For well over a year now, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been bombarding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with undiplomatic statements, lending the impression that his sympathies lie with those seeking his demise.
So, why in the world would an armed opposition group in Syria seize a group of U.N. observers in the Golan Heights monitoring a nearly 40-year truce between Israel and Syria and using them as a bargaining chip in their fight against Assad?
In a statement released today, the "media office" of the obscure rebel Brigade Shuhada Yarmouk, said they had acted against the U.N. because they were providing humanitarian aid to "the criminal regime troops" operating in the area. "We condemn this low act," the statement said. "Why [isn't] humanitarian aid delivered to the unarmed citizens instead of the criminal groups?" The group also posted a YouTube video showing the insurgents in front of large white truck with a U.N. insignia, vowing to hold the U.N. peacekeepers as hostages until Syrian government forces withdrew from contest.
The group's action was denounced by the Free Syrian Army's political and media coordinator, Louay al-Mokdad. "We are not responsible for this, and we are in communication with all our groups to figure out who this group is and to try to solve it as soon as we can," Mokdad said, according to the Washington Post. "This is not the right action to take. We should protect the U.N. soldiers." U.N. officials said they suspect the captors are comprised primarily of armed Palestinian refugees loosely allied with the Syrian insurgency.
It was impossible to verify the armed abductors' claims and the U.N. provided scant public detail on what had been unfolding in the area in the days and weeks leading up to today's abduction of about 20 armed U.N. blue helmets from the Philippines.
Diplomatic sources say that U.N.-Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's Damascus-based deputy, Mokhtar Lamani,is trying to negotiate their release through his rebel contacts in Syria.
The U.N.'s humanitarian operations in Syria have come under scrutiny in recent months as aid agencies have faulted them for channeling a disproportionate amount of aid to government-controlled areas, leaving rebel-controlled territory wanting.
The U.N.'s Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has countered that any limitation on their assistance to rebel-held areas was the result of fighting or the Syrian government's refusal to allow aid workers access to the region.
"Our aid," said Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary general, "goes basically to civilians; it doesn't go to fighting forces." Haq added that the abducted U.N. peacekeepers were charged with monitoring a cease-fire along a demilitarized zone separating Syrian and Israeli forces, not distributing humanitarian aid.
But an official confirmed to Turtle Bay that the U.N. mission in the Golan had provided some medical treatment to both government forces and insurgents who were in danger of dying from their wounds.
The U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, was established in 1974 to monitor a demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Over the years, it has attracted little international attention.
But the Syrian civil war has increased tensions along the line of separation, raising concern that the conflict could spill into Israel. A month ago, a U.N. advisor went missing in the Golan Heights, and he has not yet been released. The U.N. also reported today that nearby fighting between rebels and the Syrian army over the weekend forced U.N. observers to evacuate an observation post, which was damaged during the fight.
Officials in New York said that the U.N. observers have faced increasing harassment in recent months from insurgents operating in the region.
The troubles began last year when Sunni residents of the town of Jabata and another nearby village took up arms against Syrian loyalists, according to a U.N. official.
Since then, a motley coalition of Syrian and foreign fighters -- including members of the Free Syrian Army, the Al Nusra Front, and armed Palestinians -- have come to their aid. "The opposition forces have taken advantage of the separation zone," said an official. "They have used it as a kind of sanctuary."
In New York, a U.N. spokesman, Eduardo del Buey, confirmed that "approximately 30 armed fighters stopped and detained a group of around 20 peacekeepers." He said that the U.N. observer force in the Golan Heights "is dispatching a team to assess the situation and attempt a resolution."
Del Buey said that the observers were carrying out a regular supply mission when they were stopped near an U.N. observation post near the town of Al Jamlah, which had been the site of heavy fighting between the Syrian government and rebels.
If there was any positive to take away from today's action, it's that it succeeded in uniting the 15-nation Security Council around a crisis that has more often exposed deep rifts between the key powers. Led by Russia, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement condemning the abduction of U.N. peacekeepers on the Golan Heights, and demanding their "unconditional and immediate" release.
Following the vote, Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin, who is serving as Security Council president this month, condemned the armed hostage takers.
"This particular case is particularly unacceptable and bizarre in that UNDOF are unarmed and they have nothing to do with the situation in Syria -- they're on a completely different mission," Churkin said. "It seems that lately some people are trying very hard to extend the geography of the Syrian conflict. Somebody is trying very hard to blow this conflict up."
