A U.N. disputes tribunal has awarded $65,000 in compensation to an American whistleblower in a landmark case that exposed failings in the U.N.'s Ethics Office and challenged the privileges of the U.N. secretary general to withhold sensitive internal documents from the U.N. administrative court.
The award was a fraction of the more than $3.8 million sought by James Wasserstrom, who was forced from his U.N. job in Kosovo after cooperating in an internal investigation of corruption by U.N. officials. He was subsequently stripped of his U.N. passport and treated like a criminal by his U.N. bosses.
Wasserstrom dismissed the award as paltry -- enough to purchase "half a dozen first class plane tickets for the secretary general and his senior staff" -- but too little to compensate for the "five years of legal battles and expenses" and the "degrading treatment" he endured.
"I put them, the U.N. Ethics Office, the whistleblower protection machinery, and the internal justice system of the U.N. to the integrity test and they all failed," he told Turtle Bay. The "message to U.N. staff who might one day want to come forward and do the right thing: do so at your own risk. You have absolutely no protection. And those who retaliate against you suffer no consequences."
The U.N. did not respond to a request for comment this afternoon. (*See note below for U.N. response)
In February 2007, the American diplomat began cooperating with a U.N. inquiry into reports of kickbacks given to U.N. officials responsible for Kosovo's energy sector. Two months later, Wasserstrom was informed that the United Nations was shutting down his department, the Office for Coordination of Oversight of Publicly Owned Enterprises, and that his contract would expire by June 30. In May, Wasserstrom signed a consultancy contract to advise executives of Kosovo's main airport, triggering a conflict-of-interest investigation.
On June 1, 2007, Wasserstrom was detained by U.N. police. His home was searched: his office was cordoned off with police tape. A poster with his picture instructed officials not to permit him onto U.N. premises, effectively ending a 27 year career at the United Nations. The episode, he said, made it impossible for him to secure a new job within the U.N. system, killing off his prospects to gain full retirement benefits two years before he was scheduled to retire.
Wasserstrom -- who now works as a senior anti-corruption advisor at the U.S. embassy in Kabul -- filed a retaliation complaint in June 2007, with the U.N. Ethics Office. The office subsequently ruled that his treatment "appeared to be excessive" but that an investigation "did not find any evidence that their activities were retaliatory."
The case cast a troubling light on the U.N.'s internal safeguards for protecting whistleblowers. The presiding judge, Goolam Meeran, wrote in his ruling that the U.N. Ethics Office, which bears responsibility for determining whether whistleblower retaliation has occurred, had failed to recognize "the significance of documentary evidence" showing he had suffered retaliation.
"There was clear and uncontested evidence, supported by the findings ... that the applicant's contractual rights were breached, which included clear evidence of severe human rights abuses," the judge wrote.
The breaches, however, were never addressed by the ethics committee, nor were the reasons for subjecting him to "such insensitive and degrading treatment," Meeran wrote. "In the absence of a cogent and satisfactory explanation, the inescapable inference must be that the underlying motive was retaliatory."
"The tribunal finds it difficult to envisage a worse case of insensitive, high handed and arbitrary treatment in breach of fundamental principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," Meeran added. "The failure of the ethics office to recognize such gross violations calls seriously into question its suitability and effectiveness as a body charged with" helping the U.N. secretary general ensure the "highest standards of integrity" among staff and fostering "a culture of ethics, transparency and accountability."
The judge also battered the U.N.'s lawyers for having delayed the disclosure of key documents, including a critical internal investigative report on the case. "The tribunal has unquestionable power to 'require any person to disclose any document or provide any information that appears to it to be necessary for a fair and expeditious disposal of the proceedings'," Meeran wrote. "The tribunal finds that the [UN's] conduct of the proceedings in deliberately and persistently refusing, without good cause, to abide by the Orders of the Tribunal and not granting access to the full ID/OIOS's investigation report constituted manifest abuse of proceedings.
