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UN's "If Asked" List Changes For Lebanon, BNP Rally, Ruperez' Reputed Quitting as Anti-Terror Chief

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

UNITED NATIONS, May 4 -- As the week ended at UN headquarters, there was a buzz on more than one floor about the usually-obscure Counter-Terrorism Secretariat. By Friday's end, the word sent out that the unit's executive director Javier Ruperez Rubio had resigned, reportedly under pressure from the UK and U.S. for being too soft on terror. It's ironic, because Mr. Ruperez was a hostage of the ETA, albeit in the late 1970s. Apparently some feels he now suffers, if only belatedly, from the Stockholm syndrome...

            While sometimes stories break in the afternoon, after the UN's daily news briefing, at other times the UN tries to avoid their breaking, at least for a day, or to change the message on the following day. Case in point is a "clarification" made at the May 3 noon briefing:

"in response to some press queries about a meeting that the Secretary-General held on Lebanon two days ago. The Secretary-General and Ambassador Mohamed Chatah, Senior Adviser to the Lebanese Prime Minister, discussed the proposed establishment of a tribunal of an international character for Lebanon. Contrary to some reports, at no time did Ambassador Chatah ask if he could attend a meeting of the Security Council.  Accordingly, there was no rejection of such a request."

            But informed sources tell Inner City Press that the previous day, the Spokesperson's Office had an "If Asked" documents -- meaning, a statement to be read out only if the question was asked -- that acknowledged that Mr. Chatah did ask to attend the Security Council meeting, which was not then allowed. Angry at a report of this snub, sources say, the Lebanese mission's Caroline Ziade told the UN to issue a (false) denial of the report. We'll have more to say about these "If Asked" documents.

Mr. Ruperez applies neck brace in Texas, 2002

            Outside the building in the real world, west of First Avenue if only by a few feet, several dozen Bangladeshis protested Friday afternoon, calling on Ban Ki-moon to among other things stop accepting UN peacekeepers from their country, until democracy is restored. A letter the Bangladesh Nationalist Party delivered, or tried to deliver, to Ban Ki-moon accused the military of killing 100 people in custody since the beginning of the year, and of "trying constantly to blackmail former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia."

    Inner City Press interviewed the letter's signer, the International Coordinator of the BNP, Abdul Latif Shamrat, as he ate a tinfoil plate full of rice and boiled eggs, and as he called on the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations to stop paying what he called a military dictatorship. But Ban Ki-moon had decided to keep using and rotating UN peacekeepers from post-coup Fiji. Will he act differently in Bangladesh? He'll be back soon and should be (if) asked...

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Online and other Journalists Under Attack by Governments and even the UN, on Press Freedom Day

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

UNITED NATIONS, May 2 -- One third of the reporters currently imprisoned by governments worldwide are online journalists, according to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists. In a briefing to the UN press corps on Wednesday, CPJ deputy director Robert Mohoney said his organization is calling high-tech companies to task, specifically in light of Yahoo's decision to give the Chinese government email records of a subsequently-arrested cyber-dissident.

            Since CPJ was speaking at the UN, Inner City Press asked Mr. Mahoney if the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, which has for years had a 20,000 person presence in the press-benighted Democratic Republic of the Congo, could be doing more to promote the principles of press freedom. Inner City Press asked, What should the UN system be doing? Video here, from Minute 17:40.

            "The UN should abide by its own principles," CPJ's Maloney said, praising the press releases and expressions of concern issued by UN affiliate UNESCO. Inner City Press pointed out that, for example, UNESCO might criticize Uzbekistan for blocking access to news sites, but the UN Development Program is working with that country's Karimov government on an "open source software" program that does not address -- and, some surmise, allow for -- the censorship.

            Mr. Mahoney did not directly answer this question. Rather he pointed out that he had met on Friday with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who "expressed support for the work we do and solidarity with journalists in conflict zones." Mr. Mahoney advised Inner City Press to "ask his spokesperson's department." Perhaps on Thursday, which is World Press Freedom Day and on which a rally will be held across from UN Headquarters for the BBC's Alan Johnston, kidnapped since March 12, some new press release is slated for issuance. Mr. Ban is in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt, a country which has recently for the first time imprisoned a blogger, according to Joel Campagna, CPJ's Middle East and North Africa coordinator.

