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Missing UN Envoy Visited UN-Founded Mine in Niger, Uranium Extraction by Canadians Questioned

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

UNITED NATIONS, December 17 -- While in the wake of the disappearance in Niger of Robert Fowlers, belatedly described as a UN envoy, questions mount about Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's undisclosed stealth envoys and their seeming conflicts of interest. Fowler was traveling with an employee of the Canadian government Louis Guay and what's described as a UN Development Program driver, but no security. Niger's Communications Minister Ben Omar has said "they had visited the Canadian-operated Samira Hill gold mine." This is owned by a Canadian firm named Etruscan Resources.

   How does this constitute UN business? The UN still has not answered. But it emerges that Fowler's mission, while never announced to the press, was tucked into a UN budget document last month for $390,700, as "Special Envoy of the Secretary-General to the Niger" (sic), click here to view, under Section 3, Political Affairs.

  This gold mine includes as partners, beyond the Canadian firm Etruscan, the UN Development Program, the Government of Niger and another Canadian company known as Semafo, which is also involved in uranium extraction in Tuareg rebel-contested areas.  See, "Nuclear Colonialism and the Seizure of Agricultural Lands and Tuareg Grazing Areas by foreign companies." Some think these connections might explain rebel distrust of Fowler.  Others question the UN sending a Canadian to Niger where he dealt with Canadian-owned mining concerns.

  But the UN system connections to mining in Niger are stranger still. UNDP even helped develop the gold mines in Samira Hill: "Etruscan got involved in the Samira Hill deposit after it was initiated by an United Nations development programme and Etruscan then acquired the Libiri deposit about three years ago from Ashanti Goldfields... Etruscan, through its 50% interest in AGMDC will participate in the development of this entire gold belt, which is encompassed by the Tiawa, Saoura and Datambi permits."

  UNDP's involvement in this mining in Niger has extended to financing "aerial geophysical survey on a large portion of the greenstone belts of Tera and Sirba." In fact, Etruscan's exploration team includes at least two former UNDP employees, Pascal Van Osta previously of UNDP, and Hughes Diarra, previously of UNDP and AngloGold/Ashanti.

    So what was Fowler doing in Niger, and why wasn't his appointment announced at the time it was made? Wednesday at the UN, Inner City Press asked the Africa specialist of a Security Council member if he had ever been informed of Fowler's appointment. No, he said.

UNDP's Kemal Dervis in Niger, mining and Fowler not shown

   Ban Ki-moon held an hour-long press conference on Wednesday, for which Inner City Press signed up to ask a question, and kept hand raised throughout. Nevertheless, Ban's spokesperson Michele Montas never allowed the question to be asked. The question, as prepared, was:

"Robert Fowler, your special envoy, is missing in Niger, along with two people described as a UNDP driver and an employee of the Canadian government. It turns out that this mandate is in a budget document from last month, at $400,000. But it's reported that they were visiting a Canadian-owned mine.

First, what was their mission? With what parties had it been discussed? Now, what is being done to find and free him?

Second, what safeguards have you put in place that your envoys, ranging from former Nigerian president Obasanjo through Tony Blair to Alexander Downer, are free from the appearance of conflict of interest?

Third, why was Mr. Fowler's appointment never announced or disclosed to the press when it was made in the summer? We're told that there is a list of all of your envoys, that it is not formally confidential or shouldn't be publicized. Can you explain how that is transparent?  To what other conflicts not on the Security Council's agenda to you have stealth envoys?

   Since the question was not allowed, it will have to be pursued in other ways. Ms. Montas' Office has begrudgingly told another journalist that the UN was also paying Louis Guay, along on what basis and at what rate in not yet known. UNDP's spokesman's response to other UNDP questions asked six days ago was that answers would have to be harvested, which has yet to happen. When they are, and when a statement on UNDP's involvement in mining in Niger and UNDP staff or consultant presence in connection with the recent disappearance, all will be reported on this site.

    Later on Wednesday, Inner City Press asked the head of Ban Ki-moon's Global Compact, Georg Kell, to comment on the involvement in uranium mining in Tuareg-contested northern Niger by Areva, whose CEO is on the board of the Global Compact. Kell responded that some companies have "conflict-sensitive business practices." Video here.

  When Inner City Press asked to be provided with information about Areva's (and Canadian firms') practices in this regard, Kell said to check the "OECD mechanism," which is a rarely used complaint process. We will continue on this issue, despite requests to "leave it alone." Watch this space.

  Some speculate that the Government of Niger used Fowler to lure out the rebels with whom he was supposed to meet. Others quote rebel leaders that Fowler was too pro-government, and that the government of Niger gets weapons from Canada. "There were conflicting reports as to the exact nature of his business in Niger, Vesperini said. One version suggested he was on official business for consultations with the Niger government, while another said he was in the country for a private visit." There is a need for far greater transparency by the UN, and we will seek it.

Click here from Inner City Press' December 12 debate on UN double standards

Click here for Inner City Press' November 25 debate on Somalia, politics

Click here for Inner City Press Nov. 7 debate on the war in Congo

Watch this site, and this Oct. 2 debate, on UN, bailout, MDGs

and this October 17 debate, on Security Council and Obama and the UN.

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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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