Meeran awarded Wasserstrom $50,000 in compensation for the mistreatment he endured in Kosovo and $15,000 in legal fees. But the judge did not compensate him for the loss of his job in Kosovo, citing insufficient evidence that his firing was the result of retaliation.
The low award reflected the fact that judges on the U.N. disputes tribunal have "no power to award exemplary or punitive damages" against the organization. But Judge Meeran also denied Wasserstrom's prospect of a larger award on the basis of a technicality.
Wasserstrom had argued that he was entitled to future compensation, including salary and benefits, because he would have expected to return to a job with his longstanding employer, the U.N. Development Program, after he concluded his stint in Kosovo. But he said the stain of the episode had made him unemployable.
The judge, however, ruled that irrespective of the merits of such a claim the U.N. Development Program was not a party to the dispute, and that Wasserstrom had no basis for raising a claim so late in the proceedings. "It is now too late to raise this matter," Meeran wrote. "Consequently, the tribunal dismisses all [Wasserstrom's] claims regarding compensation for lost earnings and associated benefits."
*The U.N. issued this response after the story was posted. Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary general: "Judgements of the U.N. Dispute Tribunal are not final until they have been confirmed by the U.N. Appeals Tribunal. The organization is examining this judgment to determine whether an appeal is warranted. Consistent with established policy regarding ongoing cases, which includes cases under appeal and cases that may be appealed, the organization is not in a position to provide any further comments at this time."
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Michelle Bachelet, the executive director of U.N. Women, announced today that she would step down from her U.N. post and return to her Chilean homeland, fueling speculation that she plans to run for president in Chile’s November election.
At the close of the U.N. Conference on the Status of Women(CSW), Bachelet announced: "This will be my last CSW. I'm going back to my country."
A medical doctor who served as Chile’s former defense and health minister, Bachelet in 2006 became the first woman elected president in Chile.
Bachelet retained enormous popularity when she stepped down in 2010. But under Chile’s constitution the president is barred from serving consecutive presidential terms, and so Bachelet accepted a request by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to head up a newly established U.N. agency that focused on the promotion of women’s rights. While Bachelet has not declared her intentions to run for office, her return to political office in Chile has been long anticipated.
Following the announcement, Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted that Bachelet's departure from the U.N. was a “major bummer.” She credited her with preventing the collapse of the women’s rights conference, which tonight adopted a consensus statement condemning violence against women and underscoring women's sexual reproductive health rights. The consensus almost unraveled after Egypt insisted the final document include a waiver that would allow states, based on their own customs and religious practices, to ignore their obligations under the agreement. "She is awesome and helped save #CSW 2013," Rice tweeted.
Ban also offered up praise for Bachelet, saying “her record of achievement includes new steps to protect women and girls from violence, new advances on health, and a new understanding that women’s empowerment must be at the core of all we do at the United Nations. This is a stellar legacy, and I am determined to build on it. I thank Ms. Bachelet for her contributions and wish her every success as she embarks on the next chapter in her extraordinary life. She will always have a home at the United Nations.”
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Last week, Joseph Torsella, the U.S. ambassador for U.N. Management and Reform, took a stand for sobriety at Turtle Bay, publically scolding unnamed diplomatic colleagues for negotiating U.N. budgetary matters under the influence of alcohol.
This week, he's confronting the diplomatic hangover.
Insulted by the slight -- and sensing it was directed at African delegates -- the U.N.'s African countries coalesced behind a plan to limit budget negotiations to the U.N.'s working hours, refusing to entertain marathon negotiations late into the night and weekends to close contentious deals. On Thursday, Russia -- which traditionally cracks open a celebratory bottle of vodka at the close of budget negotiations -- lent its support to the Africans.
At this stage of the negotiations, the African move is likely to have limited effect on the talks -- though it will likely reinforce the bloc's public image as obstructionist on matters of budgetary reform. But the strategy is likely to slow the pace of budget talks in its final stages, meaning that less important business may get done before the session adjourns on the eve of Good Friday.
