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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Following Donald Trump in New Hampshire

It would be easy to dismiss the 69-year-old property mogul - but Trump is impossible to ignore.

Donald Trump doesn’t miss a beat. When a man in the front row of a packed school auditorium shouted, “We don’t want a scripted president,” he bellowed straight back, “No you don’t! And you don’t want a politically correct president,” a comment that sent the thousand-strong audience into a raucous standing ovation.

It was classic Trump: a move aimed at underlining his credentials as a populist, anti-politics insurgent. For bemused outsiders, his stump speech on 14 August at Winnacunnet High School in the tidy New Hampshire town of Hampton offered fresh insights into the methods by which Donald Trump has successfully hijacked the Republican race for the White House.

It would be easy to dismiss the 69-year-old property mogul. Trump’s campaign is powered by little more than personality and wealth. His pitch features few policies beyond building a giant wall along the Mexican border and putting his business associates in positions where they can strike better deals than the current administration. His campaign shtick resembles nothing so much as a stand-up comedy show. On Iraq: “It isn’t even a country. It’s a bunch of corrupt people.” On oil: “Iran, Isis, everybody has it but us.” And on China: “You hear that sucking sound? You know what that means . . . jobs, money.”

And yet he is impossible to ignore. Trump has led the polls for the Republican nomination since declaring his intention to run on 16 June – in a speech that accused Mexico of sending both rapists and murderers to the US. In New Hampshire he has a double-digit lead over Jeb Bush, who remains the favourite to win the nod, given his record as governor of Florida and his party connections – not least his father, George, and brother George W. This makes Trump the people’s choice.

Something similar is happening among Democrats. Although Hillary Clinton has a monopoly on donors and party grandees, Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed socialist senator from Vermont, is making a move in the polls. The US version of Jeremy Corbyn – the unreconstructed lefty selected to balance the debate – offers a different way of doing things from Clinton, who comes from a tired elite, or so runs the familiar argument.

And this is Trump’s main message: the rich are running politics for their advantage, donating money to the establishment in return for favours when they return to office. “Who knows it better than me?” he boasted to more whoops from the audience. “I’ve contributed to everyone.”

Trump acts like a heckler on stage. It’s his brash honesty that appeals to the likes of Bob Pennell, an orthopaedic surgeon who had travelled from neighbouring Massachusetts to see him speak. “He is shining the light on the rich and how they use the government,” Pennell said. “I always suspected it. But now I know.”

The result of such poor leadership, Trump argues, is that the US has lost its place as the dominant global economy – hence that sucking sound from China. It’s a message that strikes a chord with an audience that feels squeezed financially at home and sees its country adrift in the world.

Trump’s larger-than-life persona – and frequent, unverifiable boasts that his net worth stands at $10bn – felt like a throwback to days gone by, when “the American dream still meant something”, according to Jimmy Riordan, a diesel engine parts engineer. “It’s a cut-throat world and he’s the best businessman,” he said.

Quite what a Trump administration would look like, however, is anyone’s guess. In a rapid-fire question-and-answer session, he committed to federal investigations into the treatment of army veterans and the Environmental Protection Agency. An audience member asked if he would send astronauts to Mars. Trump smiled, saying he would first fix the US’s crumbling roads and airports. “Who’s better at infrastructure than Trump?” he asked, to more laughter.

Even a string of glaring gaffes has failed to dent his lead. Most recently he tried to undermine Megyn Kelly of Fox News after she probed his attitude towards women. Her dogged questioning, Trump said, was down to “blood coming out of her wherever”.

Yet to his supporters in the school auditorium, this kind of comment is not a misstep but a breath of fresh air. They say it shows he is his own man, that his personal fortune frees him from the need for spin doctors, lobbyists or donors who would seek favours should he reach office. Even his opponents can sense the appeal. “He doesn’t have to have their influence,” said Kerri Ruggiero, who is campaigning in the state for George Pataki, the Republican former New York governor, who is failing to gain traction. “It’s just him.”

Not everyone at the stump speech was a supporter. In New Hampshire, people take their responsibility as an early primary state seriously. A good showing here in February can make or break a candidate’s campaign. In the 1968 Democratic primaries, Eugene McCarthy came within 7 per cent of Lyndon B Johnson, a close enough result to force the sitting president to announce he would not run for re-election. Some showed up last Friday to gauge whether Trump was a credible figure. Others came to make a point. Noah Thompson, an 18-year-old student, wore a giant golden sombrero to protest against Trump’s comments about Mexicans.

“I probably would have voted for him,” Thompson confessed as the crowd headed for the exits, “if he hadn’t opened his mouth for two months.”

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars