Panel finds senior officials lax in ensuring UN’s safe return to Iraq

29 March 2004
Gerald Walzer briefs journalists

An independent investigation into responsibility for security failures in the lead-up to the deadly bombing of United Nations offices in Iraq last year found senior UN officials in charge of staff safety were lax in carrying out their duties and “blinded” by the belief that the world body would not come under attack despite warnings to the contrary.

Reacting to the panel’s findings today, a spokesman for Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced a series of disciplinary measures, including calls for the resignation of some of the officials, and said in a statement that Mr. Annan “regretted the failures identified by the Panel.”

The Secretary-General also “expressed his determination to take all corrective measures, within his authority, to enhance the safety and security of all UN staff, especially those deployed in dangerous conflict areas,” spokesman Fred Eckhard said.

In a summary of its findings released today, the Panel noted that no prior security assessment mission was sent to Iraq before the first humanitarian staff returned to Baghdad on 1 May 2003, or before the decision was taken to send staff from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad by road rather than by air, contrary to UN practices and procedures.

The Panel also concluded that at the executive level at UN Headquarters in New York, the Steering Group on Iraq (SGI), chaired by Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette, lacked “due care and diligence” in the manner in which it dealt with the circumstances of the return to Baghdad. It should have asked some searching questions about the security aspects of the proposed return plan.

  • No comprehensive, documented review was undertaken of the security requirements at the UN headquarters in Baghdad following the return of UN staff on 1 May;
  • The UN Security Coordinator, Tun Myat, the Designated Official, Ramiro Lopes da Silva, and his Security Management Team in Baghdad, “appeared to be blinded by a conviction that UN personnel and installations would not become a target of attack, despite the clear warnings to the contrary;” and
  • There was a conflict between information received from UN and from United States military sources as to whether requests were made by senior UN staff in Baghdad to vacate US military personnel and equipment from critical positions around the UN offices at the Canal Hotel before the 19 August attack.

The Panel also found that UN officials did not demonstrate any serious intention to procure and install blast-resistant film for the entire Canal Hotel, which might have prevented many of the injuries suffered from flying glass shards. They “displayed a profound lack of responsibility and ineptitude in the manner they sought to implement the request for installation of the film,” the Panel said. “Their combined response to the issue indicates a lethargy that is bordering on gross negligence.”

Mr. Annan established the Security in Iraq Accountability Panel late last year to carry out an independent probe into the responsibilities of all individuals and UN entities involved in the security of the UN operation in Iraq, which might have prevented or mitigated the effect of the 19 August attack, or diminished the loss of life and injury to UN personnel. The panel focused in particular on the actions or omissions of the UN headquarters in Baghdad and its staff.

The blast destroyed the UN offices, killing 22 people, including Mr. Annan's top envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and injuring more than 100 others. A second, smaller attack in September prompted the Secretary-General to eventually withdraw all international UN personnel.

The Panel was chaired by Gerald Walzer, a former Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees; Sinha Basnayake, former Director of the General Legal Division of the UN Office of Legal Affairs; Kevin Carty, Assistant Commissioner of National Police of Ireland; and Stuart Groves, Senior Security Manager and Security Focal Point in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.


Video of the press briefing [1hr. 12mins]


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