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At the UN, Team Ban's Transparency Is Elusive, As Hiring Rules Avoided

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN 6th 5 4 3 2 1

UNITED NATIONS, May 28 -- While campaigning to become Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon repeatedly said that if selected, he would improve and make more transparent the management of the UN, starting with his own office and hiring.

            Two weeks before the scheduled announcement of his management team, on May 16 Mr. Ban's spokesperson's office refused to provide the name of the fifth of his begrudgingly enumerated South Korean hires. Spokesperson Choi Soung-ah defended the non-provision of the name by saying that the person did not work for Ban's office, but the UN's Department of Management.

            On May 23, after a week of investigative reports and questions from Inner City Press, including about why the List of Staff of the UN Secretariat was being withheld as confidential and private, Ms. Choi e-mailed Inner City Press the fifth name: Mr. Kweon Ki-Hwan.

            At the May 24 noon press briefing, Inner City Press asked Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe what Mr. Kweon's post and job description are, and how he was selected. Ms. Okabe said that this should not be discussed in an open briefing, but rather upstairs in her office. Later, without answering the Kweon Ki-Hwan questions, she wrote that

"information on every staff member listed, including name, nationality, grade level and location.. is deliberately not provided in official documents made available to the public at large...To make such information available to the general public would not only affect the privacy of the individual staff members, but could also be detrimental to staff for security reasons, especially to staff serving in hazardous duty stations. Furthermore, if the proposed "Access to Information policy" is eventually introduced, it would not apply to any information that could endanger an individual's security or violate his/her privacy."

            Ms. Okabe's response re-opens the possibility that Ban might not even introduce any "Access to information policy," something his Under Secretary General for Management, Alicia Barcena Ibara, has said Mr. Ban is very interested in, as a matter of transparency.

Mr. Ban: goodbye to all that?

            (In fact, despite Mr. Ban's repeated statements about eliminating the "reversion option" in the UN whereby senior officials can revert to UN civil service positions from which they were promoted, sources tell Inner City Press of a Ban appointee who has chafed at that reform, and declined signing a contract without a clause allowing reversion. A direct question posed in this regard has gone ignored, hardly consistent with transparency of management.)

            But it was contradictory statements on May 25 by Ban's chief spokesperson, Michele Montas, which run most afoul of the claims to transparency. In that day's noon briefing, Ms. Montas said that Mr. Kweon and Ms. Choi went through a competitive process and are now in the Departments of Management and Public Information, respectively. While at present less is known about Mr. Kweon, it is difficult to understand how Ms. Choi went through a competitive process, given that she appeared and was assigned Ari Gaitanis' space in the Office of the Spokesperson even before Ban took office. The paperwork on that irregular UN hiring should be released.

            Because even by Ms. Montas' statements, the General Assembly only allows hiring outside of the regular procedures for those placed in the Executive Office of the Secretary General, Ms. Montas later on May 25 sent Inner City Press a terse written statement, expressing disappointment at the publication of information about staff and nationality, and stating that

"The five staff members from the Republic of Korea, who were appointed by the Secretary-General, were appointed to the Executive Office of the Secretary-General (EOSG). Two of them, Choi Soung-ah and Kweon Ki-hwan, have been assigned to other departments - the Department of Public Information and the Department of Management respectively. But they remain staff members of EOSG, and perform tasks that are closely related to EOSG work."

            So the new argument is that the two are "in" the Departments of Management and Public Information, to which recruiting, interview and evaluation procedures apply, but are technically "staff members of the Executive Office of the SG," allowing them to bypass the recruiting, interview and evaluation procedures.

            Is this the transparency which Ban Ki-moon promised?  Before taking office, Mr. Ban made these claims in Russia as well. The November 3, 2006, issue of Izvestia contained this Q&A:

Question: How do you think the United Nations should be reformed?

Ban Ki-Moon: First of all, we need to rebuild respect for the United Nations... The UN Secretariat's operation mechanisms should be as transparent as possible. Moreover, we need more qualified personnel.

Question: Including personnel from Russia?

Ban Ki-Moon: In choosing our staff, we don't take their nationality into account.

            As recently as May 16, in a speech to the Korea Society in New York, Mr. Ban stated that "I am also striving to change the working culture of the United Nations itself. Since taking office, my first priority has been to enhance accountability and transparency."

            Speaking in Seoul on the UN's 61st anniversary in October 2006, Mr. Ban said that "I don't pretend to have all the answers to all the questions and challenges for the U.N. in its seventh decade. But I am a good listener."

            In this light, and since it has proved both difficult and unpleasant to get the most basic answers about hiring from Mr. Ban's Office of the Spokesperson, we run this medley of worries now whispered in the building:

-several sources say that the number (of South Koreans hired) is not the stated five, but at least eight;

-word circulates of yet two more irregular hires, not necessarily South Koreans, but people sent to get UN I.D. cards of whom those ordered to issue the cards asked, "Who the hell are these people?"

-perhaps most disturbingly, sources tell Inner City Press that the resistance to recent question is because there is or has been a plan to place "plants" like Ms. Choi and Ms. Kweon in many more UN Departments, and the application of required hiring rules would problematize these placements.

            Will these and other questions be answered, in the hoopla of belated and superficial hiring announcement, to be followed by Mr. Ban's heading to Berlin? Other questions asked include:

 Beyond the 51 nationals of the Republic of Korea listed in the mid-2006 List of Staff of the UN Secretariat, a request has been made that your Office (or the 38th floor) provide updated figures to compare to the 51 baseline. Beyond the mid-2006 51, can you provide a figure as of December 31, 2006, and specifically address any change at DESA between mid-2006 and the end of the year?