            In the openly nationalistic UN press corps, Mr. Campagna was called on to justify the inclusion in the list of Morocco in CPJ's list of press freedom backsliders. Video here, from minute 27:08. Mr. Campagna rattled off the names of three imprisoned Moroccan journalists. The Moroccan correspondent challenged him, "Only three?"

Last year at the UN: plus ca change

            Mr. Mahoney emphasized that the list excludes the war zones of Iraq and Somalia, and is based on seven categories: "government censorship, judicial harassment, criminal libel prosecutions, journalist deaths, physical attacks on the press, journalist imprisonments, and threats against the press."  This gave rise to questions about the more subtle repression "in the West," with reference to media conglomerates firing outspoken commentators. Mr. Mahoney noted that CPJ closely followed the case in San Francisco of the video blog imprisoned for months for refusing to give the police the footage he shot of a protest march.

            It is worth noting that the UN has engagements with three of the four worst press freedom backsliders, according to CJP: The Gambia (where UNDP acceded to the throwing out of its representative by President Jammeh, for questioning his dubious AIDS cure, and sent a more compliant officer in charge), Ethiopia (whose invasion of Somalia the UN has supported) and the DR Congo, the site of the UN's biggest investment in its history. Mr. Mahoney on Wednesday acknowledged that in compiling its report, CPJ did not visit the DRC, much less talk to the UN mission's head, the American William Lacy Swing.  Despite CPJ's seemingly limited focus on the UN, as a venue from which to garner a press release of support from the Secretary General, it seems fair to ask if the UN is doing enough for press freedom. This would include ensuring that employees of the UN and its funds and program are not told not to speak to the press.

            Recent events at UN Headquarters reflect a less than cutting edge approach by the UN bureaucracy to online media. Here's hoping, among other things, that CPJ's presentation and the ongoing work of UNESCO and others help bring UN Headquarters into the ballpark on press freedom, and into the 21st century.

UN Refugee Czar Guterres Praises Sudan and Mozambique, Questions U.S.-Australia Asylum Swap

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

UNITED NATIONS, May 1 -- The UN's High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, on Tuesday praised the policies of Sudan and Mozambique, while expressing reservations about the reported plan to swap asylum-seekers between Australia and the United States. That plan would only pass legal muster if the people switched from central Australia -- or Nauru -- to Guantanamo Bay wanted to make that move. "It depends on the will of the people," Mr. Guterres told Inner City Press in the hallway of the UN.

            Fielding questions from reporter, Mr. Guterres described his recent visit to Eastern Sudan, where over 100,000 Eritrean refugees live in "arid and difficult conditions." Inner City Press asked about reports that several thousand have not be accorded refugee status. Mr. Guterres indicated that Sudan has been generous, and that even those whose claims are rejected receive assistance from the Sudanese government. This is not a message heard in many other places.

Malaria hospital for refugees in east Sudan, per UNHCR

            Mr. Guterres seemed to go out of his way to praise member states. Asked about reports that Mozambique refuses to afford refugee status to those fleeing Zimbabwe, Guterres responded that legal status may not matter, as long as people are not sent back. At the same time, he spoke of the difficulties for those who have fled Iraq, only to find that the type of passport they have had is no longer valid. So legal status does matter.

            Inner City Press asked about North Korean refugees, both those recently hunger-striking in Thailand, and those who arrive in China. Mr. Guterres said that the hunger strike has been resolved, and the "flow" to South Korea restored. Regarding China, Guterres went out of his way to say that he agrees that many who leave North Korea do so "because they are hungry," and for "economic reasons." Nevertheless, he acknowledged, once they leave, they would be persecuted if returned.

