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Meet Matthew Lee, the scourge of the United Nations

Unrecognised by the public, lone journalist Matthew Lee's work in trying to hold the UN to account has made him someone few diplomats can afford to ignore.

Matthew Lee

Excluded from trips; his questions routinely ignored, one journalist has truly managed to get under the skin of the demi-gods who run the United Nations.

Matthew Lee does not work for Reuters, Associated Press or any of the major television networks. He runs his own operation – the Inner City Press. Unknown to most of the world, he is probably among the most widely recognised members of the media pack within the UN. Few diplomats can afford to ignore him – especially permanent members of Security Council.

When Lee gets his teeth into a story, he simply doesn’t let go. He has pursued the head of peacekeeping operations, the French diplomat, Hervé Ladsous, ever since he was appointed.

Today the situation is so bad it has become farcical. Whenever Lee asks a question at a press conference, Ladsous turns him down; pretending he’s not heard or refusing to respond.

The poisonous relationship between diplomat and journalist goes back to Ladsous’s appointment in 2011. Lee says he came across a memo indicating that he had been repeatedly passed over by France for the job. “He was a twice spurned candidate,” Lee told the New Statesman.

But what really set the cat among the pigeons was that Lee did a little digging. He says he found material indicating that Ladsous had associated himself with the Hutu government involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. “I got an internal memo where he was the one arguing for the escape of the Hutu government out of the country [Rwanda] and into Eastern Congo,” says Lee.

Lee put this to Ladsous. “It is fair when you are becoming head of UN peacekeeping to ask what have you learned from it. What do you think of the situation in Eastern Congo? And he absolutely refused to answer.”

“He said you have insulted me, it is innuendo,” Lee complains. “And I said it is not innuendo. It is based on speeches you made.  So he refuses to answer any of my questions.”

Although an American, Lee is no knee-jerk right-wing opponent of the UN. “I don’t want to trash the UN,” he says. “It is really important to have somewhere that every country can come and talk. I am a big proponent of that.”

He has broken a series of important stories. This week Lee was the first to report that a UN Security Council mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo had confronted President Laurent Kabila with the mass rape of 135 women by his own troops.

Lee has also pursued the deaths of Tamils during the Sri Lankan drive to oust the Tamil Tigers. “Even as 40 000 people were slaughtered in 2009 there was not a peep about it in the Security Council.” So he took up the subject, returning to it at every opportunity.  

One target was the appointment of Major General Shavendra Silva as a member of the UN Secretary General's Special Advisory Group on Peace Keeping Operations. Lee pointed out that he had been named in UN reports as an alleged war criminal, for shelling hospitals and shooting people who were attempting to surrender.

After days of questioning by Lee and objections from the Canadians, General Silva was finally dropped from the panel.

One of Lee’s strengths has been his coverage of the conditions under which UN staff have to work. They have almost no rights, since the UN is an international body and is not subject to American labour laws.  

“It is troubling that an organisation which preaches workers rights has no rights for its own workers,” Lee explains. “If you really want to know what the UN is doing, you have to talk to the staff - every secret documents pass through their hands.” Not surprisingly, he has more than his fair share of scoops.

The UN’s real strength and purpose – in Lee’s view – is its concern for those parts of the world that escape everyone else’s attention. “There are places that the UN cares about that no-one else does – like Guinea-Bissau.” He cites the work done by the UN to end the war in Nepal. Ian Martin, a long time British diplomat, is something of a hero in Lee’s eyes for his work to bring the Maoists together with the other political parties. “He was considered impartial by everyone – they used to meet at his house, and not send their people out onto the streets.”

Matthew Lee is today well embedded in the UN, despite its attempts to oust him. The organisation pays for his office, as it does for all other journalists, and he sells stories as and when he can. For seven years he has worked in the headquarters – a sharp critic, but also a vigilant supporter of the world body.