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Press Freedom? Editor Arrested by Congo-Brazzaville, As It Presides Over Security Council

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee at the U.N.

UNITED NATIONS, May 2 -- On the eve of world press freedom day, the arrest of an inconvenient magazine editor in Congo-Brazzaville arose twice at UN Headquarters, with answers both tangential. The envoy of the Republic of Congo, Basile Ikouebe, who this month heads the Security Council, was asked to explain the April 21 arrest of Fortune Bemba, the editor of Thalassa, for having insulted the honor of President Denis Sassou Nguesso by publishing an article entitled "Were General Casimir Bouissa Matoko and Lekoudzou poisoned by Denis Sassou Nguesso?" Click here for sample articles in English and French.

   At his press briefing, Ambassador Ikouebe began by saying, there aren't any taboo questions. His answer was another an entirely different case, in which as he described it infighting in the human rights NGO FedH led to charges of embezzlement of $3000 (mistranslated into English in the briefing as "three million dollars" -- click here for streaming video of the briefing in Real Media, the exchange is around minutes 37-39 of 46).  While that case, too, might warrant inquiry, the matter of Fortune Bemba remains. Ambassador Ikouebe said that his country has signed many treaties and that he would be surprised if an individual journalist was arrested, as there are not prisoners-because-of-opinion in his country.  Among many other things, Ambassador Ikouebe expressed some skepticism about the Security Council's recent Darfur sanctions. You can say they can't travel and that  you can seize their assets, he said. But what if their assets consist of cows? "You can't put cows in Citibank," Ambassador Ikouebe concluded.

            Following the briefing, three hours before deadline, Inner City Press posed written questions to the official who ran Ambassador Ikouebe's press conference, "premier conseiller" Lazare Makayat Safouesse, providing "articles, including one in French, identifying what [Inner City Press] was asking about, the arrest on April 21 of Fortune Bemba, editor of Thalassa, reportedly for insulting the honor of the President. Will much appreciate an explanation of your Government's thinking on this arrest [before] 5 p.m. today, three hours and five minutes from now."  As of that time, no response was received. But Ambassador Ikouebe will be taking questions throughout the month, and so the matter of Fortune Bembe, slated for trial on May 17, may well arise again.

Basile Ikouebe w/ S-G, 4/27/06

Nutrition: UNICEF head Ann Veneman presented a "Report Card on Nutrition" earlier on Tuesday, focusing on those countries in which women are not valued. When asked about Iraq, Ms. Veneman's colleague (including at USDA) Catherine Bertini emphasized that the problems existed also in 1997, when Carol Bellamy led UNICEF. The report's statistical final page states that, in the U.S., two percent of under-fives are under-weight, while "data were not available" for any other industrialized country, from Scandinavia to old and new Europe. While an aide replied that no household surveys were conducted in these countries, some questioned if some zeroes weren't withheld. The questions grew when Ms. Veneman's aide stress that 2% might well be "only genetic." There are many under-weight babies, even in New York, for example in the maternity wards of Montefiore and Lincoln Hospitals in The Bronx. Promised response about the European (non) reporting arrived mid-afternoon:

"I am responding to your question on why most developed countries do not have data in the Progress for Children  report.  Many developed countries do collect data on child nutritional status but the data are analyzed using different methods which are not comparable to the methods used for developing countries.  For example, industrialized countries may report mean weights or heights for a study population, whereas for most developing countries we report on the percentage which falls below minus two standard deviations of the median weight or height of the international reference population."

 A follow-up was posed: "it seems strange that a far higher percentage of 'Industrialized Countries' than those in the developing worlds are reported as 'data not available,' as least as to under-weight under-fives. Do you have the underlying data for some of the other industrialized countries?"  While this wasn't responded to by press time, the report states that "the lowest incidence of low birthweight in the industrialized world (4 per cent) is registered in Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Lithuania and Sweden." The full text report (offered here in PDF) also states, not making clear what it means by comparable, that "the only industrialized country that has figures comparable to those of the developing world is the United States"...

Footnotes: The above-reported matter of Fortune Bemba was also raised during CPJ's briefing releasing that organization's listing of the 10 Most Censured Countries -- but Congo-Brazzaville was mistaken for the Democratic Republic of the Congo; CPJ's Africa Web site also does not list Republic of Congo (Brazzaville)...

End-of-day footnote, by the basement correspondent of Inner City Press: As sustainable developers smoked in the Vienna cafe, SRSG for Darfur Jan Pronk slipped in with a handler, sidling up to the deli counter to order some petit restauration. And then by six p.m. he was gone...

The Place of the Cost-Cut UN in Europe's Torn-Up Heart;
Deafness to Consumers, Even by the Greens

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee, in Brussels

BRUSSELS, April 28 -- Ears ringing with the talk of waste within the UN system, an Inner City Press reporter yesterday visited the consolidated, scaled back and renamed UN Regional Information Center (UNRIC) in Brussels, to see how an early attempt at cost-saving is working out.

            On narrow, car-filled Rue de la Loi, just passed the European Commission, the UNRIC is tucked in on the 7th and 8th floors of a stately building in the Residence Palace compound. Outside are construction zones, the city literally torn-up to build office space for the ten new EU members. Inside UNRIC it is spacious, with hardwood floors and uncaptioned photos of each Secretary-General. The UNRIC's deputy director is an engaging Dane who is among other things the answer to the UN system Jeopardy question: who was the spokesman for the president of the General Assembly when the World Trade Towers were demolished by hijacked plane? Who is... Jan Fischer. Mr. Fischer also served the UN in Iraq in 1993, along with a stint in Australia. He knows the System, and the context of the cost-cutting he's witnessed at the UNRIC.

