|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
press conference by United Nations Development Programme on priorities for 2008
The bombing that killed 17 United Nations staff and injured 40 more in Algiers last month was the core concern at a Headquarters press conference today, as United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator Kemal Derviş stressed the “absolute priority” of the security of non-military United Nations personnel working in the development and humanitarian fields, while also acknowledging the importance of not barricading them from the people they sought to help.
Mr. Derviş reiterated the words he spoke on arrival at the site of the 11 December 2007 attack in the Algerian capital: “The victims are not soldiers who signed up for battle, but people, mostly Algerians, who are working for peace, development and to alleviate human suffering. It is so saddening for me to see with my own eyes the impact of this attack on colleagues so committed to helping create sustainable livelihoods for Algeria’s poor, supporting access to justice, strengthening the national Parliament and promoting environmental protection.”
The United Nations was now explicitly targeted, particularly in the field, and that created a very big challenge, he noted, adding that it was one thing to face general security issues and threats and quite another to confront an explicit targeting of the Organization. Host countries bore the primary responsibility for security and they must support the United Nations in its effort to increase levels of security for its staff.
Responding to a series of questions on the bombing, he said the internal review had provided an interim report, but the external review launched by the Secretary-General on Monday would look into the sequence of events and the more general security challenge, which he described as “huge”.
Drawing attention to the attack on a “highly protected” hotel in Kabul earlier this week, he said the role of Governments was absolutely important. The United Nations system could not operate in countries unless the host Governments took a very proactive role. Indeed, by the very nature of the Organization’s agreements with them, they were responsible for doing their utmost to protect United Nations personnel.
Mr. Derviş outlined the process by which the United Nations managed requests for increased security at a given site, explaining that it involved an interaction between the country team and the centralized security department of the United Nations Secretariat, which provided advice and assessed the security situation in different parts of the world. The term “most compliance” was a state of affairs that depended on a country, an individual city and a particular geographical location.
The external review would look into exactly who had told what to whom and at what time, whether there was a warning, the reaction to it, and so forth, he said. It would also establish the time line. At this point, all the details might not be known, as computer systems had been destroyed and only now was the country staff beginning to “semi-function” again. Many had been wounded, so the United Nations had not been in a position to assemble with confidence all the relevant details, so there might be some unanswered or not fully answered questions.
He added that he already knew that a United Nations Resident Coordinator-designated security official had asked the Algerian Government for particular security measures, including blocking off the street, but the Government had not responded. There had been no written response and perhaps there had been an oral one or a phone call. It was hard to know.
In terms of risk-level assessment, there were situations where there was no full “most compliance”, he explained in response to a further question. Achieving most compliance would not only take significant resources, which had to be authorized by the Boards of the various institutions, but it also was not feasible immediately. In six countries, people were being told to work at home in recognition that the United Nations had become a more explicit target, and to be extra careful after the Algiers event”. While not wishing to name the six countries, Algeria was definitely one of them. Work was under way to base staff in those countries in hotels and other places. That was being enforced in areas believed to be insecure.
Pressed as to whether the United Nations had requested a higher security level, and why it had remained at “level 1” after the 11 April bombings in Algiers, he said it was his understanding that the Organization had asked the Algerian Government to do more but it simply had not responded. There had not been a negative answer, simply no response. More would be known once the review took place.
Asked why the level had stayed the same, given the attack on Government offices in April, he said he said had asked the same question of the security people and learned that the way a threat was assessed included who was targeted. In Islamabad, Pakistan, for example, the threat level was at 1 and a mission had just been sent to look carefully into that. The April attack in Algiers had targeted the Government and, at that time, there had been no indication of targeting the United Nations or any non-governmental organization.
When the correspondent pointed out that the Algerian Interior Minister had stated right after the bombing that there had been indications that international institutions, including the United Nations, were targets, Mr. Derviş said that whether or not the Minister had said that, it had not yet been officially checked.
Noting that threat levels were assessed mechanically, he said that should be changed, adding that many places deserved a higher threat-level assessment than they had received in the past. The definitions must change so that many more places in the world would be reclassified at higher threat levels. In many countries, a process was under way in which United Nations country offices were trying to increase Government actions. The time had come to press those Governments very hard in that regard.
