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As UN Cuts Ribbon in NY, "Good Offices," Asbestos and Mismanagement Questions Proliferate

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, January 11, updated below -- As the UN formally opens its $140 million North Lawn Conference Building in New York, its management cries poor and too often under-performs. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the New Year moved out of the 38th floor of the hollowed out Headquarters, to a suite with a view of the NLCB's roof and little else.

  UN Security deemed what was supposed to be Ban's office, overlooking the East River, as too unprotected. And so the Deputy S-G, Asha Rose Migiro, was assigned that office. This is emblematic of the UN under fire and under prepared, failing to plan.

  Back in the Headquarters building, journalists and staff remain as controversial asbestos removal proceeds. Inner City Press was visited to the UN's contractor Skanska and told to remove computer and video equipment for the weekend. Was it for asbestos dust or the chance of theft, not Oil for Food but Laptops for Asbestos?

  The UN press corps is being moved to a space above the library. But the UN claimed it did not have enough money for floor to ceiling walls. Now they can listen to reporters conversations, and only removed panopticon security cameras over the press area after Inner City Press exposed them. UN Management is aiming at a dry, whistleblower free zone.

UN's Ban, advisers' backs turned, prepares for ribbon cutting

  A staff member, anonymous because in fear of retaliation which has become more prevalent at the UN, complained over the weekend to Inner City Press that

Subj: this past weekend's asbestos abatement at the Secretariat
From: Name withheld for fear of retaliation
To: Inner City Press
Sent: 1/10/2010 9:27:50 P.M. Eastern Standard Time

Hello,With regard to the asbestos removal at the Secretariat over the weekend, I have the following concerns:

1) management within my department is of the belief that all questions and concerns have been addressed in the Skanska/CMP-supplied video available on iSeek. In other words, my senior management is not vouchsafing that the work has been done correctly, only that those in charge of doing the work intended that it be done so. Perhaps they believe that this places senior management beyond any future legal liability.

2) any concerns such as when the air sampling will be done (before or after staff show up to work on Monday?) are not material.

3) whether "bad news" from the air sampling will be shared with staff who, after all, would be potential litigants against CMP, Skanska and the UN.

4) the work done this past weekend was represented as a one-shot and presumably final effort to remove the remaining asbestos. From what I have gathered from, the work consisted of borings to determine the extent of the problem and does not represent the removal of the last known traces of asbestos in the building. It therefore seems likely that the impression given that the work done this weekend is final is incorrect, and that actual removal of the asbestos will be done at a later date.

A senior UN official, also insisting that his name not be used but this time to not steal the stage from Ban Ki-moon, said that there remain 1,000 pounds of asbestos in the UN's skyscraper, and that only "a half a pound per floor" was removed on January 8 through 10.

In Inner City Press' fourth floor office on Monday morning, there was sheet plastic covering a hole in the ceiling, and dust on the floor.

Back at the North Lawn, a morning of festivities are planned. Ban will cut the ribbon and then talk to staff. He will briefing member states -- those which come -- on his goals for 2010. These apparently do not include following through on his commitments in Sri Lanka in May 2009, to pursue political opening to minorities and accountability for war crimes. He turned down a request to monitor this month's elections, and in the face of authenticated footage of soldiers executing naked and blindfolded prisoners, passed the buck first to Geneva then to a three month old statement.

On Friday, Richard Holbrooke scooped Ban Ki-moon's on offering the UN's top Kabul job to Staffan de Mistura, who hired Ban's son in law as his deputy in Iraq. Ban's scandal plagued envoy to the Congo Alan Doss is, Kinshasa sources tell Inner City Press, spending $150,000 to renovate this apartment, while his contract expires in June (and he should leave before). Ban's Myanmar "good offices" post was left empty as Ibrahim Gambari was shuffled to Darfur.

The Good Offices are empty, Ban's office has no view. Needed at the UN in 2010: that vision thing. We will blog Monday's proceedings herebelow

Update of 9:19 a.m. -- on the way from the old building to the new, there is fake green grass, "like the stuff in Easter baskets," one construction worker said. U.S. Number Three Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo is by the podium. Of Ban, "there will be no Q and A," a staffer says.

Update of 9:23 a.m. - Also at the podium is the Ambassador of Cameroon, with whom UNDP Administrator Helen Clark refused to meet for months. There's the seldom seen Gregory Starr of Security, who's yet to hold a press conference, and Angela Kane of Management, who leaves questions posed in press conferences unanswered -- like how the Bob Orr ASG post is funded -- and then demands "corrections" when belatedly providing partial answers. There's Shabaan Shabaan, who told staff in the Albano swing space that lack of heat is their fault. And soon, Mr. Ban.

Update of 9:37 a.m. -- Ban is speaking, he says there are no carpets, the building will be dismantled. He thanks CMP's Michael "Adler"stein. Who is representing the City of New York? Cameroon's Ambassador, spurned by UNDP, is speaking "for all member states as temporary president of the General Assembly."

Update of 9:55 a.m. -- as the speeches proceeded, Michael Adlerstein's name was said several ways, not only by Ban but also Cameroon's Ambassador ("Adel-stine"). Then his was called "a household name." Ambassadors were invited upstairs for coffee in... the relocated Viennese Cafe. Friday evening, Austria's Ambassador was checking out the condition of the furniture his country donated to the cafe. But where will drinks be served?

Update of 10:17 a.m. -- as Ambassadors and UN officials mill around free coffee and pastries on the second floor, already some of the most senior UN officials are already questioning the all cement floor. Cameroon's Ambassadors stops to give Inner City Press his speech in English. It is confirmed: Mr. Ban was getting the river view office until it was deemed unsecure. Ms. Migiro seems happy with it. There is news, of Guinea Bissau and separately the EU, but that'll be written later today. It's still ribbon fest, attention Wal-Mart shoppers -- or, in a reference to Ikea, "UN-KIA."

Update of 11:24 a.m. -- over raspberries and pineapple, news flows. In Guinea-Bissau, the former coup leader holed up in the UN building will be turned over to the authorities, after a negotiation on how he will be treated. The government, the UN says, would like the coup leader to leave the country but he won't.
   A Georgian diplomat stops to tell Inner City Press that former Ambassador Irakli Alasania was a signatory to the request to the UN for elections observers that the UN rejected. That request came from the opposition. But Sri Lanka's request was a official, but still turned down. We meant to tell them it's not credible, a UN official tells Inner City Press. Then why didn't you?

  Down on the first floor, Ban is speaking to staff in Conference Room 4. Inner City Press is not allowed to enter. But when the door opens, the Number Two in the SMCC (non NY Unions) is speaking, on the screen. Some Ban will speak to member states.

   The Georgian diplomat asks Inner City Pres, can we still smoke in here? No. And no drinking either. He scoffs. This isn't the UN.

Update of 11:52 a.m. -- as the Town Hall for staff let out,  a Staff Union official complains to Inner City Press that while the more pro-Ban non-NY SMCC union was given time to speak, there were no arrangements for the UN Staff Union. Nor is the Headquarters union given a video link to speak when Ban is in Geneva, Vienna or Nairobi.

  During the lull between meetings, UN chief Peacekeeper (and Frenchman) Alain Le Roy chats with France's Ambassador Gerard Araud. Then he goes in with him to Conference Room 3, the site of Ban's meeting with member states. Inner City Press has previously remarked on Russian ASG Dmitry Titov moving through the UN with Foreign Minister Lavrov. "You'd never say that about a European," was the response. Well, we've said it.

   Several member states arrive late, and ask directions. They are disproportionarely from a regional group that is in the process of getting out flanked by the European Union. We'll have more on this.

Update of 12:38 p.m. -- Ban's stakeout has been delayed. One disgusted delegate, leaving Ban's briefing, tells Inner City Press, "He gives his state of the union, and then the same from member states. Blah blah blah." Inner City Press asks for an impromptu noon briefing while we wait. The request is not granted, and questions posed Friday have not been answered.

Update of 1 p.m. -- with Ban half an hour late, some in the press corps suggest we leave in boycott. The Palestinian Observer Mansoor stops to chat. France's Araud pauses when a French journalist calls out, then continues without returning the greeting. Helen Clark of UNDP, who still hasn't done a press conference, leaves. And so it goes.

Update of 1:18 p.m. -- with Ban nearly an hour later, one correspondent reminds others this is like the last time Ban met the General Assembly, and did not attend the scheduled time for his holiday party for the press. But at least then, Ms. Migiro worked the crowd. Here, no sign of Nesirky, no warm up act.

Update of 1:25 p.m. -- Nesirky emerges, says Ban continues listening to member states. Why not move this to the briefing room, he is asked. Impossible, he replies, Ban is going on retreat. How long will he answer questions? As long as he would have. Then what about the retreat? And can it be filmed? No.

Update of 2:20 p.m. -- and when Ban finally emerged, he began by saying he couldn't take many questions, because he had to go to Greentree for the retreat with regional organizations. His spokesman Martin Nesirky controlled, or tried to control, who could ask questions. The first was whether this building will be demolished. The answer was, yes.

The second question had been given to Nesirky in advance, about North Korea's new stance. Ban had an answer, from written notes, about the 2005 Six Party talks. The third concerned the Middle East and the wall Egypt it building to cut off Gaza's tunnels. Ban answered, without mentioning the tunnel.

The next question was about Cyprus; Ban answered that the leaders have met "sixty times," with the help of "Alexander Downer." Next the Grey Lady, being chased from its office by asbestos, asked not only about asbestos but also whether Ban's third floor has hardwood floors (it does) and why.

Ban said that only some asbestos is being taken out, "four feet of pipe" -- he must have been briefed -- and the rest when the building's fully empty. He confirmed the wooden floors, saying they are for foreign dignitaries. There will be no overruns.

For what turned out to be the final question, Nesirky pointed to a longtime French journalist, who'd called out after Araud. Inner City Press, the microphone near, said "On Afghanistan?" Nesirky indicated the French journalist, something about Afghanistan afterwards. But the French journalist, to her credit, said she didn't have a question. And so Inner City Press asked:

-on Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke has been quoted that you've offered the top UN post in Kabul to Staffan de Mistura. Is he wrong?

