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Burundi: Chaos at Camp for Congolese Refugees, Silence from UNHCR in New York While Reform's Debated by Forty Until 4 AM

BYLINE: Matthew Russell Lee at the U.N.

UNITED NATIONS, April 21 -- Reports from Burundi earlier today indicated that UNHCR had suspended its activities at Gasorwe camp in the northern province of Cibitoke, where over eight thousand Congolese refugees were transferred by UNCHR in August 2004 from Gatumba after the killing of more than 160 refugees at that camp. The basis for UNCRC's stop-work, as reported by the UN's IRIN service, was the protest by a denied Burundian applicant for UNHCR assistance, joined in by Congolese camp residents, that "damage[ed] several UNHCR vehicles." In the height of double-hearsay, the UN's IRIN quoted a UNHCR spokesperson, Catherine Lune-Grayson, that "the Congolese refugees who took part in the violence said they are dissatisfied with the assistance they have so far received from UNHCR."

            Inner City Press asked about events at the Gasorwe camp at the noon media briefing and UN headquarters. Anticipating referral to the same UNHCR office that only the day before proved less than responsive on a written question about returnees to Liberia from Sierra Leone, Inner City Press asked the Secretary-General's spokesman to make the inquiry into the events at Gasorwe camp.  At press time, Robert E. Sullivan of the OSSG was able to confirm the incident, providing these paraphrased details: 'the disturbance was caused by a Burundian family which had only recently tranferred from the Mwaro Camp... It was 10 a.m. when the husband, NDUWAYEZU Fidele, entered the office. He asked that paperwork be provided to him for food assistance or he would be returned to his birth province, Mwaro. He was asked to wait, to return when it was his turn. At this point, the rest of the family entered the office. Then the husband grabbed the UNHCR personnel by the belt, and some ransacking of the office began. The UNHCR personnel with the help of camp security only narrowly escaped. While they left with the vehicle, rocks were thrown. The vehicle was damaged.'

  This more detailed and exclusive account varies from UN IRIN's story, which among other things stated that the UNHCR agent determined that the Burundian family's claim was invalid;  this version has only one vehicle, and no mention of the wider disgruntled Congolese refugee population. What did UNHCR staffer Catherine-Lune Grayson-C. mean, when IRIN quoted her that "the Congolese refugees who took part in the violence said they are dissatisfied with the assistance they have so far received from UNHCR"?  ICP continues to await response to the question heard by and forwarded to UNHCR's spokesman in New York.

   Immediately after the noon briefing, Inner City Press was told by UNHCR-New York to "please appreciate that UNHCR colleagues including myself, can't always drop everything else and reply to queries from journalists given other obligations and priorities." This from the individual identified by UNHCR-Geneva and the OSSG as the UNHCR's spokesman in NYC.  A New Yorker's response might be: what exactly would a spokesman be dropping in order to, burden of burdens, response to a reporter's question about the agency's field work? With all due respect for self-identified lawyers, maybe UNHCR needs a spokesperson in the world's media capital who views responding to reporters' questions as part of their job.

Road to Gosorwe

   UNHCR has in past years made many statements and claims about the Gosorwe camp, including for example about its "information program for reluctant Congolese."

  The Gasorwe camp has come up in previous noon briefing in New York by the OSSG, for example on August 24, 2004, stating that "the first of some 20,000 Congolese refugees living near the insecure border of Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are set to move to a camp further inside Burundi. Tomorrow, UNHCR plans to start relocating the refugees from two transit centers (Rugombo and Karurama) in western Burundi's Cibitoke province to an existing refugee camp at Gasorwe in north-eastern Burundi."

  A report from the UN's humanitarian arm OCHA in early 2005 stated that "as of 23 January, UNHCR reports 2,008 facilitated and 277 spontaneous returnees... With regard to refugees in Burundi, the local press has reported threats of attack against Banyamulenge refugees since 21 January. The alleged threats, which are directed against Banyamulenge refugees who are staying in Gihinga (Mwaro) and Gasorwe (Muyinga) camps."