  You said, as transcribed by DPI, "Two of them, Choi Soung-ah and Kweon Ki-hwan, have been assigned to other departments -- the Department of Public Information and the Department of Management respectively.... Those people went through a process."

 What process? The full OHRM process? Is it possible to see the vacancy announcements and to know how many people applied and were interviewed?

You said, "The General Assembly gives the Secretary-General the explicit authority to appoint staff to his own office outside the regular procedures."

  Is it your position that the intent of the GA is to allow the S-G to go outside the regular procedures in placing people in the Department of Management and elsewhere?

You said, " It is perfectly normal for an incoming Secretary-General to bring a small number of close advisers with him."

  Could you provide any figures on the hiring of national by the three (or more) previous Secretaries-General?

  Two other questions posed to Marie, and reiterated:

  "There's also a question, which I haven't yet asked in a noon briefing, about the use of peacekeepers from post-coup Fiji, a public report that there are 17 more now than in Dec. 2006 -- the request was for your Office to confirm or deny, and if deny, to know if some retraction is being sought

"Finally, questions I asked at the March 22 noon briefing have not been answered -- for example  "How many consultants does the Secretary-General currently have? From where? Can their names be provided? How many when actually employed?  How many dollar-a-years? Can their names be provided?"

 We'll see.

* * * *

     Since the Spokeperson's office has of late been dismissive of questions about how the UN is being managed, saying that its and other correspondents' focus is on burning political and not managerial questions, we note the following non-responses, 84 hours later, to questions posed by Inner City Press at the May 25 noon briefing:

Inner City Press:  There's also a report from Nepal that a United Nations vehicle visiting the Bhutanese refugees was stoned by Maoists and that the US Ambassador was in it.  Have you heard that?

Spokesperson:  I have no information on that.

  [Update: while no answer was provided, the stoning has since been confirmed, as well as more violence in the area, though perhaps not burning enough.]

Inner City Press: Okay.  This will be pretty fast.  There's a report that the Secretary-General is going to name the CEO of Novartis as the head of a bioterrorism unit.  Have you seen that report and can you confirm it?

Spokesperson:  Well, I can tell you, there is no such thing as a bioterrorism unit that is planned.  No one here has heard of it.  There is no such unit.

Inner City Press: It was in a British thing called The Business.

Spokesperson:  There is no such unit within the United Nations.

 [The Business article quotes a UN Disarmament staffer, than says that the official UN had no comment. Given the May 25 response, has the UN asked The Business for a retraction?]

Inner City Press: Very good.  And this is something that I asked you earlier about Cote d'Ivoire.  There's an interview now by the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General saying that Mr. Stoudmann's mandate is finished.  Is that in fact the case?  Mr. Mousa has given an interview in Abidjan saying that Stoudmann is done.  Is that true?

Spokesperson:  Well, we can confirm that for you, when his mandate is to be ended.

[But it was Abou Moussa, the acting U.N. mission chief in Ivory Coast who was quoted

"that as part of this adjustment, the U.N. was ending the post of its High Representative for Elections in Ivory Coast, Gerard Stoudman. This task to help organize elections would now be carried out by a team attached to the U.N. Secretary General's Special Representative in Ivory Coast. The previous special representative, Pierre Schori, left the post earlier this year, and a new envoy would be appointed."  So, as Inner City Press has now repeated asked, where is the UN's Gerard Stoudman?]

Inner City Press: There's a report that Serbia has formally asked the Secretary-General to reopen a new round of discussions.  I'm just wondering, has the Secretary-General received anything?

Spokesperson:  Well, I haven't seen that letter either so we'll try to get some information on that.

[The Spokesperson later added that no such letter from the Serbian Government had been received.]

Well, the request was reportedly sent -- how long does it take to be acknowledged? Tuesday, perhaps.]

Inner City Press: One thing, I wanted to ask about the statement that you read, which I really appreciate, and nobody disputes that he can hire who he wants, just for what it's worth, I just say that, but the idea that in his own office he can hire whoever he wants... The only follow-up I have, and it's something that I've tried to ask by e-mail is that one of the five is in the Department of Management.  So I just wanted you to clarify.  Does that mean that this individual is in Ban Ki-moon's office on the 38th floor?

Spokesperson:  No, the professional is in the Department of Management just as there is a professional in my office who is with the Department of Public Information.

Inner City Press: But that GA process of being able to hire anybody he wants for his office and on the 38th floor, does that apply to putting people in, for example, to the Department of Management, or in their office.  That's what I don't understand, that's my question.

Spokesperson:  It's not putting people in.  Those people went through a process also.

Inner City Press: So for the Department of Management post, there was a process, it was put out, there were interviews, the whole process. [Spokesperson nodded, video here.] Okay, that's all I wanted to know.

[The Spokesperson later added that the five staff members from the Republic of Korea who were appointed by the Secretary-General were appointed to the Executive Office of the Secretary-General (EOSG).  Two of them, Choi Soung-ah and Kweon Ki-hwan, have been assigned to other departments -- the Department of Public Information and the Department of Management respectively.  But they remain staff members of EOSG, and perform tasks that are closely related to EOSG work.]

  See above, and stay tuned...

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