            The travel budget the more than half-dozen country desk officers based in Brussels is $16,000 for six months. This has resulted in fewer trips to the countries covered by each desk officer, and even to them staying with family and friend on such trips. There's a striking correlation between surname and country covered: Carlos Jimenez for Spain, Fabio Graziosi for Italy, Dimitrios Fatouros for Greece and so forth. The desk officers were once "national information officers," which required this consonance. Now that they've had to move to Brussels, they've been "professionalized," in the parlance of the UN civil service. Still some stay with friends and family on their UN trips back home.

            In Brussels some 15,000 journalists cover the doings of the European Union and to some degree NATO. It is hard, Jan Fischer says, for UN news to break through. They hold press conferences, and briefings by visiting UN envoys, from conflict diamonds to the rights of the child. Across from the well-guarded United States embassy, there's a storefront for UNICEF, with its tell-tale blue sign. The UN's refugee agency, it appears from a list, has a dozen Brussels employees, seeking EU funding for their far-flung operations. UNRIC tries to get their stories told. Mr. Fischer says he'd rather say too much than too little; he suggests that the media not abandoned UN staffers who go off script and speak their minds. It's a plan that makes much sense, and one that we will follow. This series of occasional visits with continue from Inner City Press, consonant with the cost-cuts as they come.

Footnote: in a third-floor room in the European Parliament on April 27, Green party delegate Heide Ruhle listened while nodding to consumer advocates despairing of non-bank input into the pending Consumer Credit Directive. When asked, with an administrative colleague, about merger review in the Euro zone, the Green response was that review by particular nations is outmoded. Will Brussels' review consider predatory lending? That remains unclear.

Background Checks at the UN, But Not the Global Compact; Teaching Statistics from Turkmenbashi's Single Book

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee at the U.N.

UNITED NATIONS, April 25 -- For the United Nations to know with whom it does its business, it is accepting the donated services of World-Check, a London-based firm formed five years ago, in the wake of the City banking scandal over billions looted from Nigeria by Sani Abacha.

   At a press conference Tuesday at UN Headquarters, World-Check's founder David Leppan stated that while his service will not tell the UN who not to do business with, it would for example highlight companies that broke U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control rules by improperly engaging in dollar-denominated transactions with parties on a block list. The example was hardly hypothetical: the Swiss bank UBS, for example, was fined $100 million by the Federal Reserve for its transfer of dollars to the Saddam Hussein regime.

   Inner City Press asked about UBS, as well as Citigroup which was stripped of its banking license in Japan for lack of anti-money laundering controls. USB is a member of the UN Global Compact; Inner City Press asked if World-Check will be used by the Global Compact, including to screen companies before they join the Compact. Mr. Leppan did not know.

   Inner City Press' written question to the Global Compact was responded to as follows, by the Compact's  Matthias Stausberg: "This development is new to the Global Compact. We are not familiar with World-Check's services and cannot say at this point if and how they could be of use to our operations."  Mr. Leppan stated that World-Check's involvement with the UN, initially suggested by PriceWaterhouseCooper, grew out of the UN's post-tsunami efforts. Now that the Global Compact is aware of World-Check's offer, time will tell whether future and current members are passed through World-Check's screen.

            Meanwhile in the UN building's basement, a meeting was held from 11 to 1 in Conference Room A entitled "DPKO/Logistics Support Division: Darfur Planning Team, Closed." At the noon briefing, it was clarified that this meeting was in preparation for presenting the Security Council with options in Darfur.

Computer databases, learning in Ethiopia

Following the daily briefing, a UNESCO report was presented, entitled "Teachers and Educational Quality: Monitoring Global Needs for 2015." The year in the title was not by accident. The report on education is closely related to the Millennium Development Goals, according to UNESCO's Peter Smith, formerly a U.S. Congressman and university president. Mr. Smith spoke at length of the lack of teachers, particularly in the developing world. The report contains over 100 pages of statistics, although the entries for several counties consist of empty spaces, "No Data Available." 

   Inner City Press specifically asked about page 134 of the report, where "No Data Available" is the entry for Uzbekistan, which the UN recently praised for its progress toward the Millennium Development Goals, just as the Islam Karimov regime expelled UNHCR and now the American Bar Association's rule of law program.

            There is also "no data available" regarding Turkmenistan, in which President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov requires that schools teach only one book, his Ruhnama. [Niyazov's money is moved by Deutsche Bank, another Global Compact member; World-Check's view of all this is not yet known.] While Mr. Smith stated that UNESCO at times intervenes and makes suggestions, these seem limited to how data should be collected, and not to the substantive point that maybe more than one book should be taught. 

      The "Monitoring Global Needs for 2015" report will now also be launched in Brussels, from which Inner City Press will be reporting. Watch this space, including for delayed reports on UNHCR and refugees in Uzbekistan, south Sudan, Chechnya and Burundi (where we're told the Gasorwe camp will regain UNCHR services on Thursday).

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.

   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. Notably, much of the discussion was Iranian-led...

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...

Other Inner City Press reports are archived on

The Chadian Mirage: Beyond French Bombs, Is Exxon In the Cast? Asylum and the Uzbeks, Shadows of Stories to Come

Through the UN's One-Way Mirror, Sustainable Development To Be Discussed by Corporations, Even Nuclear Areva

Racial Disparities Grew Worse in 2005 at Citigroup, HSBC and Other Large Banks

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

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

Iraq's Oil to be Metered by Shell, While Basrah Project Remains Less than Clear

At the UN, Dues Threats and Presidents-Elect, Unanswered Greek Mission Questions

Kofi, Kony, Kagame and Coltan: This Moment in the Congo and Kampala

As Operation Swarmer Begins, UN's Qazi Denies It's Civil War and Has No Answers if Iraq's Oil is Being Metered

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

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

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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