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In UNCA-gate, Mr. Ban's Dig from Geneva Leads to Speechwriter Questions in New York

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

UNITED NATIONS, April 24 -- Speaking at a dinner for the correspondents' association at the UN in Geneva on April 21, Ban Ki-moon began with a statement which his spokesperson has since characterized as a joke, and which is quoted from below.

             Doubtless, there is a place for more humor in the UN system, on both sides of the Atlantic. And written transcripts cannot convey tone of voice or winks, if any. But the main job of a diplomat is to master communications. Lack of clarity, as the Federal Reserve's Alan Greenspan used to do it, should be intentional. It is difficult to imagine that the parochial echo in New York on Tuesday to Mr. Ban's Saturday remarks had been intended.

            First, here are Ban's remarks, as emailed to reporters by the UN on April 23:

SG: "Mr. President of the Correspondents Association in Geneva, Ladies and Gentlemen,

"It's a great honor and pleasure for me to meet all of you.  In fact, it is the first time for me to be invited by this whole Correspondents Association.  I have not even been invited by UNCA, the United Nations Correspondents Association in New York.  I hope that this fact, on the record, should be recorded from Geneva so that our people in New York know about this.  I am personally very much honored.  Normally I have been inviting journalists all the time in my life.  It's almost the first time for me to be invited by an association of correspondents like this one today, and I am very much personally honored by this event. And thank you very much for your warm welcome...

"There is one thing which I have found, new information, is that Geneva is the largest UN city in the world, even larger than the United Nations Headquarters in New York.  There are more international organizations, more diplomatic staff, more conference days in the year.  This is what I have found, in the sense that it may be a real sense of a headquarters of the United Nations."

            Tuesday at the UN's noon press briefing in New York, these statements were the subject to the first five questions, out of a total of only thirteen questions. Some are in true-jest now calling the matter "UNCA-gate," UNCA being pronounced Uhn-Cuh, the UN Correspondents Association.  Five reporters, like this one members of UNCA, fastened on the statement that "I have not even been invited by UNCA, the United Nations Correspondents Association in New York.  I hope that this fact, on the record, should be recorded from Geneva so that our people in New York know about this."

            People in New York asked what this meant:

Inner City Press: There was this, I am sorry if I missed this, there was this speech by Mr. Ban in Geneva, in which he said that they were the first Correspondents' Association...

Correspondent [UNCA President]:  I have to raise the issue officially.  The Secretary-General met with the Association of Correspondents last week in Geneva, and he told them that we here, [the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA)], have never invited him out.  So I wonder... and we have an official transcript of his remarks.  My colleagues were shocked by the remarks, to say it mildly.  I want to ask you, what was the reason for him to say that and why did he say that, in Geneva, while we had meetings with him here, in New York, at our invitation.  And I am pretty sure that he enjoyed the meetings, also.

Correspondent [UNCA Past President]:  And also, just to add, we did invite him to the annual UNCA dinner.  He was seated with the [inaudible].  So all proper courtesies were extended to him by UNCA.

Spokesperson:  Well, thank you to all three of you.  I am sorry these remarks created a misunderstanding, which I want to lift immediately.  It was meant in a light-hearted way by the Secretary-General.  It was referring to the irritation expressed by some members of the Geneva press corps that he was not able to travel to our second headquarters at the Palais des Nations until last week.  The comments were meant in jest, and not intended to be taken seriously.  I can assure you, that the Secretary-General is most appreciative of his meetings with UNCA, particularly the two gracious invitations extended by you to him early in his tenure and, most recently, for his 100 days in office.  He has told me how highly he values these informal exchanges and the exchanges he had with the correspondents' association.  And the work you do, covering the UN, is to him essential...

Inner City Press: In his talk there, he said that Geneva was the largest UN city in the world and that there were more international organizations and more diplomatic staff.  It may be the real UN headquarters.  I am wondering, I donít know if that was a joke as well, but if anyone could get the numbers, to know what the basis of this is.  And also, I don't know if you will answer this, but who is writing his speeches now, like what is the process of that?

Spokesperson:  I don't know if that was a speech. [See below.] He just improvised that.  He was answering questions after a lunch.  It was not a speech in any way.

Inner City Press: Got you.  Can we get those numbers?

Spokesperson: Sure, sure, you can have those numbers on how many agencies there are in Geneva, how many people work there, that you can have.  No problem there.

Sunny Correspondent:  Just for the record, some in New York have advocated moving the UN out of New York, butÖ just for the record.