The tensions over spending are symptomatic of a deeper divide between the U.N.'s richest and poorest countries. Developing countries resent the fact that the United States and other major powers dominate the U.N. Security Council and exercise outsize influence over the U.N. Secretary General and the bureaucracy. For them, the U.N. Fifth Committee -- which controls the budget -- provides their most important source of power and influence and they often suspect Western-backed reforms initiatives are aimed at undercutting that influence.
The United States has been struggling to push through a range of reforms aimed at controlling U.N. spending and opening the body's books to greater scrutiny. But they have confronted a wall of diplomatic resistance, played out in frequent procedural maneuvers aimed at delaying and deferring key business. During crucial December budget negotiations, America's negotiating partners, primarily from the developing world, failed to show up to meetings to discuss key U.S. priorities -- including an initiative to impose a pay freeze on U.N. staffers -- and in some cases arrived a bit tipsy, according to U.N. diplomats.
In response, Torsella delivered a March 4 statement to the U.N. Fifth Committee expressing concern about the conduct of diplomats during the final stage of the marathon December budget talks.
"Mr. Chairman, we make the modest proposal that the negotiating rooms should in the future be an inebriation-free zone," he told delegates at the meeting. "Let's save the champagne for toasting the successful end of the session, and do some credit to the Fifth Committee's reputation in the process."
The intent of the speech seemed to be to shock, or at least embarrass, the U.N. delegates into taking ongoing budget talks more seriously and to wrap up the current round of business -- which includes 16 items dealing with everything from air travel costs to the publication of internal U.N. audits -- before the Easter holiday. Torsella said the United States would "take all appropriate steps to achieve this, including working outside of normal working hours and making the necessary arrangements to facilitate parallel meetings as required."
Some diplomats now fear the appeal may have backfired.
Torsella's statement has infuriated U.N. delegates, not only among developing countries, but among some of Washington's wealthy allies, who are eager to rein in spending. "The whole negotiating atmosphere was really poisoned by this," said one Western diplomat. "People are very angry. They won't openly confront Torsella, but they will react."
The danger, said one diplomat, is that offended delegations will seek to "gum up" the negotiating proceedings and undermine Torsella's efforts to secure a handful of deals aimed at cutting travel spending, reining in peacekeeping costs, and instructing the U.N. procurement office to deliver more cost-effective services.
The United States sought to assure the membership that it appreciated the hard work of the majority of budget negotiators, but that it saw a need for improvement.
"We respect the work of the Secretariat and the majority of Fifth Committee delegates who are, across all regional groups, hard-working and serious," said Kurtis Cooper, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations. "At the same time, we welcome all efforts to improve the working practices and professionalism of the Fifth Committee, which was the intent and focus of our statement."
Few diplomats deny their colleagues have had a few shots of whisky and vodka during the U.N.'s marathon budget sessions. And Russia's U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin, made it clear he was not amused. "There should be no drinking during business sessions. And I'm going to give very clear instructions to that effect to my delegations."
But they say Torsella's statement and subsequent press leaks exaggerated the excesses, unfairly tarnishing the reputation of the entire U.N. diplomatic community and prompting Foreign Ministries to ask their missions: "What the hell is going on there?"
Torsella, they complained, never approached governments privately to raise concerns about diplomatic misconduct, raising suspicions that the former Philadelphia politician was seeking to raise his own profile.
In the process, said one senior diplomat, Torsella had contributed to creating a perception that was out of touch with reality: grueling weeks of arduous negotiations culminated in a 30-hour diplomatic marathon on Christmas Eve last year. With U.N. shops closed, delegates ordered in pizza, cakes, and whisky. "I have not seen one negotiator that was drunk. I haven't seen a bottle of alcohol on the negotiation table," the diplomat said. "I know my American colleagues are frustrated about the way it works, and the lack of results. But in my view, alcohol is not the problem."
