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.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.