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At the UN, Even Louise Arbour Is Dismissive of Critical New Media, Zimbabwe Sanctions Decried by S. Africa

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

UNITED NATIONS, March 30 -- The UN Human Rights Council "is not a club of the virtuous," High Commissioner Louise Arbour said Friday. Inner City Press asked for her comments on the Council's decision to stop public reporting on human rights in Uzbekistan and Iran, and on the Council president's much YouTubed threat to "strike from the record" testimony that criticizes the Council or its members. Click here to view the YouTube from Geneva, including a non-censured statement from Zimbabwe's representative that another "distinguished delegate is ignorant."

            Ms. Arbour responded that Council president Luis Alfonso de Alba of Mexico was correct and within his role to "maintain decorum" by admonishing the speech by UN Watch, which along other things spoke of "butchery" in Darfur. Video here, starting abruptly after Inner City Press' question, at Minute 31:48.

   After speaking on the Convention on the Rights of Disabled People, Ms. Arbour also tried to present the Council's positions on the recent report on Darfur as "a positive development." It appears that Ms. Arbour so much wants the new Human Rights Council to be a success that she is now putting a positive spin on anti-rights developments that, wearing another hat, she would most likely criticize. Some of this is understandable, but Friday's performance to many went too far, and was inconsistent for example with her previous strong statement, also in response to a question from Inner City Press, that Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army "is nothing more than a criminal gang," click here for that.

   Earlier this month, Inner City Press asked Ms. Arbour's spokesman if "the UN system had any comment on two 'rule of law' developments, the in Pakistan, the president's action to remove the chief justice from his post, and in Uganda, the army 'invading' the court house to lock up acquitted defendants." The response:

Subj: Re: Qs for HC Arbour from press at UNHQ, doubly referred (Pakistan and Uganda), thanks in advance 
From: [Spokesman at] ohchr.org
To: Matthew Russell Lee
Date: 3/15/2007 3:59:25 AM Eastern Standard Time  

...our office in Uganda condemned the intrusion.  You'll find below the statement we issued.  On the question regarding Pakistan's chief justice, the special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers has been following the case.  We are checking to see what the latest is on this issue.

            Since then, nothing. The HRC clip on YouTube has been viewed well over 100,000 times, so Inner City Press asked Ban Ki-moon's Associate Spokesman for the Secretariat's response to it. "I'm not aware of it," he answered. Another UN Department of Public Information staffer, who will remain nameless upon previous request, asked why Inner City Press would be raising issues for, or be "taken in by," the censured speaker in this case. The answer is simple: because of the censure, or even, threatened censorship. That so many people working for the UN, even in communication, would favor simply ignoring critical questions they perceive as UN bashers is striking. It may also explain the disconnection between the UN and much of its host country.

UN HRC: fish eye on YouTube

            On the question of Zimbabwe, Inner City Press on Friday asked the spokesman if it is Ban Ki-moon's position that the situation in that country, as an OCHA briefer said Thursday, is not a threat to international peace and security. From the transcript:

Inner City Press: Yesterday, the Secretariat's briefer about Zimbabwe to the Security Council was asked if he thought the situation in Zimbabwe was a threat to international peace and security.  And he said that he does not think that it is.  I'm wondering if that is the Secretariatís position?

Associate Spokesperson:  The Secretariat has mentioned in the past certain possible problems, including problems that could go across the border.  However, we haven't given any evaluation to the Security Council in terms of whether or not this constitutes a threat to international peace and security.  And itís up to the Security Council, of course, to determine these things.  So, in some ways, it would be better to ask the members of the Security Council whether they are discussing, or whether they have any view, on whether this does constitute such a threat.

            On Friday Inner City Press asked outgoing Council president, Amb. Dumisani Kumalo of South Africa, about the Southern Africa Development Community's call for the lift of sanctions against Zimbabwe. Amb. Kumalo said the sanctions should be lifted because they are making poor people suffer. Inner City Press asked him to respond to the argument that the sanctions are targeted at senior officials of the Mugabe government, impacting their ability to travel and freezing their overseas assets. Amb. Kumalo insisted that even lifting such targeted sanction "would help" poor people. Video here, including Amb. Kumalo's jovial thanks to the press for the month.

