U.S., Russia in push to crack down on UN Security Council leaks

April 9, 2010

The good old days -- the U.N. Security Council before the move.

The United States, Russia and China are quietly backing moves to  exclude “unnecessary” elements from closed meetings of the U.N. Security Council to prevent leaks to the media on sensitive issues like Iran and North Korea, U.N. officials and diplomats told Reuters. They also support moves to reduce reporters’ contact with delegates outside the council chamber. But the new measures have sparked a furor among journalists and less powerful members of the United Nations, who argue that the steps are discriminatory and will make what they say is a secretive Security Council even less transparent.

The measures were suddenly implemented this week after the council moved to a temporary new space, to allow for a $1.9 billion renovation of the 40-story U.N. secretariat building overlooking New York City’s East River. Unless they get special permission to attend, note-takers from the office of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, will no longer be allowed into closed-door consultations. Peacekeeping officials and other departments in the U.N. secretariat will also be shut out due to what U.S. and other diplomats say is limited space in the new chamber. Non-council members suspect other motives.

“The U.S. wants everyone they see as unnecessary out of the room, people who they think might leak information to reporters on Iran or North Korea or other topics,” said a diplomat on condition of anonymity. “They’re using the move as an opportunity to make big changes to the council that they’ve long wanted to make. It’s a clean-up operation.” The diplomat’s comments were confirmed by several others, who said Russia and China were on the same page as Washington. The other two permanent Security Council members — France and Britain — have kept a low profile in the discussions, U.N. diplomats said, though French and British diplomats have told reporters that they oppose restricting press access to delegations.

“This is all about the P5,” another diplomat said, referring to the five permanent council members. “The P5 call the shots and they want to keep it that way.”

The most controversial proposal for the press is one barring reporters from a stairway near the council chamber out of fears that it would not be safe to allow journalists and diplomats to use the same steps. U.S. officials deny supporting this measure, which they attribute to safety concerns raised by the U.N. Department of Safety and Security, run by the former director of the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service, Gregory Starr. But several diplomats said the United States, like Russia, favors barring reporters from the steps and is trying to blame the measure on U.N. security.

A further exclusionary measure is that the 177 U.N. member states that are not on the council will no longer be allowed to sit directly outside the council chamber during closed-door sessions. They have been banished to a hallway area where the reporters are confined. U.S. officials say the justification for that was a lack of space in the smaller quarters the council will be occupying for the next few years. The end result, diplomats from countries not on the council say, is a further decrease in the council’s transparency.

Mark Kornblau, spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, vehemently denied that Ambassador Susan Rice and her delegation were involved in any push to make the council more secretive or limit reporters’ access to delegations. But he acknowledged that Washington supported steps to ensure that closed consultations of the council are exactly what they are supposed to be — closed.

“They (the new measures) will hopefully make them more confidential,” Kornblau said, adding that Washington supported the U.N. goal of replicating as much as possible the easy access to delegations that reporters enjoyed prior to the council’s move.

The proposed restrictions on press access to council delegates, which Kornblau insisted were unrelated to the barring of the spokesperson’s office from closed consultations, elicited a sharp protest from the U.N. Correspondent’s Association (UNCA). The association said in a letter to the current president of the Security Council, Japanese U.N. Ambassador Yukio Takasu, that the measures would “further reduce the transparency of the most powerful body within the United Nations.”

In a statement to Reuters, Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, urged the council not to implement any measures that might limit press access to delegations: “The public will see straight through the argument that delegates’ safety is enhanced by keeping them shielded from the press. Both diplomats and reporters are already inside a secure zone with visible ID. The United Nations should be a beacon for the human rights it was established to uphold. Those include freedom of expression and a free media. To deny reporters access to public officials would be hypocritical.”

(The author of this post, Reuters U.N. correspondent Louis Charbonneau, is an UNCA officer)

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