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At UN, Dodging Questions on End-Game Sri Lanka, Somalia's Pirates of the Pen, Fowler and Nairobi UN Intrigue

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

UNITED NATIONS, April 26 -- As in Sri Lanka's “No Fire Zone” the dangers for civilians grew throughout the week up to the government's rejection of calls and offers for cease-fire [Inner City Press debate video here], in New York the UN's Spokesperson's Office tried to answer even fewer and fewer questions. For the first time, the Office repeatedly implied that was or is some limit on the questions that can be asked.

   It began on Monday, when the Office canceled its normal question and answer session to put all focus on Ban Ki-moon denouncing Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Tuesday Inner City Press asked Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe:

Question: I have several questions, in part because the noon briefing was canceled yesterday. First, on Sri Lanka -- on the Secretary-General’s statement yesterday, where he says he deplores the continued use of heavy weapons in the vicinity of civilians and the use of force by the LTTE -– who, is he saying, is using the heavy weapons? And if he is saying it is the Government, why doesn’t he put it in the statement?

Deputy Spokesperson: I think the Secretary-General’s statement was very clear and very strong yesterday. And as I mentioned to you in a note that I was reading to you while you came in and were setting up shop, the highest priority for the United Nations right now is access to the victims, which is precisely why the Secretary-General has done what he can and is doing what he can in order to get the assistance and access to the people who are in desperate need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

And to your comment on the cancellation of the noon briefing yesterday; the reason for that was that, at precisely the same time that the noon briefing was scheduled, the Secretary-General was having an important press conference together with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, on a subject that was at the top of the news. Even though we could not get yesterday a two-way Q and A session -– which we hope to do in the future –- because of the importance that item took yesterday morning, we decided to try to get it to reporters here in real time. So that is the explanation for that.

Question: Just on that, it would have been helpful to take questions after his press conference.

Deputy Spokesperson: We took your questions. I took your questions in our Office and we responded to your questions like we normally do, okay?

Question: Fine. On this access in Sri Lanka, can you explain how... It has been said from this podium that the UN staff members who have been detained in the IDP camps, that the UN – although they had not announced it publicly – had repeatedly complained and tried to get them released. The Sri Lanka Government had said the first they heard from the UN had been 15 April, two days after it was raised here. Can you explain the discrepancy, or does the UN say Sri Lanka is mis-speaking as the UN’s complains?

Deputy Spokesperson: I don’t know exactly about the timeline that you are speaking of, so I am going to have to refer to OCHA to provide answers to that. All I can tell you right now is that today our imperative is for UN staff to be allowed to have access to these victims....

Question: There is one question I asked yesterday, so I will ask it again, and there is something new today. What I asked yesterday was what is the UN’s response to more than 100 Sudanese killed in South Sudan and a report that UNMIS had been recommended to do further patrols in Jonglei State and did not done so.

Deputy Spokesperson: My understanding was that Yves had gotten back to you on that, but if he has not, I will ask him to send you the answer on that.

[The correspondent was told that the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) is currently assessing security and humanitarian needs in the wake of last weekend's violence. In the five weeks since the violence of 5-13 March, which rocked Pibor County in Jonglei State, UNMIS has conducted enhanced patrolling activities in various locations in the State, engaged in pre-emptive deployment of UNMIS troops in order to better protect civilians in Bor County, and worked closely with the Jonglei State Government to support its efforts to stabilize the security situation on the ground.]

Question: There is a UN staff member, José Antonio Ortega of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), who has been arrested in Halifax, Canada, for procuring child pornography. Does the UN have knowledge of this, and what will the UN do about this?

Deputy Spokesperson: The only thing I have on that story that you refer to is that Mr. Ortega is a staff member of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Mr. Ortega was on a personal trip and left on Thursday, 9 April, for Canada. He was expected to be back in the office on 13 April but did not show up. His office could not get in touch with him. We were still trying to find out about his status until late last week, when news of the court case was announced in the Canadian press. The matter is taken very seriously by the United Nations and it has already been referred to UN Security and the Office of Human Resources Management for action. That is all I have for today.

Question: In terms of seriousness, there is a report that the Head of Operations of the UN Centre in Nairobi, Alexander Barabanov, who was found by Kenya to have an illegal weapon, is still serving the UN. A series of letters has been sent to Angela Kane and OLA trying to get authority to discontinue his service to the UN, due to the illegal gun. Is he still in service, and if so, why?

Deputy Spokesperson: I don’t have any information on that. I have to look into that for you.

On that note, have a good afternoon and see you tomorrow.

   But no further information was provided. Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, was in Malta.

UN's Ban arrives in Malta, "bloodbath on the beach" in Sri Lanka not shown

On Wednesday things grew even worse:

Inner City Press: Two things: There is a report of the FDLR killing 14 civilians in Kivu Province. Is that something that MONUC can confirm, and what steps are they taking? Also, I have been wanting to ask you about this thing of Ahmedou Ould Abdallah in Somalia, where it has emerged that he raised funds from Norway and, I believe, Kenya, to submit a report to Somalia under the Law of the Sea about drilling rights off shore. Did he check with the Secretary-General before he did that? How does he decide to use a drilling or oil-producing country’s funds to do a filing for Somalia?