    Under North Korea law, it is a crime to leave or attempt to leave the country without permission. Therefore, Mr. Guterres said, the moment China moves to return them to North Korea, they become refugees. It was an interesting answer, but pointedly did not criticize China for its actual policy of refoulement -- sending asylum seekers back to face torture. Mr. Gutteres said, he was a politician for 30 years, but now that he's at UNHCR, he won't answer political questions about who's to blame for the displacement. But what about when it is the UN itself that is supporter the displacer? We'll have more on this.

UN's Holmes "Condemns" Reported Somali TFG Statements, While Withholding Documents

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

UNITED NATIONS, April 24 -- The Somali Transitional Federal Government, which relies for its legitimacy on the UN, yesterday told the UN that aid workers will have "unimpeded access" to serve those people fleeing the TFG's shelling of Mogadishu.

            In New York, Inner City Press asked UN humanitarian chief John Holmes what the UN's response has been to two sample statements, by TFG president Yusuf that civilian neighborhoods can be shelled, and by TFG defense official Salad Ali Jeele, that certain clans and sub-clans in Mogadishu need to be exterminated (click here for that).

            Mr. Holmes responded that "the statements you've quoted, I would condemn them utterly." Video here, from minute 35:13.

            Inner City Press asked about the letter which it obtained and reported on April 20 in which TFG Minister for Interior Mohamed Mohamoud Guled wrote to the UN World Food Program that

"It's TFG decision that there will be no food distribution can take place anywhere in Somalia without being inspected and approved by the government. Hence UN agencies and any other organization that is planning to bring any relief to Somalia should submit the documents for the goods before shipment for checkup."

            This letter from the Transitional Federal Government to the WFP was cc-ed to the Somali National Refugee Commission, through which Inner City Press is told the TFG had been saying all aid must flow. Asked about this on Tuesday, Mr. Holmes said, "I have no information on that particular organization." That might be a problem.

Mr. Ban and Mr. Yusuf

            Prior to Mr. Holmes' briefing, WFP told Inner City Press the following:

Subject: Somalia

From: [WFP Spokesperson]

To: Matthew Russell Lee

Sent: Mon, 23 Apr 2007 6:09 PM

Hi Matthew,  there were talks between the UN and TFG today. Here's a short update, from Peter Goossens, WFP Country director Somalia:

"The talk between the UN and a TFG commission led by the Heath Minister were positive. The TFG will issue a statement on the outcome. We hope that we will from now on be allowed to use any airstrip in Somalia to bring in humanitarian assistance. We also need to see on the ground that we are now allowed to bring that assistance urgently to those most in need, particularly those displaced by the fighting in Mogadishu."

            Tuesday Mr. Holmes said essentially the same thing. However, when asked if any documents could be provided -- the letter from UN Humanitarian Coordinator Eric Laroche, or the above-referenced TFG statement -- Mr. Holmes said only that "I'll look into that, if we can provide you chapter and verse." Ten hours later, no documents had been provided. It's not "chapter and verse" -- it's basic documents about what Mr. Holmes is calling the world's most dangerous for aid workers. Silence doesn't help; silence is consent. Developing...

In Somalia, Understaffed Government Demands to Inspect All UN Aid, At "Anti-Terror" Checkpoints

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

UNITED NATIONS, April 20 -- The UN-supported Transitional Federal Government in Somalia is now hindering the UN's attempts to deliver humanitarian aid. Beyond the shelling of civilian areas, the TFG has blocked UN agencies and the private groups they work with from using air strips, and has demanded to inspect all food and medicine that comes into the country, even though the TFG has nowhere near the manpower for this. This results in a slow-down or stoppage of aid to Somalis.

            In a sample April 9 letter sent to the UN World Food Program, of which Inner City Press has obtained a copy, click here to view, TFG Minister for Interior Mohamed Mohamoud Guled writes that:

"It's TFG decision that there will be no food distribution can take place anywhere in Somalia without being inspected and approved by the government. Hence UN agencies and any other organization that is planning to bring any relief to Somalia should submit the documents for the goods before shipment for checkup."

