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UN Baghdad Bombing Reports Withheld, As Ban Wants Expansion in Iraq, Transparency Is Lacking

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

UNITED NATIONS, August 19 -- Twenty two UN staffers were killed by a truck bomb four years ago today in Iraq. In the aftermath, the UN conducted its own inquiries. But earlier in 2003, there was a threat assessment report, compiled by Bruno Henn and Leo Powell. Despite the fact that there can be no accountability without transparency, this report has never been made public.

            On August 17, 2007 at UN headquarters, Inner City Press asked for it was and told that "if it contains information that can jeopardize the lives of our own people right now in Iraq -- no, it will not be released."

            Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has proposed increasing again the number of UN staffers in Iraq. Is the security situation better in 2007 than in 2003?  Certainly, as witnessed by the recent coordinated truck-bombing killing hundreds of people, the sophistication of the attacks has increased.

            Has the UN's protection of its staff improved since 2003? One way to know would be do see the still-withheld Iraq threat assessment report from just before the bombing.  Similarly, there was a report by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Service that never saw the light of day, that was "buried as if it had never existed," Inner City Press is told by a well-placed source who still works for the UN and requests anonymity due to threats of retaliation.

   Ban's spokesperson, alongside saying that "a threat assessment, I don't think will be released as such," read out a statement at Friday's noon briefing, that

"I know you will understand that we would not wish to provide a list of lessons learned, which would assist terrorists, but this process has been exhaustive and has led to significant developments in UN security.  The creation of a new Department of Safety and Security has been one of these steps."

            Among the steps the UN took was to convene a "Security in Iraq Accountability Panel," chaired by Gerard Walzer, formerly a UN refugee official. The Walzer Report was issued on March 29, 2004. It findings, summarized by the UN itself, included that

"The Chief Administrative Officer of the UN Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq (UNOHCI), and the Building Manager of that Office, did not demonstrate any serious intention to procure and install blast-resistant film for the entire Canal Hotel. These two officers displayed profound lack of responsibility and ineptitude in the manner they sought to implement the request for installation of the film."

            This focus on the two officials -- Boulos Paul Aghadjanian of Jordan and Pa Momodou Sinyan of Gambia -- for sticking to the UN procurement process led to disciplinary proceedings against them. (Also, UN Security Coordinator Tun Myat of Myanmar resigned, and Ramiro Lopes da Silva of Portugal returned to his previous job at the World Food Program -- only at the UN.)  

   But the reference to the "entire" Canal Hotel is telling. A portion of the hotel, occupied by a UN agency, had the blast-resistant film, based on their own threat assessment, separate from that carried out by Messrs. Henn and Powell, Inner City Press is told by sources who are well-placed, i.e. who were in the Canal Hotel on the day of the bombing. See below.

UN HQ in Baghdad, one year after the bombing

            On March 30, 2004, the UN Staff Union -- which is now opposing sending more personnel to Iraq -- issued their own press release, criticizing the UN for not going "far enough to fully hold those responsible and address the role and actions of other senior UN officials." Under the heading "Where is the Accountability," it also stated

"The Staff Union also believes that if the UN is really interested in a thorough and transparent investigative process, it should agree to release all relevant reports and documents related to the security situation in Iraq and the attack."

            Three years and four months later, the Threat Assessment report has still not been released. One report that was put online was former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari's "Report of the Independent Panel on the Safety and Security of the UN Personnel in Iraq," which on Page 10 refers obliquely to the still-withheld threat assessment report:

"On 2 June, Mr. Sergio Vieira de Mello with his staff and close security detail arrived in Baghdad. The SRSG moved into a second-floor office that overlooked the access road to the catering college on the south west corner of the building. Prior to his arrival, a team from the S&SS in New York had carried out a security assessment, including a risk analysis. Their terms of reference were strictly limited to assessing the potential threats to the SRSG and not to the United Nations in general. The report concluded that the risk of the SRSG being a direct target of attack was low."

            Clearly, this conclusion was wrong. But what was it based on? This is still unknown, as the security assessment has never been released. The Martti Ahtisarri report also says, of the blast-resistant film offered by other UN agency -- the World Food Program:

"WFP offered to provide the funding and material for fitting the windows of the Canal Hotel. The offer was rejected by the UN administration because it had commenced a tendering process to purchase the material. On 19 August, the windows of the Canal Hotel were still not fitted with the necessary material, and the fragmentation and dispersion of glass resulting from the explosion contributed greatly to the number of casualties."

