Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has launched an immediate internal investigation backed by outside expertise to determine how potentially hazardous material removed by United Nations arms inspectors from Iraq in 1996 ended up in a UN office instead of a properly equipped laboratory and remained there undetected for the past 11 years.
Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro and Mr. Ban’s Chef de Cabinet Vijay Nambiar both cancelled their participation in a senior leadership meeting in Turin, Italy, to stay behind at UN Headquarters in New York and closely monitor the situation on Mr. Ban’s behalf, a statement issued by his spokesperson said today.
Mr. Ban also asked Under Secretary-General for safety and security services David Veness and Under Secretary-General for Management Alicia Barcena in charge of the safety and security of staff and Secretariat premises to immediately return to headquarters.
The statement stressed that the materials posed no risk to the staff or the general population. “All necessary safety measures continue to be taken,” it added of the two small plastic packages with metal and glass containers, ranging in size from small vials to tubes the length of a pen holding liquid substances. These have since been handed over to United States authorities.
According to an inventory one of them may contain phosgene suspended in oil – an old-generation chemical warfare agent used widely in World War I, which in both its gaseous and liquid forms can be life-threatening, causing the lungs to collapse and damaging the eyes, nose, throat and skin. The other contains nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) reference standards in sealed glass tubes, used to calibrate chemical analytical equipment.
The materials came to light a week ago when UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) staff discovered the packages while they were archiving their offices a few blocks from UN Headquarters as the Commission winds down after the Security Council terminated its mandate in June.