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Gordon Campbell: the latest allegations against Helen Clark

Gordon Campbell on the latest allegations against Helen Clark

According to former PM and current UNDP head Helen Clark, the allegations leveled at her this week in a Foreign Policy magazine article by the prize-winning UN journalist Colum Lynch have been ‘totally fabricated’.

Hmmm. That would be very, very surprising. Foreign Policy is a heavyweight journal. More to the point, Lynch has been the most widely respected journalist covering the United Nations for over a decade. Here’s his bio:

Lynch previously wrote Foreign Policy's Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He is also a recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Silver Prize for his coverage of the United Nations.

Before moving to Foreign Policy, Lynch reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. As the Washington Post's United Nations reporter, Lynch had been involved in the paper's diplomatic coverage of crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, and Somalia, as well as the nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea. He also played a key part in the Post's diplomatic reporting on the Iraq war, the International Criminal Court, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

Lynch's enterprise reporting has explored the underside of international diplomacy. His investigations have uncovered a U.S. spying operation in Iraq, Dick Cheney's former company's financial links to Saddam Hussein, and documented numerous sexual misconduct and corruption scandals.

Lynch has appeared frequently on the Lehrer News Hour, MSNBC, NPR radio, and the BBC. He has also moderated public discussions on foreign policy, including interviews with Susan E. Rice, the U.S. national security advisor, Gerard Araud, France's U.N. ambassador, and other senior diplomatic leaders

You get the picture. We’re not talking about some scandal sheet fly-by-night sensationalist here. (In 2010, Lynch was so obviously the authority on UN matters that I interviewed him by email as the go-to guy from early on, about Clark’s chances of succeeding Ban Ki-Moon.) So what has Lynch been saying about Helen Clark and her tenure at the helm of the United Nations Development Programme? The entire Foreign Policy article can be found here.

Briefly, the claim is that under Clark’s leadership, the UNDP had soft-pedalled on human rights issues in general to maintain access for UNDP personnel in countries ruled by human rights violators. The UN’s failings on this score were singled out for criticism within a major report (called the “Petrie Report”) that harshly criticised the UN’s reluctance to publicise and condemn the indiscriminate killing of some 70,000 Tamils that occurred in the closing months of the civil war in Sri Lanka. Here’s the gist:

The Petrie report — named after the lead author, Charles Petrie, a former U.N. official and occasional advisor to the U.N. chief — provided a damning account of the U.N.’s “systemic failure” to advocate for the protection of hundreds of thousands of Tamils caught in the line of fire in the final months of the country’s brutal civil war in 2009. It criticized senior officials in New York, as well as UNDP’s leadership team in Colombo, charging they routinely downplayed the extent of the Sri Lankan government’s complicity in killing the vast majority of the more than 70,000 civilians who died in indiscriminate shelling. The U.N. team in Sri Lanka “did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility — and agency and department heads at UNHQ were not instructing them otherwise,” according to the Petrie report.

In addition, Lynch’s article details the apparent scapegoating of senior UNDP official Lena Sinha - who had been instructed to co-operate with the authors of the Petrie Report, but was then allegedly blamed and blacklisted by Clark and her top managers for doing so :

Charles Petrie — a veteran U.N. player who once worked for UNDP — characterized UNDP’s treatment of Sinha in an email to FP as “an extraordinary demonstration of vindictiveness and abuse of authority. “At the time I thought the whole approach was extraordinarily stupid,” he added. UNDP, he noted, was in the midst of launching a management reform that would result in scores of job cuts. “They could have discreetly terminated her contract a few months later as part of the reform. But I wasn’t surprised by the way Lena was treated. It fits a very familiar pattern.”

Petrie said it was his “understanding that the message conveyed to Lena, of never being able to find work with UNDP, followed a senior management meeting with Helen Clark.”

More of The Same. Clark has, as mentioned, strongly denied all the allegations in the Lynch article – just as she has resisted the findings of the Petrie Report. However, it will not be as easy to dismiss Lynch as it has been with some of Clark’s critics in the past. In a Scoop column two years ago I reported on allegations that those ‘management reform” job cuts referred to by Charles Petrie in the paragraph above had been intended to demonstrate Clark’s toughness and her cost cutting credentials to the UN donor nations (ie. the US) who will be crucial to her bid for the UN’s top job :

The Inner City Press (which reports on the UN’s affairs at the organisation’s HQ in New York and in the field) has linked the cost-cutting drive to the Ban succession, as being likely to appeal to the UN’s main donor nations. The initial report (which includes the contents of Clark’s letter to UNDP staff) is here. A similar report on the UNDP layoffs from the IPS news service is available here. The IPS report puts the changes down to this:

Clark said the structural change was the brainchild of the UNDP executive board, comprising 36 member states, represented on a regional basis. Last year, the board approved “a new Strategic Plan for UNDP”, and since then the whole organisation has been making the changes necessary to fully implement that plan.