Correspondent [AP]:  I would just like to make a suggestion that, since the transcript does appear on the UN website, that perhaps there could be a note attached saying that this was said in jest.

Spokesperson:  Well, it is not right now on the website.  It has been sent to you, but it is not on the website.

Correspondent [UNCA President]:  Some diplomatic missions saw the transcript.  I got a reaction from some missions also.

Spokesperson:  Okay.

Inner City Press:  Maybe there should be a section on the website for humorous speeches.

            This hasn't yet happened. As some correspondents remarked later on Tuesday, at first Mr. Ban's jokes were accorded laughter. His "Ban Ki-moon is coming to town" song at the UNCA Ball in December (click here to view), his referrals to himself as the Slippery Eel, a more recent statement -- to UNCA in New York, as it happens -- that "you all must be disappointed in me."  Some wondered: was he joking?

            And that may be the point. The UN Secretary General doesn't intrinsically have much power. It is a bully pulpit, or place from which to play diplomat. In that game, if you're going to joke, make sure it's funny, or at least, make sure people who read it will know it was intended as a joke.

            As documentation of Mr. Ban's statement that "Geneva is the largest UN city in the world, even larger than the United Nations Headquarters in New York," a spokesperson later on Tuesday gave Inner City Press a one-page print-out from the UN's Geneva web site, with a sentence highlighted that "with more than 1,600 staff, it is the biggest duty stations [sic] outside of the United Nations headquarters in New York." Inner City Press is informed that during his meeting with the Geneva UN staff union, Mr. Ban said he had "saved the best for last." And what to say in at the UN's hub in Nairobi?

            In answer to which speechwriter is traveling with Mr. Ban, contrary to the UN's written transcript quoted above, the spokesperson began "I don't know who wrote that" -- click here for video, at precisely Minute 10:25.

            On the question of Mr. Ban's speechwriters, it emerges that Edward Mortimer is gone, and that Richard Amdur is leaving. Coming in, Inner City Press is told, is Mike Meyer -- not from Wayne's World or the bullpen, but from Newsweek. If this Mike Meyer is taking the speechwriters job that was one of the 12 much-hyped mobility posts, that would be one that should be announced.

In Geneva, Mr. Ban, the Swiss president, Mrs. Ban, the Swiss Ambassador to the UN in New York, Peter Maurer

            Two of the few other questions at Tuesday's noon briefing went as follows:

Inner City Press: There was a report on National Public Radio here yesterday about reports of forced abortions in China... Is anyone in the UN system aware of this, looking at this, has the UNFPA said anything, are you aware of this?

Spokesperson:  Of course the UNFPA has been following these issues for a very long time.  You can find a number of...

Inner City Press:  This was a specific report of last week about women being forced to go to clinics and forcibly aborted...

Spokesperson:  No, I donít have a specific remark on that specific news report.

Inner City Press: There is a case now that the Supreme Court is considering whether New York City can collect real estate taxes from portions of diplomatic missions that are used as residences.  It is the Permanent Mission of India vs. New York.  And Mongolia as well, but the name of the case is India.  I know that the US State Department is siding with the Permanent Mission of India in this case.  Does the UN have any position on the case?  Does it feel that all of these premises should be tax exempt.

Spokesperson: We don't have a position on this at this point.  As you know, there is a committee about the relationship with the Host Country in the General Assembly, and they are handling this type of situation.

            On the court case, Cyprus is chairing the Host Country Committee, and its mission has said that a statement should issue tomorrow. On forced abortions in China, Inner City Press called UNFPA's previously-elusive spokesman Abubakar Dungus, and received this in return:

Subject: COERCIVE ABORTIONS

From: [Spokesperson at] unfpa.org

To: Matthew Russell Lee

Sent: Tue, 24 Apr 2007 4:54 PM

Dear Mr. Lee, Thank you for your call.  Please find below a response, as requested. You may attribute it to Abubakar Dungus, UNFPA Spokesperson.

"UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, is concerned about reports of coercive abortions in Baise city, China. The Fund has urgently raised this issue with national authorities and sought investigations. "Forced abortions are violations of international human rights standards, including those of the Cairo Population Conference, which state that coercion has no part to play in family planning.

"UNFPA promotes access to reproductive health care, including voluntary family planning, skilled birth attendance, emergency obstetric care and the prevention sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS. The Fund also promotes gender equality and the empowerment of women.

"UNFPA provides no assistance in Baise City. Neither does it support abortion there or anywhere else."

            And there you have it.

