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From the UN to JFK, It's Kim Jong Eel and Labor Relations Snafus

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

UNITED NATIONS, March 2 -- Most of the stories written from the UN are read by very few here. This week's tale of rats and eels in the UN was different. It appeared on Page Six of the New York Post, and was talked about not only in the briefing room and at Wednesday evening's reception at the Slovakian Ambassador's 67th Street townhouse, but also by security guards in UNICEF, and cleaning staff in the Secretariat's garage.

   Guards said that yes, there are eels, and that in the past some ate them. The spokesperson for Ban Ki-moon, who was known in Korea as the Slippery Eel, made light of the story and implied there are no eels, only rodents.

            And so Inner City Press, on its own turf on this story, went in search of the eels. This quest, as so many here, led to the third sub-basement. There one finds machines that screen and filter the water that comes in from the East River. Inner City Press is told that eels, or fish of any kind, would only be visible when they stop the machine and open them to clean out the screens. Whether the New York Post actually saw the eels before running its piece is not known. Some years ago, U.S. Navy SEALS explored the UN - East River interplay for potential security issues.

            Another urban legend was plumbed: whether there is or was a subway station under the UN, a stop between Grand Central and Long Island City on the 7 train. The answer appears to be yes. There is a tunnel, metal fencing, security cameras. Wonders never cease.

North Korea: keep on walking

            Friday evening as most UN staff poured out of the building, Peacekeeping head Jean-Marie Guehenno was coming in. To Inner City Press he explained, "Night shift." He said he was coming back from Washington, would soon be leaving for Pakistan. Inner City Press asked about the comment earlier on Friday from Ambassador Kumalo of South Africa, that even a civilian force in Chad would need security.

   "That's true," Mr. Guehenno said. Speaking of protection, Mr. Guehenno is known to be lobbying to get additional spokespersons' posts in his Department. There are, he says, three functions: speaking for the Department, providing back-up to the missions in the field, and creating an overall communications strategy. It sounds like UNDP...

            Meanwhile a portion of the UN press corps has been in a frenzy tracking the foreign minister of the Kim Jong Il government of North Korea, from San Francisco to New York, where he's slated to meet with Christopher Hill at the U.S. Mission. In San Francisco, Japan's NHK television is said to have rented five motorcycles to try to find Minister Kim.  In New York, reporters flocked out to the airport, awaiting a certain (or uncertain) United Airlines flight, and then camped out in front of the Millennium Plaza hotel, in the same structure at UNDP, and awaited him. They got a wave, and not much more.

            Back in the UN, the day ended as it so often Friday does in the Delegates' Lounge. This time a high-ranking UN official twice graced the scene -- hint: one who will hold a press conference on Monday, which narrows it down to two -- and first conveyed the 38th floor's anger at the Staff Union's letter to the editor of the New York Times. This letter looks critically both at Mr. Ban's reforms to date, calling them cosmetic, and at the Times' Feb. 28 article making much of these reforms. The letter focuses on three "fundamental reforms" it calls necessary: staff selection, the culture of fear and the "unfair system of justice at the United Nations."

            An example of the first of these was within spitting and drinking distance of the UN high official Friday night. The culture of fear, so often described on this site, was attempted to be spread to the Press this week by the Pension Fund's complaint to UN Security about Inner City Press' attempt to observe and ask questions outside the February 15 Audit Committee meeting. On Friday, a UN spokesperson said not to worry about this complaint, that the OSSG is angry about it too, and that no written statement is necessary. The system of justice at the UN is called into question by the same UN Pension Fund's lack of action on a March 2006 OIOS report, and failure to be fair to many of its employees.

            Still the week and evening came to a pleasant close in the Delegates' Lounge, with its door into the ECOSOC Chamber, its six-dollar screwdrivers and bowls of free potato chips, its views of the East River reflecting an empty insane asylum, in the middle of the river or here on its west bank, it is not quite certain...

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At the UN, Chad and Darfur Fall Into Footnotes, Sudanese Praise of French But Not UN Soldiers

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

UNITED NATIONS, March 2 -- While some predict Security Council resolution in March on sending UN peacekeepers to Chad, the Council's president for February, Slovakian Ambassador Peter Burian, on Feb. 28 told Inner City Press that it is unlikely that "anything can happen in Chad until summertime." The obstacles include Chadian president Deby's now-stated opposition to peacekeepers (he would prefer a "civilian" presence).

            On March 2, the incoming president of the Security Council, South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo said that Darfur, Chad and Central African Republic only in the footnotes of this month's Council agenda, that the Department of Peacekeeping Operations has said that even a civilian force would need protection, and that discussions continue. Video here. Inner City Press also asked when to expect UN envoy Joaquim Chissano to brief the Council about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Outgoing Council president Burian raised to the issue to Amb. Kumalo during their bilateral meeting of transition.

            A less studied response to Inner City Press' questions, on March 1, Sudan's Ambassador to the UN told Inner City Press that he, too, doubts that Chad will let in the force the UN would like to send. "We are the same people," he said, saying that one of Deby's sons is named Omar, after Sudan's president Omar al Bashir.

   Inner City Press asked for his explanation of last year's abortive march by rebels on Chad's capital, ostensibly stopped by France dropping of a bomb next to the rebel column. "France showed too much force," Sudan's Ambassador said, adding that his government has fewer doubts about French troops than UN blue helmets, against whom the Ambassador raised issues of sexual and other abuse.

Mr. Ban at the Lest We Forget - The Triumph Over Slavery event

            It was at an event on slavery -- the opening of the "Lest We Forget - The Triumph Over Slavery" exhibit -- in the UN visitors' entrance on Thursday night that the Sudanese Ambassador made his remarks to Inner City Press. He began be remarking that the commemoration of slavery should be a national holiday in the United States. He continued:

"Chad, they don't like this force. They want a small civilian force here and there, just to make the world community happy they are doing something. Darfur and Chadians are the same people. Idriss Deby [Chad's President], his wife delivered in the medical hospital in Khartoum. His youngest son is named Omar, for Omar al Bashir. His second wife is Sudanese...

