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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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.