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UN's Trip to Balkans Slated To Skirt Demonstrations, Hit Ethnic Enclaves, Work the Vote

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

UNITED NATIONS, April 24 -- As the UN Security Council prepared to begin its trip to Kosovo, Serbia and Brussels, their itinerary was presented to reporters on Tuesday by Belgian Ambassador Johan Verbeke, who is heading up the mission.

   Since it seemed clear that Amb. Verbeke would not and could not answer questions about whether or not Russia would veto a Security Council resolution of independence, Inner City Press asked Amb. Verbeke about reports of planned demonstrations at the Jarine crossing point between Serbia and Kosovo. Video here, from Minute 24:02.

            Amb. Verbeke said he had referred to demonstrations under the rubric of "security dimension," on which he is deferring to UN Under Secretary General for Security, David Veness.  As to which Serb enclave will be visited, Amb. Verbeke said it has yet to be decided, but that at least three types of locations will be included: an "Albanian village with missing persons," a Serb enclave, and a multi-ethnic community. "Comprehensive and balance," Amb. Verbeke called it. The exact locations remain "to be worked out," depending on logistics: whether the visits will be by bus or helicopter.

            And will this visit impact the votes of any Council members? Amb. Verbeke would not and could not say. It is noted that opposition is not limited to Russia. There is the Slovakian legislature, South Africa with its concern about maintaining borders, and now reportedly Indonesia.

Belgian Amb Johan Verbeke

 

            Marti Ahtisaari was in Indonesia on Monday, meeting at the State Palace with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, working for that vote on the Council. But afterwards, state spokesman Dino Pati Djalal told reporters, "We want this problem be settled peacefully, without triggering new conflicts. For us the most important thing is a process that can be received by both Kosovo and Serbia."

 

            Signed up for the trip, for Indonesia, is Mr. Hassan Kleib. For Italy, Marcello Spatofora. For the U.S., new Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who took some few questions from UN reporters on Tuesday. For the UK, Deputy Ambassador Karen Pierce. Beyond the Council, but in the EU, Inner City Press has been told to check into the position on Kosovo of Spain, and Greece as well.

   Inner City Press is also told that UNMIK has brought in those in the UN who specialize is the wind-down and close-down of missions. Is this something that the visiting Council members may check? Developing.

Steamroller or Slippery Eel, Ban Ki-Moon's 100 Days at the Helm, Silence Doesn't Help

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

UNITED NATIONS, April 12 -- "I have many years to go," Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told UN staff on Thursday, apologizing for bureaucratic delays in recruitment and promotion and what he is calling "mobility."

            He could have been directing this "give me time" plea more widely, as anonymous UN insiders quoted ad nauseam in this week's "Ban's First Hundred Days" stories have been saying. The critiques, which Mr. Ban has been closely reading, have focused on the ham-handed introduction of proposals to split the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations in two, and to alter the UN's Division of Disarmament Affairs. After acrimony, the proposals were modified, after Ban mollified UN power players (or steamrollers) whom many say Ban hadn't sufficiently considered, if only to work around, in the first place.

         To belatedly play the Hundred-Day, sources-say game, a just-left Ambassador of a Permanent Five member of the Security Council credited Mr. Ban for acting on what this ex-Ambassador calls the "Cash for Kim scandal," in which the UN Development Program was found in withheld internal audits to be paying the Kim Jong Il regime in hard currency. Ban's reaction, on January 19, was to call for an "urgent audit" -- initially worldwide, then scaled back to only North Korea. Still, it was said the "urgent audit" would be completed in 90 days. In a stakeout interview Thursday morning, Inner City Press asked Mr. Ban, video here, from Minute 13:12 --

Inner City Press: The urgent audit that you called for of UNDP in North Korea, that was supposed to be done in 90 days, we are almost at that time and they still haven't finished the terms of reference.  So I am wondering is the time for the audit to be completed going to be extended, and also if the auditors are not allowed enter the DPRK, what will the UN system do in terms of concluding the audit?

Ban Ki-moon: It is still under investigation.  I do not have anything to tell you at this time.  Whenever I have further information I will let you know.

            The background to this (non-) answer is not only that Mr. Ban was called Slippery Eel by the South Korean press, but also that Mr. Ban has previously been asked to let the UN Board of Auditors speak to the press about their work, which still hasn't happened. Likewise, Mr. Ban previously said he would instruct his heads of funds and programs like UNDP's Kemal Dervis to be available to the media.

