Annan regrets errors of judgment in UN's handling of Middle East videotape

Annan regrets errors of judgment in UN's handling of Middle East videotape

Making public the findings of an internal probe into the handling of a videotape filmed by United Nations peacekeepers in Lebanon in the wake of the abduction of three Israeli soldiers by the Hizbollah, Secretary-General Kofi Annan today expressed regret over "serious errors of judgement" by UN officials and pledged to take steps to preclude breakdowns in communications within the UN chain of command.

After a senior UN official briefed the Security Council this morning on the results of his investigation into the incident, a spokesman for Mr. Annan said that it was "clear" that errors had been made by those who had failed to convey to the Israeli authorities information that could have been helpful in assessing the condition of the three Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers abducted on 7 October 2000.

Joseph Connor, head of fact-finding

team.

Last month, Mr. Annan asked Joseph Connor, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Management, to look into the facts surrounding the UN's handling of the videotape that had been requested by Israel as possibly shedding light on the fate of the soldiers. As a result of the investigation, which included a visit to the operational area of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), Mr. Connor prepared a report that was made available to members of the Security Council. Mr. Annan also authorized the release of the entire report to the press as an unofficial document.

The 18-page report concludes that neither the 8 October tape, which was the catalyst for the investigation, nor the tape of 7 October that was uncovered as a result of the probe, contains information "that bears on the well-being of the soldiers." It adds that "at no time was videotape or other photographic material relevant to the condition of the soldiers withheld."

At the same time, the report blamed faulty internal communications and poor judgment by some senior UN officials for the delay in informing Israeli authorities about the existence of the 8 October videotape.

The investigative team expressed concern that there was a tendency by some senior officials to "overprotect" information, or, at a minimum, to fail to share it with their superiors "in the belief that their personal judgment alone was correct and sufficient."

Speaking today at a news conference at UN Headquarters in New York, Mr. Connor emphatically denied there was a cover-up or that records were destroyed to "obfuscate the real picture of events." Rather, the UN failed to properly balance operational responsibilities with humanitarian priorities, he said, adding that the failure to inform Headquarters adequately and in a timely manner contributed to miscommunications between the field and Headquarters and between the UN and Member States.

"In the field, operational considerations were paramount," Mr. Connor said. "Humanitarian issues were put aside or not considered - there was a failure. Specifically, UNIFIL's assessment of the physical condition of those at the abduction site was not communicated to a Member State."

Reacting to these findings, Mr. Annan pledged to take administrative measures "to ensure that such lapses in assessment and communication - within the UN chain of command and between the UN and Member Governments - do not recur," his spokesman said today.

The Secretary-General also repeated his offer to let Israel and Lebanon view an edited version of the 8 October tape and extended the invitation to cover the second videotape uncovered by the probe, as well as items recovered from the vehicles discovered by a UNIFIL patrol following the attack, which may have a bearing on the condition of the soldiers.

"Finally, the Secretary-General wishes once more to express his indignation at the use of United Nations equipment and insignia in the abduction," the spokesman said, referring to the fact that imitation UNIFIL number plates, a UN flag and UN uniforms had been among the items found inside the vehicles. "He regards this as a very serious matter, which he continues to pursue with the Government of Lebanon."