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Swiss Won't Disclose Amount Paid to Nicolas Michel, Top UN Lawyer, Transparency Questioned

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

UNITED NATIONS, March 31 -- Two weeks after it emerged that the UN's legal chief Nicolas Michel took housing subsidies from the Swiss government from 2004 into 2007, the Swiss mission to the UN has refused to disclose the value of the subsidies, monthly, annually or in total.  As reported, Mr. Michel's own public financial disclosure form for 2006 did not mention the subsidies, and he has since declined to answer direct questions. On March 29, Swiss Mission spokesman Johann Aeschlimann wrote, "Dear Mr. Lee, I am not - and I will not be - providing details and figures. I indicated to you that the contribution was in the order of what is usual for Swiss diplomats, and I would like to leave it at that."

            Aeschlimann had previously responded, when asked about the omission of the subsidies from Nicolas Michel's public financial disclosure form, that "this is an internal UN matter and not for us to comment." On the amount of the subsidy, he had said "the contribution started at the beginning of Mr. Michel's UN contract and it ended at the end of his contract under the previous administration (end of February 2007). The contribution was in the order of what is usual for Swiss diplomats." Inner City Press asked either for the amount, or for information on "what is usual for Swiss diplomats." Even that was not answered - but will be, it would seem, in the future.

Nicolas Michel in mid-sentence, actual value of housing subsidy not shown

  Switzerland's Ambassador to the UN Peter Maurer earlier this year pointed out Inner City Press that "the U.S. Freedom of Information Act does not govern this organization." He spoke outside a UN Development Program Executive Board meeting, which had on its agenda a UNDP proposal to prohibit Board members from making photocopies of audits of the spending of the money they contribute.  "There are different levels of sensitivity," Amb. Maurer said, "about what kind of information should be available to what kind of public. To believe that this organization is going to adopt U.S. procedures is probably illusionary."

            For now, we can only peruse the Compact that Mr. Michel signed with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on February 4, 2008. The document refers to declaring conflicts of interest (page 5 of 7) and, on page 3, to "openness and transparency." Apparently, none of this extends to providing details and figures. It is, as one observer has called it, a belated, begrudging and superficial transparency. To be continued.

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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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