban's pending appointment of Rwanda general Karenzi as the number two peacekeeper in Darfur, despite Karenzi being indicted in a Spanish court for war crimes.  A Permanent Five Ambassador confirms that Rwanda has threatened, if Karenzi is not re-appointed, to pull out its troops, five of whom were killed this week in El Fasher.

   Inner City Press is informed that UN Peacekeeping has curtailed a visit to headquarters by a key logistics official in the Darfur mission, based on a fear that when International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo announces high-level indictment requests on July 14, Sudan will order the UN out of Darfur. Sources in Khartoum tell Inner City Press that the UN has raised its threat level to Three; it was two full levels lower in Algiers in December 2007.

  Only this week at the Security Council stakeout, the Ambassador of Russia, which could veto any second term by Ban, said the Ban was acting unlawfully in reconfiguring the UN Mission in Kosovo, ceding powers to the European Union's EULEX without Council approval. No question was allowed on this topic, and Ban did not bring it up.

  Ten yards from the Security Council stakeout, UN construction crews from contractor Alex Wolf are tearing up the walls, pretending that clumsily taped-up sheet plastic offers protection from asbestos and other toxins. Ban has analogized the proposed renovation of the UN with a still not begun clean up drive;  in fact, the bush league repairs now being done are seen by many as apt symbols of the last 18 months.

  A supposedly major reform of the UN was the creation of an Ethics Office. But when asked if he supports his own Ethics Officer's recommendation of 14 months back-pay for the violation of the rights of the Security Chief in North Korea of the UN Development Program, who complained of irregularities in UNDP's financial and other transactions with the Kim Jong-Il government and then was terminated, Ban said that perhaps his Ethics Officer does not have jurisdiction.

  Before his left on his two week trip, the UN Staff Union in New York strongly criticized Ban and his appointees. The Geneva Staff Union dropped out of the Coordination committee that Ban has been pushing. None of those issues were addressed; the most recent Town Hall meeting was closed to the press. During the meeting, Inner City Press is informed, a question was asked about why top officials in the UN never face accountability, but rather are transferred and promoted. That's not what we mean by accountability, was the answer.

   Ban's Spokesperson's Office controls who can ask questions in the briefing room. Even at at stakeout, the Office has been known to tell the technicians who hold the microphones -- technicians whom the Secretariat was ready last month to have replaced by scabs -- to not allow the microphone to particular reporters.  It's not if they are trying to channel more difficult questions to themselves to be answered daily or by email: the Office simply leaves unanswered many questions to which responses are promised.

Ban Ki-moon takes questions at his birthplace, Spokesperson not seen

  Again just a few examples, merely from the six business days so far in July:

  On July 1, the Spokesperson promises answers about Myanmar protests, and said that Ban supported Benson's recommendation (which Ban disavowed on July 10). From the transcript:

Inner City Press: He recommends strongly that UNDP pays 14 months back pay to the whistleblower.  Does the Secretary-General stand behind that recommendation?  Should UNDP in fact pay that money, or are they free to rebuff that recommendation?

Spokesperson:  We will see what is going to happen.  The Secretary-General of course is behind Mr. Benson on his report.  There is no doubt about it.  What UNDP will do, we will be seeing this; how they will implement that report.

Question:  UNDP at one point said Benson doesn’t have jurisdiction over them.

Spokesperson:  As I announced yesterday, they have a new Director of the Ethics Office.  And they will be working with Mr. Benson.

Question:  So, does he have jurisdiction?  I mean, does this ruling, as far as they are concerned…

Spokesperson:  I cannot speak on behalf of UNDP.

Question:  Institutionally, does this ruling apply?

Spokesperson:  Well, we can get someone from UNDP to discuss this with you, of course.

Question:  What does the Secretary-General think about the report?  Does he have any comments about it?

Spokesperson:  He does not at this point.  He has not received it yet, as far as I know.

Question:  One of the things that Secretary-General Ban has been trying to do was to have this cohesive approach to these things within all of the United Nations.  Doesn’t this pose a predicament in terms of trying to overcome that problem?  Is this not an issue that he will weigh on, and weigh on in a very noticeable way?

Spokesperson:  Mr. Benson speaks on behalf of the Secretariat, so you know…

Question:  I understand.  But in terms of Organization-wide…

Spokesperson:  As you know, he has been working on this for quite a while, and the fact that right now they are making changes in the structure of the different agencies on the ethics issue is part of that concerted effort to have one system and one standard.