The Inner City Press report has linked the UNDP changes to Clark’s Ban succession bid. The connection is that Helen Clark wants to replace Ban Ki-moon as Secretary General, despite the post as his successor is said to be reserved for the Eastern European group which has never held it. Clark is banking on gender trumping geography, and job cutting seems to be her campaign issue for Western donor countries.

The Inner City Press could be (and was) easily brushed aside. Lynch and Foreign Policy, not so much. One difficulty for Clark is that while she and her staff have bitterly disputed the Petrie Report, Ban Ki-Moon and his team have embraced it, as Lynch noted in his FP article :

The Petrie report was endorsed by the U.N. chief, and its recommendations formed the basis of Ban’s push to step up the U.N.’s human rights advocacy around the world. In November 2013, Ban launched his “Human Rights Up Front” initiative, which instructed all U.N. agencies to place the protection of civilians from atrocities at the forefront of their missions and to speak out publicly when abuses occur.

Reportedly, the vindictive treatment meted out to Sinha has not gone down well with Ban and with many others at the UN, either. Yet it was Ban’s support for the Petrie Report recommendations that seems to have been particularly galling for Clark and her top team at UNDP :

The [Human Rights Up Front] undertaking had enormous implications for UNDP, which administers a stable of more than 130 resident coordinators who serve as the face of the United Nations in most countries. First, it placed greater pressure on the officials — many of whom are primarily responsible for running development programs — to take on a stronger role in promoting human rights. But it also risked complicating their relations with host governments, many of which see the promotion of human rights as an unwelcome challenge to their sovereignty. A sharp rebuke of a country’s human rights abuses can get a resident coordinator expelled, jeopardizing the U.N.’s development and humanitarian operations there.

The Petrie report’s release infuriated UNDP’s brass, who felt it maligned the U.N. development agency, presented an unfairly harsh account of UNDP’s top official in Sri Lanka, and posed a potential threat to its leadership in far-flung operations.

Will being offside with Ban Ki-Moon (and his window dressing concerns about human rights) do much harm to Clark’s campaign to replace him? Probably not. Ban’s limited currency at the UN is now entirely spent. And to be fair to Clark, the central issue at stake here – should UNDP speak up strongly for human rights, or discretely ensure access for its aid programmes? – can be a difficult moral balancing act, at the best of times.

Unfortunately though, Clark’s ambition for the UN top job has tainted the perceptions of how she has managed this issue. Her critics, both here and overseas, are likely to treat the charges of Clark’s ruthlessness (and vindictiveness to those seen to have crossed her) as being entirely consistent with traits they have witnessed before. Still, Clark’s chances for the top job may even thrive in the wake of this latest scandal. After all…isn’t a readiness to turn a strategic blind eye to human rights abuses very much what a Security Council dominated by the US, Russia and China will demand of their choice as the next UN Secretary-General?

Old Wine, Old Bottles, Policy Hangover

In a week when the government is being hammered over its lack of a plan for the homeless – and its fondness for economic policies that keep on generating them – trust Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett to ride to the rescue with one of her trademark media diversions. Yesterday, Bennett re-announced the same policy she’d already announced in January. Namely, an offer of cash incentives to lure people away from Auckland into regions where housing is cheaper – but where jobs are vanishing.

The West Coast region has suffered a series of blows in recent years. OceansGold gold mine has closed, forcing the loss of 60 jobs in Reefton; Westport’s Holcim Cement plant closed this year, taking 120 jobs along with it, and more than 200 people lost their jobs when Spring Creek mine was mothballed in 2012.

Auckland has a housing crisis. The regions have a jobs crisis. Bennett is proposing to shuffle people from one crisis situation to another. Obviously, using the regions as dumping ground for Auckland’s homeless is no real solution at all. The diversion has worked like a charm though. This story has been framed by the media in terms of whether tee hee, she naughtily didn’t tell Bill English first that she was going to announce her “plan.”

Same Old, Same Old

Helen Clark being ruthless, Paula Bennett being a cynical lightweight… hey, it sounds like the same old song.

© Scoop Media

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