In an effort to calm diplomats, Fifth Committee Chairman Miguel Berger of Germany, sought to assure delegates that he appreciated their hard work and professionalism. "We have seen a broad public coverage on how budget negotiations are supposedly conducted in the Fifth Committee," he said. "As chair I would like to state that the public perception created does in my view not reflect the professional and dedicated work that is done by this committee."
"Many colleagues are sacrificing their family life," he added. "It is for this reason that I want to take this opportunity to express my sincere appreciation to you, the delegates of the Fifth Committee, for the work you have done and the long hours invested in the negotiations, and for the results achieved."
In the meantime, delegates, have been sharing a recent New York Times letter to the editor which cited a 2007 review of a book by Barbara Holland called the Joy of Drinking that extolled the role of drinking in American political life. Two days before the U.S. Constitution was written, the 55 delegates to the U.S. Constitutional Convention "adjourned to a tavern for some rest, and according to the bill they drank 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, 8 of whisky, 22 of port, 8 of hard cider and 7 bowls of punch so large, it was said, ducks could swim around in them. Then they went back to work and finished founding the new Republic."
The tavern, one diplomat gleefully recalled, was located in Philadelphia, Torsella's home town.
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It's not exactly the Cold War.
But U.S.-Russia relations have been getting pretty chilly in the U.N. Security Council lately.
On Tuesday, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, traded verbal blows over a stalled U.S. initiative to endorse a recent peace deal between Sudan and South Sudan.
The big power quarrel played out in a procedural skirmish over how the 15-nation council should be used to promote political reconciliation between the two Sudans, which have been locked in their own highly contentious squabbles over the nature of their relationship in the wake of South Sudan's independence in 2011.
Rice accused Churkin of trying to thwart the council's efforts to adopt a U.S.-drafted statement pressuring both Sudans to implement of set of obligations they have undertaken on everything from security arrangements to oil exports and trade, and condemning clashes between Sudanese and South Sudanese forces, including Khartoum’s aerial bombardment of towns in the south. Churkin fired back that Rice was "not reasonable" and her decision to divulge the contents of confidential negotiations was "rather bizarre."
The dispute reflected the deepening strains between the United States and Russia on a range of issues, including Syria, where the two powers have been stalemated, and Sudan, where Moscow has repeatedly stymied American efforts to press Khartoum. But it also highlighted the testy tenor of relations between Churkin and Rice, which some colleagues have likened to emotional exchanges between high-school kids.
For weeks, Rice had been struggling to secure agreement on a U.N. Security Council presidential statement that would recognize recent progress between the former civil war rivals in negotiations touching on everything from the demarcation of the border to control of Sudanese oil, which is mostly pumped in landlocked South Sudan, but transported, refined, and exported through Sudan.
Rice had crafted the draft in a way that could maximize pressure on Khartoum to withdraw its security forces from the disputed territory of Abyei, to provide access for U.N. humanitarian workers seeking to distribute humanitarian assistance in the conflict zones of South Kordofan and Blue Nile state. But it also deplored the presence of South Sudanese national police in Abyei, and urged both sides to refrain from hostilities.
Moscow had initially blocked the U.S. initiative on the grounds that it was too tough on Khartoum, but not tough enough on South Sudan. But on Friday of last week, Russia had reached agreement in principle with Rice to support the American measure.
The deal, however, was never concluded. Over the weekend, Sudan and South Sudan reached agreement on a deal setting the stage for the establishment of a demilitarized zone between the two countries and an oil pact that will allow for the resumption of oil exports for the first time since January 2012, when South Sudan halted production to protest what they believed were excessive transport fees charged by the Sudanese government.