Question:  Another question related to UNDP.  I understand that the Executive Board of UNDP has received a request, or at least a proposal, to again relaunch the programme in North Korea.  Does this mean that some of the issues that were raised at the time, and the very reason why the UNDP pulled out, in terms of staff, hiring, payments and some of the other things in which UNDP was operating in contradiction to its own rules… have these issues been resolved?  Have the North Koreans now agreed to UNDP’s conditions…?

Spokesperson:  I cannot answer for UNDP.  I suggest that we have someone from UNDP come and talk to you about the issue.  I cannot answer for them.  I do know that the issue of returning to the DPRK has to be approved by the Board, of course.

Question:  And in terms of Ban weighing in on the issue of Tony Shkurtaj and its wider ramification for whistleblowers and system-wide coherence, when might we get some sort of…?

Spokesperson:  At this point, in terms of Mr. Shkurtaj himself, the report, as I said, of Mr. Benson stands as the position of the Secretariat.

Question:  There are some reports saying that the former Australian Foreign Minister has accepted the position of Special Envoy for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for Cyprus.  Can you confirm that or…?

Spokesperson:  No, I don’t have an announcement at this point.  Not yet.

Question:  One of the articles saying that Mr. Downer said he has the job also reports that it is a part-time post and that he will be working part-time for a corporate advisory firm.  I understand you have no announcement on it, but do these envoys… what procedures does the Secretariat have to ensure that there is no conflict of interest between their outside jobs and their UN jobs?

Spokesperson:  Well, I don’t have a specific answer for you.  It is of course discussed with every single person who is named as a Special Envoy.  In this specific case, I cannot comment, because in this specific case, we don’t have an appointment yet.

Question:  There is also a report that Burmese nationals in Japan had a kind of protest or an event outside the UN office in Tokyo yesterday, during which they tried to or did deliver a letter to Mr. Ban about the lack of progress from their point of view since his visit to Myanmar.  Has he received the letter, and what is his response…?  Does he feel that Myanmar has been taking enough steps since he visited, or is he concerned and dissatisfied?

Spokesperson:  Well, I don’t know if he is dissatisfied.  I think he has been urging for more steps.  But largely, he has noted the progress made in delivering aid to the people who needed it most.  In terms of the letter itself, I can check with the delegation there whether a letter was delivered to the Secretary-General.

Question:  Thank you.  Last week, there was supposed to be a press conference by Jan Egeland on his visit to the Sahel and climate change.  It was cancelled at the last minute.  Is it still going to take place?  Why was it cancelled?

Spokesperson:  Because he was travelling.  That is why.  He was travelling.

  On July 2, Inner City Press asked

Question:  About the programme of work for this month for the Security Council, there is some discussion of a briefing on Myanmar on the political issues.  I guess the issue came up of whether USG Gambari; is he now on leave to deal with the Nigerian issues?  Or is he on standby?  Is he currently working with the UN or on leave?

Spokesperson:  I will try to find out for you.  I know that he was dealing with the situation in the Niger Delta but I will ask whether he is going to be the one briefing on the situation in Myanmar.

Question:  That would be great.  Also, is it possible to know if the Secretary-General spoke with Prime Minister (Kevin) Rudd of Australia?  He said that that they had a conversation...

Spokesperson:  He did, yes.

Question:  On the topic of Mr. Downer or what topic?

Spokesperson:  I don’t know.  I can get a readout for you.  [Never provided]. But they spoke.

Question:  Okay, great.  And then inside the building there was apparently an incident on Friday in which the CMP contractor hit a pipe (inaudible).  There was some gas release and the printing plant didn’t print the Journal for Monday.  What is the outcome of that?  I was told that there is a landfill leaking gas under the UN.

Spokesperson:  That was the situation.

Question:  What’s going to be done about that?  And why didn’t we know about it?

Spokesperson:  We were fully informed of that.  The situation was under complete control by Monday morning.  This is why we didn’t say anything new to you.  You said it quite rightly; it was methane gas coming out of the landfill.  This whole riverfront, as you know, was made of landfill.

Question:  If it came up then, why isn’t it going to keep coming up?  Is it continuing to come up?  How do you...?

Spokesperson:  There was no danger for anyone.  That is why the incident was not mentioned.  But we had a full briefing on what happened.

Question:  (inaudible) some people who have read’s not been capped.  It’s continuing to come up but does not cause a danger in some way?

Spokesperson:  No.

Question:  They mistakenly believed that there was a danger on Friday?