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We know he loves basketball.
But how does North Korean leader Kim Jong Un feel about car racing?
A new U.S. and Chinese draft resolution condemning North Korea's latest nuclear test has imposed a broad range of measures aimed at limiting the regime's ability to develop its nuclear and ballistic missile program. But buried in the list of items barred from importation into North Korea are a handful of luxury items, including high-end jewelry, pleasure yachts, luxury automobiles, and race cars.
The U.N. Security Council had previously prohibited the export of luxury goods into North Korea in 2006, but it never specified which products should be considered luxurious enough to be banned. In April 2007, a U.N. sanctions committee ruled that each member state would be responsible for determining what fell under the ban. In Italy, high-end tap shoes were enough to trigger airport security to act. In Austria, government authorities cracked down on a businessman selling luxury yachts to the North Koreans.
A U.N. panel responsible for monitoring U.N. sanctions against North Korea in 2010 documented six illegal purchases of luxury goods by the North Koreans, including 2 yachts, 12 Mercedes-Benz vehicles, 37 pianos, and high-end cosmetics. In 2009, Italian customs officials at Fiumicino Airport in Rome seized "a shipment of electronic items, including a projector, some amplifiers and other electronic equipment suitable for a cinema hall seating 1,000 people." Later that year, Italian authorities in the Port of Ancona seized 150 bottles of cognac and 270 bottles of whisky.
"The Democratic People's Republic of Korea remains actively engaged in the illicit procurement of luxury goods," the panel concluded. "Some of the luxury goods, such as the acquisition of the two luxury yachts, were facilitated by Office 39 of the Korean Workers' Party and obviously destined for use by senior regime figures."
China has always viewed the luxury ban as excessive -- a gratuitous penalty promoted by the west to humiliate the North Korean leadership -- and it has largely refused to enforce it. Commercial flights from Beijing to Pyongyang are routinely packed with luxury goods, according to an official who was recently in the country.
So China's agreement to ban specific luxury goods provides an indication of how angry Beijing must be at its troublesome neighbor and ally.
But will a ban on race cars really bite? A cursory search through Google and Nexis didn't turn up any stories about Formula 1 races or the leader's love of fast cars -- though I did come across a few stories about a new online car racing game based in Pyongyang.
My guess is that the new U.N. list was based on a luxury watchlist assembled by the U.S. Commerce Department, which includes racing cars, tobacco, silk, leather, furs, fake furs, perfumes, cosmetics, designer clothes, pearl- and gem-encrusted jewelry, flat-screen televisions, laptop computers, snowmobiles and ... recreational sports equipment. Hmmm, I wonder if they ban basketballs. Now, that would hurt.
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The U.S. ambassador for management and reform at the United Nations, Joseph Torsella, scolded his U.N. colleagues today for excessive drinking during delicate budget negotiations.
The unusual censure reflected lingering American frustration with its counterparts' conduct in budget negotiations in December, which one U.N.-based diplomat compared to a circus.
"There has always been a good and responsible tradition of a bit of alcohol improving a negotiation, but we're not talking about a delegate having a nip at the bar," said the diplomat who recalled one G-77 diplomat fell sick from too much alcohol.
As the United States sought to rally support for a proposal to freeze U.N. staff pay in December, it found that key negotiating partners, particularly delegates from the Group of 77 developing countries, were not showing up for meetings. When they did arrive, they had often been drinking.
"As for the conduct of negotiations, we make the modest proposal that the negotiation rooms should in future be an inebriation-free zone," Torsella said in a meeting of the U.N. membership's budget committee, known as the Fifth Committee. "While my government is truly grateful for the strategic opportunities presented by some recent practices, lets save the champagne for toasting the successful end of the session, and do some credit to the Fifth Committee's reputation in the process."
Throughout the budget negotiations, delegates maintained a stock of booze in a negotiating room, according to the U.N.-based diplomat. The diplomat said that the heavy drinking reflected a wider ethos that was aimed at stymieing changes at the United Nations.
"I don't believe people were saying 'alright our negotiating strategy for next two weeks will be to drink,' but it is rather a function of delegations seeking to avoiding any meaningful change in the negotiations and preserve the status quo."
