Tuesday, 19 August 2008

UN Dodges Myanmar Questions as Losses and Arrests Mount, in Zimbabwe Too

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

UNITED NATIONS, August 17 -- As the UN in Myanmar moved to cover-up its foreign exchange losses to the Than Shwe military government, in New York its Associate Spokesperson spend last week evading questions about the country, neglecting to follow-up on some and deferring others to the upcoming trip by UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari.

On Monday August 11, Inner City Press asked Spokesperson Farhan Haq, according to the transcript:

Inner City Press: It is reported that the Government of Myanmar has extended the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi for another year, which is, some people say it violates... You can only be five years unless charges are being filed. Does the UN have any response to this?

Associate Spokesperson Haq: I believe that that decision was taken about a month or so ago... this is a topic that Mr. [Ibrahim] Gambari has brought up in previous meetings, and when he visits Myanmar again, which he is expected to do some time over the coming weeks, he does expect to bring up the issue.

But "a month or so ago" -- actually, May 28 -- the extended sentence was said to be six months, which would keep the confinement under the five year limit. CNN of August 11 quoted sources that the extension was for one year. But the UN relied on past statements and Gambari's upcoming trip.

Also on August 11, Haq dodged the question of UN Envoy Haile Menkerios having been barred from Zimbabwe, and why he spends so much time in South Africa, on which we'll have more.

On Tuesday August 12, Inner City Press asked Haq

Inner City Press: in Myanmar two opposition leaders have been now locked up by the Government. Two that actually wrote to Ban Ki-moon in mid-July, asking him to take a second look at expanding the scope of [Ibrahim] Gambari’s mandate. Does the Secretary-General have any comments on these interlocutors or these opposition leaders that wrote to him being arrested?

Associate Spokesperson Haq: We don't have a specific reaction to that. In general, we have wanted to see an end to the arrests of figures in the opposition, of members of civil society. Mr. Gambari has brought up the concerns about the need for all political detainees to be released in his past visits and we do expect that he will bring up those concerns again when he visits Myanmar in the coming weeks.

But it is alleged that these two were arrested because they wrote to Ban.

Also on Tuesday, while belatedly denying that Ban has received any negative comments on reducing the UN Mission in Kosovo's staffing by 70%, Haq dodged the question of whether the 70% will be implemented in Serbian-majority areas in North Kosovo. "Ask UNMIK," Inner City Press was told by email. But UNMIK had, at that time, said it didn't know if it would do the same in North Kosovo. Later in the week they said they will, but not update was provided by the UN Spokesperson's Office in New York. Wishing there'd be no coverage of Kosovo won't make it so.

On Wednesday, August 13, Inner City Press shifted questioning to Timor Leste, the report that Reinado was shot point blank, and the lack of UN follow-up on its commitment to investigate the actions of UN security for Jose Ramos-Horta.

Inner City Press: In East Timor, there was reported today that Reinado -- the one who attacked [Jose] Ramos-Horta -- may have been executed. That was found in an autopsy, based on the ballistics. So number one, given the UN's role in protecting Ramos-Horta at the time, was there ever an outcome to the UN's investigation into what went wrong in the protection of Ramos-Horta? And do you have any response to this new autopsy done in East Timor?

Associate Spokesperson Haq: I don't have a response, we'd have to check up. As you know, Reinado died during an exchange of gunfire. Apparently, the information we had at the time, which we had said, was that he died in an exchange of gunfire during the assassination attempt against Mr. Ramos-Horta. I am not aware of this latest report and will check with the Mission whether they have any response to that.

But four days later, there has been no response. The August 13 transcript, purportedly verbatim, does not include statements by Haq that no more questions would be allowed.

On Thursday August 14, Haq not only read out the UN's whitewash of its currency exchange losses in Myanmar, he also said he would "ask Bangkok" why the UN Human Rights Council's rapporteur had cancelled his scheduled press conference about human rights in Myanmar. Later Haq said this was just a scheduling conflict. But it has not been rescheduled. From the transcript:

Inner City Press: Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Mr. [Tomas Ojea] Quintana was supposed to hold a press conference in Bangkok after his visit to Myanmar. This was cancelled and nobody was given any reason why it was cancelled. Given the importance of the issue, why was it cancelled?

Associate Spokesperson Haq: I am not one of the people in Bangkok. You could consult with my colleague there and he might be able to help you with that.

[The Associate Spokesperson later added that scheduling conflicts were given as the reason for the cancellation.]

On Friday August 15, among the topics dodged was Zimbabwe:

Inner City Press: There are reports that the UN had asked to send a team to assess the political violence in Zimbabwe between 29 May and the run-off, but that the Government had refused entry to the UN team. Can you confirm first that the UN has tried to send such a team, and second that it has been denied access?

Associate Spokesperson: I will check. I am not aware of that one, but I'll check if we received such a request.

There has been no update; there was another mystery left unanswered on Friday on which we wll have more. For now we note that the dodging of Myanmar questions may not be entirely the fault of the Spokesperson's Office, but rather reflect instructions from higher in the UN building to avoid the issue. Why would the UN, faced with a scandal of loss of aid funds, issue a joint press release with the Than Shwe government? To be continued.

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