Ban said it is still under consideration, not appropriate to talk about. Tell that to Richard Holbrooke, and to de Mistura. It was argued to Inner City Press on Monday morning that de Mistura might have been sounding out Holbrooke, saying he wouldn't take the offered job without U.S. support (which he got, because Holbrooke saw the writing on the wall and wanted to distance himself from the anti-Mistura, pro-Guehenno op ed he planted in the Grey Lady, in this view).

Inner City Press asked about Sri Lanka, Philip Alston urging Ban to name a commission on inquiry on war crimes. While we're report this in more detail, Ban was strangely defensive, pointing out that Alston doesn't work for him, is a special rapporteur, and that Sri Lanka has had things to say about Alston and his report. Yes they have. But where does Ban Ki-moon stand? Watch this site.

* * *

On Sri Lanka, Last Act of UN's Ban Was Three Months Ago, Despite War Crimes, Authentication by Alston

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, January 8 -- The UN on Friday acknowledged that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's most recent call for accountability for war crimes in Sri Lanka was more than three months ago. Video here, from Minute 13:19.

  Since then, former general Sarath Fonseka has accused senior minister and Presidential brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa of ordering the summary execution of surrendering Tamil Tiger officials, and video footage depicting Sri Lankan Army soldiers shooting blindfolded and naked prisoners has been authenticated by UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston -- yet Ban has done nothing more.

On January 7, Inner City Press asked Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky:

Philip Alston... said that the Secretary-General, he believes, has the power and should appoint such a panel as he has done in the case of Guinea, for example. What’s the Secretary-General’s response? ...Will he do what Mr. Alston is suggesting?

  Mr. Nesirky answered that

the Secretary-General has informed the Government of Sri Lanka that he is considering the appointment of a Commission of Experts to advise him further and to assist the Government in taking measures to address possible violations of international human rights and humanitarian law

  Most media took this at face value, and reported that alongside Alston's findings and Fonseka's accusation of war crimes, Ban was somehow raising the pressure or scrutiny on Sri Lanka. This is not true, however.

  Essentially, in response to a UN Special Rapporteur urging that Ban at least appoint a panel of inquiry into war crimes and the death of tens of thousands of civilians in Sri Lanka, as he unilaterally in response to 157 deaths in Guinea, Ban's spokesman said that Ban has told the government he might do this in Sri Lanka.

  But after Inner City Press asked when, specifically, Ban had communicated this to the Rajapaksa administration, Nesirky had to belatedly acknowledge that it had been in mid-September. Since then, it seems clear, nothing has been done.

UN's Pascoe with Mahinda Rajapaksa, letter and follow up not shown

  Inner City Press asked, how long can consideration be described as active without it resulting in anything? Video here, from Minute 15:04. Nesirky responded that since September, when they received Ban's letter from his political advisor Lynn Pascoe, the Sri Lankan government "will have been considering it."

  But this has had no, or even negative, results. Following Alston's January 7 authentication of the summary execution footage, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa said conclusorily that his "security personnel haven't been involved in any misconduct," and complained that Alston had "breached UN protocol" by not showing them his report before going public. Since this was described in many news articles as Sri Lanka accusing the UN of violating protocol, Inner City Press asked Nesirky about it in this way. Video here, from Minute 15:41.

  Nesirky pointed out that the Sri Lankans have not complained about Ban Ki-moon at all. And that... says it all. Watch this site.

* * *

On Sri Lanka, UN Won't Observe, Has Hopes for IDPs, Mute on Accountability

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, January 6 -- On the day the UN belatedly confirmed it would not be providing any observers to attempt to reduce fraud and disenfranchisement in Sri Lanka's January 26 elections, Inner City Press asked Secretary General Ban Ki-moon about the internally displaced people who remain in the camps the government moved and locked them into, and about accountability for war crimes. Video here, from Minute 9:50.

  Ban Ki-moon answered only the first to the two questions, citing Sri Lanka's commitment to empty the camps by the end of January -- that is, after the elections. According to aid groups, over 90,000 people, nearly entirely Tamils, remain in the camps. Fewer than 10% of them are registered to be able to vote.

UN's Ban, Inner City Press in front, answer on accountability not shown

Here was the exchange, as transcribed by the UN:

Inner City Press: I wanted to ask you, if I can, on Sri Lanka. Right now the IDP [internally displaced persons] camps, there are still people inside them. There has also been a failure to do any investigation of the events of May, and most recently, it seems like you have decided not to send electoral assistance to the country. Can you say how the first of those are consistent with the commitments made to the UN, and your commitment to stay on top of this issue?

Ban Ki-moon: On Sri Lanka, their promise, President [Mahinda] Rajapaksa's promise is that by the end of January this year, his Government will have all the remaining displaced persons in the camp resettled, reintegrated into their native homes or some other place. I am going to discuss this matter with the Sri Lankan Government. I hope that they will keep their promise.

  What about accountability? The Special Raporteur on Summary Executions Philip Alston gives a press conference at the UN on January 7. Watch this space.

 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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