Responding to several questions about recent reports that Eveline Herfkens had received a housing subsidy from the Government of the Netherlands while on staff at UNDP, the Administrator said she had received it until the end of 2005. It was clear that taking a housing subsidy when she was working for the United Nations was against the staff rules. Exceptions had been made in the past and the Department of Management was looking into them, but they had to be subject to permission. Ms. Herfkens had not asked for permission and definitely had not observed the staff rules.
He said, however, that he fully believed Ms. Herfkens had not known and had never checked whether she was in compliance with the staff rules in that regard. A fact-finding review was under way. For the better part of her life, Ms. Herfkens had worked for the Dutch Government, the World Bank and the United Nations as a very strong and dedicated development leader.
In response to another question, he said that, as far as he knew, nobody in UNDP was receiving any rental subsidies.
As for whether the Programme was instituting mechanisms to “red-flag” such things, he said that was very much an ongoing process in the work of the United Nations Development Group. Housing subsidies had been widespread some years ago, including at the World Bank, but he did not know whether those staff had been seconded, meaning they remained employees of the Dutch Government. That would not be against United Nations staff rules, which was not the case with Ms. Herfkens.
UNDP did not have an election monitoring or certification role, he said in reply to a question about last year’s elections in Nigeria. However, the Programme did have a capacity-building role which had supported the electoral process but it had not pronounced itself on the election results.
Asked about UNDP’s engagement in financial relationships with firms banned by the United Nations, he said that concern had come to his attention a few days ago. A firm had engaged in bribery in 1993, but it had since come under new management. When that misconduct had become known, the Organization’s procurement services had removed it from the “eligible list”, but that was after the Programme had already contracted it to provide tents for Pakistan. The firm had still been on the ineligible list when the first batch of tents had been procured, and by the time the second batch was ready for purchase, it had been removed from the list, but the misconduct had come to light by then. Pakistan had been pleased with the tents, so procurement had made the decision to purchase the second batch from the same company.
In earlier remarks, Mr. Derviş, who also chairs the United Nations Development Group, touched on the development agenda for the coming year, saying the first concerned the world economy. There was quite a significant slowdown in the rich countries and it remained unknown how strong that would become. Every few weeks, the growth outlooks were somewhat downgraded, yet forecasts for the world economy as a whole were so far only marginally affected because of the continued, very strong growth performance in developing countries, particularly the big emerging market economies. Led by China, their projected performance actually protected world growth from a major slowdown. In fact, more than half the growth next year was expected to come from those economies.
Whether or not that would hold remained to be seen, he said. If the slowdown in the rich countries was stronger -- if there was an actual recession -- the overall impact on the world economy would probably be more severe and the challenge of maintaining the pace of development would be more difficult. However, the change in the structure of the world economy now made it possible for emerging market growth to compensate for slowdowns in rich markets, which was remarkable. The role those economies had been allowed to play, their share in various governance mechanisms, and the voice they now had no longer reflected the importance and weight they had acquired in the world economy.
He said climate change would remain a major priority in 2008, adding that the whole United Nations development system was working on the post-Bali agenda. The Conference had been a modest success, but the real work was only just beginning. The Human Development Report, published by UNDP in November 2007, had generated tremendous interest around the world given its focus on climate change and development. The Programme was building on that effort.
On the issue of governance and support for democratic institution-building, he said there had been significant progress, but cautioned that elections in themselves were only one aspect. In many countries, there was a tendency to perceive elections as a winner-take-all process, but the history of successful democracies showed the effectiveness of a system of checks and balances.
He provided an update on the development aspect of the United Nations reform agenda, explaining that the programming of many of the Organization’s agencies was now coordinated, with a big fraction of United Nations activities coming under the heading of one programme. Still, each agency was in charge of implementing its own programme, but a much more strongly coordinated framework was in place, with the objective to “deliver as one and in a coordinated way”.
It had never been the intention to merge the United Nations institutions into one large entity, or even two or three, he explained. That was unrealistic, as each had a different mandate, a different governance structure and a different funding structure. However, it was possible to harmonize and reduce duplication, as well as increase efficiency and encourage the donor community to pool its funds.
* *** *