            Given the resources and focus of the TFG, this threatens to slow or cut off the flow of humanitarian aid to Somalis. Inner City Press is informed that the UN's Eric Laroche, who previously said that the UN should cast its lot with the TFG as the only game in town, has now written to Mr. Guled that the TFG lacks the physical and human capacity to carry out the inspections and that this directive may jeopardize the UN's capacity to deliver assistance. Intimidation, including death threats, that have become routine at TFG militia checkpoints directed at UN and partners particularly from a military group based at the Afgoye junction calling itself the "Anti-Terror Unit."

Somalia today

            The TFG has now denied access to the K50 airstrip and has re-designated  Mogadishu airport as the entry point for Benadir, and Middle and Lower Shabelle.  Also slowing and stopping humanitarian aid, it has proved impossible for the UN to fly a company that will fly to Mogadishu International Airport.

            The TFG has also issued a directive that all implementation and data-gathering be carried out exclusively through the National Refugee Commission (NRC), which will further put into question the independence and impartiality of humanitarian response. That is an issue that Inner City Press raised to Mr. Laroche when he was in New York, click here that story. Mr. Laroche said the time had come to gamble on the TFG, and to judge him if it went wrong. Has that time arrived? And what is the response of belatedly present WFP executive director Josette Sheeran Shiner to the letter from Mohamed Mohamoud Guled hindering food distribution in Somalia?

            UN staffers have said they will meet with the TFG on April 23. The UN Security Council will meet April 24 to discuss Somalia. As the UN's postponed and re-written Rwanda genocide exhibition is slated to go on display, the UN's as well as other parties' roles in what's occurring in Somalia will need to be closely considered. Developing.

As Somali Defense Official Speaks of Extermination, UN and U.S. Dodge War Crimes Questions

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

UNITED NATIONS, April 11 -- As civilian neighborhoods in Somalia are bombed by the Transitional Federal Government, TFG-supporters from the United States to the UN increasingly decline to comment on what's wrought in Mogadishu. Wednesday at UN Headquarters, Inner City Press asked Ban Ki-moon's Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe to confirm over one thousand deaths and to respond to a quote from TFG defense official Salad Ali Jeele about "exterminating" a rival clan. [Video here, from Minute 6:50 through 8:56, and see below.]

            Ms. Okabe declined comment on the extermination threat, and said that "death toll statistics are provided by the local authorities." But what if it is the local authorities who are doing much of the killing?

            Already officials in Europe have expressed concerns about their possible complicity in war crimes in Mogadishu. These concerns must be sharpened by the following remarks by the EU-supported TFG's Salad Ali Jeele:

"We have succeed in winning the political aspect, what remains now is the force implication... Very soon people will flee from this town , but I wonder where they will flee to. Whether it is here to the north side or to Galgaduud. Since people cannot reconcile and come to terms with each other it is best to forcefully expel [them] from the city... We are now in the final stages. You have seen what happened in the last four days' onslaught, without doubt who ever has survived that onslaught will be exterminated in the one to follow soon."

            In terms of the UN system's continuing engagement, only earlier this week, the UN World Food Program issued a press release calling on the TFG to, at least with pirates, become tougher. The UN's humanitarian chief for Somalia, Eric Laroche, was last heard to urge unequivocal support for the TFG. Now the planned reconciliation conference has been delayed for at least a full month. Much can happen in thirty days. Salad Ali Jeele was previously quoted, by a UN-affiliated service, as denying the UN's own experts' report that the TFG was violating the arms embargo then in place.

Somalia '07 -- shades of RTML?

            Tuesday at the UN, Inner City Press got a chance to ask U.S. Ambassador Wolff a question about the weapons in Somalia, video here, from Minute 6:49:

Inner City Press: On this report, that the U.S. allowed Ethiopia to buy weapons from North Korea in January '07, I think your predecessor has said if it's true, this -- you know, he disfavored that, that it would have violated previous sanctions.  Do you have any views on whether that took place?  And if so, why it would not violate the sanctions?

Ambassador Wolff:  Well, I've seen the reports on this.  I don't have any additional information to offer.  We believe that the resolution should be adhered to.  And from my reading of the accounts, it's the responsibility of the Ethiopian government to adhere by that resolution.

