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UN Dodges on Burma's Border Through UNICEF Sanctions Banking to Umoja Leakage

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, September 8, updated -- With the UN's Spokesperson's Office back on a daily schedule, more questions could be asked last week although still too few were answered. In cast, to start the week on August 31, Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe openly surveyed the room and asked if anyone - ANYone -- other than Inner City Press had a question. Then on Tuesday September 1, her associate Farhan Haq fielded a question about a major UN program and scandal:

Inner City Press: May I ask about, there is this draft report on the ERP, or Umoja project, has emerged, in which it seems to say that it’s a nearly $300 million UN program that is both over budget and behind schedule. Is that your understanding of where it stands?

Associate Spokesperson Haq: What is the ERP Umoja project?

Inner City Press: It’s the computer overhaul, the attempt to integrate 400 separate UN computer systems. It’s been bouncing around for almost 15 years, the Fifth Committee has voted a lot of money for it, but this report has emerged saying that there’s nothing accomplished.

Associate Spokesperson: Let me check and see whether there is anything to that.

  The UN later e-mailed Inner City Press called it "a very early draft of the report; since then, the text and numbers have changed significantly. The Secretariat is currently in the process of finalizing the report. In due time, we will be able to provide more information on the ERP report to the press."

  But given the dollar size and history of the project, and the re-branding as Umoja, it is telling that the UN's Associate Spokesman asked, "What is the ERP Umoja project?"

  On Wednesday September 2, Inner City Press turned to the Chinese-Burmese border, and to Sri Lanka:

Inner City Press: There are these reports of flows of refugees from Myanmar into China’s Yunnan province. I’m wondering whether either UNHCR or any UN agency is following that. There has been an upsurge in fighting in Myanmar and people are fleeing across the border. Are those people refugees, and if not, why not?

Associate Spokesperson: Well, in terms of that, we had some information about this at the end of last week. I think UNHCR did provide some information about displacement from Myanmar, and so I’ll just refer you to what they said and to UNHCR. [*- see update below]

Inner City Press: Also I wanted to ask you, there is a report on something that’s come up here, and Michèle has answered, that the nephew of Sri Lankan President [Mahinda] Rajapaksa that was an employee of the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda, that the authorities there have arrested three people in connection with his death or perhaps murder. First she’d said he’d been murdered and then she said he wasn’t murdered. Is the UN tracking this, and what can you say about it?

Associate Spokesperson: We continue to get information. Obviously, this is a person who worked for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and so the Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is receiving information on this, and we’ve been consulting with them as new information comes out. The reason she mentioned that foul play had been ruled out last week, that was following autopsy results. If we get further information, we’ll reflect that once we hear from our colleagues on the Rwanda Tribunal.

Inner City Press: And just one more on that. There is in this schedule for the General Assembly debate, it’s listed that Sri Lanka will be represented at the level of Head of Government, which is the Prime Minister. There is only one problem: that the Prime Minister is not the Head of Government, even according to the Sri Lankan Constitution -- he’s further down. The President is both Head of State and Head of Government. Since the schedule of who speaks is based on this, if a Government either misrepresents who somebody is or errors are made, what’s done on this?

Associate Spokesperson: As far as that goes, the Protocol Office deals with all the respective Governments on who will be representing and what their placement is, and they get the information about this. It would be up to the Sri Lankan Government to provide accurate information on who is coming. I don’t know at this stage who the individual is who is going to show up.

  Since the Spokesperson's Office is still, as of September 8, giving out a speakers' list dated August 14, it is unclear if this has been fixed.

Marie Okabe, at right, with UN Police: are there any OTHER questions?

   Inner City Press also asked about the "Cuba Five" --

Inner City Press: In the Cuban press it says that Ban Ki-moon has received a letter from Cuba protesting the US’s denial of a visa to the wife of one of the so-called Cuban five, Adriana Perez. Can you confirm that Ban has received this letter? And does he believe that the host country has a duty to allow in the wife of what Cuba calls an incorrectly imprisoned person?

