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Current Events at the United Nations

Aired November 25, 2005 - 21:00:00   ET


RICHARD ROTH, CNN ANCHOR: He was the only United Nations official fired in the Oil for Food scandal, but this month he was reinstated. The first broadcast interview with Joseph Stephanides, next on DIPLOMATIC LICENSE.
You probably don't know his name, and unless you have followed the daily drip from the Oil for Food controversy, you've never even heard of what happened to him. But today we'll hear from the man who a United Nations appeals court says was made a sacrificial lamb.

Welcome to DIPLOMATIC LICENSE. I'm Richard Roth.

He was the first domino to fall. Joseph Stephanides, a 25-year United Nations employee, was fired earlier this year by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.


STEPHAN DUMERIC, U.N. SPOKESMAN: The secretary-general has decided that Mr. Joseph Stephanides be summarily dismissed for serious misconduct in accordance with the U.N. staff regulations.


ROTH: The dismissal was because an independent inquiry led by Paul Volcker concluded that Stephanides had illegally altered the competitive bidding process for a company to inspect humanitarian goods going into Iraq.

But earlier this month, a change of heart by the United Nations. An internal appeals panel said the decision to remove Stephanides was illegal, wrong, unfounded and unjustified. And Mr. Annan grudgingly had the word announced at the United Nations on November 15 that Stephanides was unfired.


MARIE OKABE, U.N. SPOKESPERSON: I can confirm to you that the decision to summarily dismiss was rescinded.


ROTH: So what really happened? And what light can be shined on the overall Oil for Food saga?

Joining us here in his first broadcast interview is Joseph Stephanides.

Welcome, sir.

What is the significance of your case, to what happened to you, do you think, that the world should know about?

JOSEPH STEPHANIDES, FIRED/REHIRED U.N. STAFFER: Well, first, I am a very grateful person. I have suffered a lot through this terrible ordeal that I had to go through and I also have much gratitude to people, including the members of the media, for detecting very early in the process that I have been scapegoated and been very, very supportive.

Yes, the first thing I want people to know, and I'm very pleased that I have this opportunity to do that through DIPLOMATIC LICENSE, is that I have never committed a wrongdoing, and I'm very, very grateful that indeed an impartial inquiry has just confirmed that.

ROTH: Yet Kofi Annan, even though he reversed his earlier decision, his administration is still saying that you violated the rules of the United Nations regarding notifying the British that they could bid lower on this contract, which is now nearly 10 years old, that incident.

STEPHANIDES: This is directly contradicted by the facts as established by the Joint Disciplinary Committee that was established by the secretary-general to find out the truth, and the truth stands in their verdict that was unanimous.

I must say that indeed following the decision of the secretary-general to rescind the summary dismissal but to maintain criticism of me and to censure me, I intend to have an appeal to the United Nations Administrative Tribunal and I am looking confidently to that day that it will also render its verdict.

ROTH: Yes, the Annan statement says that there is still a letter of censure for you. But Paul Volcker, in this report, said that in effect you violated the rules by telephoning -- writing the British -- you know, going around the United Nations style of how these contracts are bid out for. And this was for -- during the Iraq crisis. And there was only eight days for these companies to bid, even, which seemed like a short time.

STEPHANIDES: First, I was not a procurement officer. I know nothing about procurement.

ROTH: You were on the political affairs side.

STEPHANIDES: I have been the secretariat of the Sanctions Committee on Iraq. I was the chief of the sanctions branch at the time.

My role was one of liaison between the members of the Council and the members of the Steering Committee, which were appointed by the then Secretary-General Mr. Boutros-Ghali, to establish all these money donor arrangements.

My commitment has always been and remains to the sanctity of the sanctions regime. What I have done, as confirmed by the impartial inquiry, is to implement the decision made by the members of the Council and the Steering Committee, and the information that I allegedly divulged was public knowledge as early as 10:00 in the morning on the 30th of July. So there is no case of any violation.

I regret that the U.N. administration did not see fit to accept that they made a mistake and they insisted or they maintain, as you said, that I violated rules.

ROTH: Did you make any mistakes in this process?

STEPHANIDES: No. There was no mistake. All I did was my duty, and I am very proud of my modest contribution to advance the peace and security objectives of the Security Council. I have provided ample evidence by impartial, credible sources, former members of the Council and others, who say clearly that my actions were authorized, and that was accepted by the independent inquiry.

ROTH: So do you want -- besides more of an official reinstatement, do you want a personal apology from Kofi Annan?

