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In UN Staff Union, Charges of Coup d'Etat in Meetings Closed to Press

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

UNITED NATIONS, April 7, updated April 13 -- The current leadership of the UN Staff Union is being accused of irregularities and of “erroneously excluding” candidates, by a group of purported reformers who, alongside their call for transparency and free and fair elections, held a meeting closed to the Press on Tuesday.

  All this takes place while moves are afoot to reduce for example the number of sick days and leave days for staff members with temporary contracts, and while the physical safety of staff members is increasingly in question.

  While throughout 2007 and 2008 the Staff Union meetings were open, now UN Security officers are used to bar the media from entering. The result is not only a lack of transparency, but also the covering up of mistreatment of staff members. The meeting prior to Tuesday involved the death of staff member Jesmel Navoa who had a stroke in the UN's third sub-basement; it took an hour for an ambulance to arrive on scene to attend him, and he died the next day in the hospital.

   The Staff Union passed a resolution on the matter, but excluded two media organizations from the meeting, and delayed four days in releasing the resolution, which had been modified and watered down after the closed-door vote. Ironically, that resolution called for the issuance of a release to the press. But why would the media cover this meeting they were excluded from, which was summarized five days day? A television network which had been eager to cover this UN staff safety issue ultimately did not, on these grounds -- on which, also, this article starts with press exclusion.

   Tuesday's meeting involved another draft resolution, a copy of which a staff member disagreeing with the exclusion of the Press emerged and provided. In it, concern is expressed "about the irregularities surrounding the conduct of the election of the 43rd Staff Council... leaving 22 units of the organization with no staff representative and another 9 units with questionable representation." It calls for “free and fair elections... Bulletins to be widely circulated on i-Seek and throughout the Secretariat [and to] ensure that a weekly bulletin is issued to the staff providing an update” -- all this in a closed meeting not attended by the vast majority of staff at UN Headquarters.

   Inner City Press arrived at the ECOSOC Chamber to cover the meeting at 1:15. In an abundance of caution, Inner City Press told the UN Security Officer in front of the door that it wished to cover the meeting as me dia. The Officer went in, then came out to say that one Fred Doulton said "no." The First Vice President of the Union Tom Ginivan arrived, and repeated as he had the previous time that the Press would be allowed in. But the Security Officer asked for clarification.

  A representative of the UN's Media Accreditation and Liaison Unit came, and finally summoned the supervisor of the Unit. After stating that if the president of the Union said the meeting was open, it would be open, he emerged from the ECOSOC Chamber to say that Fred Doulton, now described as the chairman, had ruled that the meeting was closed. He added that it was not really a UN meeting, despite the use of UN Security to exclude the press. ("That's just a [security] post," he said of the officers' presence.)

   Perhaps the insurgents didn't want their deliberations to be seen. But it was a meeting at which they sought to have appointed a Caretaker-Administrator of the UN Staff Union. It was, more than one staff member called it, an attempted coup. Only at the UN could such a meeting be said to have nothing to do with the UN.

Elections at UN - in General Assembly, Staff Union elections not shown

   Earlier the same day, the UN couldn't even call the military chasing out Madagascar's elected president a coup d'etat. Inside its own headquarters, it apparently has no written rules on what meetings and events can or cannot be covered by the press. The UN still has no freedom of information procedure, promised by previous Under Secretary General for Management Alicia Barcena. And when a coup is plotted right inside the UN the meeting is closed, arbitrarily, and UN Security is used to exclude the media.

   After the meeting broke up, multiple interviews with both sides and the middle gleaned that because far fewer than 300 staff members were in attendance, no vote was held on the resolution. One of the insurgent, Mampela Mpela, reportedly threatened to organize a "recall" drive against DPI unit representative Maha Fayek. Ms. Fayek said that none of the communications she has receive from those in her unit have asked for a new election; she offered to show her e-mails in this regard. That, would be transparency.

  The president of the union after the meeting made clear to MALU its position that the Press should have been allowed; the response was that the president should have said so at the time.  All of this is a diversion: there are moves afoot to, for example, reduce sick days and leave days for those with temporary contracts, there is very little participation by staff members in these changes. We will continue to follow these issues.

   In this case, everyone could and should do better, including this publication and page. Here's hoping.

Update of April 13: After the publication of the article above, more information became available. Some was provided by those we'd called insurgents -- they prefer “petitioners” -- and some by sources high in the ether that is the UN system. First, a clarification: while undoubtedly the Press was excluded from the April 7 meeting, all are now fingering Fred Doulton. Even the petitioners say they had nothing to do with it, and would have preferred the meeting open.

(Mr. Doulton, by the way, wrote that "Over the years, experiences such as these have helped me evolve. I have learned that there is always a better way to do things, and that people matter more than States, organizations, and belief systems." Maybe returning these meetings to open status is a better way to do things....)

  Second, the petitioners wish it to be known that they are "not in it for personal gain," only out of feeling for the long history of the Union. Mpela, for example, is grateful for what she calls the staff union's intervention to keep her out of jail in 1983. She will retire in mere months.

  Third, the petitioners also contest the statute that's being used. It was enacted with less than 200 people. All they want, they say, is an election. They contest one staff representative's statement that there is hardly a groundswell for this.

  We delayed a few days in running this update as we are making inquiries into why the petitioners were not able to put notice of their meeting on the UN's i-Seek system. We will have more on this.

  Click here for a new YouTube 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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