Deputy Spokesperson: I am not aware of the report on Mr. Ould Abdallah, so I have to look into that for you. The other one on MONUC, we have not seen anything from MONUC today, but we can follow up.

Question: The UN radio, Radio Okapi, reported the number of 14, so it seems strange... Can we say that it is a UN report that the FDLR is back in action?

Deputy Spokesperson: I am not aware of the report, so we will have to check that, or you will have to check with MONUC.

Have a good afternoon.

   Again, there was no follow up, including after a Wednesday email to Ould Abdallah's spokeswoman. Thursday it continued:

Inner City Press: Yesterday, Mr. Nambiar did brief the Council, but he did not speak to the press. Is there some reason... Even Mr. Gambari, when he goes on similar ventures, speaks to the press and answers questions. First, can you say why he did not? Also, some parts of his meetings were described as involving this humanitarian team. But did he have political discussions, and if so, what was the message he carried to the President of Sri Lanka?

Deputy Spokesperson: The message he carried was the message that the Secretary-General has stated publicly many times over. We have been reporting to you about that. The Secretary-General himself has commented now on the situation a short while ago. Those remarks are available to you. News stories have already been picked up on what the Secretary-General said, which is why we asked Catherine Bragg to come here today to brief you on the humanitarian situation, which is the most acute problem that we are trying to address at the moment.

Question: Is it possible to get either a stakeout or a press conference by Mr. Nambiar, because he was the main envoy that went there?

Deputy Spokesperson: I think the Security Council heard his briefing, has commented on that, and has issued a press statement by the Security Council President on which the Secretary-General himself already commented and I would like to draw your attention to that. So the answer: I don’t think so, okay?

Question: Did he stop in India on his way back from Sri Lanka, and if so, did he have any meetings?

Deputy Spokesperson: I am not aware of any meetings that he had in India.

Question: A question about Mr. Fowler. Repeatedly, questions arose while he was detained, and you said that not to jeopardize his safety you would not answer. Now that he has been released, I want to know several things. First of all, is it the case, as reported that he that day visited a Canadian-owned goldmine in Niger? If so, is that a trip he had informed the Government of and was it related to his UN mandate? Why was there no security along? Did he have UN issued travel orders? Was the DSS told of his trip in advance?

Deputy Spokesperson: Security issues are not something that we discuss in public. At the moment, the Secretary-General just recently released the statement welcoming his release. He has just been released. I am sure that after he receives immediate attention, medical attention, other attention that he needs, he will have a debriefing. But, at the moment, I have nothing beyond the fact that we are very relieved that he has been released. The Secretary-General’s statement, I think, reflects that.

Question: Is the UN going to conduct any kind of inquiry into the seeming irregularities...

Deputy Spokesperson: Nothing beyond that. Thank you very much.

   Given the UN's silence, we are preparing a follow-up report on the case of Mr. Fowler and his colleagues. On Friday, Sri Lanka was again the initial focus:

Inner City Press; In Sri Lanka, there is an Excel document that was distributed by the UN in Colombo, called “verified data” 6,432 killed. So it is now on the UN relief website. Many people are curious why the UN is distributing what it calls “verified casualties figures” to diplomats. Can we say this is the UN number?

Deputy Spokesperson: I asked the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs that question. You asked the senior official of that Department yesterday. They tell us that the numbers are unverified, but while unverified, this might be a reasonable estimate. That is what I have for you.

Question: Okay. I guess we will hear from UNHCR about the humanitarian assessment mission to the north. My questions is: the diplomats of Sri Lanka have been quoted as saying, there is no longer a need for this trip, both the Foreign Secretary and others. Is the trip to Jaffna by Mr. Buhne, that is what Ban Ki-moon was talking about as the “emergency mission”?

Deputy Spokesperson: That is correct. I refer you to what I read at the beginning of the briefing.

Question: My other question has to do with the Medical Service. I just wanted to know a simple thing: the doctors and nurses in the UN Medical Service on the fifth floor -- is it the UN’s position that they have to have licenses, and do they distribute controlled substances like Valium and others. And have recently prescription pads of a number of them been taken away and the DEA...

Deputy Spokesperson: I have no information on what you are referring to.

[The correspondent was later given the following answer:

The Medical Services Division (MSD) provides a comprehensive occupational health service to UN staff system-wide, including health promotion, clinical care, and travel health services, as well as advice to the administration of the UN, its funds and programmes, and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Department of Field Support on clinical and medico-administrative issues. In addition, MSD provides medical advice to UN medical facilities across the globe, coordinating implementation of UN policies on medical and health care. The overall goal is to improve staff health, lower risk, and ensure that job demands are met.

The Medical Services Division in New York does not provide a primary care service to staff, referring staff instead to the local health system for definitive management of any medical conditions detected. A requirement for recruitment of doctors and nurses employed by the United Nations is that they are registered to practice their professions in their country of origin. A limited quantity of medications is maintained on site, and stock control is rigorously performed, and is verifiable, according to standard pharmaceutical control norms.

The recent allegations regarding pharmaceutical control measures at the United Nations are not new and are in fact being investigated by the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). The Medical Services Division has provided its full cooperation to OIOS in that regard.]

  Click here for Inner City Press' exclusive story. We will have more on all this.

  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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