            The attack itself is described:

"At approximately 1630 hours local time on Tuesday, 19 August, a flatbed truck carrying an estimated 1,000 Kilograms of high explosives was detonated on the service road to the catering college adjacent to the south-west corner of the Canal Hotel. The blast spread of shrapnel, falling masonry and flying glass took a devastating toll on the occupants of the Canal Hotel and resulted in the death of 22 persons, with over 150 sustaining injuries, some extremely serious. SRSG Sergio Vieira de Mello was among those killed as a result of the explosion. The bomb had exploded immediately below his office, which was almost totally demolished in the blast."

            A well-placed source tells Inner City Press that a compact disk containing the threat assessment report was fished out of the rubble, was held for a time by Andrew Cameron, a target of enmity by high-placed DSS officials involved in the report, which has still not been released.

            Again, if the UN were not shielded in immunity -- some say, impunity -- there would be litigation, in which safety steps and improvements could be known, and implemented in the future. It is in this context that, even beyond the recent Staff Council vote urging Ban not to keep or increase UN staff in Iraq until he can "certify" their safety, rank and file staff are questioning Ban's expansion plans.

    Ban is reportedly proposing a $130 million new UN Baghdad headquarters, an expenditure and process already criticized by the UN's Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions. Additionally, an engineering staff member in Iraq emphasizes daily that it is highly unlikely that any construction company would work on such a building, even at that price, given the lack of security in Baghdad. "Dream on," another staff member said, referring to Ban's plan, which the staff member sees as little more than an attempt to try to please the United States.

            Marrti Ahtisarri's  2003 Iraq report recommended:

"The United Nations needs a new culture of accountability in security management. Personal accountability of those entrusted with the safety of personnel as well as all staff in the field for their compliance with security rules should be paramount. In the case of Iraq, the Panel is of the view that the seriousness of the breaches in the UN security rules and procedures in the field and at Headquarters warrants a separate and independent audit process."

            This appears to refer to the subsequently-buried OIOS audit report. What accountability has there been? And why is the UN still withholding these reports?  There can be no accountability without transparency. At the August 17, 2007 UN noon briefing:

Inner City Press: I understand what you're saying about this future report, that it should be shown to the families of the victims first.  But there're some issues around a previous report.  There was the threat assessment report that was done before the bombing took place.  But I think it has never been realized, and I'm not sure why, given that it's been outdated.  Even some Member States complained that they haven't seen it.  So I guess I'm requesting if that document can be released.  It was called the threat assessment.  It was done in 2003 prior to the bombing.

Spokesperson:  Well, I think if it contains information that can jeopardize the lives of our own people right now in Iraq -- no, it will not be released.

Inner City Press: But I think it was all about --

Spokesperson:  If it was about what happened at the building, I would be surprised if it hasn't been released.  I know a number of things were released in 2004.  I can check for you what was released but a threat assessment, I don't think will be released as such.

Inner City Press: But it was an assessment done before the bombing, you see what I mean?  It's all about the building.  Some people have said that the problem was that it had assessed the threat as low.  I donít know if that's true or not.  That's why I'm asking.  That's why I would like to see the report.

Spokesperson:  I'll try to find out for you.

            But nothing was provided. Nor were answers provided to other questions asked:

Inner City Press: And also, at today's event, I think that -- this is unrelated, but it's connected in this way -- that the head of the Ethics Office, Mr. [Robert] Benson, was there and is back in town.  There have been various questions..  I had asked you, for example, on the whistle-blower.  It was supposed to be done in 45 days, now it's like 80 days.  There were a couple questions that weren't answered, maybe because he was traveling.

Spokesperson:  He was traveling, so we'll try to get him now for you.

Inner City Press: And also it's on Ban Ki-moon's schedule that he met with Kemal Dervis of UNDP at 11.  Is there a readout?  Do you know what the topic of that meeting was?

Spokesperson:  I don't have the readout, but, you know, there are so many issues to discuss about UNDP's work.

Inner City Press: I guess there are two things I would like to know, you could either find out if they were on it or not.  One would be the whistle-blower and that whole situation of the UNDP whistle-blower.  And the second would be North Korea and UNDP not being in the country, given the UN's new commitment to provide all this aid.

Spokesperson:  I will try to get a readout for you, but, essentially there are so many issues concerning UNDP programs across the world.  I don't think that specific issue will take center stage...

            We'll see -- Monday Ban Ki-moon is scheduled to meet with survivors and, some say, families of the victims and these issues will be center stage. Developing.

* * *

Clck here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army.  Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent 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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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540