Rice told reporters that she had intended to update the statement to reflect the latest agreement, but that Churkin abruptly introduced his own press statement welcoming the latest agreement and stripping out any language criticizing Khartoum's shortcomings on other fronts. Rice suggested that Russia, which has more limited interests in the Sudans than the United States, is performing the role of diplomatic spoiler in the council.
"We were close to agreement on that, and we were ready to update it to take account of recent events," Rice told reporters. "Unfortunately, perhaps in the interest of derailing such a PRST [Presidential statement], the Russian federation, which does not typically utilize the pen on South Sudan or Sudan, tabled a draft press statement, which only discussed a very narrow aspect of the substance of the larger ... statement and excluded language on the two areas, excluded mention of the cross border incidents, including aerial bombardment."
Churkin insisted that his intentions were pure, and that he was merely seeking to send a swift message of support to the Sudanese parties.
"Ambassador Rice chose to spill out to the media some confidential conversations we had today and actually did it in a rather bizarre way, from what I hear,' he told reporters. "I think the reaction of the U.S. delegation was not reasonable. And as a result of that we were not able to have any agreed reaction from the council today."
"This was not a constructive way to deal with the work in the Security Council," he added. "Trying to find all sorts of ulterior motives and come up with various outlandish accusations is not the best way to deal with your partners in the Security Council. I know it's not a good way to deal with the Russian delegation."
Some U.N. diplomats believe that Churkin is actually trying to provoke his American counterpart and that his tough line reflects an increasingly combative foreign policy approach being pursued by Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Russia is taking on an increasingly nationalistic foreign policy and Churkin's instructions reflect that," said one council diplomat.
But others fault the Americans for refusing to compromise with Russia in order to maintain pressure on Sudan and South Sudan to comply with their commitments. They say Rice's insistence on tough denunciations of Khartoum, while merited, have resulted in the council's inability to weigh in on many key aspects of the crisis since May 2012, when the council last threatened sanctions against the two sides if they failed to live up to their commitments. The United States "has been using a bazooka when they should stick with a pistol," said one U.N. insider. "Everyone knows how bad [Sudanese President Omar] Bashir is, but does it need to be put in every statement?"
A U.S. official countered that the U.S. has been even handed. "The United States is focused on resolving critical issues that risk another war between Sudan and South Sudan and have a huge human cost," said Payton Knopf, a spokesman for Rice, noting that hundreds of thousands of displaced Sudanese civilians are "enduring a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions. We believe the Security Council should hold the parties accountable, as appropriate for fulfilling their obligations. When Khartoum or Juba is cuplable, we think the council needs to apply pressure, as needed."
Russia, meanwhile, has been nursing its own grievances toward the government in Juba since 2011, when the South Sudanese authorities detained a Russian helicopter crew. Moscow unsuccessfully sought U.S. support for a statement criticizing the South's action. Then, to make matters worse, last year, South Sudanese army forces shot down a U.N. helicopter piloted by a 4-man Russian crew, who were all killed in the incident. In that instance, the U.S. supported a council statement deploring the shooting, and demanding that those responsible for the shooting be held accountable.
More recently, Russia accused the United States of blocking a Security Council statement condemning a terror bombing near the Russian embassy in Damascus.
"We believe these are double standards," Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said last month. "And we see in it a very dangerous tendency by our American colleagues to depart from the fundamental principle of unconditional condemnation of any terrorist act, a principle which secures the unity of the international community in the fight against terrorism," he said.
A spokeswoman for Rice, Erin Pelton, countered that assessment, saying that the United States was willing to support the Russian initiative if it included a reference to President Bashar al-Assad's government's "brutal attacks against the Syrian people. If predictably, Russia rejected the U.S. suggested language as "totally unacceptable" and withdrew its draft statement."
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There are countless ways in which warfare debases a society. In Syria, perhaps one of the more glaring is the politicization of medical care.
