8 October 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York



The United Nations needed urgently to review its “one UN-house” doctrine because it seriously undermined security in countries where there were terrorist threats, according to a recommendation contained in the report of an independent panel.

Speaking at a Headquarters press conference today, Ralph Zacklin, head of the Independent Panel on Accountability related to the attack on the United Nations premises in Algiers in December 2007, said the Organization’s security phase system had similarly been found to have been seriously compromised in Algeria through a process of politicization.

Mr. Zacklin, a former Assistant Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, was briefing on the Panel’s report, which is the result of its investigation of the deadly attack on the United Nations premises in Algiers in December 2007.  The report was presented to the Secretary-General on 21 September 2008.

The Panel considered that the human factor lay at the heart of the Algiers, he said, stressing that any system could only be as good as the individuals who implemented it.  It was widely recognized, acknowledged and appreciated that United Nations personnel, especially those in the field, often had to work under difficult, even dangerous, conditions, and that they had displayed strong commitment and dedication to the Organization’s goals, as well as an exceptional work ethic.

Emphasizing that the Panel did not doubt the professionalism, competence and hard work of many of the officials interviewed by the Panel, the inquiry had revealed significant lapses in judgment and performance on the part of those involved.  There had been a lack of adequate supervision and guidance on the part of senior managers, which could only be partially excused by a lack of resources, the Panel said.  “Senior managers were preoccupied with Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia and Sudan.  Algeria was not on their radar screen.”

Mr. Zacklin said that, in order to accomplish its mandated task, the Panel had conducted a very extensive and wide-ranging document–gathering exercise and review which, taken together with a very large number of interviews for background, had enabled it to develop a comprehensive understanding of the United Nations security-management system and the security situation in Algeria, as it affected the United Nations Office in Algiers in the 2006-2007 period.

On the basis of that examination of the documentation and the background interviews, the Panel had been able to make findings with regard to a total of 12 individuals and one organ of “collective responsibility”, he said.  The Panel had recommended administrative measures with respect to six individuals and disciplinary proceedings with respect to four individuals.  It has also made a recommendation that amounted to an administrative measure, in respect of the organ of collective responsibility.

In addressing the issue of individual accountability, the Panel had found it impossible to evaluate accountability without taking into account the institutional framework governing the security management system, he continued.  Given that the present United Nations security-management system was less than four years old, the Panel had considered that it was, in many respects, a work in progress.  However, it was the Panel’s view that, while the system had been hampered by a lack of resources, it had to be recognized that the Organization, unlike many national authorities, would never receive the kind of funding for security that was available at the national level.

But, it was also the Panel’s view that the dysfunction of the present system was not attributable to a lack of resources alone, he said, noting that it was also due to a failure on the part of those who had designed it and those implementing it.  “At the root of the design fault of the system is the lack of executive authority of the Under-Secretary-General, Department of Safety and Security and the role of the designated official.”

He said the former had been given responsibility without authority, while the latter had been expected to function as the head of security in the field office and the programme manager, responsibilities that were often inherently contradictory.  That flaw was mirrored to a lesser degree in the role assigned to members of the security-management team.

Furthermore, he continued, integrating the Office of the United Nations Security Coordinator (UNSECOORD) into the new Department of Safety and Security, as a result of the implementation of reform proposals adopted in 2005, had clearly given rise to a variety of problems.  Four years on, the cultures of the two entities appeared not to have been successfully integrated, resulting in internal mistrust and even dissension, according to the Panel.  The report indicated a lack of adequate supervision and training.  The recruitment process had resulted in an imbalance at the senior- and middle-management levels, which was heavily weighted towards certain types of experience not necessarily best suited to an organization such as the United Nations and the threats it faced.

Stressing that the host country was the second pillar of United Nations security and that it had primary responsibility for the security of the Organization’s staff, he said relations with the host country were of paramount importance.  Where they were strained or non-existent, a critical fault-line could develop with tragic consequences.  Therefore, the Panel was of the view that Governments must assume their responsibilities fully if they were to meet the expectations inherent in the notion of primary responsibility.  That called for opening and maintaining proper and effective channels of communication between host-country security services and United Nations security advisers in the field, so as to ensure reliable exchanges of information in relation to the Organization’s presence in the country.

In response to a question, Mr. Zacklin refuted claims that the Panel had interviewed lower-level staff without allowing them representation by staff union representatives, much less outside counsel.

“I certainly don’t recognize the picture that you’re painting at all,” he said, explaining that the Panel was a fact-finding one and, therefore, nobody had appeared before it under oath.  However, they had all appeared under the Panel’s terms of reference, which indicated that all staff members must cooperate with it.  The proceedings had been conducted in complete accordance with due process requirements, and the 54 staff members interviewed had all been informed in advance about the types of questions they would be expected to answer, and the areas of questioning.  Further, they had been informed that interviews were being recorded, which was not uncommon in that kind of fact-finding exercise.

Asked whether the Panel’s report closed the examination of the Algiers attack, he replied that, while he did not think there was anything more to discover about individual accountability, which was the object of the exercise, there could well be many things that could still be found out, in the forensic examination of the bombing, for instance.

Responding to a question as to whether he would advocate increasing the Department’s budget, he said it was not for him to advocate an increased budget, but it was important to understand that the United Nations would never have the kind of security budget available to national Governments.

Asked if the Secretary-General should bear some of the responsibility for some of those failings, he said:  “The Secretary-General is the chief administrative officer of this Organization, and so, he is the person who has to make these determinations.  The Panel has made its finding and has made its recommendations.  They are in the report and they speak for themselves.”

He continued:  “What I can say is that the Secretary-General is not one of the individuals that we have been referring to here,” explaining that the Panel therefore did not assign any blame to the Secretary-General, although it did note that David Veness, Under-Secretary-General for Safety and Security, had resigned.  The report contained a paragraph expressing the Panel’s appreciation for the actions that Mr. Veness had taken.  “So, in other words, what we’re saying is that we appreciate the fact that he did resign.”

In response to another question, he said he doubted very much that the Panel’s findings would open the United Nations to the possibility of legal suits filed by survivors, widows and others because, hypothetically, that question would pre-suppose that the Panel had made a finding of negligence, which would not be an accurate description of the findings.  “I don’t think it would be fair to say that we have made a finding with regard to anybody that would be a finding of negligence on their part.”

The five-member Panel comprised Mr. Zacklin as Chair, Jean-Jacques Graisee, Sinha Basnayake, Zelda Holtzman and Marisela Padron.  It was established on 19 June 2008.

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For information media • not an official record