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At the UN, What Safeguards Prevent Assisting Child Traffickers Raised by Chad Case

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

UNITED NATIONS, November 7 -- In the wake of admissions by the UN that its agencies provided assistance to the French NGO now accused of seeking to kidnapped and human-traffic over 100 children out of Chad, questions have arisen about the UN's current and future policies. Wednesday Inner City Press asked UN Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe what steps the UN will take to try to make sure this does not happened again. While written responses have now been received from UNHCR and UNICEF, and comment was sought from the UN's Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, future safeguards remain unclear.

            Following Inner City Press' questions at Wednesday noon briefing at UN headquarters, a written statement from UNHCR was received:

Subj: UNHCR response to your question; awaiting UNICEF's
From: Office of the UN Spokesperson at
To: matthew.lee [at]
Date: 11/7/2007 2:16:14 PM Eastern Standard Time

No one had any idea this group calling itself Children Rescue was intending to fly kids out of the country and UNHCR staff acted in good faith when they asked soon after their arrival six or eight weeks ago for a few tents and a generator to help needy kids. They apparently set the tents up in their compounds -- one in Abeche and one near the border with Sudan, east of Abeche. Also turns out they were registered with the government. Everyone was fooled by them.

            Inner City Press does not doubt UNHCR's good faith in offering tents and a generator. But what did UNHCR, and what do other UN agencies, know about the groups to which they offer such assistance?

            The UN's Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict on Wednesday afternoon, when informally asked on Wednesday afternoon if there is or will be a UN system-wide policy, responded that she will confer with UNICEF's expert on this issue when she returns to UN headquarters. UNICEF itself responded later Wednesday with a more formal statement, including that

"It has just come to light, as a result of an ongoing internal UNICEF review begun on 26 October, that a recently-hired junior international staff member in UNICEF’s Abeche field office provided a small amount of food supplements and equipment for babies (valued at US$130) on 24 September 2007, in response to an urgent request made by people identifying themselves as representatives of Children Rescue. The French Government has indicated that Children Rescue was the name under which Arche de Zoe was operating in Chad."

            UNICEF is specifying that the blame is on a "recently-hired junior international staff member."  We will have more on this.


 At Wednesday's noon briefing, Inner City Press asked:

Inner  City Press: Two questions.  One, the group accused of taking children out of Chad, Zoe's Ark.  Their lawyer has said they received material assistance from UN agencies in the course of their work, doing that?  Does the UN confirm that and what does the UN have to say about that?

Deputy Spokesperson: The report... sorry, can you repeat that question?

Inner City Press: Sure, the question is, that the lawyer for L'Arche de Zoe says that the UN helped them in their task that resulted in children being... 103 non-orphan children being taken out of the country.

Deputy Spokesperson:  Right, right.

Inner City Press: Can the UN confirm that they helped the group, what help did they give it and what does the UN now say about giving that help?

Deputy Spokesperson:  As you know, UN agencies on the ground have repeatedly been issuing statements regarding this issue.  They have been at the forefront of working with the children, trying to help them and trying to get them back to the communities from which they come, which is obviously the first priority for humanitarians who are working on the ground.  As for specific allegations, you'd have to go to the specific agency, because your question is rather broad.

Question:  What safeguards does the UN have in place so that, let's say -- I'm not saying that they're child traffickers –- but so a group couldn't just show up and say: "We're here to do good; help us take children out of the country."  I guess, what has the UN system as a whole learned from this experience, if they did help them and I think UNHCR has confirmed that they did help them and now it's saying: "Oops.  They're not orphans."  What has the UN...

Deputy Spokesperson:  What do you mean by helping them?  I'm sorry; I don't understand your question.

Inner City Press: Sure.  There's a quote by UNHCR regional person, saying that they had given a variety of material assistance to Zoe's Ark, and now UNICEF says, oh, these kids were not orphans.  But what... The UN system as a whole, what's... just like they have a vendor's list before contracting, do they have any standards before helping a self-described humanitarian group take children out of the country?

Deputy Spokesperson:  If it's concerning a report involving UNICEF, we do have a contact for you.  I don’t have any further information on that.

[The Deputy Spokesperson later told the correspondent that United Nations refugee agency staff on the ground had acted in good faith when they were asked soon after the non-governmental organization's arrival six or eight weeks ago for a few tents and a generator to help needy children.  "Everyone was fooled by them," according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman.  The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says that a recently hired junior international staff member in the Abeche field office violated procedures by providing a small amount of food supplement and equipment for babies (valued at $130) in response to an urgent request made by the non-governmental organization.  UNICEF notes that the provision of this material was motivated by the desire to provide life-saving support to purportedly malnourished children; however, this contravened UNICEF rules and procedures and should not be interpreted as recognition of the organization by UNICEF.  The staff member also advises that she was not informed that this organization planned to remove the children from Chad.  Had UNICEF known of such an intention, it would have advised the relevant authorities.]

  Meanwhile a UN humanitarian worker tells Inner City Press that the incident is causing problems for the Chad/CAR mission deployment...

* * *

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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