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Woman's Death on UN Lawn Leaves Questions Unanswered, Photos Unexplained

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

UNITED NATIONS, Feb. 17, abridged Feb. 20 -- Following the discovery of the dead body of a woman in her 40s on the South Lawn behind the UN Headquarters on Sunday morning, what appeared to be attempts to downplay the incident occurred throughout the day. Police tape which had surrounded where her body fell was taken down before the UN Security Council's 1 p.m. meeting about Kosovo. By early afternoon, the noticeable imprint on the lawn where she landed had been filled in with sand. UN Deputy Spokesperson Marie Okabe was quoted that the UN would not be disclosing the identify of the deceased, even after her next of kin were notified. Ms. Okabe issued a written statement that "a UN agency staff member died after falling from the 19th-floor of the UN Secretariat building."

            While the term "UN agency" would tend to mean one of the funds or programs of the UN system, such as the UN Development Program or UNICEF, both of these agencies have their offices across the street from the UN Headquarters, not beside the East River where the body was found. An Inner City Press source who ventured to the 19th-floor found there rather dreary computer units entitled Systems Management Section and Service Co-ordination Section. Two staffers, there on a Sunday, confirmed that the deceased was a co-worker, but referred all other questions to a man they called their boss, who declined comment.

            A photograph which Inner City Press published, and has now excised, showed the body of the deceased with what appear to be bags taped over her hands.

Editorial note: on February 20, after direct requests from two UN officials, and indirect communications from another at the Under Secretary General level -- and more importantly, after the news purpose of reporting that the decedent's hands were covered in bags to preserve evidence has been served, Inner City Press removed the photograph from this page. At the time this was breaking news, and to ensure that important information was not lost, the initial publication made sense, as does this subsequent removal and apology to any family member or friend of the deceased who may have sincerely been offended. The USG at issue sought but did not receive from the UN Staff Union support to undermine freedom of the press, using a news judgment as a pretext to act against previous reporting.

    On the evening of February 20, UN Staff Union leadership told Inner City Press they had received a grand total of two complaints about the photograph: from the USG and one other professional UN official. Despite this USG's claims to people who never saw the photograph, it did not show the decedent's face. Significantly, this USG never sought to complain to or communicate directly with Inner City Press on this issue, but rather only to use it. Nonetheless, this subsequent removal and apology to any family member or friend of the deceased who may have sincerely been offended.

            An earlier photograph, in which her body is covered by a blanket, shows a hand, clenched into a fist, not bagged. See,, and see below, similar to other photographs in the public domain:

            A police source consulted by Inner City Press noted that sometimes hands are bagged to preserve any evidence of a struggle. When Inner City Press called the New York Police Department's DCPI at 1 p.m. on Sunday, the response was that a 44-year old white female was found at 8:09 a.m., and "no criminality is suspected at this time." The UN's statement, issued later, says that "at this time there is no suspicion of foul play." 

    While by all accounts this lack of suspicious continues and will continues, it seems fair to ask not only about the bagging of the hands, shown in the photo, but also what time the deceased arrives at the UN, and how this is known. There are public-record statements that she arrived early for work. The UN has an electronic pass system, whereby staff members, correspondents and diplomats swipe in and the information is recorded. As first reported by Inner City Press last April, in paragraph 27 of a little noticed resolution on the "security management system," the General Assembly "decide[d] that data related to representatives of Member States... shall automatically be deleted from the standardized access control system after... 24 hours." For anyone other than members of countries' missions to the UN, they can keep the data as long as they want, and apparently use it for any purpose whatsoever. But is it being used in this case?

            In fact, one close observer consulted by Inner City Press wondered out loud about the lack of public information about this staff member and death in the UN's important computer unit. While consciously seeking to remain with the bounds of good taste and decorousness, silence from the UN, including as projected even after next of kin is notified, should and will be contested. Watch this site.

(c) Inner City Press 2008, All rights reserved.

These reports are usually also available through Google News and on Lexis-Nexis.

Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece 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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