  There are further background papers and photographs of Gasorwe camp here. What there's not, four hours after the question was posed, is any update on the status of the refugees in Gasorwe camp, much less of their complaints about their treatment.  We hope to have more on this and on related issues; watch this space.

Meanwhile, the Spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly informed reporters that UN reform was discussed from Thursday until Friday, 4 a.m.. Asked for specifics by Inner City Press, the very fast response was that thirty to forty delegates met in Conference Room 5, especially on the Secretary General's (Report's) Proposals 16, 20 and 21 . More to follow, surely...

In Liberia, From Nightmare to Challenge; Lack of Generosity to Egeland's CERF, Which China's Asked About by Inner City Press

BYLINE: Matthew Russell Lee, at the U.N.

UNITED NATIONS, April 20 -- In Liberia, on the same day that the United Nations celebrated the end of programs for internally displaced people by its Mission to Liberia (UNMIL), the refugee agency UNHCR declared that "we are not here to transport refugees back to their countries" and that "because of the increase of number of Liberian refugees all over that are requesting our assistance to return back home, now we are in logistics nightmare."

            At the noon briefing at UN headquarters, Inner City Press inquired into the specifics of this "nightmare," and immediately followed up with written questions to the spokesman at UNHCR's New York office:

"is UNHCR asking for additional resource for the return to Liberia of the 2000 refugees in Sierra Leone and Guinea that Representative Mengesha Kebede projects will seek this week to return? Is any other UN agency involved or being asked to become involved? Long shot: were any of the corporate CEOs on UNHCR's 'Council of Business Leaders' being asked to be of assistance?"

   Four hours later, UNHCR's New York spokesman sent a copy of this press release. From Annette Rehrl of UNMIL, these details:

"My assistant... who went with the Rep yesterday to another opening ceremony just confirmed that he made that statement, but the sentence is out of context... What Mr. Mengesha Kebede referred is firstly extremely poor road conditions in Lofa county, where most of the returnees from Guinea and Sierra Leone go to... UNHCR has had to engage itself in road and bridges repair... UNHCR is appealing to donor countries to continue supporting its efforts to bring Liberian refugees back home."

            The UN as many others view the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf led government installed in Liberia on January 16, 2006, as a a dream and not a nightmare. Ms. Rehrl suggests that rather than Mengesha Kebede's "nightmare," the situation in Liberia is more akin to a logistical "challenge." At least that's an answer. As to Uzbekistan, from which UNHCR has been expelled, the surreal of the day was the movement not of people but of spent nuclear fuel described as enough for two and a half bombs. While UNDP states that it will now deal with refugees in Uzbekistan, it also emphasizes that most of these are Afghans. But was of those deported to Uzbekistan, for example the eleven sent from Ukraine? Who is following up on that, or rather, on them? We'll see.

 Update of the UN Central Emergency Response Fund

April 20, UN -- After Jan Egeland briefed the Security Council about humanitarian issues in Africa, he took questions from reporters.  He spoke passionately about Darfur; asked by Inner City Press if Joseph Kony is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mr. Egeland said he'd heard Kony is in Southern Sudan, and that he hopes Kony will soon be in The Hague.

            On March 9, 2006, Mr. Egeland announced there had been $256 million in contributions to the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).  The web site, as of April 20 (stating that it was updated on April 6), listed the same amount. Asked by Inner City Press for an update, Mr. Egeland said the number is now $260 million; he added that it is being well spent, in the Horn of Africa, Chad and Western Cote D'Ivoire.

            China's Ambassador Wang Guangya, asked "with all due respect" (by Inner City Press) why China has contributed only $1 million to the CERF, stated that this is the limits of China's capability, and that while below some countries, it compares favorably with other developing countries. As of press time, the CERF Donor List web site shows the China's contribution is doubled by India, and that the Republic of Korea's is fully five times higher.

