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Human Rights Brought Low in UN Basement, North Korea Fight Back, Crack Down on the Press

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

UNITED NATIONS, October 28, updated Oct. 29 -- Human rights were confined to the UN basement on Tuesday, as representatives of Belarus, Sri Lanka and North Korea lashed out at what they called the hypocrisy of their Western critics, notably France, which spoke for the European Union.  The representative of Myanmar, who walked out during France's presentation, didn't even assert its right of reply at day's end. One wag asked, why should they? They have an accommodating human rights rapporteur functionally protecting them, in the form of Tomas Ojea Quintana, to whom the rapporteur on torture, for example, says he defers.

   Tuesday afternoon, Inner City Press was told by a number of countries' representatives to the UN's Third Committee to expect fireworks at the session's end at six o'clock.  Running to the basement at 5:40, Inner City Press entered Conference Room 1 and took up a position against the wall at the back of the room as Belarus bragged about the transparency of its elections and the freedom it allows to the media. Suddenly Inner City Press was told, "You can't be in here," then was instructed to go and speak with the Secretary of the Third Committee, Moncef Khane, up at the front of the room. He's the one who told us to order you out, Inner City Press was told.

   Quick research finds that Mr. Khane, a native of Algeria, is one of two Senior Political Affairs Officers in the Economic and Social Council Affairs Branch of the UN's Department for General Assembly and Conference Management, DGACM. The Third Committee has hardly been receiving any media coverage, so one can wonder why Mr. Khane would be so quick to order other UN staff to tell a reporter to move, as soon as he entered the room to cover the meeting. 

UN Human Rights Council, press restrictions not shown

   After a briefing exchange, Inner City Press repaired to the raised "cheap seats" of the conference room, where for example there are no electrical outlets into which to plug a laptop.

   Down on the floor, the representative of Sri Lanka was denouncing France's accusation of the use of child soldiers in the country. No mention was made of Sri Lanka being ousted from the Human Rights Council in the last election, despite its swank reception just prior to the vote, at which for example Sudan's Ambassador ate French croissants and looked out over the East River into Queens.

  Next up was North Korea, whose representative said that for fifty years, North Koreans have been "enjoying" a political system that will not change anytime soon. Sitting near the front of the room, he said the Western countries are killing civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan and are engaged in human trafficking and police brutality at home. While there's truth to this, North Korea's punishments of those who try to leave hit a new low in terms of human rights. As low as in the UN's basement. 

Update of October 29, 2:10 p.m. -- We have received a letter to the editor from Mr. Moncef Khane, which we publish below in its entirety, noting against that within two minutes of entering the open meeting, two staffers who said they had already been telephoned by Mr. Khane told Inner City Press "you can't be in here." They then told Inner City Press to go up and hear it from Mr. Khane, which would have been the time for any explanation. The public gallery, in fact, was not open; the doors from the first floor are rarely unlocked. And copies of the speeches and documents are only available on the floor of the meeting room; reporters are allowed access to these copies, so why a committee secretary would try to have a journalist moved off the floor within two minutes of entry is hard to comprehend. In sum, Mr. Khane's reasoning in asking other staff to approach and move out a reporter within minutes of entry is not understood; we have noted before the need for a press conference with questions and answers by the head of DGACM. Here now the letter, in its entirety:

Subj: Letter to the Editor 
From: khane [at]
To: Inner City Press
Date: 10/29/2008 2:03:30 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time

Dear Sir/Madam,

Please find attached a Letter to the Editor in response to Mr. Russell Lee's piece “Human Rights Brought Low in UN Basement, North Korea Fight Back, Crack Down on the Press” dated 28 October 2008. Its publication would be much appreciated.

Thank you and best regards,

Moncef Khane

Letter to the Editor:

Matthew Russell Lee's piece entitled “Human Rights Brought Low in UN Basement, North Korea Fight Back, Crack Down on the Press” dated 28 October 2008 contains two misleading assertions. Firstly, the Third Committee of the General Assembly which takes up human rights related agenda-items meets, just like any other Main Committees of the Assembly in conference rooms located one floor below the General Assembly Hall and the Security Chamber. Human rights matters are hardly relegated to the ‘basement’ of the UN as the piece suggests. In fact, the venue of the Third Committee is a large conference room with 40-ft high windows overlooking Manhattan's East River. The article also erroneously asserts a 'crack down on the press.' As any UN correspondent would -- should -- know, journalists are not authorized as a matter of course on the floor of meetings rooms of United Nations intergovernmental bodies. Whenever an organ of the UN holds an 'open' meeting, such meetings are open to the public and media representatives may observe the proceedings from the 'public gallery.' This is where your correspondent was requested to take a seat if he wanted to remain in the conference room.  Had he taken the time to contact me after the meeting, I would have been pleased to explain this long-standing policy and answer any other ancillary questions.

  We note again the need for a press conference with questions and answers by the head of DGACM.

  Watch this site, and this Oct. 2 debate, on UN, bailout, MDGs

and this October 17 debate, on Security Council and Obama and the UN.

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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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