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UNICEF's Work Includes Giving Voice to Children, Staying Silent in Sri Lanka

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

UNITED NATIONS, December 13, updated -- Who does not believe that the children are the future? This week UNICEF has hosted 90 children from over 50 countries, in connection with a debate in the General Assembly at which two children spoke. After Thursday conclusion, Inner City Press asked a few questions of perhaps the most compelling spokesperson UNICEF has yet produced, 15-year old Millicent Orondo from Kenya. She said her message for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the rest of the UN was to help the children raise their voices, to create a better world. She told the story of one another youth-visitor to New York, a former child-labor victim from Cambodia. Since UNICEF had earlier in the week said that climate change is one of the two top issues to youth, Inner City Press asked Ms. Orondo if it had come up in her meeting at UNICEF. Not in front of her, she said, adding that she is in a different committee, one concerning education. Long after her interview was aired on UN Television, click here to stream, viewers in the UN marveled at her composure. Yes, as the song has it, the children are the future.

            Inner City Press asked Ms. Orondo if she had recorded her story for the future, using one of the One Laptop Per Child machines in use in UNICEF's lobby this week. Inner City Press has asked UNESCO what the UN system thinks of the One Laptop Per Child initiative; UNESCO declined to comment. on December 11, UNICEF director Ann M. Veneman praised the low-cost laptops, and described their use by the youth delegation camped out in UNICEF House. Inner City Press went to check it out, and found teenagers in a glassed-in room recording their stories into the white-and-green laptops.

            But how many of the stories really had to do with global warming? Wednesday in a press conference and report, UNICEF tried to link nearly all of their work to the current buzzword, climate change. Suddenly all sanitation projects are climate change-related, because water availability is impacted by heat. Inner City Press asked if there is or has been any particular UNICEF budget for climate change. It permeates our work, was the answer.

UNICEF's Hilde Johnson, effusive on climate change, less so on Sri Lanka

  In fact, the concept of climate change was not in previous UNICEF budgets. Many see the new re-branding is sheer opportunism, as something beneath UNICEF's previous sticking to its mission. And a question about Sri Lankan controversies, previously asked of UNICEF and at a UN noon brefing and re-posed Wednesday directly to UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Hilde Frafjord Johnson, was answered late Thursday, thusly:

"Regarding questions raised in Sri Lanka about UNICEF's purchase of 'Meals Ready to Eat' (MREs), UNICEF has explained to the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the food ration packs were purchased by tender on behalf of 12 UN agencies operating in Sri Lanka. Under UN emergency preparedness procedures, UN field offices are advised to hold such emergency rations, to be used to feed UN staff in the event of an emergency. UNICEF purchased sufficient MREs to feed staff for three days.

"Regarding the question raised in Sri Lanka about bulletproof vehicles, the UNICEF Country representative has informed the Ministry that UNICEF only purchased bulletproofing for one vehicle, which UNICEF operates in Batticaloa. The use of this vehicle is to ensure the protection of staff from explosions."

            While the belated answer was appreciated -- UNICEF also sent an update that the referenced vehicle "is 'blast proof' not 'bullet proof,' that means it is reinforced against explosions -- it has nevertheless become more clear that staff are unsure of their full protection by UNICEF management, including for having participated in a memorial for humanitarian workers killed in Sri Lanka. The government attacked the UNICEF staff for their attendance, and so far there has been little public response. Yes, sometimes silence is the better part of valor. But when the UN is under attack, failure to defend staff is less defensible.

* * *

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