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On Sri Lanka Detentions, UN’s Top Lawyer Won’t Opine, of Privileges and the Pen

[Inner City Press, Wednesday, 16 September 2009 19:09 No Comment]

While two UN system staff members remain incarcerated in Sri Lanka after what they say was government torture, in New York the UN is preparing for more countries to sign more treaties and conventions during next week’s General Assembly. Inner City Press asked top UN lawyer Patricia O’Brien, during her news conference Wednesday promoting the treaty event, about the two UN system staffers. Video here, from Minute 42:01.

The Treaty Event booklet distributed at the UN lists the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the UN and the Convention on the Safety of UN and Associated Personnel. Sri Lanka has acceded to both of them, during the General Assembly meetings in 2003. But are they being complied with and enforced?

"I am not here to speak about enforcement" of the Conventions, Ms. O’Brien said. She referred to the UN’s ironically titled "depository" role, and that she also advised the Secretary General on the "application of treaties."

But where do these interpretations go? In Sri Lanka, the country head for the UN made belated statements about the disappeared staff that many thought ignored the government’s responsibility under the Conventions. Amin Awad did not assert that the staffers were immune, at least within the scope of their work for the UN, but only that the government should inform the UN of the detention.

"We are not going to get into interpreting specific provisions," Ms. O’Brien said.

Recently Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, under fire for weak performance including in Sri Lanka, convened his Under Secretaries Generals including Ms. O’Brien and her Political Affairs and Peacekeeping counterparts.

Afterwards the Press was told that these USGs will be taking questions more often, to explain the UN’s positions. Some thought this responded to a part in the leaked memo by Norwegian diplomat Mona Juul, that Ban has chosen weak or faceless USGs.

But if the UN wants to get its position out, how can its top lawyer try to limit a rare press conference to the treaty event, not even the treaties themselves? There are also questions about the UN’s involvement in the Cambodia genocide tribunal, Somalia piracy enforcement, policing the (further) abuse of the UN’s name, including for commercial gain, and of the UN’s and OLA’s commitment to freedom of speech and of the press. To run from these questions, news conferences are now artificially limited.

 UN's Ban and Ms. O'Brien, UN position on detained and tortured staff not shown

UN’s Ban and Ms. O’Brien, UN position on detained and tortured staff not shown

At the end, Ms. O’Brien tried to explain her refusal to answer basic policy questions by saying since she advise Ban on some matters, it is all cover by attorney client privilege. This is not a defense or justification used by the chief legal officers of other international organizations, and it ill-serves the UN, human rights — and UN staff and the rule of law. Watch this site.

Footnote: on the lighter side, Inner City Press asked Ms. O’Brien about the incident in July in which William Kennedy Smith, at the event at which the U.S. signed the Disabilities Convention, asked for the ceremonial pen. He was refused and told that the UN has only one pen. Inner City Press asked, does the UN have only one pen? Video here, from Minute 44:28.

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