   Six days ago, when Inner City Press asked him if the sanctions on Iran's Bank Sepah would hurt regular depositors, Amb. Kumalo said no. So his and South Africa's position must be that sanctions can be targeted to not impact the poor. Was the balance struck on Iran, but not on Zimbabwe? To be continued.

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At the UN, Six Hours for Two Paragraph on Iran, Spin Over Kosovo and Zimbabwe

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

UNITED NATIONS, March 29 -- After Zimbabwe was discussed Thursday in the UN Security Council, the Council's president for March, South African Ambassador Dumisani S. Kumalo, said the briefing should not have taken place. Inner City Press asked him about a statement, just made, by UK Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry, that the situation in Zimbabwe represents "a potential problem for regional stability."

            "We held the briefing just to hear that?" asked Ambassador Kumalo.  He said no one in Zimbabwe was helped by the briefing or the politicization. Sources tell Inner City Press that inside the closed-door meeting, Amb. Kumalo apologized to the UN Secretariat's briefer, Rashid Khalikov of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, for having him in the Council instead of some other, purely humanitarian venue.

            The UK asked for the Zimbabwe briefing, which was scheduled for last Thursday, March 22 but got bumped by the Iran nuclear sanctions resolution. The rescheduled time ended up not working, Amb. Jones Parry said, because the requested briefer was "away on mission." Therefore Rashid Khalikov on March 29 was the choice, under the rubric "Other matters."

            Following his briefing, Mr. Khalikov took questions from reporters. Surprisingly, he said that he does not view the situation in Zimbabwe as a threat to international peace and security. Most briefers decline to opine on such political questions, since the jurisdiction of the Security Council turns on precisely this test.

            Since Mr. Khalikov's (new) boss is John Holmes, previously a UK diplomat, it is foreseen that Mr. Holmes, upon his return from his visit to Sudan, Chad and elsewhere, will be asked for his views on the briefing, and on Zimbabwe more generally. Speaking of Chad, Mr. Holmes on Thursday was quoted both that the international community is underestimating the problem, and that no UN force can be sent in absent a political solution and a "peace to keep."

Kosovo, not Zimbabwe (or Chad)

            As discussion of Zimbabwe in the Council is viewed as controversial, so too is review of Myanmar, on which Russia and China most recently cast vetoes.  Inner City Press asked, at Thursday's UN noon briefing:

Inner City Press: I saw that the Deputy Secretary-General is slated to meet with the Permanent Representative of Myanmar later this afternoon.  And I'm wondering what's on the agenda, and whether, in light of Special Rapporteur [Paulo Sergio] Pinheiro's call for the release of political prisoners, whether Ms. Migiro will be raising that or other human rights issues?

Associate Spokesperson:  We don't often get readouts of meetings that are held with the Permanent Representatives here, of which there are many.  But I'll see whether we can get some information once that happens.

 [He later told the correspondent that it had been a courtesy visit.]

Inner City Press: I know there's been a request for some time to have Ms. Migiro either do a briefing here or maybe they were going to do it at the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA) Club.  Where does it stand, to actually hear from Ms. Migiro?

Associate Spokesperson:  She's certainly willing to meet with you in a number of venues.  I don't know what the arrangements are, whether it's here or in UNCA for the next one.

Inner City Press: I guess I would like to reiterate that invitation, on behalf of UNCA.  I just think it's time. The other question I have is: there were these announcements about what they call the mobility posts.  There's about a dozen, maybe, that were announced with some fanfare.  Mr. [Vijay] Nambiar said there were 1,200 applications.  What is the status of those?  Some people are saying that some of the posts have been given out.  Is that the case?

Associate Spokesperson:  I'm not aware that any of them have been given out.  Certainly none of them have been announced.  I know that I've been looking with interest, to see whether those posts have been filled.  But as far as I know, they're not.

Inner City Press: Will they be announced when they are filled?

Associate Spokesperson:  I imagine so, yes.  I don't think all of them will be announced, because many of them are fairly low-level.  I imagine the higher-level ones would be announced, as we normally do with high-level posts.

            The UN Secretariat can issues statements and calls on human rights and suffering in member states, but not bring the issue up or talk about it when these states' Ambassadors come in for meet and greet. Earlier this week, DSG Migiro told Inner City Press she wants to do a briefing. This would be the time.

            In other Security Council action, most of Thursday was spent negotiating a mere two-paragraph press statement on the 15 UK soldiers in custody in Iran. In the late afternoon, the U.S. mission's Rick Grenell said, on the record, "we are irritated," that if anyone questioned the need for Security Council reform they should consider this example, and to expect the U.S. Ambassador to come out and call the whole thing a "joke." 

   U.S. Amb. Jackie Sanders emerged and predicted that nothing would be accomplished or resolved any time soon. Minutes later, the press statement was agreed to. To one reporter, Jackie Sanders subsequently explained that things got easier once she left. After six hours on two paragraphs, some said they could understand this apparently breakdown in communications.

            Kosovo was also discussed, specifically Russian Ambassador Churkin's proposal for a Council members' visit to Pristina and Belgrade. Inner City Press asked Amb. Kumalo if Russia's request for a report on the implementation of previous Kosovo resolution 1244 was also in the mix. The answer is yes, but it is not clear who will write the report or when. Slovakian Ambassador Peter Burian confirmed to Inner City Press that his country's position, as adopted by its legislature, is that independence for Kosovo could destabilize the region. So Russia is not alone. Game on, as they say....

At the UN, African Kosovos, Ivory Coast Deal and Jean-Pierre Bemba's Leg

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

UNITED NATIONS, March 27 -- In Africa, where are the potential Kosovos, and who would play Serbia's role?

    It emerged today at the UN that concern about the precedent of Kosovo independence is not limited to Russia, but is shared by African nations, or at least by South Africa. While Security Council members South Africa, Congo or Ghana seem unlikely to veto the proposal unveiled Monday for Kosovo's independence, the concerns from Africa echo those that triggered the recent failure of a draft treaty on the rights of the indigenous. The stated worry then was of increased tribal conflict. Here it is of territories: Somaliland and Puntland, North and South Kivu, perhaps Casamance in Senegal. The concerns that surfaced on Tuesday will have to be addressed.

            In related West Africa conflict news, the UN Security Council is slated on March 28 to endorse the deal between Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo and rebel leader Guillaume Soro, which will make Mr. Soro the country's prime minister, replacing the UN-installed Charles Banny. Inner City Press on Tuesday asked the Council's president for March, South Africa's Kumalo, when the Council will act on requests that the UN draw down troops from the country as well. "Eventually the Security Council will come up with a resolution" for the draw-down, Amb. Kumalo answered. Video here, from Minute 5:10 to 6:15.

            Wednesday's "Presidential Statement is urgent, the agreement is being implemented," Amb. Kumalo said. Last week, the army and rebel soldiers formed a joint command. The agreements came fast, and left the UN looking surprised. In this case, perhaps both sides wanting the UN and France out of the country helped lead to an agreement. Cynics predict now just a sharing of the profits. We'll see.

            Also discussed in the Security Council on Tuesday was Martti Ahtisaari's status proposal for Kosovo independence. Russia proposed a review of past compliance with Resolution 1244, and a trip to Pristina and Belgrade by Security Council Ambassadors sometime in April. Inner City Press asked Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin about a quote from foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, that, "If Ahtisaari thinks he has done everything within his power, then almost certainly another person could be found to do it." Inner City Press asked, is this still Russia's position?

            "It is not a matter of personalities," Amb. Churkin replied. "Whatever the statements are, they should not be interpreted as a sign of disrespect" for Ahtisaari. Video here, from Minute 7. Amb. Kumalo, too, praised Ahtisaari, for his role in the process leading to Namibia's independence.  He said that South Africa is seeking assurances -- it is not clear from whom -- about what precedent independence for Kosovo might set in Africa. As simply some few examples, there has been a longstanding conflict in the Casamance portion or protuberance of Senegal. There is Acholi-land in Northern Uganda, there were the Kivus and Ituri during a stage of the DR Congo war. Then and now there are Somaliland and Puntland.

USG Holmes and Bamaba Marial Benjamin of the Government of Southern Sudan (an African Kosovo?)