Associate Spokesperson: First let me check whether we’ve received it, and I’ll check and see whether that’s the case.

[The Associate Spokesperson later said that the letter has been received and was circulated as a document.]

  On Thursday September 3, Inner City Press asked Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe about a UN system scandal:

Inner City Press: Marie, it’s been reported, and can it be confirmed that UNICEF is soliciting donations through a bank that’s on the Security Council sanction list, Bank Mali and Bank Cedera in Iran? So the question, I guess, arises when the UN system, whether the Secretariat believes that the UN system is not subject to the sanctions and the directives of the Security Council. What does the Secretary-General think of a UN agency soliciting funds through a bank that’s also on… it’s also subject to US and EU sanctions?

Deputy Spokesperson Okabe: I have not got any updates from either UNICEF or the Sanctions Committee on this subject, so you’d have to follow up with them first.

Inner City Press: It’s been some time since UNICEF and Ann Veneman or whoever has done some kind of briefing here. Is there some way to get, not just on this topic, but on…?

Deputy Spokesperson: We can certainly ask.

  On September 8, Associate Spokesperson Haq said that going forward, there will be more briefings by senior UN officials, after Ban spoke with them. Will this include Ms. Veneman? Another swing and a miss:

Inner City Press: Okay. And also I just wanted to ask this, it’s just back… In the eastern Congo, in Kisangani, there are these two Norwegian, the Government describes them as mercenaries, on trial for the death of a driver and they face the death penalty. Is it something that MONUC is aware of? It’s by military court.

Deputy Spokesperson: I have not received anything from MONUC on that today.

  On September 8, the two were in fact sentenced to death, and the UN has still said nothing. On Friday September 4, the questioning turned to the Holocaust and if and how it's taught in UNRWA schools:

Inner City Press: I have questions on Myanmar and Sri Lanka, but I wanted to follow up... In what you just read out, does UNWRA teach the Holocaust course or not? Somebody in the office said that to us that UNRWA follows whatever the curriculum is of the host country.

Deputy Spokesperson Okabe: That is correct.

Inner City Press: Is it possible to give just a yes or no answer. Do they teach… what do they teach about the Holocaust?

Deputy Spokesperson: [We] read that statement to you the first day, when you asked about Hamas’ accusations about the UNWRA programme, and [we] did mention that the Holocaust is not taught. That was in accordance with what you just mentioned about the e-mail that you just received. This is in response to another criticism. So now I am telling you that UNRWA does have a statement and that UNWRA implements human rights, conflict resolution and tolerance programmes in its schools and that there is no truth to the fact that they are denying the Holocaust, which is the latest accusation that the Agency is faced with.

Inner City Press: Just to be clear, they don’t teach it, but if somebody denies it, then they teach it. I want to understand what the distinction is.

Deputy Spokesperson: I think I already answered your questions.

    Well, no. Then a return to Burma:

Inner City Press: On Myanmar, there are reports that in this Kokang region, not in China but in Myanmar itself, that there were UN agency staff from WFP and other agencies that were not allowed to reach the region and now are leaving the region and suspending operations there. Is that something that the UN can confirm? It is also said that they were kept there so as not to report what was going on. Can you comment on that?

Deputy Spokesperson: I have not received anything from WFP, but I am sure that if you ask them, they will be able to provide you with an update on their situation there

   But none has been provided, four days later. And so it goes at the UN.

Update -- on September 10, Ms. Okabe read this out:

I’d been asked about the movement of World Food Programme staff at the Myanmar-China border, and I have the following update from WFP which they wanted me to share with you. WFP did suspend operations in the area on 25 August, in view of the growing insecurity in the region, and brought staff back from deep field positions to Laukkai temporarily. After fighting escalated in the vicinity of the town of Laukkai, WFP requested safe passage out for its staff to another location. This was not possible for a period of four days, because of fighting in and around the three roads in and out of Laukkai.