But other diplomats challenged that account, saying that the main representatives who carried out the detailed negotiations were sober. They said that other diplomats who were required to ride out the negotiations -- but who had little direct involvement in the talks -- were the ones imbibing the most.
The American complaint over drinking reflected a deeper rift between the United States and its Western partners on one hand, and developing countries on the other, over the way the 193-member organization approves its budget.
The U.N. budget is generally approved by consensus -- which allows the U.N.'s wealthiest contributors a veto over budgets. But the Group of 77 (now a group of 132 developing countries), would prefer to vote by majority. In December, the organization broke with tradition and put a single budget measure up for a vote, which it easily won.
In his address to the Fifth Committee, Torsella denounced the move, saying "we believe that consensus, which in the U.N. context is commonly defined as the absence of objection, is the best way to ensure the interests of all parties to a negotiation are met. This assurance has long been and remains fundamental in securing the confidence of major financial contributors such as the United States in the work of the organization." Only decisions adopted "by all stakeholders by consensus can be considered legitimate, and as such we caution our colleagues against the major consequences to the U.N. that would follow from substituting 'majority' for 'consensus.'"
The U.N.'s main budget committee conducts marathon negotiations during the final weeks of the year, culminating in a series of endurance sessions that creep into the Christmas holidays. As the talks in the U.N. budget committee go into the late hours, some delegations have a tradition of uncorking the libations. A Western diplomat singled out African delegations.
The drinking, in some cases, is an integral part of the negotiations -- a social lubricant offered up to soften an adversary's negotiating position or simply a delaying tactic to put off final decision until the final hours, when negotiators are keen to get back home for the holidays and concessions are easier to exact.
"It's all about the last one standing is the winner," said one Security Council diplomat who has participated in many U.N. budget negotiations. "After three weeks together and 20 hours a day, people start to get really comfortable enough. But if you are dumb enough to get so drunk you can't negotiate, then you deserve [to get out played]."
"By the way, it's not just Africans. The Russians do it," the delegate continued. "There's nothing new or surprising about this. Canada used to bring whisky. The French used to bring bottles of wine," said the diplomat.
Another official, however, came to Russia's defense, saying it was true that Moscow's diplomats shared a bottle of vodka with their negotiating partners, but that they did so after the proceedings were concluded.
As the U.N. began a new session of budget negotiations this week, Torsella urged governments to try to get the work done before Good Friday, rather than letting it slip into the Easter Holiday. "We fully expect to conclude before the Good Friday holiday, and believe this goal is easily achievable."
He said the United States was willing to "take all appropriate steps" -- including working outside of normal working hours -- to make sure it happens.
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Earlier this week, John Ging, director of operations for the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), returned from a four-day trip to Mali to remind governments that the world's relief agency is short of funds for its life-saving work in Mali.
The U.N.'s humanitarian agency's 2013 appeal for $373 million, he said, has resulted in only $17 million in commitments.. That money came from only four countries -- Britain ($8million), Canada ($3.5 million), Saudi Arabia ($2 million), and the United States ($1.15 million) and the European Commission and United Nations). The U.N.'s remaining 189 countries have pledged nothing.
"We need the generosity of the international community," Ging said. "Unfortunately although Mali is in the center of media global attention the response for our appeal has been very poor.... We have not been able to mobilize the effective humanitarian response on scale of what is needed."
So, what are we to make of this shortfall?
Has the world gone cold-hearted in the face of an unfolding human tragedy in the Sahel, one which has subjected civilians to the hardships of hunger and the brutality of Islamic extremists imposing severe penalties on civilians, while Malian soldiers carry out reprisals against their suspected backers?
Have the major donors, dogged by persistent economic stress, become too poor to give generously to every cause? Or is the U.N. playing the ritual "shame game" to get countries to dig deeper into their pockets for yet another humanitarian crisis?
Humanitarian aid specialists say that the U.N.'s request for funding in Mali has simply come at a bad time, upping the competition for a limited pot of money at a time when governments are already being asked to contribute elsewhere, including roughly $1 billion to support peacekeeping efforts in Mali and more than $1.5 billion to ameliorate the severe humanitarian crisis in Syria. Meanwhile, large-scale humanitarian operations in places like Somalia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, show no sign of abating.
