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At the UN: The Silence of the Congo and Naomi Watts; Between Bolivia and the World Bank

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee at the U.N.

UNITED NATIONS, May 15 -- The Democratic Republic of Congo and its ongoing wars hit the top three of the UN's list of "Stories the World Should Hear More About." At the UN's noon briefing, Inner City Press asked about reports over the weekend, of 500 rebels attacking the 800 Congolese soldiers stationed at Nioka in the Ituri region. The spokesman answered the UN's Congo mission, MONUC, has been focused on "controlling the militias." But other reports have Peter Karim's band smuggling wood into Uganda to exchange for yet more weapons. Note to UN: the world needs to hear more...

            In response to a follow-up question requesting comment on the fact that the UN's call for $682 million in assistance to the DRC has yielded less than 14% of the figure, the spokesman noted that the list of countries which gave is public, so by implication so are the non-givers. "What does the Secretary General say to those countries which haven't given?" "Give," was the answer.

DR Congo 

            Paparazzi filled the UN's briefing room, to capture each phrase Naomi Watts read about her visit to Zambia for UNAIDS.  Asked why the UNAIDS website has a country listing but no information about Afghanistan, Deborah Landey said it was hard, but that a global survey will soon come out with such information.  After the briefing, UNAIDS director of advocacy (and noted novelist) Achmat Dangor told Inner City Press that 125 of 191 countries responded to UNAIDS' survey. Asked if information on Afghanistan will be in the forthcoming global study, Mr. Dangor said no.

            In a question unrelated to AIDS, Inner City Press asked Naomi Watts about the criticism, including by UNHCR, of Australia's new anti-refugee proposal, to outsource those seeking asylum to the scorched island of Nauru.

Inner City Press question: "Have you heard of this? Would you like to say anything about it?"

Response by Naomi Watts: "I am not an authority on that."  But that wasn't the question. Developing? (Click here for the press conference in Real).

            Naomi "I am not an authority on that" Watts

            Bolivia's foreign minister David Choquehanca Cespedes fielded most of the questions at a half-hour briefing on the kick-off of the meeting of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. One of the questioners asked "if there will be further restrictions on gas operations in Bolivia." The answer addressed unfair bargains of the past and included reference to 500 years of oppression. Near the end, a person attending the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues complained that all most "Occidental" questioners cared about was gas and timber and money. "What are we, objects?" he asked. For the record, Inner City Press directed questions to the Forum's chairperson Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and to Jose Antonio Ocampo, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, about the progress if any of the draft International Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and about the World Bank's requirement on its projects for consultation with, but not consent by, indigenous people. Ms. Tauli-Corpus responded that the draft Declaration should be on the agenda of the new UN Human Rights Council, with an eye toward adoption by the end of the year. And, she said, it is hoped that the Declaration will use the term consent and not consultation, in pointed reference to the World Bank.  Left unanswered -- and unasked, due to the abrupt end of the briefing -- was whether Bolivia under Evo Morales might run for a seat on the Human Rights Council next year. Time will tell...

Human Rights Council Has Its Own Hanging Chads; Cocky U.S. State Department Spins from SUVs

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee at the U.N.

UNITED NATIONS, May 9 -- For the new Human Rights Council, the voting went to a second then third run-off ballot. Denied a spot in the final run-off was Slovenia, whose president has spoken to near-empty rooms at the UN about his Darfur peace plan. Edging the Slovenes were Romania and Ukraine, despite its recent deportation of asylum-seeking from Uzbekistan. In better-known rights abuse news, many in the media focused on records of some of those elected -- Cuba, Russia, China, et al. -- while the UN true-believers pointed out that Sudan and Zimbabwe didn't run. 


            Inner City Press, which spent much of the day in a fruitless stake-out in front of the General Assembly entrance, focused on a more marginal storyline, literally at the bottom of the page like a footnote. In the Office of the Spokesman for the Secretary General -- which did not hold a noon press conference, apparently to prepare for the Condi-fest reported on below -- there was a hand out listing by region the countries elected and those which got less than the 96 votes required for inclusion. Several countries were listed as receiving a single vote: Spain and Colombia, Malvides and Qatar, Serbia-and-Montenegro, Tanzania, Madagascar and Egypt. What was the explanation? Would headlines ensue, Qatar excluded due to human rights abuse? In the alternative, were these stray votes a signal of protest? Or merely of negligence and inattention?

