Madeleine Rees, a former U.N. human rights official and the inspiration for one of the heroines in the film The Whistleblower, was wrongfully dismissed from her job with the Geneva-based U.N. Office of the High Commission for Human Rights in March 2010, according to a ruling by the U.N.'s administrative disputes tribunal.
The ruling comes at an awkward time for the United Nations, which has been struggling to determine how to react to last month's release of a major motion picture that recounts one of the darkest periods in modern U.N. history: the story of how U.N. peacekeepers became implicated in the trafficking of eastern European women into sexual slavery in Bosnia.
While Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's administration bore no responsibility for the abuses in Bosnia, it did play a role in firing Rees, who is portrayed in the film by Vanessa Redgrave as one of the most outspoken and courageous defenders of the rights of trafficked women in Bosnia. U.N. officials said her dismissal had nothing to do with her role in Bosnia, but concerned questions about her performance in a subsequent job.
After a round of internal debate, Ban invited the film's director, Larysa Kondraki, to screen the film for an audience of senior U.N. officials and member states at U.N. headquarters.
U.N. officials had hoped to use the event, which would include a panel discussion with the director, to highlight the steps that the U.N. has taken to address the failing in Bosnia.
Ban wrote last month in a letter to the director that he "was saddened by the involvement of the international community, particularly of the United Nations, in the abuses connected with the trafficking of women and their use as sex slaves, as highlighted in the movie." He noted that the U.N. has imposed a "zero-tolerance" policy on sexual misconduct and that he intended to make combating such abuses a priority. "I want to assure you that we shall embrace the challenge your film places before us."
As the U.N.'s top human rights officer in Bosnia, Rees led a fierce internal battle against the U.N.'s top peacekeeping brass to rein in sexual trafficking and to ensure that U.N. blue helmets weren't inadvertently complicit in these crimes by barring them from patronizing brothels where the girls worked. The film recounts her role in recruiting a former Nebraska cop, Kathryn Bolkovac (played by Rachel Weisz), and encouraging her to pursue investigations into the involvement of U.N. peacekeepers in sex trafficking.
Rees left Bosnia in 2006, when she was transferred to Geneva to head up the U.N. Women's Rights and Gender Unit. But she clashed with the new leadership team, including Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, who was appointed by Ban, and her deputy Kyung-wha Kang, a former top Korean diplomat and aide to Ban who was appointed by Kofi Annan in his final months in office.
Rees filed a grievance last year, arguing that she had suffered "irreparable harm" to her professional reputation and career at the U.N. after she was unjustly demoted in 2009 and finally pushed out of her job altogether in March 2010. The U.N. High Commissioner's office denied the charges, saying she had been reassigned to a new job after senior managers voiced repeated concerns about her performance, and that they did not renew her contract after she refused to accept another job she had been offered.
Judge Coral Shaw, a justice in the U.N. Dispute Tribunal, ruled that the U.N. had acted unlawfully in reassigning Rees to a new post, and that the U.N. should rescind the decision as well as its subsequent decision not to renew her contract.
"The judicial procedure is not yet completed, and there may be an appeal -- therefore we can't comment at this point," said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the High Commissioner's office, to Turtle Bay. But he added, "The case has nothing whatsoever to do with the shocking events in Bosnia, as depicted in the film The Whistleblower, and its disingenuous to link the two. The case relates to Madeleine Rees' subsequent position as the Head of OHCHR's Women's Rights and Gender Unit in Geneva."
But specialists say that a series of bureaucratic steps -- including scant public reports on sex crimes and the establishment of a U.N. memorandum of understanding that places greater authority for disciplining peacekeepers in the hands of governments -- have made it increasingly difficult to assess the U.N.'s response to the problem.
"Member states are not reliable enough to do a good job on their own, especially in the early stages of a military investigation," Prince Zeid Raad Zeid al-Hussein, Jordan's U.N. ambassador and a former special advisor on sexual abuse in peacekeeping operations, told the New York Times. "We, the member states, have by and large failed to do what I had hoped we would do."
In recent months, the U.N. has faced a rash of new allegations of peacekeeping abuses. Earlier this month, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica issued an extraordinary apology to Haiti's President, Michel Martelly, for the role of Uruguayan blue helmets in the sexual abuse of a Haitian man in a U.N. base. Mujca said he was personally ashamed of the "criminal and embarrassing conduct of a few" Uruguayans and promised that they would be held accountable for their behavior.
A secret U.S. diplomatic cable, released by Wikileaks, disclosed that U.N. peacekeepers in Benin traded food for sex with underaged girls in Ivory Coast. The peacekeepers were sent back to their country, but little is known about their fate. The U.N. has also repatriated peacekeepers from Sri Lanka, Morocco, and other countries in recent years.
