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UN's Top Lawyer Declines to Answer on Subsidy, Insurance or Settlements, Liberia Crash Fallout

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

UNITED NATIONS, March 27 -- As the UN's chief lawyer Nicolas Michel purported to take questions from the press on Wednesday about the UN's Lebanon tribunal, behind the scenes he declined to answer questions not only about the housing subsidies he took from the Swiss government, but also about the UN-affiliated Cambodian genocide tribunal, his office's role in reviewing charges of UN Development Program involvement in diamond mining and smuggling in Zimbabwe, and how the UN and his office settle legal claims against the UN.  While Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson said publicly that Michel is "very open about these issues," when faced with written questions from Inner City Press, Mr. Michel has said that henceforth all inquiries should go through the spokesperson's office. Wednesday at Michel's briefing, during which even though it was television Mr. Michel purposed to go off the record, click here to view, the spokesperson declined to call on Inner City Press to ask a question. Very open, indeed...

            Underpinning the freeze out of the press, the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar repeated and cited Inner City Press' report that Michel's receipt of housing subsidy from the Swiss government throughout 2006 was omitted from his public financial disclosure form. Unlike Inner City Press, Al Akhbar concluded with a question in the nature of an editorial, asking why Switzerland would be paying, if not to seek some influence? Reportedly, Al Akhbar's story is viewed as damaging the credibility of Nicolas Michel, and perhaps by implication the tribunal, in Lebanon. Mr. Michel's response was not to finally disclose how much subsidy he took from the Swiss, but rather to refuse to answer any further questions and to declare his last transmission "off the record." Inner City Press is respecting but noting that request, from the UN's top lawyer.

            Among the questions still lacking answers are how much Michel received in housing subsidy from the Swiss government, and for how long.  Of even since-discredited Evelyn Herfkens, formerly of the UN Development Program, it is known that she received $280,000. (She is being asked to return the subsidy.) Herfkens found an apartment, across from the UN, from $7000 a month, while Michel has said he couldn't find anything in Manhattan for less than $20,000, due to size of family and, apparently, taste. But how much did he end up taking from the Swiss government, to live in suburban Westchester? At first he said he couldn't find or didn't have access to the records. Now he says he will answer no more direct questions.

Nicolas Michel on Thursday: off the record?

            Because the UN so often claims immunity, denying the jurisdiction of national courts over its actions, a lack of transparency by its chief legal official is particularly troubling.  On a simple legal issue, Inner City Press asked Nicolas Michel "how are settlements paid out by UN peacekeeping missions? I asked at the noon briefing a report from Liberia [click here]. The spokesperson said that arrangements are made by each peacekeeping mission, on a case by case basis. But is OLA involved in the payment of settlements (and presumably the signing of releases)? How does immunity impact this?"

            Because unhappy with the coverage of the housing subsidy he took from the Swiss, Mr. Michel refused to answer this question, even the thematic part, about immunity. Rather, Inner City Press had to await a non-thematic (but nonetheless appreciated) answer from Monrovia from an UNMIL spokesman, that

Matthew, this is what I can give you now:

Q:Was there an accident Nov 29 2007 involving UNMIL?

A: Yes

Q: Does UNMIL acknowledge its role and is it seeking to pay a settlement

A: UNMIL has acknowledged its role and accepted the outcome of an investigation by LNP and UNMIL investigators.

Q: How much was determined to be paid and from which funding would it be paid?

A:  UNMIL's insurers in Monrovia (Secure Risks) are dealing with the claim, according to the laws of Liberia.

So -- UNMIL has insurance, and this will pay the victims of an UNMIL crash. At times, as will shortly become apparent, the UN does not even insure its own workers.

Q: Update on the UNMIL helicopter crash and any payments made in connection with that.

A: As has been discussed here in UNMIL press briefings, the cause of the crash was determined to be accidental. We have no details of any payment which may have been made as the helicopter and the pilots who died were working for a Ukrainian company contracted through UN HQ.

            That is to say, the question cannot be answered from the field, only through Headquarters in New York. But here in New York, spokespeople say questions can only be answered from the field, and delay for days providing the most simple financial information.

  To be fair to Nicolas Michel, we note two analogous things, that Mr. Michel is not the only UN official questions about whom the spokesperson leaves unanswered. Earliest this week, Inner City Press asked if new Sports and Development envoy Lemke is still an elected official in Germany. Information was promised, but none was provided. Finally, Inner City Press contacted the Germany mission to the UN, which replied

"At the moment, Mr. Lemke is a member of the government of the German federal state of Bremen. He was, however, appointed by the Secretary-General to his new post on the understanding that he will resign from his post in Bremen. He will of course tender his resignation to the Bremen parliament before he assumes his new post in Geneva, which will both happen after his visit to New York."

            And, also to be fair to Nicolas Michel, two UN officials who has chosen to maintain financial disclosure confidentiality are the UN Mission in Kosovo's Joachim Rucker -- whether this lack of disclosure would weigh against rumored consideration for Department of Management is not known -- and the Department of Peacekeeping Operation's Dmitri Titov, now the "Rule of Law" chief.

   Oh to be the lawyer advocating for a lawless organization...

* * *

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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