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UN's Annan Concerned About Use of Terror's T-Word to Repress, Wants Freedom of Information

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee at the U.N.

UNITED NATIONS, June 15 -- The UN's Kofi Annan, with six months left in his term, answered twenty media questions on Thursday. Most dealt with the issues of UN reform, and the triple B's of Bolton, budget and Mark Malloch Brown. As question 19 out of 20, from Minute 51:15 through 55:50, Inner City Press asked about the Secretary-General's recent praise of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's members' initiatives against separatism, in light for example of Uzbekistan's imprisonment and torture of opponents. The full Q & A is below.

Uzbek refugees Mr. Annan

   Mr. Annan responded that he has been speaking with the High Commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, about Uzbekistan and both the bulk of those fleeing and specifically the four Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan; he used the terms of art enforced refoulement, "particularly if they may be at risk if they are sent back against their will." The Secretary-General said he has in the past spoken with the President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov; perhaps that is needed again. Mr. Annan said he's increasingly concerned with the "excesses" he's seen in the fight against terrorism. "It's been too easy for some governments to put the T word on someone and then move against them and expect that nobody asks questions," he said, an apt description of China's use of the "E.T." word, East Turkestan, as well as the usual lack of questions about Xinjiang and places like it at the UN.

            On Inner City Press's second question, which Mr. Annan called the third, whether he support and will implement a Freedom of Information Act during his final six months, Mr. Annan asked for clarification, which was given by reference to the UN Staff Union's report on internal justice and even the calls for transparency from US Ambassador Bolton.  "Yes," the Secretary-General said, "I think we should be more forthcoming." 

   He mentioned that some documents would have to be withheld, concerning confidential communications with heads of state.  That should be no obstacle or excuse: all FOI laws have exemptions, for pre-decisional and other information, within an overarching presumption of a fight to information, such as that contained, too vaguely, in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

            Minutes later, Inner City Press asked Ambassador Bolton if he might work with Kofi Annan on a Freedom of Information mechanism. The response was not yes, but neither was it no. Amb. Bolton referenced his meeting Wednesday with the Staff Council, and said he'd follow up.

            In more marginal news, just before the Kofi Annan briefing, journalists were cleared from Room 226 so that a bomb-sniffing dog could go through.  Later by the 46th Street entrance, the dog and his handler were interviewed. The former's name is Storm.  Meanwhile Sandy Berger floated off the UN grounds with a big name tag on, and no documents in sight. In the basement, the plasma TV sign for a meeting of the Friends of the International Criminal Court said, "Closed meeting." Some friends...
Later at the Security Council stakeout, the Palestinian Permanent Observed answered Inner City Press' request for an update on whether a funding mechanism for the Palestinian Authority, previously discussed at the UN, has been found.  No, was the answered, talks remain ongoing in Brussels.

            Pakistan's UN envoy Munir Akram played diplomat upstairs before the UN Correspondent's Association. When Pakistan come forward with its candidate for Secretary-General, now that India has? It is complicated, he said, while stating that no country with eyes on a (permanent) Security Council seat should also field a candidate for Secretary General. Inner City Press asked Ambassador Akram about Baluchistan, the few English language articles regarding which invariably use the adjective restive, as well as about mass evictions of the poor in Karachi

  On the former, Amb. Akram spoke dismissively of "three Sardars" who used to work with the government, but who then wanted more money. Amb. Akram said that their Baluchistan Liberation Army has funding and arms from "outside sources." When Inner City Press pointedly asked if that means India, Amb. Akram declined to answer. The evictions, he said, probably relate to attempts to give the poor more rather than fewer property rights -- a position not shared by close observers.

   Finally, Inner City Press asked Amb. Akram if Pakistan would consider as its S-G candidate the human rights lawyer, previously UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Asma Jahangir. "I suppose not," Amb. Akram answered dryly. Later over a Pakistani lunch he spoke of Somalia, calling it "Taliban Two." Given the links between Pakistan's ISI and Taliban One, the irony was as pungent as the spinach, yoghurt and rice. Let the Games continue.

June 15, 2006 Question and Answer

Inner City Press question: This is a question about Asia and human rights. The media in China and Central Asia reported your remark earlier this week that you praised the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in its meeting for its work against terrorism, extremism and separatism. And it said that you praised this, as I am sure you know, UNHCR has criticized Uzbekistan for requiring that people be deported and locking them up. China has cracked down on its Uighur minority. So I wonder if you have any guidance for the balance between human rights and fighting terrorism and, totally separately, whether you would consider supporting a freedom of information act at the United Nations in the six months that remain to you, maybe even imposing it in the Secretariat, as an experiment? Those are two different questions.

      The Secretary-General: May I ask for clarification on your third question? What do you mean by ďfreedom of information act at the UNĒ?

      Inner City Press clarification: Okay, Iím sorry. The Staff Union report that just came out suggested that documents be made available not just on a whim, but as a right, to the media or to the public, as many Member States have such a law. I think Mr. Bolton has said, and a variety of people have said Ė and I think you even said in your reform proposal that you would favour something like that. So I just wanted to hear whether you would actually implement it.

      The Secretary-General: I think, on the question of effective action against terrorism and civil liberties and human rights, my position is very clear: that there can really be no tradeoff between effective action against terrorism and civil liberties and human rights of the individual, and that if we undermine human rights, if we undermine the rule of law in our fight against terrorism, then we are giving the terrorists a victory they could never have won alone. And this is why Iíve been quite concerned about some of the excesses Iíve seen around the world when it comes to the fight against terrorism. Itís been very easy for many Governments to just put the T-word on someone and then move against them, and expect that nobody asks questions. So we have to be very, very careful not to undermine the basic rule of law in the fight against terrorism.

      As to my message to the others, I think it was a gathering that was going to talk about security and the fight against terrorism, and it was to encourage them in that direction. Iím very much aware of the High Commissionerís difficulties with the Government you mentioned. Iíve had the opportunity to speak to the President myself at the time when the bulk of them were allowed to leave. And we are working on the four, and in fact the High Commissioner, Mr. Guterres, spoke to me about it, that we should make sure that thereís no enforced refoulement, particularly when they may be at risk if they are sent back against their will. And not only that: he has made arrangements with other Government that are willing to accept these four. So, itís not that they will be stateless; we have homes for them. So we are asking the Government to hand them over to the High Commissioner for Refugees; and Mr. Guterres has worked very hard and has homes for them, and I urge the Government to let them go.

      On your freedom of information act Ė or, freedom of information in the sense of making information available Ė I think, as an Organization, we are pretty open. In fact, sometimes I say this is one of those buildings, [if] you have two copies, consider it published. And itís all over. But I think we should be more forthcoming. We should release as much information as we can. Of course, there are certain informations that you cannot release, because it does cause problems. Sometimes, some of you have asked

me what is the nature of your conversations with this President or that Prime Minister or others, and Iíve had lots of confidential discussions and others that I cannot release till much later. And so, we do have rules where certain things are embargoed for a certain period. But beyond that, we should be open and forthcoming. [Q19 of 20 in www.un.org/apps/sg/offthecuff.asp?nid=887]

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