"With respect to Mali -- the humanitarian appeal definitely came at a bad time given the implicit competition between it and the peacekeeping appeal, and Syria is definitely sucking all the air out of the room as well," said Jeremy Konyndyk of Mercy Corps, whose organization has been forced by poor security and limited access to suspend distribution of relief in northern Mali.* Konyndyk noted that food supplies in the conflict areas in the north have been dwindling, and supply routes have been shut down. "Needs are extremely high in Mali now, and in the north needs will be higher than in 2011-2012."
"The Mali crisis in West Africa remains a much less accessible issue for most policy makers," said Michel Gabaudan, the president of Refugees International. But he said he expects the money will start flowing as news stories converge with the realization of the political imperative to respond. "I'm not too worried that we don't see an immediate massive response after the appeal was just launched."
Complicating matters is that the sudden surge in new humanitarian crises, he said, is coming at a time "when governments are all constrained by the economic crisis."
Indeed, a look at the U.N.'s financial tracking system shows that appeals for humanitarian assistance remain chronically undersubscribed. A $6.2 million U.N. appeal for aid in Afghanistan has generated less than 1 percent in commitments. While only tiny portion of international spending on Afghanistan goes through the U.N., countries that rely heavily on the global body for assistance are also seeing shortfalls, including Mali's neighbor, Niger, where the U.N. has secured only 2 percent of the nearly $6 million in funds it has sought.
In January, Ging rang the alarm bell on Syria, warning that governments had failed to meet the country's humanitarian needs. A week later, foreign governments, including previously frugal Gulf states, met in Kuwait and pledged to spend more $1.3 billion, according to U.N. estimates. So far, only $308 million -- about 20 percent -- has been funded.
But the U.N. has been unable to generate the same kind of momentum for Mali.
A Turtle Bay-based diplomat from a country that contributes to U.N. humanitarian efforts said that the numbers can be a bit misleading, providing an incomplete picture of the humanitarian money that flows into a place like Mali (which, along with other countries in the Sahel region, has been the beneficiary of large sums of assistance in recent years). He said it doesn't reflect the fact that governments' budget cycles in many foreign capital begins later in the year, making most U.N. appeals appear woefully underfunded now.
So, does that mean that the necessary money will inevitably flow into Mali as the needs grow increasingly clear? Not likely. Global aid trends show a mixed picture.
In the years following the peak of the economic crisis, humanitarian assistance has climbed, from $12.4 billion in 2007 to $17.1 billion in 2011, according to the Global Humanitarian Assistance report. Two massive natural disasters -- the Haiti earthquake and the Pakistan floods -- saw spending reach as high as $18.8 billion in 2010. But the level of unmet needs -- measured by the percentage of U.N. humanitarian aid appeals that go unfunded -- has grown by 10 percent between 2007 and 2011, meaning that the U.N. is falling further and further from its aid targets. One reason, said Konyndyk, is that the U.N. appeals are more comprehensive than they have been in the past.
But there are signs that funds may be hard to secure.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry informed Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, that the upcoming sequestration cuts would slash "about $200 million from our humanitarian assistance accounts at a time when we face growing needs in Syria, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel."
Konyndyk said Washington's priorities favor Syria, which has raised some concern that scarce resources will need to be redirected from other worthy crises, including Mali.
And recent history provides a worrying model. In February 2010, the United States Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance was forced to temporarily redirect as much as 40 percent of assistance to trouble spots like Somalia in order to ensure funding for the Haiti operation, my colleague Josh Rogin reported at the time.
Konyndyk voiced concern that the coming federal cuts will force the administration to make the painful choices they made in Haiti. "There is a real squeeze. I think we could see under sequestration some similar choices being made in order to make sure Syria is funded. There is huge pressure on the administration to increase aid even further in Syria and I don't see anything like that with respect to aid for Mali."
*(An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Mercy Corps had to shut down all its programs in Mali. The relief group only suspended distribution of goods in the north. Turtle Bay regrets the error
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Last week, Syrian envoy Bashar Jaafari was re-elected rapporteur of the U.N. Special Committee on Decolonization, joining representatives of Ecuador (chair), Cuba (vice chair), and Sierra Leone (vice chair) in the committee's top leadership ranks.(h/t UN Watch)
To be fair, a senior title on the U.N.'s decolonization committee -- which is charged with addressing the fate of 16 non self-governing territories, including Western Sahara and the Falkland Islands -- is hardly one of the most prestigious postings at the United Nations. (The United States withdrew from the committee on the grounds that it was anti-Western, and the 29 member committee includes no Western members.)
