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UN Admits Error in Publishing Staff's Signatures and ID Numbers, No Accountability Yet

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

UNITED NATIONS, October 19 2008, updated June 30, 2011 -- The current UN's lack of accountability and lack of respect for personal privacy, including of its staff members, were demonstrated by a comedy of errors last week, culminating in a rare UN admission that "we made a mistake." [Update 6/30/2011 - link to the page has been removed at the request of the UN: can provide the page if requested by email.]

  Hundreds of staff member's personal information was put online and at risk, then after Inner City Press reported on it, the information was taken down. But the UN's spokesperson says she will not comment on it, and for now no one is taking responsibility for it, or even acknowledging having made the decision.

   On Wednesday October 15, UN posted on its internal website hundreds of staff members' signatures and identification card numbers, in an attempt to show dissatisfaction with the current leadership of the UN Staff Union, which has been critical of Ban Ki-moon's leadership. Staff members outraged at having their information publicized in this way complained to Inner City Press, and were quoted in Inner City Press' exclusive story published on the Internet at 6 p.m. Wednesday night.

  Later on Wednesday night, the UN without comment took down the signatures and i.d. card numbers, placing a blank petition in their place.

Ban interviewed by his iSeek, accountability not shown

   Two days later the UN -- some anonymous "i-Seek team" -- apologized on the site, stating without being asked that senior management was not responsible. "Thou doth protest too much," as one wag paraphrased Shakespeare in response to what we're calling the UN's "wea culpa" message of October 17, click here to view.

Posted: Friday, 17 October 2008, New York | Author: iSeek

Dear Colleagues,

We made a mistake. On Wednesday, 15 October at 1:15 p.m., the iSeek team posted a letter to the Secretary-General on "a crisis in the Staff Union". The letter included the names and index numbers of staff members who signed a petition "to achieve free and fair elections (42nd Staff Council)".

Posting the names and index numbers was a mistake and we apologize. The letter containing the names and index numbers was removed at 8:35 p.m. the same day, when concerns were brought to the attention of the iSeek team. The text of the petition was posted in its place.

The iSeek story was not posted at the request of senior management. It was posted at the request of representatives of the concerned staff members who signed the petition.

The iSeek team

  Inner City Press, subsequently trying to find out who made the decision, was told that iSeek would never, of course, publish anything critical of the UN or its senior management, and that a decision was made to publish the petition, and even to write a short faux news story to introduce it. We will continue to inquire into who was responsible.

  On October 16, Inner City Press asked Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson Michele Montas

Inner City Press: there was yesterday put on the UN’s i-Seek system a petition concerning the Staff Union.  My question is really not about the petition but about how it was decided and by whom to put online the signatures and ID card numbers of several hundred UN staff members and whether that is consistent with both the privacy and/or sort of identity theft of the staff members and the safety of UN premises given that supposedly these IDs are the safe way to get into the building.  Who decided that this petition, which is opposing the current Staff Union leadership should be put online for thousands of people to see?

Spokesperson:  I assume it was put by the people who put their signatures there.

Inner City Press: No, but I’m saying that many people...if someone else in the UN system said I want to put something in i-Seek, it doesn’t go up.  Somebody decides we’re going to put this one up.  So, who decided...?

Spokesperson: Okay, I can find out for you who decides that, but in cases like this, if the people who signed the petition wanted their names known it is...  I have to add, Matthew, that this is not a public site.  This is an internal site for UN staff.

Question:  Right.  That thousands of people see.  So, I guess not only...

Inner City Press: Thousands of people?

Question:  Yes.

Spokesperson:  Okay, if you say so.

Question:  No, I mean, how many UN staff have access to it?

Spokesperson:  UN staff, yes.  All UN staff have access to it, yes.

Question:  And just whoever decided to put it up; were the people who signed the petition told, because I have heard complaints from people that signed it that they had no idea that their signature and information was going to be put online.  That’s not part of the petition.  So, I’m just asking; it’s just a question...

Spokesperson:  I will ask for you how it was done.

  But this simple information -- how and by whom the personal information of 500 staff members was put online -- has not been provided, despite the "wea culpa" acknowledgement that a mistake was made.

  At the October 17 noon briefing, Inner City Press asked Spokesperson Montas

Inner City Press: This is just a follow-up of the thing from yesterday.  This petition that went online with the ID numbers and signatures of people.  Apparently it’s now been taken down.  Do you have any comment on why?  Was there a second thought, was there a thought that there was problem having it online?

Spokesperson:  First, as I said yesterday, this is an internal website.  So I am not commenting in a public setting like this one about an internal website, to start with, okay? I told you that we would try to get the answer for you.  But we don’t have to comment on this.  And we have no comment.  I can try to find out what happened, but I also think you can try to find out on your own, Matthew.

Inner City Press: Some people said that somebody made a big mistake in outing those online; in fact the Staff Union passed a resolution asking the Secretary-General to take action against whoever the individual was.  Are you aware of that resolution?

Spokesperson:  I am not. 

    So despite on October 16 saying she would find out who put the staff members personal information and ID card numbers online, by October 17 Ms. Montas said she would not find out, or would not disclose, and would not comment. So much for accountability.

Note: Catch this reporter on Icelandic television,

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.

* * *

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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