   But Mr. Dervis has not held a single press conference since the Cash for Kim scandal broke. In fact, Mr. Ban's deputy secretary general, Asha Rose Migiro, has yet to hold a press conference, having so far publicly taken a total of four questions from the media, including one from Inner City Press about UNDP. Thursday a "senior UN official," who spoke only on that basis, said that Ms. Migiro will head up Ban's next structural hot potato, "System-Wide Coherence." Ms. Migiro will meet Friday on the topic with General Assembly president Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa. Good time to take questions? We'll see.

Ban Ki-moon responding to if not answering questions, on April 12

            This being a Hundred-Day, Sources-Say story, the focus is on management style and on telling details. Beyond the bungling announcement of the DPKO split, Assistant Secretary General for Peacekeeping Hedi Annabi only learned that he is being let go by watching on in-house TV the noon press briefing of February 9, at which chief of staff Vijay Nambiar read out a (hit) list.

   Inner City Press is informed -- not by Mr. Sach, who now only intermittently replies to emails -- that UN Controller Warren Sach has yet to know "will I stay or will I go," even as his contract expires this month. The LA Times' 100 Day story, sharper than most, described an incident most UN correspondents had heard, of Ban Ki-moon rebuking outgoing disarmament chief Nobuaki Tanaka in such a way that "talk that Ban would not brook dissent ricocheted all the way to U.N. outposts in Geneva and Vienna."

            How openly under Ban UN whistleblowers can be retaliated against is a question that still hasn't been answered. Recently a UNDP staffer, close to the Cash for Kim matter, was accused of leaking information and was told, "You're fired and by the way, you have to leave the country." UN staff who are not U.S. citizens can be silenced with the threat of loss of not only their UN jobs, but their ability to stay in the U.S.. This could be fixed, by Ban or the host country. But will it be fixed?

            UN staff have other questions, including whether the outsourcing of $9 billion from their Pension Fund, pushed forward by Kofi Annan's USG for Management Chris Burnham, will go forward. At Thursday's town hall meeting, Mr. Ban said he still hasn't decided. Last month, Mr. Ban passed the hat of being his Pension Fund representative from Warren Sach to USG for Management Alicia Barcena back to Mr. Sach. Ms. Barcena, among the most approachable of Team Ban, has told Inner City Press that the switch did not indicate any change in policy about privatization. But then why switch?

            In the town hall meeting, Ban emphasized the idea of job mobility within the UN system, saying that Ms. Barcena and ASG for Human Resources Jan Beagle would develop the idea. The Staff Union has called on Mr. Ban to remove Ms. Beagle from that position, something on which there's as yet no response.)  Nor has there been any announcement of the winners of the dozen "mobility posts," including a speechwriter's gig, that he announced months ago. Some staff say those jobs were already handed out. How the winners are announced will be another test.

            Ban has reacted to other Hundred-Days stories by congratulating reporters, even those perceived as critical. There is at the UN something of a symbiosis: the beat reporters see their stars (and airtime or column inches) rise to the degree that the UN is important and its Secretary-General articulate and of interest. Recently, some question at Mr. Ban's press encounters are pre-screened, or at least pre-posed. Perhaps, one wag wondered, this is how it's done in South Korea.

            In fact, the back story to Mr. Ban's press availability on Thursday was his granting of face time to the South Korean media on Tuesday. When it was raised, a stakeout was arranged. It's been reported that during his recent trip through the Middle East, Mr. Ban dined each night with the South Korean ambassador to the country he was in. Some say that's fine, he knows these people. Others wonder at entanglements and influence.

            In the Cash for Kim audit, an irony's arisen. Some of the funding that is subject to the audit flowed from South to North Korea while Mr. Ban was Foreign Minister of South Korea. Inner City Press has asked the Office of the Spokesman for the Secretary General, how much? The spokesperson to whom such questions are assigned has referred Inner City Press first to the South Korean mission to the UN (which refused to answer or even respond), then to the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (where the spokesperson used to work, with Mr. Ban).

            "You can go beg the South Korean government," Inner City Press was told. Click here for that story. Well, no. The story will be told -- like Mr. Ban said, there are "many years to go."

            For now, we'll close with a seemingly apples-and-oranges comparison of the first 100 days, in the same state, of Ban Ki-moon and New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who has asked the press to call him a steamroller.