But still, for a country facing widespread international condemnation, it's probably not a terrible thing to have on your resume. And it provides Syria with a case to argue that it's not as isolated from the international community as the United States and its European and Arab allies insist.
Sudan, meanwhile, is expected to be granted responsibility for chairing a special session on the coordination of U.N. programs and agencies at a July conference in Geneva convened by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
Sudan -- a country whose leader stands accused of committing genocide by the International Criminal Court and which faced intense criticism from the U.N. for refusing to permit humanitarian relief assistance into conflict zones in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile State -- was initially in line for the chairmanship of a session dealing with humanitarian assistance. It agreed to swap the post with Pakistan following an outcry from the United States and other Western governments. A formal decision is supposed to be announced on Friday.
The reason that controversial governments routinely come under consideration for U.N. assignments that promote causes, like human rights, that they suppress at home, is due to the influence of regional blocs that assign plum jobs.
The principal U.N. regional groups -- the Arab Group, the Asia Group, the Africa Group, the Latin American Group, and the Western European and Others Group (which includes the United States) -- have traditionally each put forth a slate of candidates for key U.N. posts, thereby forgoing the demands of an open election. The groups seek to ensure each country in their group gets a shot at serving on key U.N. committees and panels.
"This is a problem that has plagued the United Nations for decades," said one Western official. "Clearly, regional groups have fallen down on the job when they put forward embarrassingly inappropriate candidates to represent them."
The United States and other Western powers have sought to block particularly egregious candidates for sensitive posts by persuading blocs to select another government from their region to jump the queue and enter the race, forcing an election. For instance, Western powers have previously derailed campaigns by Iran, Syria, and Sudan to important positions on a range of U.N. bodies, from the Security Council to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
But those countries simply remain at the front of the line for the next opening. Over time, a persistent ambassador, no matter his country's record, can generally find his or her way on to a senior U.N. committee posting.
In some cases, the big powers have stepped aside to permit a U.N. outlier a clear path to a post. For instance, after Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi agreed to renounce his nuclear weapon program and permit U.S. inspections of its weapons sites, the Bush administration stood aside, allowing Tripoli to secure a Security Council seat and the presidency of the U.N. General Assembly.
So might the United States have allowed Iran, its nuclear negotiating partner and the current chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, a pass when it secured a vice presidency on UNICEF executive board earlier this month?
Absolutely not, said U.S. officials. "We disapprove of the selection of Iran as the Asia Group VP on UNICEF's bureau," Erin Pelton, the spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, wrote on Twitter earlier this month. "We will register our objection."
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When France eventually ends its military operations in Mali, the French military intends to position a rapid reaction force somewhere in West Africa to support African peacekeepers facing serious challenges to their authority by Islamist insurgents, according to U.N.-based diplomats familiar with the plans.
French diplomats have begun detailing plans with the United Nations, the United States, and other key powers for a so-called "beyond the horizon" force that would be ready to carry out combat operations within Mali in the event that the Islamic fundamentalist rebels threaten to return en masse.
Paris has not informed its allies where this new force would be deployed, but diplomats said it would most likely be in Senegal, Niger, or Chad, where France maintains military bases.
France's U.N. ambassador Gerard Araud, meanwhile, has sought to assure his counterparts that Paris will not abruptly pull out of Mali in the coming weeks, saying that the French military presence will be phased out gradually to allow time for a new U.N. peacekeeping mission to get its bearings.
The French military intervened in Mali on Jan. 11, after a coalition of local and foreign insurgents, including members of al Qaeda's North African franchise, launched a military offensive in a series of strategic towns in central Mali, raising fears of a dash to the capital, Bamako, where thousands of French nationals reside. The French force, which has grown to more than 4,000 soldiers, has reclaimed control of several cities that had fallen under control of the insurgents, but sparks of fighting have continued, particularly in the strategic northern city of Gao.
The discussions over the new force mark the first step in an intensive French effort to craft a diplomatic and security strategy that will allow France to reduce its presence in Mali, while ensuring that U.N. blue helmets will be in a position to maintain security.
