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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2908

Terror Threats Weigh on U.N. Staff Abroad

By Thalif Deen, Inter Press Service

United Nations, 28 January, (IPS): The United Nations is living under the shadow of terrorist threats, forcing some of its field staff to work from the safety of their homes.

The attack on the U.N. premises in Algeria last month that claimed the lives of 17 staff members -- the second such attack after the August 2003 bombing of the U.N. compound in Baghdad -- has jolted the Secretariat in New York.

"With the United Nations increasingly becoming a target around the world, no efforts should be spared to protect its staff, beginning with an independent investigation and the transparent sincerity of its purpose," says the New York-based U.N. Staff Union.

Asked about the attacks, Ban Ki-moon told reporters last week: "As the secretary-general, I feel it very unfortunate and sad that the United Nations has become the target of terrorist bombings, already for the second time, after the terrorist bombing which happened four years ago in Baghdad."

''There may be many areas strategically where we will have to look at this issue," he said, expressing customary reticence in divulging some of the new security measures the United Nations plans to take.

Primarily, he said, the responsibility of protecting U.N. staff and premises falls on the host government.

"And we do expect that the host governments, wherever the United Nations operates, should provide adequate and necessary protection and facilities and measures. This is what I am going to discuss with (the U.N.'s 192) member states," said Ban.

The Secretariat is also involved in a war of words with the Algerian government, which is opposed -- primarily for political reasons -- to any independent investigation of the bombing.

The government also denies the charge that it ignored a U.N. request for stepped up security measures, including blocking off streets, before the bombing of the U.N. offices in the capital of Algiers.

Kemal Dervis, head of the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), whose office was destroyed in the attack, says that in at least six countries, U.N. staff has been told to work at home because some of the U.N. agencies in the field have become more "explicit targets" of terrorist groups.

Dervis refused to identify the six countries, but admitted Algeria was one of them.

The threats against U.N. staffers have been directed both at officials and peacekeepers in countries such as Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

Osama bin Laden, described as the mastermind behind the terror attacks on the United States in September 2001, offered a reward of some 10,000 grams of gold for the lives of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his Special Representative in Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi.

A senior U.N. official told IPS, "The United Nations means many things to many people." First, there is the political body, and then there is the Secretariat, and the various humanitarian agencies.

If the Security Council is accused of double standards or being biased, it's the big powers that are to be blamed -- not the U.N. staff in the Secretariat or in the field.

"Unfortunately, most people out there have failed to make the distinction between the United Nations as a political animal and the United Nations as a humanitarian organisation," he added.

If a U.N. office is targeted, it's the staff that takes a beating, not the member states, who trigger the political resentment in the first place.

Dervis said the victims in the Algerian attack were not soldiers who signed up for battle, "but people, mostly Algerians, who are working for peace, development and to alleviate human suffering."

"It's 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," said Dervis, one of the most senior U.N. officials to visit the scene of the attack last month.

At a memorial service for U.N. staff members who lost their lives in Algiers, the secretary-general said: "What we remembered at today's ceremony was a savage loss inflicted on the entire United Nations family."

"Our colleagues worked at the United Nations in Algiers not to pursue a political mission, and definitely not to promote the interests of one group of nations or peoples over those of another."

Just after the bombing last month, the secretary-general also wondered whether the anti-U.N. sentiments were an indication of the failure to communicate the U.N. mission to people worldwide.

He said the United Nations must do even better in explaining to the public and the media the role of the world body, "wherever we operate -- why we are there, what we do, what we stand for and what we don't."

"We must make clear we are not there to represent the interests of any one group of nations over another. We must make clear that we are there to clear mines, build schools, run clinics, advance the rule of law, help protect the environment and help protect human rights."

In short, he said, "(we are there) to build better lives for the men, women and children we exist to serve," he declared.

- Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency -

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