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At UN, Protest of Staff Union Under Team Ban's Watchful Eye, Scripted Town Hall Revealed

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

UNITED NATIONS, January 26, updated Jan. 27 -- Is the UN run like Zimbabwe? The question was raised at a rare protest inside its Headquarters building, as the 42nd Staff Council handed the baton to the 43rd, without a contested election having been held. The transition took place in Conference Room 4 in the basement. Some three dozen protesters milled outside with signs demanding democracy and transparency.

    Inner City Press spoke with many of the protesters, including South African staff member, head of the UN Photo Library, Mampela Mpela, who said she has fought for democracy for 60 years, she's not going to stop now. In writing, she has said "surely Mugabe has good company right here at the United Nations that criticizes him."

   Also at the protest was Gail Bindley-Taylor Sainte, whose candidacy was ended by UN Polling Officers based on a ruling that signatures she obtained from the UN Pension Fund staff among others were not valid. She took heart from a letter released Monday on the UN's intranet by the head of the UN's Department of Management Angela Kane.

  Ms. Kane, while writing she respects the principle of "non-interference by management in union affairs," nevertheless referred to the Pension Fund and ISCS staff's "long-standing participation in the Staff Union up until now." She urged that steps be taken to create a credible partner in the Staff Union.

  In terms of credibility and non-interference, however, a document Inner City Press has obtained raises the question of which of the three sides to this dispute are more Zimbabwe-like. A memo describing Ban Ki-moon ostensibly informal and unscripted January 5, 2009 Town Hall meeting with staff listed, in advance, the staff members who would be permitted to ask questions, including Mr. Sayyid Hashim Alavi from Afghanistan, Mr. Wayne Hayde from Darfur and Mr. Alpha Sow from the Congo. Click here for the memo.

Gail Bindley-Taylor Sainte, with pink scarf, outside CR 4 (c) M.Lee

  There were staff union officials from other duty stations: Eduardo Chaparro from Santiago, Rhoda Atana from Nairobi, Ahed Sboul from ESCWA in Beirut, Stefano Berterame from Vienna and Mulutsega Legesse from Addis Ababa. The chief of public information, David Winhurst, was in the script. Only after Margaret Mahfoudi, a senior human resources assistant in Geneva, was the president of the Staff Union in New York Stephen Kisambira allowed to speak. If he were, as charged, Mugabe it would hardly be this way.

   The noontime protest Monday was dominated by staff from the Department of Public Information. One senior DPI official, Ahmad Fawzi, who recently returned from serving as Ban Ki-moon spokesman during his trip to Gaza and elsewhere in the Middle East, conferred with the protesters and briefly held a sign for transparency. In light of Angela Kane's stated commitment to non-interference by management in Staff Union affairs, Inner City Press asked Fawzi's office for comment on the protest. By deadline, no response had been received.

Update of January 27: after reiterating on Jan. 27 the questions about the protest, asking "what you thought of it, how you heard of it, if you've seen Angela Kane's letter of yesterday on i-Seek and if you view yourself as 'management,' as the term is used in her letter or otherwise, and if you're willing, your history with and thoughts about unions in the UN system," the following was received from Mr. Fawzi:

"I received emails from staff reps.
- I view myself first as a staff member of the Secretary-General and of the Organization, as an international civil servant, and also as a manager.
- I have read the letter and agree with the USG. By the way, re your question of what I thought of the protest:  I came too late to form an opinion of the actual protest, re what I think of it overall, I endorse the USG's letter. I stopped by a half-hour after the protest was scheduled, to stay informed, to see for myself how things had gone, and to speak to those who had emailed.
- On thoughts about the staff union, I feel strongly that staff, and their concerns, should be well represented. Re my views on the union system, those are personal."

  The protest ended with vows to collect 300 signatures and convene a general staff meeting. There have been issues in the past about these collections of signatures, including their publication along with UN i.d. numbers on the intranet. It should also be advised not to rely on signatures from the Pension Fund. Since the UN preaches democracy, it should try to practice it. We will continue to follow these issues.

Footnote: the UN is belatedly moving to name a director of its new Office of Administration of Justice. According to a January 21 e-mail from Angela Kane's Principal Officer Lena Dissin, Ban Ki-moon "has decided to appoint Andrei Terekhov... currently Deputy Director of the General Legal Division of the Office of Legal affairs" to the position. Staff Union sources call Terekhov an insider who has opposed rather than fought for staff members' rights. We'll see.

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

Click here for Inner City Press Nov. 7 debate on the war in Congo

Watch this site, and this Oct. 2 debate, on UN, bailout, MDGs

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

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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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