            We're betting on the latter. As pointed out to Inner City Press by Spain's Information Counselor Faustino Diaz, "Spain was not a candidate in today's vote. Therefore it must have been a mistake of a delegation to write its name in the ballot." Spain's Mr. Diaz added, "We are considering our candidacy for 2008." Bonne chance!

 Human Rights Council vote

 In the driveway of UN Headquarters, a fleet of black SUVs announced the visit of Condoleezza Rice. She came to confer with the so-called Quartet, on how and if to allow any funding to the West Bank and Gaza. There followed a five p.m. press conference, from which the Russian foreign minister left early. In the aftermath Javier Solana was surrounded by reporter, and the UN's Alvaro de Soto, channeling not his economist brother Hernando but rather ex-NYSE Dick Grasso, briefed reporters by the doorway.  Further inside, a self-described senior U.S. State Department official (henceforth the "SUSSDO") talked cocky about the effect of barring all dealings with the Palestinian Authority.

   Asked by Inner City Press whether the new funding mechanism sketched by the press release read out by Kofi Annan would involve or require any amendment to the U.S. Treasury Department's block-order, SUSSDO smirked and acknowledged that there are some "overseas" concerned that is they touch any funds to or from the Palestinian Authority, they'll run afoul of U.S. banking laws. "But you have to remember," said SUSSDO. "We have these sanctions for a reason." SUSSDO continue on to estimate that only 20 to 30 percent of the employees of the Palestinian Authority actually show up to work, "especially among those added on in the last month." Alvaro de Soto estimated that the Palestinian authority has from 140,000 to 170,000 employees, security making up 70,000 of these. Mr. de Soto declined to answer Inner City Press' questions about U.S. Treasury Department regulations, saying "I'd have to check with my lawyer."  Famous last words...

Footnote, 9 p.m. -- an unscientific poll of United Nations late-night cleaning workers elicited frustration that the day's Condi-hoopla centered not on Darfur. An articulate 5-to-12 cleaner who is from the Sudan opined that UN blue helmets are neither wanted nor needed in Darfur; "they'll only lead to more problems," he said. There were tales of the freight elevator which carried up and down Ms. Condi Rice's paraphenalia from her meeting with Annan. The SUVs and armed guards gone, the UN building's graveyard shift proceeded...

Child Labor and Cargill and Nestle; Iran, Darfur and WHO's on First with Bird Flu

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee at the U.N.

UNITED NATIONS, May 4 -- As the level of threats regarding Iran continues to rise, at UN Headquarters many issues fall to the side. Child labor, for example. At a ten a.m. press conference attended by precisely one journalist [full disclosure deemed unnecessary], Maria Arteta of the International Labor Organization released a report documenting among other things that the raw number of child laborers in Africa rose in the past four years. In sub-Saharan Africa, over 26% of children ages five to 14 are at work.

    The lone attending reporter inquired into an African specific: the use of child labor in cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast and Ghana, and the alleged involvement of Archer Daniels Midland, Nestle and Cargill. Teenagers from Mali have sued the three companies, asserting that they were trafficked to harvest cocoa for or to the benefit of the three named companies (the last two of which are members of the United Nations Global Compact).

            Ms. Arteta responded among other things that these companies

"need to think about how do they establish controls of their supply chain...

They do need to respond to this accusation

They do need to investigate

They do need to find out

And they do need to have steps to put these controls in place... [so that their] supply chain is free from child labor and other exploitation."

            Immediately following the ILO briefing, Inner City Press posed written questions to two officials at the Global Compact, asking for a response by mid-afternoon:

"what comment does the Global Compact have on the allegations and lawsuit against Global Compact members Cargill and Nestle and the idea that these companies, and other Global Compact members facing child labor-related allegations, need to address the issues and that the Global Compact should provide guidance, and provide transparency into what both it and its members are doing in this regard?"