   Many African countries have opposed the draft convention on the rights of indigenous people on similar stated grounds, that it would have divisive ramifications in Africa. Darfur, too, comes to mind, along with Transniestria and Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh and the breakaway parts of Georgia, South Ossentia and Abkhazia. On this last, Georgia is suing Russia in the European Court of Human Rights, which Russia calls, for now, "unhelpful."

            Inner City Press asked Amb. Kumalo, who has three days left in his Council presidency, whether in Kinshasa, Jean-Pierre Bemba remains holed up in South Africa's diplomatic compound. Amb. Kumalo said that he does, adding that "he is not a refugee or anything like that," and that outgoing Assistance Secretary General Hedi Annabi told the Council that Mr. Bemba will be traveling to Portugal on Saturday to get treatment for a broken leg. Video here, from Minute 9:20. Bemba has said that DRC President Kabila is trying to kill him. And as one wag said at the stakeout on Tuesday, Congo was supposed to be the UN's big success story this year...

 An ongoing question from this report forward: where are Africa's (potential) Kosovos?

UN Envoy Chissano Seeks Solution to Lord's Resistance Army, "Without Impunity"

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

UNITED NATIONS, March 22 -- The war crimes indictments against the leaders of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army were gingerly discussed on Thursday by the UN's envoy to the LRA-affected areas, former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano. After Mr. Chissano briefed the UN Security Council on his efforts to get the LRA back into peace talks and a ceasefire with the Ugandan government, Inner City Press asked him about the role of the International Criminal Court's indictments on the process.

            "The ICC cannot get involved in negotiations," Mr. Chissano quickly pointed out. Video here, from Minute 3:47. "The Uganda government is busy trying to study how to find an alternative solution, to take care of the question of non-impunity."

            Mr. Chissano was asked if the indictments pose an obstacle to the negotiations. Strangely, he downplayed what is widely described as a sticking point, and rather said that the only impact of the indictments was been that the five leaders indicted "cannot participate in the talks."

            To the contrary, an LRA representative to the talks, Godfrey Ayo, has been quoted that "It is the view of LRA that the ICC warrants of arrest is the greatest obstacle in all attempts geared towards ending the war in northern Uganda and bringing about peace in the region."  Joseph Kony and Vincent Otti of the LRA have demanded that the indictments be quashed. More recently, they have called for the involvement in the talks of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni's brother, General Salim Saleh.

Mr. Chissano with DSG Migiro: indictments are scarcely an obstacle

            Mr. Chissano took only two questions, and then rushed with a small entourage into the Council to finalize a Presidential Statement, then to the UN's elevators. One wanted to ask for his views on the crisis in Zimbabwe, and perhaps even about the rifts in the Council on Iran. But Mr. Chissano was gone. In the run-up to his appearance, the UN Spokesperson's Office went to great lengths to point out that he is not a mediator, he is a facilitator. If the talks lead nowhere, it is not the UN's fault.

            On Monday Inner City Press asked Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson for a read-out on Chissano's meeting with the LRA's leader and indicted war criminal, Joseph Kony.  An hour later, the following arrived:

Subj: LRA peace talks 

Date: 3/19/2007 12:56:50 PM Eastern Time

From: OSSG

To: Matthew Russell Lee

"The UN has no direct involvement in the talks. Please contact the Mission of Sudan, as that country is hosting and organizing the peace talks, for any additional information on the alleged resumption of the talks."

            Mr. Chissano said, as an aside, that much of the LRA delegation in fact resides in Nairobi, Kenya, when not in Juba for the talks. Recently at the UN, in response to questions from Inner City Press, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour called the LRA a criminal enterprise that should not be romanticized as a defender of Uganda's Acholi people. Earlier still, South African judge Richard Goldstone criticized UN officials who have met with Kony and Otti, saying that if such contacts are desired, the Security Council should formally suspend the ICC indictments for a year. While Mr. Chissano said the search of on for a "solution to the question of non-impunity," dissembling and murkiness hardly strengthen the rule of law.