It is not correct to suggest they were kept there so as not to report on what was going on; in fact, WFP had continual updates on developments from the team throughout the fighting. WFP now has a new team on the ground and are in the process of re-starting its activities along with its NGO partners. The situation remains stable and normal economic activity is returning to that town.

   Myanmar war zone = stable and normal, including on economic activity, per UN and WFP....

* * *

At UN, From Sex Abuse in Africa to Welfare Fraud in Paris and a Somali Warlord, Another Three Day Week

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, August 30 -- Even with only three UN noon briefings last week, ostensibly for the last time, issues arose about three UN system abusers, from child sexual exploitation by a UN staff member in Liberia and, it seems, Sierra Leone to welfare fraud by a French UN official to questions unanswered since August 24 about reported contacts been the UN's Somali envoy and a notorious war lord, Mohamed Ali Samantar.

   On August 26, Inner City Press asked Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson Michele Montas about a UN staff member in Liberia whom even the UN acknowledged was under investigation for child sexual abuse:

Inner City Press: they’re reporting that the individual who passed away had been previously accused of sexual misconduct while serving the UN in Sierra Leone. Can you say whether the UN has been aware of previous charges against him, and if so, why they moved him to Liberia?

Spokesperson Montas: They have not been aware.

Inner City Press: They have not been aware?

Spokesperson: No. Actually, they acted on complaints that they received in Liberia, from Liberians, and they acted quite swiftly, and I have to say that the Liberian National Police has taken that in hand and they are handling that really in a very serious way.

  But in Monrovia, the New Democrat reported that

"He served in Sierra Leone, in charge of the UN Mission in Sierra Leone or UNAMSIL's general supply. There, there are allegations he was tied to the same circle-sex with under age children recruited by women he hired as "girlfriends". But when Dale Fosnight decided to dump his Liberian 'girlfriend' for his Sierra Leone one, the lid was removed on his alleged activities deep in video-taped orgies with little girls, neighbors say and insiders say. His Liberian 'girlfriend,' in an apparent show of vendetta as a response to being abandoned, blew her whistle."

  And so on August 28, Inner City Press followed up:

Inner City Press: the UNMIL employee in Liberia, Mr. Fosnight: there are now reports there saying that he didn’t, that it wasn’t natural causes, that he stabbed himself, and again, reiterating that he had engaged in similar abuse in Sierra Leone, and the UN knew about it. You’d said that the UN knew nothing and, I guess, that he died of natural causes?

Spokesperson Montas: I can check for you exactly what we have on that.

Inner City Press: Also, I’ll show you, there is a pretty detailed article that’s come out in Liberia saying how he was found, you know, the whole thing. I’m just wondering, because I know that the UN tried to get out in front of it with a statement of the press release you read out.

Spokesperson: I know that he was put under house arrest, and what I said the other day stands.

  Afterwards, the UN added to the transcript something that hadn't in fact been said: " [The Spokesperson later added that the United Nations knew nothing about any past activities of the deceased staff member. The cause of his death is still being investigated with an autopsy to be conducted in the next few days.]"

  It's a big statement, that "the United Nations" knew nothing of complaints against Fosnight in Sierra Leone. We'll try to see if it is true.

  We question the UN's claimed zero tolerance policies at all levels because, as simply one more example last week, the French UN employee exposed for welfare fraud is still, sources tell Inner City Press, in line for a new two year contract.

UN in Liberia, abusers not shown
  On August 28, Inner City Press asked

Inner City Press: There is a pretty detailed report out about a UN employee, Bruno Bastet and that he was receiving welfare housing payments in France while living in New York in a condominium and he was also receiving rental subsidy from the UN. I wanted to just ask two things about it. I wanted to ask first, why does the UN or what is the Secretariat’s thinking on paying rental subsidy to people that actually own, you know extremely expensive apartments? They don’t get rental subsidy if they live in the apartment they own. But, if they rent it out to others and rent another apartment, then they receive rental subsidy. Does this seem reasonable to the Secretariat or…?

Spokesperson Montas: Well, this is a matter, you know, as concerned that matter, you know the matter of the staff member’s rental subsidy, in the case of Mr. Bastet, that could be reviewed through the UN internal process to determine the accuracy and completeness of any statement and claims submitted by Mr. Basted. So, that’s what I can say. In terms of the actual, I can get some additional information for you on rental subsidies, but usually rental subsidies are given for a certain number of years to staff members coming into the system, and they are done according to the statements made by the staff member. [The rental subsidy declines gradually over a seven-year period, so that eventually the staff member must adjust fully to the local market.] And you can get, of course, full information on this. I think you can find this on our website, about the policy on subsidies.

Inner City Press: What I mean, because I think Marie was asked about it yesterday, because she is quoted in this report and she says it’s entirely legal for a UN official to own property, but nonetheless apply for rental subsidy to live elsewhere. And I guess I am just asking, you know, whatever the specifics of Mr. Bastet is, does that policy make sense that… Is the purpose of the rental subsidy to give it to somebody that can own, that only lives in rental housing? Or does this create an incentive to actually, as they say, build a real estate empire? Like somebody could own three buildings and still be getting a rental subsidy from the UN. Is that…?

Spokesperson Montas: I’ll try to forward that question for you to the people in charge.

  On what ever timeline that takes place, Inner City Press is aware that its questions, above, have been submitted to the head of OIOS Ms. Inga Britt Ahlenius -- who has yet to rule on either nepotism in the Office of the President of the General Assembly or by DPKO's Alan Doss, among many other pending or buried items -- and to Ethics Office chief Robert Benson. This last is known to be in New York, last seen strolling through Grand Central. His action on UNDP whistleblower(s) remains murky.

  Welfare fraud and nepotism are trumped, however, by war crimes. While the UN's Political Office on Somalia has in the past declined to answer basic questions about its funding and activities, such as approaching Norway to pay for Somalia's Law of the Sea filing made, in fact, by Kenya, then voted down by the Somali parliament, now Inner City Press' Somali sources say that UNPOS boss Ahmedou Ould Abdallah has sunk to recruiting war lords, such as Mohamed Ali Samantar, who is still being sued by his victims. On August 24, Inner City Press asked

Inner City Press: some are saying that Ould-Abdallah has personally invited the participation in the process in Somalia of Muhammad Ali Semanta, who was a warlord during the 80s Black Hawk Down era. And he actually has a human rights case against him. Is there some way to know that’s what many people in Somalia are saying. But it seems to be difficult to know what Ould is doing.

Spokesperson Montas: Well, you just have to ask him.

Inner City Press: I know, but there has been some difficulty. Even on that issue of the Law of the Sea treaty it took like three weeks and finally [inaudible] that one. So I wanted to ask you, just a simple yes or no whether he’s invited Mr. Semanta, and if so…

Spokesperson: Well, I cannot answer yes or no if I don’t know, right?

Inner City Press: Okay.

Spokesperson: So, in this specific case, I have to ask Mr. Ould-Abdallah.

  Five days later, there's still no answer. Watch this site.

* * *

UN Dodges on Biting, Bout, Boat and Bangladesh, Flubs Iran Letter and Shriver Condolence

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, August 15 -- Even with the UN's Office of the Spokesperson last week holding only three rather than the normal and expected five press briefings, they still left unanswered questions about the brewing nepotism and biting scandals, mercenaries and war crimes inquiries in Bangladesh, Sudanese flogging and non-Somali piracy, an arms trader's non-extradition and a case of extraordinary rendition.

  They mis-answered by their own terms questions about Ban Ki-moon's letter to Iran's Ahmadinejad, flubbed another letter of condolence concerning Eunice Kennedy Shriver, twice misplaced Ban's vacation as being in Seoul rather than Jeju Island.

   The questions on Monday, August 10 all concerned what's now being called Bite-Gate, first reported by Inner City Press. Deputy Spokesperson Okabe said that the underlying dispute, about Ban's envoy to the Congo Alan Doss having writing to the UN Development Program urging that his daughter Rebecca be hired and that he be shown "leeway" to shift his contract to the Department of Peacekeeping Operations to evade anti-nepotism rules, is being investigated by UNDP. Inner City Press asked

Inner City Press: You did say that the whole thing is being investigated by UNDP’s office of audit and investigations. [inaudible] some of the complaints about Alan Doss is no longer affiliated with UNDP as of 1 July. I know that, I mean the person who filed the complaint with OIOS (Office of Internal Oversight Services), is this something that OIOS can look into? Who has jurisdiction over Alan Doss and basically the issues that have been raised?

Deputy Spokesperson: Right now we’re all awaiting the outcome of the investigation that UNDP is conducting into the matter, as he was affiliated with UNDP at the time.

   Later in the week, UNDP suddenly called it a joint UNDP - OIOS investigation. Ms. Okabe then e-mailed Inner City Press, requesting a re-characterization of her August 12 referral of questions to the New York County District Attorney as concerning only biting and immunity and saying that Ban expects a report on the nepotism matter upon his return to New York on August 18. Then at the August 14 briefing, or at least in the doctored UN summary, she added " a report [on what has been done to date]." We'll see.

   One Doss-Gate question that did get answered -- we noted these for better or worse -- was Inner City Press' August 12 question about the Congo as a non-family post:

Inner City Press: it has to do with MONUC (United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Can you ask them whether -- that’s a quote: “a family or non-family post”, i.e. whether staff members can bring family members to the country or not? I mean, I know at one point, at least as recently as I know, it was a non-family post, but I just want to make sure from you, whether there has been some change.

Deputy Spokesperson Okabe: Well, the UN, without getting into too much detail, just to give you an idea of how duty stations work even in a given country, different locations in a given country may have different security levels. So, you know, while it may be a non-family duty station in one part of the country, you know, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the whole country is under the same security status.

  Inner City Press then asked specifically about Kinshasa. At week's end this arrived:

"Matthew, further to your question on Wednesday, please note that DRC is a non-family duty station for all UN missions, programs and agencies. Until the country was placed at Security Level III a few years ago, agencies (not the Mission) classified it a family duty station but that changed after DSS revised its security level following violent unrest after the past elections."

   We will be following up on this. Also on August 12, Okabe left unanswered questions about the restrictions on travel imposed on Lubna Hussein, slated to be flogged for wearing pants. Ms. Hussein is or was a UN staff member, while also writing for a private newspaper in Sudan -- the UN has repeated failed to clarify her status. On the travel restrictions, too, no answer came:

Inner City Press: In Sudan, Lubna Hussein has now been barred from travel. One, does the UN have any comment on it? And two, what’s her status currently with the United Nations? They say that she’s quit, therefore renounced her immunity. What’s the UN’s…?

Deputy Spokesperson: You know… let me find out more about it. I don’t have any further guidance on her today, so let me find out from the Peacekeeping Department and our Mission.

 But three days later, nothing had been provided. Nor to this:

Inner City Press: Sri Lanka has arrested, either in Malaysia or in Thailand, it’s unclear, an opposition leader Mr. (Patmen?), also known as KP. [inaudible] may extraordinary rendition, i.e., he was arrested, there was no extradition trial and now he is back in the country. Has the UN said, some people say he’s been tortured but, does the UN have anything to say about that?

Deputy Spokesperson: I don’t think we’ve received ay reports on that, but we’ll look into that for you.

   No response has been provided, even though a senior Ban advisor from the 38th floor unprompted told Inner City Press that they had been expecting the Pathmanathan question about extraordinary rendition. Extraordinary.