The Syrian government has systematically denied life-saving medical care to civilians suspected of sympathizing with the country's insurgency, according to a report released today by a Geneva-based U.N. Commission of Inquiry. Syrian doctors, it added, have expressed a "well-founded fear of punishment" if they are found to have treated an enemy combatant, according to the report's findings
The anti-government opposition has not been without blame. The report suggests medical personnel live in fear of abduction by armed opposition groups who suspect they are loyal to President Bashar al-Assad's government.
"One of the most alarming features of the conflict has been the use of medical care as a tactic of war," the report stated. "Medical personnel and hospitals have been deliberately targeted and are treated by the parties to the conflict as military objectives. Medical access has been denied on real or perceived political and sectarian grounds."
In an example of the risks to medical personnel, the U.N. commission reported Syrian government forces in December shelled hospitals in the Yarmouk camp, a district in Damascus that houses Syria's largest Palestinian population. In Daraa, Syrian interviewees told U.N. investigators that "official hospitals were permitted to treat only members of Government forces and their supporters." Inside hospitals, security forces carry out interrogations and arrests of patients suspects of supporting the rebellion. Sunni Muslims, who make up the vast majority of Syria's population and of the opposition, are routinely abused by Syrian government forces while receiving medical care.
The issue of medical care may have played a role in last week's U.N. hostage crisis. The U.N.'s captors, which identified themselves as the Yarmouk Martyrs brigade, initially protested that it had seized the 21 Filipino peacekeepers because they were providing humanitarian assistance to the Syrian forces they were battling in the area. U.N. sources said that the peacekeepers in the Golan Heights had provided medical care to wounded Syrian soldiers, but they said that they had done the same in the past for wounded rebels.
Today's 10-page report provides a grisly snapshot of life in war-wracked Syria, where massacres are routine, extremist violence is on the rise, war profiteers exact greater exact increasing costs on desperate civilians, and bakeries and funeral processions have become military targets.
The Syrian government and its paramilitary allies continue to bear responsibility for the most serious crimes, according to the report, which cites an intensification of indiscriminate shelling, airstrikes, and the use of surface-to-surface missiles against targets in heavily populated civilian areas. One missile strike alone in Aleppo on Feb. 18 "is reported to have killed over 200 people." Four days later, another deadly missile strike killed at least 50 people, including children. "Insider accounts detail Syrian Air Force commanders giving orders to shell entire areas of Aleppo city without discriminating between civilian and military objectives," according to the report.
But the armed opposition is also behaving badly, recruiting child soldiers, beating suspected government sympathizers at checkpoints, and routinely seizing hostages for ransom.
"One interviewee," the report stated, "speaking about events in Jdeida, Damascus governate, said that kidnappings by armed groups had become ‘common' and had focussed on ‘the Christian community', as they were known as goldsmiths and were able to pay the ransoms."
The report claims that anti-government armed groups have also acquired increasingly more sophisticated weaponry in recent weeks, but that their "lack of expertise and training often results in disproportionate and indiscriminate use and fewer precautions taken to protect civilians."
The commission said it is continuing to investigate reports that the armed opposition umbrella organization, the Free Syrian Army, carried out mortar attacks on Mushrefa, an Alawite village in Homs, which appears to have directly targeted the civilian population." The report also signaled out a number of bombings in Syria by extremists groups, including the Al Nusra Front, in Damascus and other heavily populated areas.
Even more alarming, the violence in Syria is taking on an increasingly sectarian character as Syrian forces and their armed allies target civilians on the basis of religion and ethnicity, according to the report.
"In a disturbing and dangerous trend, mass killings allegedly perpetrated by [government-supported] Popular Committee have at times taken on sectarian overtones," the report stated. The U.N. commission also cited reports that armed opposition groups have been targeting Shiite and Alawite communities in Damascus, Homs and Daara. "The taking and holding of hostages along communal lines by armed groups has risen sharply in recent months."
"The conflict continues to be waged by both Government forces and anti-government armed groups with insufficient respect for the protection of the civilian population," the report concludes. "A failure to resolve this increasingly violent conflict will condemn Syria, the region and the millions of civilians caught in the crossfire to an unimaginably bleak future."
