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?

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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