Footnote: It was hurriedly announced on Thursday that the CEOs of ten companies have been named to the Global Compact's Board. Inner City Press asked if these CEOs will take questions from the media, on their human rights performance. Again it was stated that this would be a good idea. We'll see if it gets implemented. The Global Compact Board is slated to meet in New York this summer.

Basement footnote: a meeting in Conference Room 1, entitled "ICT as a Tool for Development," feature Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) and a microphone with feedback. The speakers' bios had been garbled through late-night transmission, according to one of them. AOL's titan who owns every sports franchise in DC bragged that each day features two billion instant messages on AOL. Not for long, one wag was heard to say...

Some previous reports:

Mine Your Own Business: Explosive Remnants of War and the Great Powers, Amid the Paparazzi

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee, at the United Nations

  UNITED NATIONS, April 3 -- On a day when UN envoy Jan Egeland was barred from entering Sudan, Mine Action and Awareness Day events were held in that country, with the involvement of the UN Mine Action Service. The UN Mission in Sudan put out a statement that "Egeland’s flight into Sudan was not given authorization to land yesterday" and "the Wali (governor) of South Darfur stated that he strictly opposes Mr. Egeland’s visit. The Sudanese Permanent Representation to the United Nations in New York further stated that Mr. Egeland would be welcome neither in Darfur nor in Khartoum." Simultaneously, the UN Mine Action Office in Sudan put out a press release entitled "The UN in Sudan Celebrates the First International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action on 4 April 2006." The celebration apparently took place without Mr. Egeland, the UN's Emergency Relief Coordinator.

   A week earlier, UNMAS led a trip to Damazin, Sudan, to which refugees currently in Ethiopia are slated to return. The trip was led by Richard Kollodge, who in an April 3 interview with Inner City Press stated that the government in Khartoum has not blocked the work, at least in South Sudan, of the UN Mine Action Service.

   Back in New York, a Mine Action fact sheet was distributed stating that in 2005, three governments used landmines. The fact sheet didn't name them, but a question during the press briefing yielded two of the names: Nepal and Myanmar. In the hallway after the briefing, once the cameras were off, the third name emerged: Russia. In fact, the 2005 report of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines states unequivocally:

"Russia has used mines on a regular basis since 1999, primarily in Chechnya, but also at times in Dagestan, Tajikistan, and on the border with Georgia. Russia has generally argued that its mine usage has been necessary to stop the flow of terrorists, weapons and drugs... Russian forces have used mines extensively in Chechnya since the renewal of armed conflict in September 1999. Federal troops have laid mines around and leading up to bases, checkpoints, commanders’ offices, government buildings, factories and power plants; on roads and mountain paths in the rebel-dominated south; in fields running from Grozny to Alkhan-Kalu; in the estuary of the River Sunzha; along various borders. Russian officials have repeatedly claimed that all minefields are mapped, marked, and removed when troops relocate. [Source: report of Deputy Chief of the Military Engineering University, Maj. Gen. A. Nizhalovskii, during a virtual roundtable discussion of engineer equipment in military operations in Chechnya. Armeyskiy sbornik (Army collection), No. 6, June 2000, pp. 35-40.] These assertions have been contradicted by statements from both civilians and military officers. In addition to Chechnya, there appears to have been a considerable increase in rebel mine attacks in Dagestan, especially in May-June 2005. According to the Minister of Interior of Dagestan, Lieutenant-General Adilgerei Magomedtagirov, 58 terrorist acts (bombings) have been committed in Dagestan since the beginning of 2005, 40 of them committed in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. [Russian source]

   Some in the press corps wondered not if naming Russia during the on-the-record press conference was a coincidence, given that two smaller (and less powerful) state-users of mines were named. During the briefing, Inner City Press inquired whether the type of cluster munitions most recently in the news from use by the United States in Afghanistan qualify as "mines." No, was the answer given at the briefing by Max Gaylard, the director of the UN Mine Action Service, who added that such cluster munitions are "just as dangerous" and constitute a "next important issue." One wag noted how members of the Permanent Five can contort a debate, leading to fact sheets missing basic facts, and definitions with glaring loopholes.