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When Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, withdrew her name from consideration for U.S. secretary of state in December, the consensus among many of her Security Council colleagues was that she had been unfairly denied the top American diplomatic post by Senate Republicans seeking to wound the newly reelected American president.
But one of her colleagues, Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin, had a curious way of rising to her defense. (A little background: the two ambassadors have had a highly confrontational, though often affectionate relationship, that manifests itself in the kind of testy personal exchanges one might associate with a marital spat.)
In an interview broadcast on Dec. 13 on PBS, Russia's U.N. ambassador Churkin told PBS's Judy Woodruff, if the setback "means that ambassador Rice is going to spend four more years in the United Nations I'm going to have to ask for double pay. She has been one tough individual in the United Nations but we have had I think sometimes a stormy but most of the time friendly relationship with her. I would be looking forward to that, particularly if I'm given double pay for the additional effort."
Over the weekend, I wrote a piece in the Washington Post indicating that Rice was in line to become President Barack Obama's next national security advisor. The move is not imminent. Rice will likely remain in New York at least through the summer, as Thomas Donilon, the current office holder, plots his next move, either inside or outside of government.
During the reporting, I approached Amb. Churkin outside the Security Council to ask if was he was pleased to hear that they would not likely spend the next four years together. He declined to comment. Well, what about that raise? I asked.
"I didn't get it."
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The U.N.'s top peacekeeper, Herve Ladous, said today that Syrian authorities are shelling the town where 21 Filipino peacekeepers continued to be held by anti-government insurgents.
Ladous said he remains confident that the blue helmets will be released, but he voiced concern that the Syrian government might retaliate against local villagers after the U.N. leaves.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is in touch with the rebels, announced that 8 U.N. vehicles had entered the town, indicating a pull out may be imminent. But the rebels have previously insisted that Syrian forces withdraw from the town before the peacekeepers are released.
The disclosure comes one day after an armed group, calling itself the Martyrs of Yarmouk, had pledged to release the 21 peacekeepers. Ladsous's remarks suggested that the effort to extract them had grown increasingly more complicated.
During a briefing to the U.N. Security Council on the crisis, Ladsous said that U.N. officials in Syria had been seeking to negotiate a temporary ceasefire between Syrian armed forces and the insurgents to allow the peacekeepers to be released, a council diplomat told Turtle Bay. The U.N. had expected to secure the blue helmets release this morning, but they were still being held by the time he briefed the Security Council.
"We are hopeful that their release can be accomplished very quickly and we are keeping our fingers crossed," Ladsous told reporters after briefing the 15-nation body. "The situation is as follows: our peacekeepers are detained in the village of al Jamlah. Apparently they are safe; they have been spread into five or four locations within the villages, in basements of various houses. That part of the village is subject to intense shelling by the Syrian armed forces."
The episode highlighted the risk of the Syrian civil war spreading beyond the theater of conflict inside the country. The captured U.N. peacekeepers are serving as part of a U.N. Disengagement and Observation Force, which is monitoring a 1974 ceasefire between Israel and Syria along the Golan Heights. The fighting erupted in the town of al Jamlah, less than a mile from the Golan, and it has drawn the U.N. peacekeeping mission into the fray.
It was the second time in a week that U.N. blue helmets had been caught in the middle of fighting between the army and the insurgents around the town of al Jamlah, according to U.N. sources. Last weekend, three unarmed U.N. observers at the nearby U.N. Observation Post 58 got trapped between the warring combatants, forcing them to ultimately evacuate the post. Ladsous said the U.N. had since decided to evacuate another U.N. post because it was exposed to fire.
Ladsous voiced concern about the fate of the al Jamlah's villagers in the event that the U.N. blue helmets leave. "We all hope ... that there would not be retaliatory action by the Syrian armed forces over the village and its civilian population after our people have left."
Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari denied Ladsous's account of events, telling reporters outside the U.N. Security Council that "the Syrian government is not shelling the village. "We know for sure what we are doing and we know where the peacekeepers are." Jaafari said Syria is "sacrificing the lives of our soldiers in order to bring these peacekeepers [to safety]. We are paying a huge price for their safety."
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Listening to North Korea's response to the latest round of U.N. sanctions, one might be forgiven for thinking that there is no U.N. Security Council, or China, for that matter.
It was America that did this to us.
In advance of Thursday's decision by the 15-nation council to impose additional sanctions on Pyongyang, the North Korean leadership threatened to go nuclear; but its target was Washington D.C., not the Security Council's 1st Ave. home in New York, and certainly not Beijing.
Labeling the Obama administration a "criminal threatening global peace" the Hermit Kingdom vowed preemptive nuclear action if the United States pressed ahead with the sanctions vote. It also announced it would revoke all its non-aggression deals with South Korea, America's "puppet."
"Since the United States is about to ignite a nuclear war, we will be exercising our right to preemptive nuclear attack against the headquarters of the aggressor in order to protect our supreme interest," said Pyongyang.
The United States, and the Security Council, brushed off the North Korean threat as another rhetorical blast signifying little. "Let us be clear: We are fully capable of dealing with that threat," White House spokesman Jay Carney, assured reporters, citing Pyongyang's limited ballistic missile capability.
That asymmetry may be at the heart of why North Korea continues to test its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons in defiance of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The country's new leader likely feels that the tests help consolidate his hold on power at home. And clearly, he is seeking to rattle his new South Korean counterpart at a time of political transition. Or maybe, as Jennifer Lind, an associate professor at Dartmouth University, suggested in a piece in Foreign Affairs, North Korea is simply conducting nuclear and ballistic missile tests because that what you need to do to improve your arsenal.
Whatever the motivation, North Korea has ample cause to blame the United States for its latest troubles. The United States took the lead in negotiating the past five Security Council sanctions resolutions.
But the most recent spate of sanctions wouldn't have happened without North Korea's dearest friend and benefactor, China.
The resolution adopted by the council on Thursday was hammered out in closed door negotiations between Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and her Chinese counterpart, Li Baodong. It was presented to the other council members as a joint U.S.-China resolution. And while Li had initially resisted the American push for sanctions, he finally came around and pledged to ensure that the council's measures are implemented in full.
That means China -- however grudgingly -- is on board for a sweeping range of financial, diplomatic, and military sanctions, including a humiliating luxury ban designed to deny Kim Jong Un and his inner circle the ability to buy yachts, racing cars, and fine jewelry.
So why hasn't Kim's propaganda brigade laid a glove on Beijing?
Analysts believe that while Beijing is truly irked by Pyongyang's nuclear bravado, its primary goal is avoiding a collapse of the regime, which could result in the flight of huge numbers of refugees into China, and lay the groundwork for Korea's unification and the possible deployment of Korean and American forces closer to its border.
"We have been socialized into expecting so little from China that there's excitement when China shows even a bit of sternness," wrote Victor Cha, Korea chair of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Ellen Kim, a fellow at the CSIS. But they added: "In the past, China-DPRK trade has increased in the aftermath of U.N. sanctions."
Dartmouth's Lind told Turtle Bay that Pyongyang "probably understands it is walking a pretty fine line when it comes to China" and does not want to antagonize its neighbor any more than it already has.
On the one hand, she said, Pyongyang's leadership recognizes that Beijing has an interest in preserving the North Korean regime to serve as a buffer between South Korea and its military protector, the United States. But she added that Beijing's relationship with Pyongyang threatens to become increasingly estranged as China's global interests diverge.
"China has growing interests and it wants to be a leading power. North Korea is like one of those friends you had in high school that you are a little embarrassed of when you get older," said Lind.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.