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Unnerved at the UN, Poison Phosgene Discovered, Portending Calls for Inspections by Safety Agents

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

UNITED NATIONS, August 30 -- The nerve agent phosgene was found Thursday in a UN office on 48th Street. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has been called, but the discovery of chemical weapons in midtown Manhattan, in a facility of the UN which routinely opposes health and safety inspection by local authorities, seems sure increase demands for accountability and transparency by the UN.

      Meanwhile Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is out of New York in Turin, Italy, and there is no indication that he intends to return to deal with the issue. When Inner City Press asked Ban's Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe if the UN would consent to inspection by local, state or federal authorities, she called it a legal question that she declined to answer. "The Secretary-General is in the picture," she said, expanding the definition of picture to include Italy, and "the chef de cabinet," Vijay Nambiar, is on the scene and in charge. We'll see.

            The UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, UNMOVIC, was in charge of searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In the course of its work, UNMOVIC brought various of its find back to New York.  At a hastily scheduled news conference Thursday at UN headquarters, Inner City Press asked UNMOVIC's Ewan Buchanan if the material, including the phosgene, had ever been inspected by, or even declared to, U.S. authorities. No, appears to be the answer. Video here. Subsequently he added that "especially before 9/11/01," nothing was inspected. But it appears that even since, the UN's immunity, even from normal Fire Department inspections of its headquarters, has played a role in the curious find of nerve agent in the New York office building at 866 East 48th Street.

            Mr. Buchanan, when Inner City Press asked about inspections by city, state or federal authorities, said that the UN has its own experts. He pointed on the rostrum at UNMOVIC Inspector Svetlana Utkina, who offhandedly that even in phosgene suspended "in a Coke can" could sicken five people and kill two of them. Afterwards, Inner City Press asked the UNMOVIC troika to guess the New York Post's headline. "Weapons found," said UNMOVIC's Brian Mullady, who Buchanan described as "the boss" and is listed in UN publications as a Director at the "D-1" level. [Inner City Press' guesses include "Some Nerve" or "UN-nerved."]

    Asked by Inner City Press how much material remains in UNMOVIC, Mr. Mullady mentioned 125 five-drawer cabinets.  How soon will they be asked to be inspected?  One hour after the UN press conference, Inner City Press called Mayor Bloomberg's press office and asked for comment and next steps, which will be reported on this site.

The UN in New York, 866 East 48th Street at right, poison phosgene not shown

            Three weeks ago Inner City Press ran an article about the Scud missile engine and gyroscopes left over in the UNMOVIC office, click here to view. In the course of the reporting, Ban's Associate Spokesperson told Inner City Press that "UNMOVIC's mandate has ended." There remains only the "wrapping up of work" and the "dispensation of items." Video here, from Minute 17:27. Inner City Press asked who will decide what to do with all the hardware? Another reporter asked if a stoop or yard sale was on the cards. "I don't think so," the spokesman said, "but if so you can monitor it."

            Already there has been tension between the Bloomberg administration and Ban's UN, with the City demanding, even before the recent deaths of two firefighters in the sprinkler-less Deutsche Bank building in lower Manhattan, that sprinklers be installed in the UN headquarters. The UN says that's too expensive, and has instead re-assigned security personnel to patrol the building for signs of fire. While signs listing the maximum occupancy of UN meetings rooms have been posted, the thresholds are strikingly high, not reached in Conference Room 7 even when the room was standing-room only at a recent meeting of the Executive Board of the UN Development Program.

            The discovery of chemical weapons portends to trigger a more energetic response. Developing.

* * *

Clck here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army (which had to be finalized without Ban's Department of Political Affairs having respond.)  Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent 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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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

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