            But the underlying reporting indicates that the U.S. was aware of the ship heading to Ethiopia, in violation of the U.S.-sponsored sanctions on North Korea's arms sales, and that the U.S. did nothing.  State Department spokesman Scott McCormack on Monday answered similarly, "I'm not going to have any particular comment on the details of that story." Earlier on Monday, he had said that "my objective here isn't to criticize the Transitional Federal Government." Maybe it should be...

Bombing of Civilians Justified by UN-Supported Somali President, War Crimes Questions Raised

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

UNITED NATIONS, April 9 -- When are war crimes accepted, and who gets to decide?  In Mogadishu last week, hundreds of civilians were killed when Ethiopian troops and the Transitional Federal Government fired into built-up sections of the city. In seeming violation of the laws of war, TFG president Abdullahi Yusuf has said "any place from which a bullet is fired (at us) we will bombard it regardless of whoever is there."

            Monday at UN Headquarters, Inner City Press asked the spokesman for Ban Ki-moon to respond to the quote, and to the bombing by the TFG and others of civilian areas in Mogadishu. The spokesman, Farhan Haq, pointed out that "a number of bodies, including the Security Council, have recognized the TFG."

   In response to Inner City Press' follow-up question, Mr. Haq said that "the UN is against bombing of civilian areas... across the board." What have the UN's Francois Lonseny Fall, or perhaps more pertinently, Political Affairs chief Lynn Pascoe, said on the topic? "I can check," Mr. Haq said. Video here, from Minute 20:53. Also needing update is the UN's humanitarian chief on Somalia Eric Laroche's statement that the TFG is "the only way to go."

            The inquiry takes place in the wake of reporting on a European Union expert's April 2 e-mail warning to Eric van der Linden, the chief EU official for Kenya and Somalia, that:

"there are strong grounds to believe that the Ethiopian government and the transitional federal government of Somalia and the African Union (peacekeeping) Force Commander, possibly also including the African Union Head of Mission and other African Union officials have through commission or omission violated the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court."

            While the UN has yet to send its own blue helmeted peacekeepers to support or replace the African Union force, the UN has supported the TFG even as its compliance with the Transitional Federal Charter has come into question, concerning the exclusion (and now bombing) of certain clans and sub-clans. Even following the EU warning, the UN continues to call on the TFG to take more aggressive action.

            Responding by press release to the freeing of two ships and their crews, UN World Food Program Somalia Country Director Peter Goossens called, blithely some say, for a more aggressive stance by the Transitional Federal Government. On WFP's web site, Mr. Goossens is quoted that "the threat of piracy however is still very much alive in Somali waters and WFP urges the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia and the Puntland authorities to curb this menace."

Somalia: tsunami or TFG?

            Others are making excuses for the intentional bombing of civilians areas. Voice of America found an expert, former US ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn, to say that " I think that in this part of the world war tends to be particularly brutal. And I think its going to be extremely difficult to prove that there were war crimes taking place as such. I think this tends to be more the way things are done." Particularly on the 13th anniversary of the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda, this type of relativism is troubling.

            Compliance with Security Council resolutions, even by their sponsors, has become relative as well.  The U.S., it emerges, allowed Ethiopia to buy weapons and tank parts from North Korea months after the U.S.-sponsored sanctions on North Korea. Asked for Ban Ki-moon's reaction, spokesman Farhan Haq declined to comment, saying that since these are Security Council sanctions, the Council members should be asked. When it was pointed out that Mr. Ban has chosen to comment on compliance with the Security Council resolution barring arms imports into Lebanon, Mr. Haq shrugged. It is apparently a matter of discretion.

            U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer was in Baidoa over the weekend. She met with Abdullayi Yusuf and was quoted by Reuters that "'I think that everybody used excessive force when you hear the number killed,' Frazer said, but blamed insurgents for starting the fight with mortar attacks from populated areas."

