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Spinning Belarus, UNDP Downplays Chernobyl and Human Rights Concerns

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

UNITED NATIONS, November 19 -- There was rare good news, or at least it was presented as such, at the UN on Monday: the land around Chernobyl is safe and not radioactive, potatoes can be grown and eaten, the cancer deaths are due to cigarettes and alcoholism. This was the message of the UN Development Program, delivered by Ms. Cihan Sultanoglu, Deputy Director of the Regional Bureau for Europe and Commonwealth of Independent States, and until recently UNDP's resident coordinator in Belarus. She presented a slide show replete with photos of tomatoes growth near the reactors.

    Inner City Press asked if, even in the restricted zone, biofuels might be produced, and about UNDP's engagement with the Lukashenko government in Belarus, particularly on human rights.  Ms. Sultanoglu called biofuels a good idea, particularly with grapeseed. Video here. Her spokesman said that the human rights question would not be answered on camera, but only later. To his credit, he produced Ms. Sultanoglu for an eight-minute interview. Inner City Press asked about a UNDP program to be a "bridge" between the government and non-governmental organizations, in light of reports of Lukashenko shutting down NGOs. "We don't deal with political NGOs," Ms. Sultanoglu said, adding that 38% of the HIV - AIDS project is expended through NGOs. Does that mean that 62% goes through or to the government? She wouldn't say. How much of UNDP's budget in Belarus is in "Nationally Executed" projects, of the kind for which UNDP fell under fire with regard to North Korea? "They are totally different," Ms. Sultanoglu said. She also said UNDP is extensively involved in NEX project, that "everything is NEX."

            Has UNDP ever raised human rights issues to the government of Belarus?  "UNDP has a developmental mandate," Ms. Sultanoglu said. She added that, before the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in Belarus was canceled last year, UNDP used to have "a person on a part-time basis" working on human rights issues. She mentioned a joint UNDP - UNICEF program on human rights in the administration of justice. As to the Internet, "sometimes they might close it." UNDP's Internet II project has already been completed. There are few to no long term effects of Chernobyl, and freedom and human rights are alive and thriving in Belarus, according to UNDP. Those who see things different, journalists were told, just don't have the knowledge. We'll see.

Click here for today's Inner City Press story on UNDP, ethics and no-bid computer clean-up contracts.

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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

  Because a number of Inner City Press' UN sources go out of their way to express commitment to serving the poor, and while it should be unnecessary, Inner City Press is compelled to conclude this installment in a necessarily-ongoing series by saluting the stated goals of the UN agencies and many of their staff. Keep those cards, letters and emails coming, and phone calls too, we apologize for any phone tag, but please continue trying, and keep the information flowing.

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540