[See 9 p.m. update below: a cluster bomb answer came after deadline from UNDP: "Cluster munitions are addressed by mine action when they are dropped and become unexploded." Hmm.]

Ela Bhatt speak on micro-credit at the UN, 4/3/06

   At an earlier press briefing, Ela Bhatt of SEWA Bank in India spoke about microcredit, in the run-up to a (late-starting) Fashion for Development event. Inner City Press asked whether Ms. Bhatt would agree with Citigroup's characterization of its own consumer finance lending in India as "micro-finance." In response, Ms. Bhatt emphasized that it is the organizing of the poor that is important, and not merely the provision of credit for interest. Those at the briefing nodded, though much of the interest in the briefing had been the flier saying that the Colombian-born singer Shakira would be there. Once it was clear that she would not, the paparazzi left, and Ms. Bhatt spoke eloquently of the marginalization of street vendors. This was slated to continue at 5 p.m. in Conference Room 3, but as of press time at 5:25 p.m., the event had yet to start. Not appearing to collect their awards were Hillary Clinton, Kerry Kennedy, Nélida Piñón, and Angelina Jolie. The m.c. joked that all present knew the reason for this last. Such is the news... Various fashionistas were, however, assembled (as elsewhere in the basement preparations to greet a cosmonaut were underway). And at 5:35 p.m., as Global Compact executive head praised the fashion industry, Shakira swept into the room, and the flashbulbs were blinding. Upon receiving her award, she spoke briefly. Whether a question about the UN's ILO should open an office in Colombia in light of the murders of trade union organizers there remained to be seen.

[9 p.m. 4/3/06 update: the answer is no, no questions were possible. At the Fashion for Development shindig in the Delegate's Lounge, slinky dresses were paraded (one falling one, by accident or design) to pumping Brazilian and flamenco music. Outside a hard rain fell on Long Island City. The quasi-cosmonaut event had red sturgeon eggs on pastry. And after deadline the Afghan cluster bomb answer rolled in, from UNDP: "Cluster munitions are addressed by mine action when they are dropped and become unexploded." It was too late to follow up, for now -- the cleaning crew was closing the UN down.]

Footnote: earlier in Conference Room 2, Nicaraguan Ambassador Eduardo J. Sevilla Somoza, nephew of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the country's president until 1979, was rubberstamped to head a committee considering the UN Charter...

Human Rights Are Lost in the Mail: DR Congo Got the Letter, But the Process is Still Murky

 Byline: Matthew Russell Lee, Inner City Press UN Correspondent

UNITED NATIONS, March 31 -- The "a dog ate my homework" defense proffered to the UN Human Rights Committee by the Democratic Republic of the Congo was discredited on Friday, in questions and follow-up at the UN Headquarters in New York. At a March 16 open meeting, the Congolese representative claimed that the question-letter of the Human Rights Committee had never been received. But on March 31, UN associate spokesman Robert Sullivan confirmed that the question-letter had been given directly to the DRC's permanent representative in Geneva.  If the homework was eaten, it was not by the dog.

Human Rights Committee Chairperson at 3/31/06 briefing (stream)

            At a March 31 press briefing, the chairperson of the Human Rights Committee Christine Chanet was asked by Inner City Press how the Committee sends its question-letters to state parties. "We use notes verbales," she said. "We can send mail and email." Asked to assess the DRC's statement that it did not receive the question-letter, she said, "We have to suppose that it is true." The other two Committee members conducting the press briefing both weighed in. Sweden's Elizabeth Palm opined that the issue arose in connection with an "individual communication" -- that is, a complaint -- to which DRC never responded, leaving the Commission to consider only one side of the complaint, and in closed session at that.