On August 12 Ms. Okabe did answer, at length, that "a letter did go out to President Ahmadinejad. As the Spokesperson Michele has been asked a number of times, yesterday I did confirm to those who asked that a letter did go out, as is customary at the time of the inauguration of a Head of State. But it is not accurate to refer to this as a congratulatory letter. Is that what you’re asking?"

  Well, yes. Okabe had initially confirmed to Reuters that a congratulatory letter went out, then tried to get them to remove the word. The vituperation ultimately made the UN look even worse, as Reuters ran a second story saying that the UN had reversed itself. Then the Iranian government began releasing the letter in pieces to, among others, the Fars News Agency, and it appeared to most to be congratulatory. Why not simply release such letters and let the public decide?

UN's Bans with mascots on August 12, dateline Yeosu (not JeJu, not Seoul)

  On a separate track, following the death of Special Olympics founder and all around philanthropist Eunice Kennedy Shriver, by week's end the UN Secretariat had not issued a condolence statement. UNICEF did, on August 12, and so a long time reporter who now faces disparate treatment from the UN asked if such a letter would be going out. Yes, he was told on August 13, a letter is in the works. Two more days went by and still no letter. On August 15, the Secretariat said it was still awaiting confirmation that the letter had gone out. Eunice Kennedy Shriver had already been buried.

   On August 14, beyond doctoring up the briefing summary about the nepotism scandal report that Ban's said to "expect" on August 18 -- click here for Inner City Press' story -- questions were also dodged or just not answered about a missing boat and captured arms trader Bout, as well as the UN and its Security chief's involvement with private military contractors:

Inner City Press: Bout and boats. Victor Bout -- the famous, notorious arms trader, the [inaudible] quotes have said that he won’t be, at least at this point, extradited for trial. Is that something, I know that the UN spoke about when he was engaged in his business and then he was arrested -- who in the UN is tracking it, what does the UN think should happen with this arms trader in Africa?

Deputy Spokesperson: Well, I don’t have anything specific on him, but there have been a number of reports in the past that the UN, UN documents, that point to his activities in the Congo and other places, so that’s where I would draw your attention for now.

Inner City Press: There’s a ship that’s gone missing, not in Somalia, but it took place in Europe and it’s now being looked for off the coast of West Africa. Does the UN have any involvement in that, or is its interest or involvement in looking at piracy limited to the coast of Somalia?

Deputy Spokesperson: I don’t know what specific report

  This missing ship has been a lead news story worldwide all week. Inner City Press followed up on its exclusive story about new UN Security chief Gregorry Starr's role in extending Blackwater's contract with the U.S. State Department, even after the 2007 killing of at least 17 civilians in Iraq:

Inner City Press: Two sets of questions: mercenaries and nepotism. On mercenaries, can you confirm that the UN in Iraq is signing an agreement with a private military contractor called Aegis that’s been accused of killing civilians, and also, that Mr. [Gregory B.] Starr, the new head of the DSS [Department of Safety and Security], was the official responsible for extending the contract with Blackwater while he was with the United States State Department?

Deputy Spokesperson: I have nothing on either one of those, so we’d have to look into that for you.

Inner City Press: But, I mean, does the UN in Iraq use private military contractors –- that’s my…?

Deputy Spokesperson: I have to look into that for you.

We'll be here...

 Click here for an Inner City Press YouTube channel video, mostly UN Headquarters footage, about civilian deaths in Sri Lanka.

Click here for Inner City Press' March 27 UN debate

Click here for Inner City Press March 12 UN (and AIG bailout) debate

Click here for Inner City Press' Feb 26 UN debate

Click here for Feb. 12 debate on Sri Lanka

Click here for Inner City Press' Jan. 16, 2009 debate about Gaza

Click here for Inner City Press' review-of-2008 UN Top Ten debate

Click here for Inner City Press' December 24 debate on UN budget, Niger

Click here from Inner City Press' December 12 debate on UN double standards

Click here for Inner City Press' November 25 debate on Somalia, politics

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

* * *

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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