Ms. Arteta answers on Nestle

            This was also raised by Inner City Press at the OSSG noon briefing. At 4 p.m. the Global Compact's always-polite media relations officer said "we're still working on some answers." Inner City Press asked for some by five or even six o'clock, but no response from the Global Compact was forthcoming by six-fifteen. An inquiry thereafter by the OSSG was followed, at 6:35, by the following response, which in fairness we quote here in full:

"All Global Compact participants are expected, within their sphere of influence, to work towards the implementation of GC principle five, namely the effective elimination of child labour. The ILO and UNICEF, among others, are very active in this field and have guidance materials and other efforts aimed at achieving this goal. Some information about what companies can do is also available on the Global Compact's website.The Global Compact advocates use of a performance model, which is designed to provide practical guidance to companies on how to improve their performance with respect to all ten principles. As a voluntary initiative, it is neither our practice nor within our power to express opinions about the situation of individual companies, including with respect to lawsuits that they may be facing. Nevertheless,transparency is a core value of the Global Compact, and we use the means available to us in order to increase the quantity and quality of information for stakeholders on companies' progress in implementing the Global Compact principles. To this end, the Global Compact requires that participants communicate annually to their stakeholders on progress made in implementing all ten principles, including principle five on child labour. Links to these communications can be found on the Global Compact website. Moreover, in the spirit of the Global Compact's emphasis on dialogue and learning, we encourage and promote dialogue between Global Compact participants and those who raise matters relating to their implementation of the Compact's principles. We therefore hope that the parties concerned will engage in constructive dialogue to resolve this matter as early as possible."

  While that's a bit much to unpack at press time, the raising of these matters has been not only in litigation, and in a shareholders' resolution this Spring at the chocolate company Hershey's, but now (full circle) at the ILO's briefing on May 4 (here in UN summary; here in Real Media) --  this is an ongoing beat.

* * *

  While a promised briefing about Sierra Leone was postponed, Doctor David Nabarro returned from the field, to report that the H5N1 strain of avian flu is now in 45 countries. When asked if the countries castigated this week for censorship would allow the reporting of bird flu outbreaks, Dr. Nabarro said diplomatically that all are reporting to the UN. Asked if this includes North Korea and Burma / Myanmar, for example, Dr. Nabarro suggested the question be asked to the UN's people there. This was subsequently clarified to mean staffers of the WHO, without specifying who. There are virologists meeting in Singapore; there's a meeting in Denang. Still the focus at the UN and its press corps remained on Iran. At a less formal podium in the early afternoon, the UK's Permanent Representative Sir Emyr Jones Parry spoke at length about Iran and nuclear weapons, including a draft Security Council resolution that "calls upon all States to exercise vigilance in preventing the transfer of items, materials, goods and technology that could contribute to Iran's enrichment-related and reprocessing activities and missile programs." In the briefing's final question, Inner City Press asked about the enacted sanctions on Darfur, specifically in light of the Security Council president's statement Tuesday that some of the sanctioned may have no desire to travel abroad, and may have their assets in livestock, not subject to "deposit in Citibank" and thus not to seizure.  Amb. Jones Parry answered at length, including that such sanctions "send a message" against impunity and that he will lead the Security Council's mission to Darfur in the week of June 4. He said that the Council would consider sanctions regarding south Sudan as well, "if necessary."

            Meanwhile according to the World Health Organization, over 95% of people in Sudan use solid fuels for cooking, leading to respiratory ailments and even death by fire. The WHO's Eva Rehfuess stated, "we are technology neutral" -- any purported improvement in cooking hardware must work for, and be embraced by, those who will use it. Asked about UNHCR's move for Bhutanese refugees in Nepal from kerosene to solar cookers, Ms. Rehfuess acknowledged the problems with this seeming green solution: it will not work at night nor early in the morning. When it works, it can easily burn children. Ms. Rehfuess related a failed program in India in the 1980s, to distribute 35 million stoves that were quickly disassembled and rejected.  If it doesn't work with the people, it doesn't work, she concluded. Which is true of UN spokespeople too.

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.

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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