Spokesperson:  Yes, because they thought it was gas.  It was not natural gas.  It was, you know, maybe a leak.  They contacted both the New York City Fire Department and ConEdison thinking that it was a gas leak in the basement, which was not the case.  What happened was that they detected an odour, and the smell in the area of the UN printing shop forced them to close the area until they found out what it was.

Question:  Is the smell still there or not?

Spokesperson:  No, the smell is no longer there.

 From July 3--

Spokesperson:  No.  All I can say is that interviews are continuing for the post.  Yes, Matthew?

Question:  Yesterday, the US Envoy for Sudan, Richard Williamson, was here and he said…  He had some criticism for the Government of Sudan, but also for the UN itself in terms of the slowness of the deployment of UNAMID.  I wanted to know if there is any response.  He said he met with Ms. [Susana] Malcorra; that there was some meeting of friends of UNAMID.  Do you have a readout on that?  What’s the UN response?  Because he just didn’t criticise Sudan.  He wasn’t really specific, but he said that the UN is not moving fast enough to deploy.

Spokesperson:  Well, I’m sure that within the Security Council he can express these reservations and it will be discussed at the level of the Security Council.

Question:  Okay.  I’m not sure he met with the Council.  Anyway, I think he met with Malcorra.  And also, I wanted to ask you one thing.  I have heard that, on this matter of General Karenzi [Karake], the number two in UNAMID, that some are saying that the Secretariat has written to Rwanda, asking them to propose an alternative candidate.  Is that the case, and, if so, did the Secretariat confer with the African Union before starting such a letter?

Spokesperson:  I don’t think I can confirm this letter.  I can only say that we take this issue, of course, seriously and we are continuing our consultations with all parties, including the Rwandan authorities, and we’ll have more to say in the near future.  I don’t have anything else to say.

  Inner City Press asked the Spokesperson to confirm or deny that the equipment for the Ethiopian and Egypian peacekeepers in Darfur is still held up in Port Sudan. The Spokesperson said she would get an answer, but never did.  Now the peacekeeping mission is on Level Three alert, and apparently thinks it may be thrown out of the country.  Darfur was listed by Ban as one of his top priorities, as was UN reform. From July 7:

Question:  It is reported that the Indian peacekeepers that the OIOS referred to the Indian Government for discipline have, in fact, not been disciplined and only been given warnings.  Does the UN think that is enough and what is the UN going to do about that?

Spokesperson:  I would address that question to DPKO.  As far as I know, as you know, every time we have a disciplinary action, it's taken by the country where the peacekeepers come from.

Question:  I think last time that she was here, Jane Holl Lute said we are very encouraged by what the Governments are doing to discipline the people we refer to them.  So this is a kind of a high-profile case involving trading of gold for guns with rebels.  Is there anything the UN can do to make sure the peacekeepers get more than a warning?

Spokesperson:  Except that we keep on talking to Member States about that, the countries contributing troops, there is not much we can do beyond that, beyond putting pressure.

Question:  Except maybe in terms of accepting peacekeepers from the same country in other missions, or something?

Spokesperson:  Well, I can assure you that the same peacekeepers will not be accepted in future missions.  That I can assure you of.

Question:  Also, the Washington Post reported over the weekend that all of the equipment for two new battalions in Darfur is still in Port Sudan and has not been delivered to Darfur.  Is that the case?

Spokesperson:  I will have to check on that.

    No answers were provided.

  From July 9:

Question:  Yesterday at the stakeout, Russian Ambassador Churkin said the Secretary-General had overstepped his bounds in the reconfiguration in Kosovo, and he specifically took issue with this idea that the EULEX force would not be reporting either to UNMIK or to the UN in New York.  Is there any response to what Churkin said and does the UN feel EULEX should report to it?

Spokesperson:  The positions were clear from the start.  This is the position, of course, of the Russian Ambassador and he expressed his opinion and that’s all I can say.

  But to whom does Ban think that EULEX should report?

  In some cases, answers are later provided. From July 8:

Inner City Press: Michele, people are saying that the Assistant Secretary-General for General Assembly and Conference Management, Mr. Mengesha, either has resigned or will be leaving his post.  Are you aware of that?

Spokesperson:  No, I'm not, but I can ask whether this is the case.

[The Spokesperson later confirmed that Yohannes Mengesha intends to leave the United Nations in September.  According to Mr. Mengesha, it is a personal decision.]

 Inner City Press is informed that Mr. Mengesha put his name in for a number of the Under Secretary General slots that opened, but got none, and was so disgusted by who actually got them that he is leaving. Voting with his feet like others.

Watch this site. And this --


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These reports are usually also available through Google News and on Lexis-Nexis.

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

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