In Iran Talks, China Offers Quotes and Hope to Shivering Reporters

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

UNITED NATIONS, March 9 -- As a next round of sanctions on Iran for its nuclear programs are discussed by the five permanent member nations of the Security Council and Germany, Thomas Matussek, the German envoy, predicted that the penalties agreed to will be "swift and modest." To this process, the UN press corps adds another adjective through chattering teeth: cold.

            Talks have so far been held outside of the UN, in the United Kingdom's mission in 1 Dag Hammarskjold Plaza on 47th Street and Second Avenue in New York, where the temperature has been below freezing. Ambassadors emerge from the talks to inform or spin reporters about the negotiations. Thursday evening, U.S. Ambassador Alejandro Wolff came out spoke to a dozen journalists waiting on the sidewalk in the cold. His comments were a model of bland diplomacy:

Amb. Wolff: The devil is in the details on these things as you know... We're doing a lot of explaining in different terms of what peoples' concerns are, and what is the best way to get our ultimate objective, and the ultimate objective is a shared one, to signal to the Iranian government that there is a cost for not adhering to resolutions, for not complying with their obligations, and the cost increases each time they don't comply.

            These comments were, reporters noted, less than useful.  The talks resumed at 10 a.m. on Friday, an even colder day in New York. Reporters were shivering when the meeting broke up at 1 p.m.. But this time, Chinese Ambassador Guangya Wang provided more specifics:

Q. Do you see this going on for a few more weeks?

Amb. Wang: I hope if it goes well, then at least I don't think we will be ready by next week.

Q. Not by next week?

Amb. Wang: No. My feeling is, not.

Q. Ambassador, one more thing. Yesterday, the State Dept. spokesman indicated that this time Chinese are more resisting than Russians. How do you respond?

Amb. Wang:  I think... the difficulty for China is different from the difficulty that Russians have.

Q. Can you elaborate on that?

Amb. Wang: I think the Chinese main difficulty is with the financial and trade sanctions against Iran, because we feel that we are not punishing Iranian people. We should punish the Iranians for their activities in the nuclear field. And the difficulty for Russia is, Russia has difficulty with the name of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, because they feel it's an institution in Iran and you don't have to penalize an institution.

            Reporters were grateful for the quotes, which appeared in Reuters and in much of the Japanese press. But the stock of Ambassador Wang and perhaps of China rose even higher with the press corps when he expressed chagrin or at least some doubts about holding the meetings outside of the UN, where reporters have to wait outside in the cold. You have no place to sit, and now water, Amb. Wang remarked, mentioning that he will try to move the forthcoming meetings back into the UN building. 

   Other Ambassadors at the talks did not express this concern; one press spokesperson remarked that no one obliged reporters to come and wait for quotes in the cold. Provoking the most ire, after French Ambassador Jean Marc de la Sabliere did not come outside for even a moment to speak, since his office is inside the building, his spokesman sent reporters a short bilingual (and unusable) quote by e-mail: "The meeting was constructive. We are making progress / Nous avancons."

            Merci for nothing, muttered one reporter. The ink-stained sources cited in this piece are granted anonymity due to their need for continued access to thin-skinned diplomats.

Amb. Wang speaks to Amb. de la Sabliere (Froid? Moi? )

            There is a saying in courthouses, that the law is what the judge had for breakfast.  Likewise, some of journalism is impacted by how the journalists are treated. If the personal is political, one can expect more understanding coverage of China's positions, at least during these Iran sanctions negotiations.

            One reporter marveled that China was so humane in New York, while taking a different approach back home (for example, shooting some of those trying to flee Tibet, click here for that story.) Another wag -- this one -- quipped that if the North Koreans sent blankets, hot coffee and construction heaters to the press corps on 47th Street, their line that the United States and the UN are "gangster-like" might gain a bit more traction.

In full disclosure, while the account of Thursday evening's stakeout is first-hand, on Friday while the above-described took place, Inner City Press was posing questions to the UN's envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa and to Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson about North Korea, in the too-warm UN briefing room. Click here for Inner City Press' most recent (and, one hopes, more substantive) story on the UN's dealings with North Korea. The spokesperson referred the question to the South Korean mission. But that's west of First Avenue, and as more than one reporter signed, it's coooold outside. To be continued.

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] innercitypress.com -

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