STEPHANIDES: As I said before, apology is not important to me. What is important is for the administration to recognize that they made a mistake and to accept that this was wrong. That's all I'm asking.

ROTH: Now, U.N. officials, when they were asked why did this now take place months later, they say what has happened is the passage of time, a greater amount of time to review the totality of the circumstances, that you had never done anything wrong in your 25-year career.

What happened here? Why did they select you, then? Is it because they had to get a scalp at a time when the fingers were being pointed by a lot of people?

STEPHANIDES: I don't know for sure, Richard. But reliable sources would have me believe that the U.N. administration decided for their own political quote/unquote "expedient reasons" to make me the sacrificial lamb, to show that tough action was taken so as to placate, as they hoped, the critics of the U.N. handling of the Oil for Food.

I regret that the administration had decided to do a thing like that, if that is true. And I hope that that is not true.

ROTH: When you read the Paul Volcker report, though, they state that some of the tricky business of how the United Nations does business and how politics does enter into it. How great a role does politics play even in selecting a company, because it appears that Veritas, the French company, could not be chosen because the French had already different companies handling other aspects of Iraq.

STEPHANIDES: There is no beef in this whole story. The facts are clear. They were established, as I said, by the independent inquiry, the Joint Disciplinary Committee.

First, the lowest bidder for the sanctions enforcement contract for the arrival of the goods was a French company, Bureau Veritas. The second lowest bidder was a British company, Lloyd's Register. When the members of the Council received word upon opening of the bids on the 30th of July that the French company was the lowest bidder, they were asked to the then secretary-general and to the members of the Steering Committee and made it absolutely clear there is no way for a French company to have a second monetary contract.

And then the secretary-general at the time and the Steering Committee agreed. And then it was an issue how to make it conform to rules. And the criticism of Volcker, and I don't have anything but respect for Mr. Volcker, was that there was no record left for the reasons for the cancellation of the bid in process and elimination of Bureau Veritas.

ROTH: So you're on the political side, it seems.

STEPHANIDES: I was the political side.

ROTH: What is your recommendation? Is this a system that actually functions, when you have 191 countries and politics determines how business is done? They're talking about getting a chief executive business officer to run the United Nations; is that what is needed?

STEPHANIDES: Well, that is something that needs to be carefully looked at. The fact is reform is urgently needed. Streamlining the executive decision-making in the United Nations is long overdue. How it's going to be done is what is very, very difficult to decide on because of the political constellation we have.

ROTH: All right, now there are some areas you cannot go into based on your lawyer's counsel with your case still in front of the United Nations in effect, but I'm going to ask anyway. Are you cooperating with several of the other investigations, criminal investigations, of the U.N.'s Oil for Food Program?

STEPHANIDES: If anybody has anything to ask of me, I'm ready. I have nothing to hold back.

ROTH: Were you aware of how diplomats use the system or countries use the system to have their own companies do business with Saddam Hussein? And were you aware of that? And now do you look back, do you wish that something was done about it?

STEPHANIDES: Well, I was not in charge at the time. As you know, my role was to help negotiate and put in place all these monetary arrangements. Then the office for Oil for Food Program was established and I had no jurisdiction from there on.

But it is true, a lot of people knew that corruption and abuse was taking place. But unfortunately, the members of the Council had lost their unity as you know, you know very well, they lost their unity on Iraq. And that was not the finest hour of the Security Council. But I still believe in the Security Council and I believe with the right approach we can get the correct fine tuning and the necessary reform measures to avoid these kinds of debacles in the future.

ROTH: Thank you very much, Joseph Stephanides, 25-year United Nations employee, now retiring, but still with a score to settle in effect with the Annan administration and the United Nations.

STEPHANIDES: No scores to settle, but hoping to still be useful, Richard. Thank you for giving me this opportunity.

ROTH: Thank you.

The fallout continues from the Volcker investigation. Special inquiries by India, France, Switzerland and others are underway. India's foreign minister was removed from his post and a former French U.N. ambassador named in the Volcker report has reportedly admitted that he took oil money from Iraq and renovated a home he owned in southern Morocco.

Jean-Bernard Merimee was also a special adviser to Kofi Annan on European affairs. I asked Mr. Annan this week about Merimee's admission.


KOFI ANNAN, U.N. SECRETARY-GENERAL: I think the issue is still under investigation and obviously it is not something that you would applaud.




JOHN BOLTON, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: Syria should stop writing letters and start cooperating with Commissioner Mehlis.


