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UN: Report On Security Lapses Shakes Top Management

An independent panel has traced responsibility for UN security lapses in Iraq last year from field managers in Baghdad to the No.2 executive at the United Nations. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan responded to the report by calling for the resignation of his security coordinator, but he declined to accept the resignation of deputy UN chief Louise Frechette. Security concerns continue to overshadow the organization's efforts to assist with Iraq's political transition.

United Nations, 30 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A UN-commissioned report has called for the United Nations to reform its approach to security and threat assessment to avoid the mistakes that led to the devastating attack on the organization's Baghdad headquarters last year.

The report, released yesterday, said a false sense of security permeated UN management ahead of the 19 August attacks which killed 22 people, including the top UN envoy in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and wounded more than 150.

Many lives could have been saved if UN managers had followed proper safety precautions and reacted to warning signals, according to the report. It singled out UN Security Coordinator Tun Myat, chief on-site humanitarian official Ramiro Lopez da Silva, and the security-management team in Baghdad for negligence.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for the resignation of Myat, who previously directed UN humanitarian efforts in Iraq. Annan transferred Lopez da Silva to a senior post at the World Food Program in Rome.

Annan sent a letter to Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette expressing disappointment about the performance of a group she chaired which oversaw the return of UN staff to Iraq. Frechette offered her resignation, but Annan declined to accept it, noting the "collective nature" of the failures attributed to the group.

"People are dead and this is what we call UN accountability. And the roles of the senior people above these people who let this happen are never addressed."
The chairman of the panel, Gerald Walzer, told reporters that managers should have been alarmed by the mounting attacks against relief organizations last summer. "There had been incidents involving international organizations -- armed attacks on warehouses, the [International Organization of Migration] lost a staff member, the [Red Cross] had been attacked -- but [UN management] always seemed to have an explanation why this incident wasn't really interpreted as a clear sign that the UN was in imminent danger," he said.

The report followed a scathing critique of UN security management issued last autumn by a separate panel. The purpose of the new report was to establish accountability for the lapses dating from 1 May -- when the UN returned to post-Saddam Hussein Iraq -- to 19 August.

In addition to moves involving Myat and Lopez da Silva, Annan called for formal disciplinary proceedings against two UN officials in Baghdad. The panel had accused the two (Boulos Paul Aghadjanian of Jordan and Pa Momodou Sinyan of Gambia) of dereliction of duty for delays in installing blast-resistant film on windows at the Baghdad headquarters. Most of the injuries in the 19 August attack were caused by flying glass.

The United Nations had more than 600 international staff in Iraq at the time of the attack, including more than 300 in Baghdad. It withdrew nearly all of them and has only returned in token numbers in the past seven months.

A UN electoral mission is currently in Iraq to assist on preparations for general elections early next year. A separate UN team is headed to the country to help Iraqis form an interim government to assume power from U.S.-led occupation forces on 30 June. Security remains a major concern for the UN amid reports of daily attacks on coalition forces and Iraqis who cooperate with them.

UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said the organization has been reviewing security measures in all its missions since the events of last year. "We here at headquarters recognize that the global security environment is changing, that there could be threats to our staff or installations almost anywhere in the world and we have been beefing up security," he said.

An official with the UN staff union, Guy Candusso, was critical of Annan's moves. He told RFE/RL the measures were too mild, considering the toll of dead and injured. "People are dead and this is what we call UN accountability," he said. "And the roles of the senior people above these people who let this happen are never addressed."

The panel noted that UN officials were under pressure -- from member states both inside and outside the coalition -- to return to Iraq following the toppling of Hussein's regime. This pressure intensified after the Security Council passed a resolution in late May assigning a "vital" role for the UN in the reconstruction of Iraq, said panel Chairman Walzer.

"There is no doubt that with the passage of Resolution 1483 -- which gave the UN an enormous task to achieve within weeks -- the situation changed considerably and was the major factor for the need of deploying further staff to Baghdad," he said.

But the organization never sent an assessment team before approving the return of senior staff to Iraq. It said Lopez da Silva and other officials believed the attitude of the Iraqi population toward the UN would be overwhelmingly favorable.