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On Wednesday, Turtle Bay posted a story, based on a previously unpublished U.S. diplomatic cable obtained through WikiLeaks, claiming that an official from the European Commission, Yves Horent, passed on information suggesting that high level U.N. and EU officials predicted that Pakistan's foreign minister was destined to become U.N. secretary-general in 2007.
According to the cable, Horent told the Americans that Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and Louis Michel, the former European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, predicted that Kurshid Mehmood Kurasi, was certain to get the job. The prediction turned out, of course, to be flat wrong. The then U.N. South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon was already well on his way to firming up support for top U.N. job, and the Pakistani never even emerged as a candidate.
But Horent, who didn't initially respond to an email request late Tuesday for comment, since sent me an email this morning insisting that the American drafter of the cable is dead wrong, and that he couldn't even name the former Pakistan diplomat until he received my email and read the story on my blog.
"I am rather surprised by this information that is plainly wrong," said Horent. "Whoever wrote the cable you are referring to was obviously misinformed and /or confused."
"I never gave any briefing to the U.S. Embassy of this kind of political or diplomatic issues," Horent wrote. "My dialogue with the U.S. Embassy in Dar Es Salaam was sporadic and strictly limited to refugee matters in Tanzania, which was then part of my work. I do not recognize the name of the person I am supposed to have communicated with the U.S. Embassy, where my contacts were limited to the refugee coordinator."
Horent said that Guterres and Michel, who did not respond to requests for comment this week, had indeed visited Tanzania at the time, but that their visit "was entirely focused on humanitarian issues. U.N. appointment matters were not discussed. I did not even know who was Mr. Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri until a few minutes ago when I carried out a quick internet search!"
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The scene looks predictable enough to anyone with passing interest in the United Nations.
Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, pays his annual visit to the U.N. General Assembly, takes a few swipes at the U.S. and Israel, American and European diplomats walk out in protest, and the media plays up the clash.
But who knew that the effort to stage a boycott of a U.N. General Assembly speech was so difficult to pull off. In a September 25, 2009, meeting with U.S. diplomats in Stockholm, a Swedish diplomat admited that his government had declined to participate in a walkout a day earlier by U.S. and other key European diplomats.
Ulf Samuelsson, the Swedish desk officer for Iran, told his American counterpart, that the "red lines" agreed on by the 27 members of the European Union--the denial of the Holocaust or the of the right of Israel to exist--had never been crossed during the speech, according to a U.S. cable of the meeting published by WikiLeaks. To the dismay of the Swedes, who held the EU presidency in 2009, Britain, France and Germany got up and left the U.N. general assembly hall after Ahmadinejad said something merely offensive.
The lack of European coordination was particularly "embarrasing" for Sweden's political director, Bjorn Lyrvall, the man responsible for giving the green light for the walk out, another Swedish diplomat, Andres Jato, told the Americans. "Lyrvall was listening "outside with headphones on," ready to give the "pre-arranged signal" for all EU reps to walk out," according to the U.S. cable. "He was "surprised" when he saw first the Germans and then other EU delegations stream past him without the agreed upon red lines having been crossed. "We look like we can't coordinate anything," Jato lamented."
Samuelsson, meanwhile, noted that Sweden never really thought much of the boycott. "Sweden is, in general, uncomfortable with using walk-outs as a punitive tool in UNGA. Samuelsson added that were Sweden to use the tool "equally" it would have walked out on a number of leaders' objectionable/heinous statements at UNGA. Sweden would rather respond in other ways to objectionable/heinous satatements at UNGA."
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WikiLeaks has released its first confidential cable written by diplomats from the U.S. mission to the United Nations. While the December 2009 cable -- which discusses U.S. efforts on a range of issues before the U.N. General Assembly -- provides no major news revelations, it contains some valuable insights into the way America conducts its business here.
The confidential U.S. diplomatic communication -- which was approved by U.S. ambassador Susan E. Rice -- shows how reliant the U.S. is on its allies, particularly in Europe, to take the lead on politically sensitive issues like the promotion of human rights, where the U.S. often faces criticism for its military and detention policies. The cable credits the European Union with "collaborating pragmatically" with the Obama administration on its top priorities, including efforts to require emerging economic powers to pay a larger share of the U.N.'s administrative and peacekeeping costs, and to adopt U.N. resolutions criticizing the human rights record of Burma, Iran, and North Korea.
The EU, led by Sweden, also helped Washington fend off efforts by an influential alliance of developing countries -- known as the Group of 77 -- to adopt resolutions that would increase American financial burdens, including a draft resolution affirming a right to economic development.
The EU "responded with alacrity to new U.S. flexibility, particularly on arms control and economic/social issues," according to the cable. "The Swedish ambassador himself repeatedly engaged with G-77 colleagues to sway votes."