 News analysis: the allowance for war crimes and other bending and breaking of laws in Somalia appears based on the equation of the Union of Islamic Court with the Taliban, or more explosively, Al Qaeda. In late December when Ethiopian troops crossed the border and drove on Mogadishu, the Security Council did nothing. When in January the U.S. fired missiles at supposed Al Qaeda hide-outs in southern Somalia, little was said. Now the UN-supposed Transitional Federal Government, through its president, says openly they will fire into civilians areas if the residents don't themselves expel the Courts or insurgents.

   Meanwhile the UN counts and decries those fleeing Mogadishu. The World Food Program, in one of its first communications under new executive director Josette Sheeran Shiner, fresh in from the U.S. State Department, blithely issues a press release calling on the TFG to crack down on pirates, click here to view. What if the pirates move into residential neighborhoods? Bombs away, apparently...

Transcript of TFG President Yusuf Q&A, March 21, 2007, see esp. Q&A 5 and 6

1. Q.  It is been reported that the government instigated the current fighting.

A. The man who made that accusation who claims he is speaking on behalf of a clan and that his house was attacked is well known and he works directly with the Islamic Courts. Since he collaborates with the courts and the courts are the ones who are killing the people and conducting terrorism amongst the people and who are destructive, it does not matter how educated he is, it doesn't matter how famous he is, it does not matter from what clan he is: Society should be protected from that kind of man (arrested/eliminated?) because he will not contribute anything to the community except  trouble and destruction. 

2. Q. But Mr. President he is saying we were a clan that was meeting just like the other clans meet?

A: Son, he is lying! We know the names of the guys he was meeting with at that time. They are one family (sub-clan).   They cannot even speak on behalf of a sub-clan. They are individuals and we know the one he is having the meeting with. The name Hawiye is being used as a cover but it does not exist. I believe you have asked the Prime Minister about this ( i.e. Hawiye) and you know from which clan the Prime Minister comes from (i.e. he is Hawiye).

3.  Q: One can ask, can the president draw people closer to each other now that there is on going fighting everywhere and the people are fleeing, many are wounded so how will they come (to Mogadishu for the peace conference)?

  A: The facts are well known. It is the guys I have named who are causing the instability and we are working to ensure they can never again cause instability (threat?). This city should be secure when the conference (reconciliation conference scheduled for April 16 in Mogadishu) is to be held. That is the transitional government's responsibility.

4. Q: So have you been overpowered? Reports say that it is the government troops and the peacekeepers that are being dragged. Were you overpowered?

A: First of all have you ever fought in a war?

5. Q: Then who is fighting? Isn't it reported that two sides are fighting?

A: First, I have asked you a question. If there is a battle there will be casualties (deaths), It is possible that every now and then one or the other side looses ground, but we have not been defeated, we will not be defeated God willing and we will eliminate these guys.

6. Q: The government is using artillery to shell civilian areas according to reports, therefore why are you using these artillery?

A: Why shouldn't we use it? They are within the civilian areas. The public should make them (rebels) leave the civilian areas. When those guys leave the civilian areas no harm will come to the civilians. We want the civilians to remove them (rebels) telling them to go away from our midst. It is you (rebels) that are causing us all these troubles. It is the rebels who are the cause of all the troubles and not the government because any place from which a bullet is fired (at us) we will bombard it regardless of whoever is there.

7. Q: Even if civilians are there you are going to bombard it?

A: Yes we will bombard it! Because the civilians should not be used as Human shields. The civilians should get out of there and we have warned the civilians. We said there is fighting going on in those neighborhoods get out of there while the fighting is going on because one of the sides will be made to give up. The civilians have that warning.

8. Q: Mr. President since you have announced that yours is a government of peace, and that you will save the public, if you now say we are going to burn everyone (who opposes us) what do you think of that?

A: It is one side that is initiating the fighting. The instigators will be confronted with fighting. If they hide amongst the civilians there will be collateral damage to the civilians. You need to ask them (rebels) those kinds of questions like why don't you leave the civilian areas and fight the government somewhere else? It is they that you should ask such questions and goodbye!

            But the questions are proliferating. Developing...

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