ROTH: Well, it was pressure like that from the U.S. U.N. representative and a deadline imposed by the man investigating the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister which prompted Syria to announce Friday it was going to let senior officials be questioned outside the country.

Syria has written to the United Nations for help during the week, but was dug in with conditions on where and how the United Nations should interrogate Syrian witnesses.

The talks will be in Vienna. The Security Council has already put Syria on notice that it faces further consequences, of sorts, if it fails to cooperate with the international inquiry.

John Bolton, of the United States, said he was pleased with the Syrian cooperation on the interview front.

There is another high level justice case with international entanglements. This one is in Africa, the subject the former ruler of Chad. As we told you on DIPLOMATIC LICENSE recently, Hissene Habre had been living in relative tranquility in Senegal for 15 years even though Belgium has now requested he be extradited to face charges of torture and murder of political opponents.

Last week Habre was arrested in Senegal under an international warrant from Belgium. The Senegalese Appeals Court considered whether to extradite. On Friday the court said it was not competent to act on the extradition request.

On the line with us now is a man closely connected to the pursuit of justice and Habre. From U.S.-based human Rights Watch, Reed Brody, special counsel, is in Senegal.

Reed, Habre has now been released. What happens now in this case?

REED BRODY, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: Well, nobody really knows. The court said that it didn't have jurisdiction to decide the case. Apparently it now goes back to the prosecutor and to the president of Senegal, either to go back to the court or to just go forward and sign or not or refuse to sign the extradition decree to Belgium.

ROTH: What do you think of the problem if they don't turn him over now?

BRODY: Well, Senegal is obliged under the U.N. Torture Convention either to prosecute or extradite an alleged torturer who comes into its country. In 2000, the victims, Chadian victims, came here to Senegal. Senegal at that point said we don't have jurisdiction to prosecute for crimes committed outside of Senegal, but the president of Senegal said that he would hold Hissene Habre in Senegal until a country sought his extradition.

Belgium has now sought his extradition. Senegal seems to have -- has a legal obligation to extradite him. The Belgium minister of justice has said that if Senegal doesn't live up to its treaty obligations, that Belgium would consider taking Senegal to arbitration and to the International Court of Justice under the provisions of the Torture Convention that allow that.

ROTH: How does this case fall into the controversy raging over years now for rulers, former rulers of countries, to be arrested somewhere else and tried not in their own nation, based upon accusations?

BRODY: Well, this is the so-called Pinochet precedent, and the Torture Convention was adopted precisely to prevent torturers from escaping justice by fleeing from one country to another, and we have the same kind of triangular situation that existed in the Pinochet case, where one country was seeking an alleged torturer's extradition from a second country for acts committed in the third country.

ROTH: As we saw on DIPLOMATIC LICENSE several weeks ago, in a program that unfortunately got knocked off the air in many time zones due to some crisis which had the nerve to erupt, you have spent years on this case. You have walked through the files. Again, let's remind people what you have found and why you're so dedicated in this case.

BRODY: Well, Hissene Habre is alleged to have committed thousands of political killings, systematic torture, three campaigns of ethnic violence against different clans in his country.

Several years ago we discovered the file of Hissene Habre's political police, thousands of documents, death certificates, lists of prisoners. Those documents contain the names of 1,208 people who died in detention, another 12,000 people who were victims of one sort of abuse or another. And really provide a roadmap to how Hissene Habre carried out the repression of his own people.

And this is a case where the victims have been fighting for 15 years to find a court that would render justice to them, and we all thought that Senegal, which is a country that has a reputation for living up to its international obligations, would do the right thing here. As I said, four years ago they said no, no, we're not going to try him here. Now they may be on the verge of saying we're not going to extradite him either, we're going to let him live here in peace.

ROTH: Does this case setup a possibility that European colonial rulers of African countries, if Habre gets sent to Belgium, couldn't African lands push cases against prior abuses and atrocities against European countries?

BRODY: Well, certainly, I mean, there has been a lot of talk of that, but one thing that one needs to remember here is that the government of Chad, where the crimes occurred, is actually in favor of Habre's extradition from Senegal to Belgium.

The government of Chad waived any immunity that Hissene Habre might seek to assert and just this week the president of Chad called on Senegal to extradite Hissene Habre to Belgium.

So this is not an Africa versus Europe case. This is a case of justice or impunity.