Paris is hoping to begin work as quickly as possible on a resolution that would formally establish a new African-led peacekeeping mission, responsible for maintaining security in several northern Malian towns and support political talks between the country's government in Bamako and insurgents, thus paving the ground for national elections. French officials are hoping to convene a Security Council meeting as early as Wednesday to begin the push for a new resolution.
But the French are facing a major hurdle from Mali's rulers, who came to power as a result of a military coup and who fear that a U.N. force would not only be too weak to confront their northern enemies, but prod them into yielded power to a newly elected government. Diplomats say work on a peacekeeping mission cannot proceed until the Malian leadership makes a formal, and unequivocal, request to the United Nations for troops.
U.N.-based sources said that they expect France, and possibly other Western governments, to contribute a small number of staff officers in the eventual U.N. mission's headquarters. But the vast majority of troops will come from the region. There are currently more than 5,000 African troops from Chad, Niger, and other West African countries in Mali. The African troops, which are currently supporting the French and Malian military campaign against the country's insurgency, are expected to serve in the new U.N. peacekeeping mission.
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For nearly two and a half years, the United Nations has sought to skirt responsibility for a ravenous Haitian cholera epidemic that killed at least 8,000 Haitians -- and sickened several hundred thousand more -- since the first outbreak was detected in October 2010, downriver from a sewage outlet used by a contingent of Nepalese blue helmets.
Today, Ban Ki-moon phoned Haitian president Michel Martelly to inform him that the United Nations has no intention, or legal obligation, to pay compensation to the families of Haiti's cholera victims.
"In November 2011, a claim for compensation was brought against the United Nations on behalf of the victims of the cholera outbreak in Haiti," Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters on Thursday. "Today, the United Nations advised the claimants representatives that the claims are no receivable pursuant to section 29 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations."
Nesirky highlighted the U.N.'s role in trying to contain the spread of cholera, saying it has worked closely with Haitians "to provide treatment, improve water and sanitation facilities and strengthen prevention and early warning."
"The secretary general expresses his profound sympathy for the terrible suffering caused by the cholera epidemic, and calls on all partners in Haiti and the international community to work together to ensure better health and a better future for the people of Haiti," Nesirky said.
The Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti filed the claim on behalf of the families of 5,000 victims, and is preparing claims on behalf of thousands more. Brian Concannon, the director of the organization, told Turtle Bay that the U.N. should be held liable for "negligent failure" to screen peacekeepers from a country known to have cholera and for the "reckless disposal of waste into Haiti's largest water system."
Concannon said that while the United Nations has signed a status of forces agreement with Haiti that shields it from suits brought by Haitian courts, the global body has an obligation to provide "an alternative mechanism" for victims to seek redress. His group is now preparing to pursue a case in a national court -- either within Haiti, the United States, the Netherlands, or Belgium -- to persuade a judge not to enforce the immunity agreement on the grounds that the United Nations has not lived up to "its side of the bargain."
"It's round two," he said.
The United Nations peacekeeping department has long maintained that a series of studies failed to present irrefutable evidence that U.N. peacekeepers were responsible for the outbreak. They argued that it would be more productive to invest the U.N.'s resources into trying to contain the spread of the disease rather than determining who was responsible for introducing cholera into Haiti for the first time in more than 100 years.
Following protests from Haitians, Ban commissioned a panel of independent medical experts to "investigate and seek to determine the source of the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti." The four-member team, headed by Dr. Alejandro Cravioto, head of the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh, provided strong circumstantial evidence hinting at a U.N. role but stopped just short of pinning the blame on the Nepalese peacekeepers.
The panel concluded, as Turtle Bay reported at the time, "that the disease was introduced into the Haitian population by human activity in the Meye Tributary, a branch of the Artibonite River, and quickly spread throughout the river delta, infecting thousands of Haitians along the way. At the time, Nepalese peacekeepers were stationed at a camp in Mierbalais, along the banks of the Meye, fueling suspicion that the waste of an infected peacekeeper had flowed into the river."
But the panel argued that the other forces contributing to the spread of the disease -- poor sanitation and a dysfunctional health care system -- were so varied as to make it impossible to identify a specific culprit. "The independent panel concludes that the Haiti cholera outbreak was caused by the confluence of circumstances as described above, and was not the fault of, or deliberate action of, a group or individual," read the report.
