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At UN, Ire at Report of Family Ties In Iraq Staffing, Ivorian Mistura, Lunching with Bertucci

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

UNITED NATIONS, October 19 -- For weeks it had been rumored, that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's son-in-law would get a high post with the UN in Iraq, and that Mr. Ban's former colleague in the South Korean foreign ministry, Choi Young-jin, would be named Ban's envoy to the Ivory Coast. About the latter, Inner City Press asked Ban's spokesperson Michele Montas, after hearing from Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo that the envoy had been mutually selected. Ms. Montas had no comment at the time. Then on October 18, the Choi appointment was announced, and the following morning's Washington Post carried a small item noting that Ban's Iraq envoy Steffan de Mistura is naming Ban's son-in-law Siddarth Chatterjee as his chief of staff. There are stories behind each, portions of which we'll endeavor to tell in this end-of-week column.

            First, the UN's story. On Friday Inner City Press asked Ms. Montas about Chatterjee's appointment in Iraq, and she responded that it is strictly a matter between Mr. de Mistura and Chatterjee, that it is a lateral move and not a promotion, and that "we feel the publication of any information that increases the risk to any staff member and to the mission as a whole is not very helpful."

            Inner City Press asked, "Are you saying that the Washington Post's publication puts the mission at risk?"

            "I'm saying what I said," Ms. Montas replied. Video here, from Minute 12:35.

UN battens down, transparency to press not shown

            An aside: Inner City Press often takes and presents UN Spokesperson Montas' objections to the legitimacy of questions at face value. But in this case, we have reason to believe, and have decided to report, that the responsibility for the above-quoted dig at press freedom lies on the 38th Floor, and not the third (where the Spokesperson's Office is housed). Apparently from the highest levels, attempts were made that this widely-rumored story not be published. But since it is journalistically legitimate, even imperative, to report on what some are calling possible nepotism in public institutions, security concerns would have militated against this assignment of the Secretary-General's son-in-law to Iraq. "It's a big world," as one source fearing retaliation put it, adding that Chatterjee was initially going to be promoted from P-5 up into the "D" ranks, but that it was decided to forego this for now, to present the move as lateral.

            The subtext to Ms. Montas' statement that this was a matter between Mr. de Mistura and Mr. Chatterjee is that these fearful insiders report that Mr. de Mistura made the appointment in order to curry favor on the 38th floor, just as, the sources say, he previously hired the son of Kofi Annan's close aide Iqbal Riza. What makes it unrealistic to expect this story not to be explored is that de Mistura was so recently given the Iraq envoy post.

            The new envoy to the Ivory Coast, Choi Young-jin, assumes a difficult position. The previous two envoys were essentially thrown out by president Gbagbo after they pushed to compliance with the elections time-table and spoke about corruption. While it is said that Gbagbo initially rejected the suggestion of Choi as the new envoy, his subsequently changed position leads many to question how assertive he will be about compliance with the revised elections time-line, to say nothing of corruption.

            A group of correspondents including this one urged the UN's Department of Public Information, over a three course lunch in the UN's Delegates' Dining Room on Friday, to make Ban more accessible to the press. While the Spokesperson's Office is not providing, perhaps is not being permitted to provide, Mr. Ban's explanations of these appointment and related issues, we can report that he appears genuinely offended, or "embarrassed," as he diplomatically puts it, that such questions are being asked. But it is not a matter of whether South Korea was under-representative in the composition of UN staff prior to his arrival. It's all about transparency, and on that, the Ban Administration is still a work in progress.

            A case in point, over the buffet of the Delegates' Dining Room on Friday, yet another attempt was made to garner a comment from Under Secretary General for Management, Alicia Barcena, on the chain of emails in which UN investigator Inga-Britt Ahlenius urged Barcena to be on the interview panel for a candidate for a to procurement job proffered by Ahlenius, in the middle of an audit.  "I have no comment to make," Ms. Barcena said on Friday, chiding Inner City Press for having reported on staff's concerns about whether her trips to Mexico, for example, are all UN work-related. These are the questions that are asked of public servants. At the UN, they are too infrequently answered.

            Ms. Barcena was lunching, it can be reported because in public view, with Jose Maria Ocampo, former USG for Social and Economic Affairs, now at Columbia University. In the Dining Room foyer was Ocampo's rogue underling, Guido Bertucci. And where, one wonders, was Inga-Britt Ahlenius? That will have to be answered next week.

  * * *

Again, because a number of Inner City Press' UN sources go out of their way to express commitment to serving the poor, and while it should be unnecessary, Inner City Press is compelled to conclude this installment in a necessarily-ongoing series by saluting the stated goals of the UN agencies and many of their staff. Keep those cards, letters and emails coming, and phone calls too, we apologize for any phone tag, but please continue trying, and keep the information flowing.

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

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