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October 7, 2004

UN Unions Want Workers Out of Iraq

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - Nationwide elections in Iraq, scheduled to take place before the end of January 2005, are now jeopardized by two powerful UN staff unions demanding that no UN employees be sent to the violence-ridden country.

"Just one staff member is one staff member too many in Iraq," say the Federation of International Civil Servants' Association (FICSA) and the Coordinating Committee of Independent Staff Unions and Associations of the UN System (CCISUA).

Collectively, the unions represent over 60,000 staffers in the UN system worldwide, including its humanitarian agencies.

In a joint letter to Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Wednesday, they say that not only should no UN staff members be sent to Iraq, but also "those already deployed [should] be instructed to leave as soon as possible."

After the bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad in August 2003, which claimed the lives of 22 UN employees, the United Nations withdrew the last of its 375 international workers from Iraq.

Now, about 35 international employees, most in the heavily U.S.-fortified "green zone" in Baghdad, work as part of an advance team to provide logistics to a proposed larger UN team that was expected to help Iraqis conduct elections in January.

After the pullout from Baghdad last year, the United Nations relocated its staff, including those working for humanitarian agencies such as the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Program (WFP) and the refugee agency (UNHCR), to neighboring Jordan.

Over 200 international employees now operate from the capital Amman, overseeing humanitarian work in Iraq.

UN spokesman Fred Eckhard told reporters Wednesday, "security in Iraq is being monitored on a daily basis."

"That is not enough for the United Nations to do the tasks it needs to do, but the security situation at present would not permit a raising of the ceiling," he added.

Eckhard clarified the UN role in the upcoming vote as, "not to monitor Iraq's elections but [to] help the Iraqi people to organize them."

Observers say the world body will be at risk as long as it works with the United States in Iraq.

"While the staff union concerns are certainly valid, the threats to the United Nations and its staff in Iraq have to be seen in the context of the UN decision to work in Iraq under the terms of the U.S. occupation," says Phyllis Bennis of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies.

The so-called "transition of sovereignty" in June did not transfer sovereignty to Iraq, she said.

"With 140,000 foreign troops, overwhelmingly American, still occupying Iraq, with U.S. minders operating behind the scenes in every Iraqi ministry, with the U.S. still calling the shots on how Iraqi oil funds and frozen international accounts are being spent, Iraq remains an occupied country," Bennis told IPS.

The horrific attack of August 2003 on UN headquarters in Baghdad was clearly a direct result of the impression – correct, unfortunately – that the United Nations was operating in Iraq as part of the U.S. occupation, she added.

"That situation remains today. As long as the U.S. occupation remains, the United Nations should stay out. Only after the real end of occupation – meaning the withdrawal of troops – will the United Nations be able to play a viable and useful role in Iraq," Bennis said.

The unions' letter to Annan says that long gone are the days when UN workers were immune from violent acts. "Instead, the United Nations regrettably has become a direct target, one that is particularly prone to attacks by ruthless extremist terrorist factions."

"This has been widely acknowledged by member states, senior UN officials and administrators in the UN system and is aptly illustrated by the unprecedented security arrangements in place for the current session of the General Assembly [in New York]. In Iraq, the vulnerability of UN staff to such attacks is even greater."

On Monday, the United Nations informed UN correspondents it will no longer put out advance press releases about Annan's proposed trips overseas – primarily for security reasons.

The unions admit they are aware of the current ceiling of 35 international employees in Iraq. "But we are extremely worried that this will be stretched to allow for a larger number of staff to be deployed."

Referring to the daily insurgent attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, the letter says: "If the world's most heavily armed and equipped military cannot guarantee its own safety in such an environment, how can the safety of UN staff be even remotely ensured?"

"UN staff unions have been expressing concerns about the security environment in Iraq all along," Jim Paul, executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, told IPS.

He added that despite a Security Council resolution, no country has so far volunteered troops for a proposed military force that was expected to protect UN employees and humanitarian workers. "In light of all these things, it is not surprising that the staff unions have taken this position," he added.

Paul said Annan will be unable to meet the unions' demand because of strong pressure from the United States. "The pressure will increase after the U.S. presidential elections [in November] – no matter who wins, George Bush or John Kerry," he predicted.

If Kerry wins, he will be even keener on seeing a heavy UN presence in Iraq – "as a front for the United States" – because he has already criticized Bush for marginalizing the United Nations in Iraq, added Paul.

"After the [U.S.] elections," he said, "there is going to be some sort of a bloodbath in Iraq, with U.S. military forces trying to assert their power and authority."

The country will therefore be less safe for the United Nations next year. The biggest problem for the world body, Paul said, "is that it has continued to be identified with the occupying force."

(Inter Press Service)

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    Thalif Deen has been Inter Press Service's U.N. Bureau Chief since 1992. A
    former Information Officer at the U.N. Secretariat and a one-time member of
    the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions, he is currently
    editor of the Journal of the Group of 77, published in collaboration with
    IPS. A Fulbright-Hayes scholar, he holds a Master's degree in Journalism
    from Columbia University in New York.

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