A U.S. cholera expert at Tufts Univeristy, Daniele Lantagne, who was a member of the U.N. panel, told the BBC last October that further scientific evidence pointed more conclusively towards the Nepalese peacekeepers. She said it is "most likely" that they were the source of the outbreak.
Jonathan Katz, a former Associated Press reporter who covered the cholera outbreak, said the U.N. has "spent the last year and change saying" they can't talk about the cholera epidemic because the claims case was pending. But now, he said, the U.N. maintains that it won't even consider the claim.
Katz, who authored the recent book on the Haiti relief effort, The Big Truck that Went By, said U.N.'s refusal to confront responsibility reflects a deeper concern that establishing precedent could open the door to a slew of lawsuits against the United Nations around the world.
"The United Nations is concerned about the precedent this would set for U.N. peacekeeping and the other work they do around the world," he said. "I can imagine a long line of people going around the world that would love to go after the United Nations."
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France's defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, today restated the French military's intention to declare victory in Mali, pack up their kit, and leave in "a matter of weeks," though ongoing counterterrorism operations in northern Mali would continue for "a while."
"We have no reason to stay," he told France 2 television.
But France does have reason to stay, actually a few.
For one, the Malian army is unfit to secure its own towns and borders from foreign and domestic insurgents.
Second, African forces assembled on the quick lack the capacity to hold territory recently captured by French troops.
And third, international efforts at the United Nations to oversee an international peacekeeping force comprised of some 6,000 to 10,000 blue helmets remain stalled in New York.
"The French know that they need to leave something behind, but they haven't defined what that is yet," said a senior U.N.-based diplomat. "We obviously have a keen interest in knowing what that is."
Earlier this week, Mali's president sent a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon requesting a peacekeeping mission. But the letter was drafted in "ambiguous terms" that raised questions about its commitment to a U.N. mission. For instance, Mali imposed some reservations that precluded the transfer from an African-led to a U.N.-led mission until Mali has established complete sovereign control over its territory.
The Malian gambit left many in the Security Council in the dark.
"Now, we don't have any further information on the way forward," said one council diplomat.
"I have no clear picture of what the options for the immediate future might be," added another council diplomat, noting that France has yet to introduce a detailed plan outlining what sort of international military presence would remain in Mali after it leaves.
The only thing that is clear, the official said, is that France is keen to go.
"President [Francois] Hollande did not want to intervene in the first place, and his [Socialist] party did not like it," the official said. But the "French are a little bit scared about the ability" of African forces to fill the security vacuum when they go.
U.N. officials and Security Council diplomats say they are confident France will leave behind some sort of heavily-armed rapid reaction force in support of an African-led U.N. peacekeeping mission. One diplomat said that France's announcement of its intent to leave is in part calculated to force the Malian government -- which cannot survive without foreign military backing -- to accept a U.N. mission.
Herve Ladsous, the U.N. peacekeeping chief, met in Ireland last week with the French defense minister. The French minister assured the U.N. that it would leave some troops in Mali, but did not say whether they would serve under U.N. or French command.
Mali's trepidation reflects the misgivings the government has about what a U.N. peacekeeping force might mean: a process of national reconciliation that would require the government strike a compromise with its bitter foes, the restive Tuareg insurgents who triggered the armed uprising in northern Mali early last year before it was overtaken by Islamists. It would also set the stage for a political transition, including elections that would require many of the country's military leaders -- who came to power through a military coup -- to make way for new leaders. And it would ratchet up pressure on Malians to hold their own troops accountable for atrocities carried out in recent weeks.
"Once again, there seems to be a total disconnect between the reality on the ground in Mali and the politics in New York," said Richard Gowan, a specialist on U.N. peacekeeping at New York University's Center on International Cooperation. "I think that there is a sense that while the Malian authorities are being ambiguous that ultimately they will have to bow to French pressure. And if the French insists on a U.N. force then they will have no alternative but to comply."
As for the U.N. planners, Gowan said, the U.N. "secretariat is still working on the assumption they have to have plans in place to take over responsibility in April."
But the challenge, added a second U.N.-based official, is how the secretariat can prepare a major peacekeeping mission without clear instructions from France, and more widely from the Security Council, on what precisely they will be expected to do. "We can do some table top planning," the official said. "But we really can't start until the council gives us a clear range of options for a peacekeeping mission."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.