Dual roles said to put U.N. staffers at risk

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UNITED NATIONS | Inherently flawed security is compromising the safety of tens of thousands of U.N. employees around the world, according to the organization’s third report on the fatal Dec. 11 bombing of U.N. offices in Algiers.

Algeria, where an explosives-packed truck bomb killed 24, “was not on the radar screen” for U.N. security officials who, said the authors of the report, “were preoccupied with Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia and Sudan.”

Ralph Zacklin, former U.N. legal adviser, led the five-person inquiry to assign responsibility for the attack. Seventeen of those killed were U.N. staffers.

On Sunday, Mr. Zacklin’s panel submitted to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon an 88-page report with thousands of pages of annexes.

Mr. Ban’s office has refused to release that document for security and privacy concerns, but on Wednesday distributed a four-page summary of the report.

Shortly after 9 a.m. on Dec. 11, 2007, a truck bomb barreled past a minimal barrier and slammed into an office used by several U.N. agencies.

Fire engulfed the building. In addition to those killed, scores were injured. Most were Algerian.

Responsibility was quickly claimed by a local insurgency called al Qaeda in the Maghreb, a group that had been publicly agitating against the presence of the United Nations and other foreign organizations in Algeria.

There had been several bombings in the capital over the preceding months that were claimed by the same group.

Nonetheless, out of courtesy to the Algerian government’s political sensibilities, U.N. officials did not raise the threat assessment, nor vigorously demand additional security measures to be put in place, the report said.

Despite these threats, and the repeated pleas for assistance by local security officer Babacar Ndiaye to the U.N. Department of Safety and Security (DSS) in New York, nothing happened.

Mr. Ndiaye was killed in the explosion.

Marc de Bernis of the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) was responsible for conveying security concerns to the Algerian government because he was the most senior official at the post. He was also responsible for running his agency’s programs in the region.

Mr. Zacklin said this dual tasking, standard in most U.N. duty stations, is a “design flaw” that must changed.

“It’s not hard to imagine that a person wearing two hats may find himself or herself in conflict,” he said.

Mr. de Bernis, a French national who has since been posted by UNDP to Brussels, is currently on medical leave, according to a UNDP spokesman.

The UNDP Wednesday acknowledged the difficulty of the post.

“As Mr. Zacklin said, there are clearly built-in tensions between the twin responsibilities, of security and program delivery, assigned to the head of a U.N. field office,” UNDP spokesman Stephane Dujarric wrote in an e-mail. “Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that we address these built-in ambiguities in the U.N. system’s security architecture so as to better clarify issues of functional and personal roles and responsibilities in the future.”

The Zacklin panel also found that at U.N. headquarters in New York, the security department was hobbled by poor training and recruitment, limited resources and other problems.

Two previous U.N. reports on the Algeria bombing also paint a grim picture of an understaffed department constrained by hierarchy and turf wars, in which bad news was unwelcome.

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