"Now the Security Council is considering this resolution. They say they have not money for Darfur, but they want to deploy to Chad and to Somalia. [CAR president] Bozize? There is a reconciliation there, the Libya mediation. There are many problems there and in Chad that have nothing to do with Darfur. Like in our case, it is better to advance the peace process."

            Inner City Press asked about France's dropping of a bomb in Chad to defend the Deby government last year. Who were the rebels? Why did they stop advancing? Had they been told to simply knock on Deby's door -- either related to oil and the World Bank's conditional loans, or to recognizing China and not Taiwan -- and then to back away?

      "The French response was too big, too massive... We prefer the French to the UN troops, the French do not engage in sexual exploitation like the UN peacekeepers do. In Sudan we don't consider the French as destabilizers."

            When Ban Ki-moon spoke at the Thursday event, he said that slavery continues to this day, including in the use of child soldiers. Canapes were passed around and Ambassadors chit-chatted. On the walls were pictures of slave traders, including Humphrey Morice (1679-1731), who besides owning eight slave ships, named for his wife and daughters, was also a governor of the Bank of England. Beside this picture, the Ambassadors of Sudan and the UK made small talk. Only at the UN...

            At deadline, in other inside-the-UN news, Inner City Press has learned that Warren Sach has been removed from the post of Ban Ki-moon's representative to the UN Pension Fund, replaced on March 1 by Alicia Barcena of the Department of Management. Perhaps this explains Mr. Sach's recent non-response to recent questions. [At 4 p.m., eight hours after questions, an auto-response arrived, that Mr. Sach is away from UN Headquarters from Feb. 28 -- the day of the Pension Fund press conference -- through March 12.] Ms. Barcena, on the other hand, will be taking questions from the Press on March 5...

At the UN, Calls for Transparency and Short-Lists for Genocide Prevention Post, Russian Sporting, Salad Days

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

UNITED NATIONS, February 14 -- The place of human rights in Ban Ki-moon's UN was questioned on Wednesday. Acting on reports that the Kofi Annan-created Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide might be downgraded or merged out of existence, three non-governmental organization held a press conference at which they urged transparency and that short-lists be released of any possible successor to the current advisor, Juan E. Mendez. The NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, the Institute for Global Policy and Amnesty International, urged Ban Ki-moon to make public the report and recommendations of the Advisory Committee to the S-G on the Prevention of Genocide.

            Afterwards, Amnesty International's Yvonne Terlingen was asked if she had a copy of the report. She at first indicated that she did have a copy, then declined to provide a copy to requesting journalists, one of whom scoffed, "So the NGOs want transparency for everyone but themselves."

            At the subsequent UN noon briefing, Inner City Press asked Ban Ki-moon's spokeswoman if that report, and another one by Mr. Mendez about the Ivory Coast, could be released. Video here, from Minute 14:53.  Four hours later, the spokesperson's office responded:

"regarding your question about NGOs urging the SG to consider making public the report and recommendations of the advisory committee to the SG on prevention of genocide: The SG has received the report and is considering its recommendations -- it is not presently public."

            As the report on the Ivory Coast, dated back to December 2005, nothing was said. The spokesperson did say, however, that Mr. Mendez won't be reappointed, because he has asked not to be. So will a short-list be released in this test case? We'll see.

Ms. Terlinger, 2d from left, 2006

            So who wants transparency at the UN? Inner City Press asked the spokesperson for a comment on the controversial settlement of the toxic waste dumping scandal between the Gbagbo government in Ivory Coast and Trafigura, the European dumper which, as Inner City Press first reported, was part of the UN Oil for Food scandal. It is a settlement between a private corporation and a member state, the spokesperson said, declining comment. Kofi Annan speechified on the topic, but the new Administration apparently views it as a "private" matter.

            Another request made on Wednesday was for a list of all UN Goodwill Ambassadors and "Dollar a Year" dignitaries. The latter requests dated back to the prior Administration, and has yet to be filled. At a press conference with UNDP -- click here for that article -- tennis player Maria Sharapova was named a Goodwill Ambassador. UNDP's Ad Melkert declined to provide a simple number on the volume of UNDP's payments in North Korea in 2005, a year for which the books are presumably closed. Afterwards, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin was seen exiting the protocol room containing Ms. Sharapova with a broad smile on his face. In the hallway he told of his "sketchy" sporting career, including speed skating.  Inner City Press asked him for his favorite length. 1,500 meters was the answer.  There followed a story of breaking his leg in St. Tropez. Ms. Sharapova left with an entourage including UNDP's Communications Office staff.  At the UN these days it is all spin, all the time.  As one wag put it, commenting on recent fix-ups of the staff cafeteria, the only thing that's gotten more transparent at the UN is the salad bar, which is now under less opaque plastic.

            Wednesday also marked the first snow of the season in New York. The UN closed down its main walkway, shunting pedestrian entrants into the basement corridor by the library. Dignitaries arriving by car, denied access to the tent by the General Assembly, parked by the front door and entered along a thin and quivering path like on suburban yards everywhere. Many senior officials left at 3 p.m.. One long-time correspondent remembered back in anger at when, when the Rodney King verdict was read out in Los Angeles, the UN closed down and sent everyone home early. What was that again, about a human rights culture?

Other, earlier Inner City Press are listed here, and some are available in the ProQuest service.

            Copyright 2006 Inner City Press, Inc. To request reprint or other permission, e-contact Editorial [at] -

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

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