The cable, however, also singled out areas where key European powers refused to budge, including its annual support for a General Assembly resolution condemning the U.S. embargo against Cuba: "Spain was a particularly tenacious critic of our Cuba policy." It also expressed frustration with the failure of the EU, despite strong support from Britain, France, and the Netherlands, to significantly weaken a raft of nine pro-Palestinian resolutions that criticize Israel each year. "The EU's annual negotiation of these nine drafts... improved marginally.... The vote outcomes remained lopsided."
On the whole, this U.N. cable was certainly more businesslike than many of the most dramatic reports flowing out of U.S. embassies around the world. But I anticipate that future releases may provide sharper insights into many of the U.N.'s more colorful personalities. Perhaps they will even show us what Rice really thinks about U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
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Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, pressed China to release this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, expressing hope that China will "come to recognize" the positive contribution the pro-democracy activist can make on Chinese society.
In a rare, wide-ranging press conference in Geneva, Pillay presented the U.N.'s strongest public criticism of China's imprisonment of Liu, who is serving an 11-year jail sentence for drafting the pro-democracy Charter 08 manifesto. Pillay also scolded China for placing Liu's wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest "that in my view is in contravention of Chinese national law."
The remarks by the South African rights advocate bore a stark contrast to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's highly circumspect comments on Liu's selection as the 2010 Nobel laureate. To date, Ban has never publicly called for his release, spoken out against the house arrest of his wife, or even officially congratulated him on the prize. Ban did not raise the matter in private talks with Chinese leader Hu Jintao, reserving discussion of the politically delicate matter for talks with lower-level Chinese officials.
Chinese offficials have responded to the Nobel Committee's decision to honor Liu, whom they consider a criminal, by lobbying foreign governments not to attend this week's award ceremony. "China's foreign ministry has boasted that the peace prize has been discredited because a large number of countries agree with China and will boycott the ceremony," wrote Keith Richburg of the Washington Post. "So far, China has listed 18 other countries not attending, including fellow communist regimes Cuba and Vietnam; Arab monarchies and authoritarian regimes including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia; and China's allies Venezuela, Pakistan, Sudan, and neighboring Russia and Kazakhstan. Iran, Colombia and Ukraine also said their ambassadors will not attend."
Beijing has also mounted a crackdown on Chinese activists and critics inside China. Pillay said that she was "dismayed" by the recent restrictions China has placed on a "widening circle" of activists and critics of the government. "In recent weeks at least twenty activists have been arrested or detained and more than 120 other cases of house arrest, travel restrictions, forced relocations and other acts of intimidation," she said. Pillay defended her decision not to attend the Nobel award ceremony, saying that she never received a formal invitation to the event from the Nobel Peace Prize organization.
Pillay came under fire from Yang Jianli, a U.S.-based Chinese dissident and friend of Liu Xiaobo, who said that the rights leader had rejected an invitation to attend the meeting. At the time, Pillay's spokesman defended her decision not to go on the grounds that she had a previous obligation to host a Human Rights Day event in Geneva on the same day.
Pillay also weighed in on the mounting WikiLeaks controversy, decrying the efforts of politicians and other government officials to "pressure" banks, Internet providers, and credit card companies to cut off Wikileaks, saying such measures ran afoul of free-speech protections. "I am concerned about reports of pressure exerted on private companies including banks, credit card companies and Internet service providers to close down credit lines for donations to Wikileaks, as well as to stop hosting the website," she said.
"Taken as a whole [such measures] could be interpreted as an attempt to censor the publication of information thus potentially violating WikiLeaks right to freedom of expression. If WikiLeaks has committed any recognizable illegal act then this should be handled through the legal system and not through pressure and intimidation."
The remarks follow a high-level campaign, first initiated by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, to pressure companies, universities, and other institutions to prevent Wikileaks from disseminating confidential cables. A group of anonymous computer "hacktivists" have retaliated by mounting cyber attacks on the websites of institutions that they believe have been hostile to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
"This is truly what media would call a cyber war; it's just astonishing," Pillay said. "The WikiLeaks case raises complex human rights questions about balancing freedom of information, the right of people to know, and the need to protect national security or public order. This balancing act is a difficult one... So who is best to judge or strike at the balance, but courts of law?"
Pillay said the WikiLeaks documents have provided troubling new evidence that the Obama administration "knew about the widespread use of torture by Iraqi forces and yet proceeded with the transfer of thousands" of Iraqi detainees from U.S. custody to Iraqi custody between 2009 and 2010. "This could potentially constitute a serious breach of human rights law." She said she supported the efforts of U.N. human rights researchers who are seeking clarification from the U.S. and Iraqi authorities on the use of torture. She urged all to investigate the reports "and bring to justice those responsible for human rights abuses."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.