Steamroller Versus Slippery Eel: Tale of the Tape After 100 Days

            Ban Ki-moon took office promising to clean up the UN and its reputation, among other things. Eliot Spitzer said the same, and zeroed in on earmarks in the state budget, and lobbyist disclosure. While Ban Ki-moon made public his own financial disclosure form, none of the senior officials he has named has followed suit. Some argue that this must await action by the UN General Assembly. But Mr. Ban could have conditioned the granting of posts on the grantee making disclosure.

            One similarity is the need to back down. Spitzer had to back down on the budget, and was roughed up by the union of health care employees. Ban had to change, for example, his Disarmament program, had to go down himself -- not only sending chief of staff Vijay Nambiar -- to mollify the G77, as he will now have to do on System-Wide Coherence. Some say that the remaining ASG posts will be Ban's carrots to get needed support.

            Spitzer has quipped, "if we solved every problem in 100 days, there would be nothing left for us to do over the next three years and nine months." Mr. Ban might say the same -- perhaps he meant to -- except that it's FOUR year and nine months. Or maybe NINE years and nine months. Time alone will tell.

At the UN, Mayor Bloomberg Talks Global Warming While Fire Department Inspection Is Discussed

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

UNITED NATIONS, April 11 -- As the UN moves toward fixing its headquarters building, while New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg announces a rare municipal climate change plan, Ban Ki-moon and Bloomberg met Wednesday surrounded by issues, surrounded by aides. UN spokeswoman Marie Okabe after the meeting said that among the topics covered were how the UN's fix-up, called the Capital Master Plan, could harmonize with the City's goal of reducing carbon emissions. Inner City Press asked about the attendance of NYC Fire Department officials.

            "There was a Fire Department inspection" of UN Headquarters, Ms. Okabe said, specifying that the inspection took place in late 2006. Now, she said, UN Under Secretary General for Management Alicia Barcena will be following up with the Fire Commissioner. Because the UN's campus is international territory, longstanding issues of immunity have more recently flared into tabloid Press stories earlier this year about rats and eels in the UN and no NYC inspections.

            Ms. Barcena has told Inner City Press not to expect the Capital Master Plan to be changed from the current version, involving the construction of a temporary "swing space" on the UN's North Lawn, to larger plan for a new tower south of 42nd Street. Marie Okabe repeated this on-camera on Wednesday, click here for video.

Messrs. Bloomberg and Ban on April 11: can carbon emissions be reduced?

            Mayor Bloomberg's public schedule for Wednesday, distributed to City Hall reporters at 7 on Tuesday night, included stops at Public School 61 in Queens and at Columbia University, with no mention of the United Nations. Inner City Press and others asked the UN press office if Mayor Bloomberg would stop and answer a few questions. The response was, "Ask City Hall."

            Wednesday afternoon, after having escorted take-no-questions Mayor Bloomberg to his waiting SUV, Ms. Barcena mentioned the Bloomberg-convened climate change summit announced earlier in the day. It is slated for May 14-17 and according to City Hall's press release will involved "mayors from more than 30 of the world's largest cities, including London, Paris, Tokyo, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Moscow and Istanbul.  Private sector companies will also be represented through sponsorship of sessions and events, and having CEOs in attendance.  These companies include: JP Morgan Chase & Co., Alcoa, Deutsche Bank, the Hearst Corporation, the Shell Oil Company, Siemens, Time Warner, BSKYB, Citigroup, Con Edison, Federated Department Stores, General Electric, Keyspan, KPMG LLP, Swiss Re, and Tishman Speyer." 

            This litany is not unlike the UN's Global Compact, in which large companies sign on to high-minded principles without necessarily changing their practices. Musing reporters asked Ms. Barcena what another item on the agenda, the City's help with Peacekeeping, could possibly have met. Marie Okabe had referenced New York's "diverse" police force. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has been involved in security in Haiti, and Bernard Kerik in other places, including for profit. It seems those topics did not come up, nor the UN's allowance of smoking in Mayor Bloomberg's smokeless city.

            One wonders if the UN will have a role in Mayor Bloomberg's climate summit, given Ban Ki-moon's on-again, off-again position on holding his own global warming summit. In this case, the warming appears to be more local and concrete, and to involve the fall-out from the Fire Department inspection. Developing...

Among the UN correspondents waiting in the lobby, to try to ask Mayor Bloomberg questions, a story emerged of a more recent rodent sighting in the Delegates' Dining Room, reportedly photographed by a visiting Brazilian judge. The same was heard later from diplomatic sources, which in the UN makes the story true, or as good as true. We will have more on this.

Other Inner City Press reports are available in the ProQuest service and some are archived on www.InnerCityPress.com --

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