  Among the questions asked in the purloined letter was this overarching one, still unanswered:

"Please comment on the growing number of reports of enforced disappearances and summary executions throughout the territory of the State party, apparently committed by all the parties to the armed conflict. What has the State party done to stop these violations and afford remedies to the victims and their families?"

  The letter also referred to these sample complaints:

Isidore Kanana Tshiongo a Miranga v. Zaire; No. 542/1993 (Agnès N’Goya v. Zaire); No. 641/1995 (Nyekuma Kopita Toro Gedumbe v. Democratic Republic of the Congo); No. 933/2000 (Adrien Mundyo Busyo, Thomas Osthudi Wongodi, René Sibu Matubuka et al. v. Democratic Republic of the Congo); No. 962/2001 (Marcel Mulezi v. Democratic Republic of the Congo).

   Ivan Shearer of Australia ascribed DRC's lack of response to "administrative disorganization" that he said he hoped would soon end.  Elections are scheduled for the DRC in June; as Ms. Chanet noted, issues have arisen about the release prior to the election of voter information.

            Access or no-access to information also came up at the briefing. The Committee panelists alluded to an unnamed country which, since it declined to submit a report, was reviewed only in confidential session -- presumably what this still-unnamed country wanted in the first place. As previously reported on this site, at least one of the Human Rights Committee's meeting that was listed as "open" was abruptly closed, by means of a piece of paper taped to the door of Conference Room 2. Asked about this, Ms. Chanet said that often the non-governmental organizations that make presentations to the Committee need to be protected by keeping the meetings closed.  But the Committee earlier this month solicited and heard testimony from NGOs about the United States' compliance with the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights -- did the testifying NGOs ask to be confined to closed sessions? They didn't ask that it be open session, Ms. Chanet replied. Perhaps in the future this will change.

Friday footnote: following the UN Security Council's vote, without hearing from the Republic of Georgia, to extend the UN Peacekeeping mission there for six months, Inner City Press asked outgoing Council president Cesar Mayoral why Georgia had not been permitted to speak (as Georgian permanent representative Revaz Adamia has been complaining for months).  "One member blocked it," Amb. Mayoral said.

"That would be Russia?" asked Inner City Press.

"You're the one saying that," the Argentine Ambassador replied.  With a smile.

An earlier Inner City Press report, on Iraq, footnote on DR Congo

Other Inner City Press reports are archived on

Cash Crop: In Nepal, Bhutanese Refugees Prohibited from Income Generation Even in their Camps

The Shorted and Shorting in Humanitarian Aid: From Davos to Darfur, the Numbers Don't Add Up

UN Reform: Transparency Later, Not Now -- At Least Not for AXA - WFP Insurance Contract

In Congolese Chaos, Shots Fired at U.N. Helicopter Gunship

In the Sudanese Crisis, Oil Revenue Goes Missing, UN Says

Empty Words on Money Laundering and Narcotics, from the UN and Georgia

What is the Sound of Eleven Uzbeks Disappearing? A Lack of Seats in Tashkent, a Turf War at UN

Kosovo: Of Collective Punishment and Electricity; Lights Out on Privatization of Ferronikeli Mines

Abkhazia: Cleansing and (Money) Laundering, Says Georgia, Even Terror’s Haven

Post-Tsunami Human Rights Abuses, including by UNDP in the Maldives

Halliburton Repays $9 Million, While Iraq’s Oil Remains Unmetered

Darfur on the Margins: Slovenia’s President Drnovsek’s Quixotic Call for Action Ignored

Who Pays for the Global Bird Flu Fight? Not the Corporations, So Far - UN

Citigroup Dissembles at United Nations Environmental Conference

Other Inner City Press reports are archived on

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