ROTH: Yet Charles Taylor, -- forget the yet -- but Charles Taylor is still free in Nigeria, wanted for war crimes in Sierra Leone. Do you think if Habre is sent out, does that open the door now to a new frontier of justice in Africa?

BRODY: Well, we would certainly hope that it would, and we would certainly hope that Charles Taylor would also be surrendered to justice.

You should know, though, that the argument that President Obasanjo uses to not surrender Charles Taylor is that the government of Liberia, where the crimes were committed, has not asked for that. Here the government of Chad, where the crimes were committed, has asked that Hissene Habre be extradited.

But, of course, if Habre is extradited it should open the way for people like Charles Taylor to be brought to justice.

ROTH: All right, Reed, we'll continue to follow the case. Thanks for joining us, Reed Brody, Human Rights Watch special counsel on the line from Dakar, Senegal. Thanks.

The former ruler of Chad is pleased to avoid getting extradited this week. Elsewhere in Africa, the new leader of Liberia was getting down.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became the continent's first ever female president. She beat George Weah, the former soccer star. Big job ahead for her, though, after years of civil war. 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers still in the nation founded in 1847 by freed American slaves.



ROTH: At a time of world crises, what do you have to be thankful for this Thanksgiving now that you're here?

BOLTON: That I'm an American citizen. Thank you all very much.


ROTH: That's what U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations has to be thankful for on the holiday of Thanksgiving in the United States. Were some of you really surprised at that answer, though?

Bolton is certainly keeping the pressure on at the United Nations. This week, the U.S. ambassador raised the possibility of delaying adoption of the U.N. budget until key management reforms at the United Nations are instituted. But the 25-member European Union, led by Britain, disagreed. Look for lots of late night budget negotiations at the end of the year, hopefully when I'm on a beach somewhere.

Not likely to be included in the U.N. $3.6 billion budget, money to pay New York City for diplomatic parking violations. Yes, we have told you before about diplomats and their countries who don't pay up, angering New York and U.N. neighborhood residents.

What's different this time? We asked CNN's Liz Neisloss to go play in diplomatic traffic and take a look.


LIZ NEISLOSS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's a diplomatic mess, but it's the kind that puts the brakes on your average New York driver.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a horror show. They don't let us park nowhere.


NEISLOSS: Near United Nations headquarters a neighborhood packed with diplomatic cars, there's been a long running battle between the diplomats and the city over parking tickets. The kind most people can't afford to ignore.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: $50, right now, I pay it.

NEISLOSS: But the diplomats have piled up a debt they don't want to pay.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER (D) NEW YORK: These countries are taking advantage of our hospitality and they're sort of thumbing their nose at us.

NEISLOSS (on camera): Several years ago, New York City and the State Department brokered an agreement that added parking spaces. Drivers for diplomats say things have gotten a lot better on the streets, but still unresolved, the millions of dollars in old parking debt.

(voice-over): The biggest debtors, Egypt with $1.9 million in unpaid parking tickets; Kuwait, $1.3 million; Nigeria, $975,000. All told, countries owe New York City $18 million in parking fines, money the city very much wants in its coffers.

New York Senators Charles Schumer and Hilary Clinton say they have the answer. They tacked an amendment onto a foreign aid bill now awaiting signature by President Bush.

SCHUMER: It's very simple. It says to any country that has an embassy here that doesn't pay their parking tickets, doesn't pay their taxes, it's deducted automatically from their foreign aid.

NEISLOSS: The United States would withhold the money until the debt is repaid to the city.

None of the top debtor countries would talk on camera.

The ambassador from Cyprus heads a United Nations committee that deals with disputes between the city and its diplomatic guests. He was not surprisingly diplomatic about the idea.

ANDREAS MAVROYIANNIS, CYPRUS AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: We should be very cautious in the relationship between the diplomatic community and the host country. There should be on both sides full respect of the respective rights and obligations.

NEISLOSS: But for diplomatic drivers, the issue is simple.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The police say move, move, move and I wait. It's difficult for my work, right.

NEISLOSS: Debt or no debt, they keep their engines running.

For DIPLOMATIC LICENSE, Liz Neisloss, United Nations.


ROTH: Countries routinely dispute what New York City says they owe. Ambassadors have told me of multiple ticketing of cars in the same spot on the street. Here on the program we like to think that we have a special DIPLOMATIC LICENSE which allows show staffers to park at will around the United Nations and we dare the police to catch us.

That is DIPLOMATIC LICENSE, your ticket inside the United Nations. I'm Richard Roth, in New York. Thanks for watching.



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