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At UN Refugee Agency, Labor Power Plays and No Comment on Safety or Zoe's Ark Pardons

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

UNITED NATIONS, April 1 -- The work of the UN's refugee agency threatens to be undermined by the doling out of jobs and contracts, staff dissention and management retaliation, as reflected by a recent letter of resignation of those assigned to conduct an agency staff union election. In a March 28 letter to agency chief Antonio Gutteres, the members of the UNHCR Polling Board expressed "serious concern" about Mr. Gutteres' office's attempts to influence the ostensibly free and independent election of staff representatives. Gutteres' deputy, Craig Johnstone, is said to have responded to Staff Council testimony March 17 at a High Level Committee on Management meeting in Rome about UNHCR's doling out of contracts and senior posts by, on March 18, backing an alternative slate of four, who are currently representing the Management on one or more of the joint staff-management bodies and now seeking tardy entry into the Staff Council elections.

    While the UN espouses workers' rights to organize under the International Labor Organization's principles, at UNHCR senior management attempts to impact the results of elections, to retaliate against its own critics. How this impacts the refugees the agency is supposed to serve remains to be seen. What is so far known is that UNHCR, which did not timely answer questions about the underlying jobs and contracting complaint, has now for more than a week declined to answer simple questions on safety. The wider UN has for the two days since Chadian president Deby pardoned the staff of Zoe's Ark who kidnapped over 100 children declined comment twice, including on impunity. As is often said, rot starts at the head, and impunity begins at home: the aforementioned Craig Johnstone is not listed as participating in any way in the UN's public financial disclosure program.

            UNHCR sources tell Inner City Press that it has been too obvious especially during the past four months that Deputy High Commissioner Johnstone was trying to dislodge the current Staff Council at any cost. Preparations were therefore made by Johnstone to mobilize certain staff to stand for election to the new Staff Council. On 15 January 2008, the Polling Board announced that the deadline for applications was close-of-business on 28 February 2008, allowing six weeks to apply. The election date at Headquarters was supposed to be mid April.  Johnstone managed during those six weeks to mobilize about nine or ten people.  But when the applications were opened at the closing date at the end of the work day on February 28, it became apparent that there are about ten other people who had applied and who are not necessarily Management-oriented, thus making a total of 20 candidates standing for election to the Council's 11 posts. The proposed "Management / Johnstone team" was not assured of victory.

Craig Johnstone of UNHCR, not answering questions about safety

            After the closing date for application had expired, four more staff members submitted applications but were eventually rejected as being too late. There were two or three others staff members whose applications were also rejected for the same or other reasons. But this group-of-four late applicants pushed the Polling Board, composed of seven elected Polling Officers, to accept their late applications. The Polling Board reconsidered its decision and was divided on the issue. It eventually decided by a vote, 4 against 3, not to make an exception to the deadline and the four candidates were so advised, around March 4. 

            Johnstone was in Rome on March 17 and 18 to participate in the High Level Committee on Management. On March 17, he heard a speech which singled out UNHCR for violation of the UN Charter by committing percentages of jobs and contracts to donor countries.  The very next day, Johnstone's Executive Assistant Ms. Preeta Law said that Johnstone had given his authorization for the group of four late applicants to send a personal message to all 6400 staff members through UNHCR official distribution system, contrary to UNHCR's written policy on mass distribution of messages through the "UNHCR Broadcast" e-mail system. The distribution of the message was followed by an orchestrated campaign involving senior Officers and Deputy Directors who asked staff to send messages urging the Polling Board to change their position about the deadline and to allow late applications. Some 80 of the UNHCR's 6400 staff members reportedly sent such messages. On March 20, the Polling Board announced that it was prepared to accept late application received up to midnight on 28 February, instead of close of business, but not those received on 29 February 29 or after. The Polling Board also said that they were given to understand that the distribution of the message was authorized by "the Executive Office," meaning High Commissioner Gutteres.

            Gutteres, it seems, was being questioned about whether he had authorized the mass distribution of the message of March 18.  Gutteres has reportedly denied involvement and claimed that he would not take action that would interfere with the work of the Polling Board. When the Polling Board heard this, on March 28, they submitted their resignations.

  Sources predict it will take a few weeks for the situation to fully unfold. In principle, if a new UNHCR Staff Council is not elected according to Chapter 8 of UN Staff Rules, the joint staff - management bodies including those responsible for making recommendations on appointments and promotions cannot be constituted after the tenures of the current ones expire, thus leaving in limbo UNHCR, its staff and most importantly the refugees who are supposed to be served.

            On the matter of safety, questions about which UNHCR has let languish for more than a week, we will soon have (more) to report. Watch this site.

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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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