Monday, January 21, 2008

The Blame Game of UN Security

More than a month after two car bombs killed 19 UN staff members in Algiers, the UN is trapped in a messy blame game. Internally, UNDP Head Kemal Dervis has raised an as yet unanswered question: why was the security threat level at the UN offices in Algiers not raised after an earlier bomb attack in the city? Especially as Babacar Ndiaye, the local UN official in charge of security had warned his superiors about terrorist threats against the organization? In comments seemingly directed at the UN's top security official, David Veness of Britain, Mr. Dervis has noted that security in Algiers, and in Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto's assassination, had been kept at "Level 1," the lowest.

Externally, the UN and Algeria are pointing fingers at each other. The UN has complained that the government did not act on its requests to block off the street outside its offices. The government has replied that the request was made to a local authority, not through proper channels. The UN has responded that it tried the local approach only after failing to get any action through the Foreign Ministry. Another point at issue is the independent inquiry that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon promised soon after the incident; he did it without consulting the Algerian government, a basic diplomatic faux pas that put up backs in Algiers.
Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem of Algeria told reporters that he would not welcome the UN inquiry. That he did so after meeting Mr. Ban in Madrid during the Alliance of Civilizations Forum (see earlier post), put UN noses seriously out of joint.

The task of trying to retrieve the situation has fallen to Mr. Ban's Chef de Cabinet, Vijay Nambiar of India, who spent most of last weekend meeting with the Algeria's UN ambassador. Hurt feelings have been assuaged to some extent, but one problem remains: the Algerians want to see the preliminary report of the inquiry panel and have their views on it taken into account. Negotiations are afoot to see what can be arranged.

What is astonishing about the whole affair is how little things seem to have changed despite the top-to-bottom overhaul of the UN's global security arrangements in the aftermath of the August 2003 bomb attack on the Organization's office in Baghdad. The system put in place was supposed to increase vigilance and awareness of security; neither seems to have happened. Insiders note that the main reason for failure has been the reluctance of UN officials to confront government ministries which are often dismissive of their security concerns; international officials who need the goodwill of local authorities to advance their substantive mandates are often loath to rock the boat. Perhaps the next step in reforming the UN's global security arrangements should be to establish a system completely independent of the structure dealing with substantive issues.

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