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Monthly Archives: August 2011

Showdown Over the UN Staff Payola

August 29th, 2011 - 10:19 pm

While American taxpayers keep tightening their belts, it’s been profligacy as usual for the United Nations, where 4,800 upper-level staff in New York recently received cost-of-living increases that effectively raise their already tax-exempt salaries by almost 3%. This de facto pay hike was the work of the International Civil Service Commission, described on its web site as “an independent expert body ” made up of 15 members appointed by the UN General Assembly “in their personal capacity” to serve four year terms regulating and coordinating the “conditions of service” of UN staff. A big concern of the General Assembly in maintaining this body is that there be “broad geographical representation” — currently including members from countries such as Russia, China, Algeria, Ghana, Jamaica and Bangladesh, as well as from the U.S., Germany and France.

In other words, here’s yet another case in which the U.S. contributes 22% of the money, while the other 192 member states of the UN General Assembly have the overwhelming say in how it gets spent — or, in this instance, in appointing the 15 people who decide how much will be spent on salaries and perks for staff in New York.  Thus are we now seeing this de facto pay rise , in addition to the tax-exemptions, dependency allowances, school grants, travel allowances and in some cases rental subsidies.

But kudos to the U.S. State Department!  (Yes, you read that right). From the U.S. Mission to the UN, there has come an objection to this latest UN move to spend other people’s money padding the pay of its own staff. The new U.S. envoy for UN Management and Reform, Joseph Torsella, has written a letter to the chairman of the International Civil Service Commission, Kingston Rhodes, of Sierra Leone. In his letter, which is posted on the USUN web site, Torsella runs the numbers on the rising emoluments to UN staff in New York , and informs Rhodes that the U.S. government  ”strongly objects to this increase.”

Noting that this is a time of “global fiscal austerity,” Torsella points out that the U.S. federal service itself “is currently subject to a pay freeze,” and says that for UN staff in New York, “no increases in either the base salary scale or post adjustment are warranted or appropriate at this time.” Joseph Torsella concludes by requesting that the commission “take appropriate steps” to scrap the UN pay hike in New York.

Way to go Joe! Just this spring, Torsella finally arrived to fill the U.S. Mission’s slot for U.S. envoy for UN Management and Reform, a critical post which the Obama administration had neglected for more than two years — making do with an acting ambassador.  Torsella had virtually no background in dealing with the UN, and I’ve had my doubts about whether he is up to the job — which, properly done, ranks right up there with the 12 labors of Hercules. The jury is still out. In the massive matter of cleaning up the multi-billion dollar global frat house that is today’s UN, this objection to a pay raise in New York is small potatoes. It would be more reassuring had Torsella cited as his rationale not only a world fiscal crunch and a pay freeze by the U.S. government (which has its own problems with profligacy), but also the dismal matter of what the well-paid UN staffers in New York actually produce.

A more resounding voice of reason on the UN is that Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Ros-Lehtinen has been preparing a UN reform bill that would tackle the mighty job of broadly reshaping the warped incentives within the UN system. The congresswoman has been looking for ways to remedy not only the extravagant spending, but the moral bankruptcy that pervades too many UN endeavors. It’s quite possible that Ros-Lehtinen’s efforts helped spark the Obama administration’s newfound interest in at least a smidgin of UN fiscal discipline. The administration, despite its love affair with the UN,  has to do something to show voters it is taking notice of the UN’s vices. With the 2012 election in view, and a lot of American voters already upset about Washington’s cosmic spending spree, this would be a delicate moment for President Obama’s envoys to nod along with UN staffers pocketing beefed up paychecks in New York.

There’s also the question of whether the UN General Assembly’s “independent” International Civil Service Commission, and its chairman, Kingston Rhodes, will trouble themselves to do anything at all about Torsella’s request to ratchet back the staff pay raise. That raise is already in the system; as Torsella himself notes in his letter, it took effect August 1. The current distribution of roles within the UN General Assembly is that the U.S. provides the biggest share of the money, and the rest of gang — whose nationals pack the ranks of those 4,800 UN staffers now enjoying a raise in New York — decide how to spend it. As long as U.S. money keeps flowing in, why should anyone in this food chain care what the U.S. government has to say about it?

All that said, at least there is now a U.S. envoy for UN reform, and he has raised a very valid protest about the UN’s self-serving gravy train. It’s a start. Congratulations to Torsella. It’s worth keeping an eye on this one, to see if he finds a way to follow through.


Chalk up another black mark against Iran’s regime… as if any more were needed. To dodge U.S. sanctions imposed in 2008 on its state-owned merchant shipping company and purveyor to Iran’s missile and nuclear programs, the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, or IRISL, Iran’s regime has been playing a global shell game. For the past three years IRISL has been camouflaging its ships by reflagging them, renaming them, and creating proliferating sets of shell companies to serve as their nominal owners, with Iran lurking behind them. Despite U.S. sanctions, ships blacklisted by the U.S. for their links to IRISL continue to ply the seas, while IRISL hides behind a morphing network of affiliates, shell companies, and related accretions.

For this activity, described by the U.S. Treasury as a web of “deceit,” Iran has favored a number of hubs, including Malta, Germany, and one of the world’s great port cities — Hong Kong. None of this activity is good, but there is something about Iran’s exploitation of Hong Kong that has been particularly appalling. Hong Kong’s great virtue is that it is a place friendly to business, a testament even today to the benefits of a free market. Say what you will about the shadowy side of China’s growing influence in Hong Kong since Britain turned over the Crown Colony in 1997 (and there is plenty to say), Hong Kong carries on as one of the marvels of the modern world, still a place of energy and enterprise.

Since 2008, Iran has battened onto Hong Kong’s system as a handy place to set up shell companies to try to disguise its connection to 19 IRISL-linked Hong Kong-flagged cargo ships, all blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury . Batches of these Hong Kong shell companies serving as nominal owners of these ships have been exposed by Treasury and added to its Iran sanctions blacklist. Last month, while in Hong Kong, I took a look at some of the documents connected with these 19 Hong Kong-flagged ships. I discovered that since Treasury’s most recent bout of related black-listings, in January, and a superb series of articles early this year on that theme in the South China Morning Post, these ships had come under new ownership by 19 new and obscure Hong Kong-registered companies — all sharing the same Hong Kong address. I went to that address, where the only physical sign of these companies consisted of rows of green file boxes, containing their corporate documents, shelved in the back room of a company that provides corporate secretarial services to a variety of clients.

The paper trail led on, or perhaps I should say it led back, via a web of nested companies, to a company in Iran, by the name of Kish Roaring Ocean Shipping Company. It does not appear on Treasury’s blacklist. Indeed, I could not discover any list on which it does appear, apart from its listing as sole corporate director of a Hong Kong company that in turn serves as sole director of every single one of these 19 companies which according to the Hong Kong Marine Department Shipping Registry had become the owners of those 19 ships. That tale, including the 19 Hong Kong-flagged U.S.-blacklisted IRISL-linked ships (all currently with names starting with the letter “A” — for instance, the Ajax, Apollo, Adrian, Amplify and, I kid you not, the Alias), is the subject of my article in the Asian Wall Street Journal titled “Tehran’s Ghost Fleet” (this is a link that will only work for Wall Street Journal subscribers, but the headline gives the basic idea).

Make of this latest lattice what one will, the entire exercise was a reminder that, according to the U.S. Treasury, Iran in recent years has already exploited Hong Kong as a platform for trying to evade sanctions meant to stop Iran’s pursuit of weapons of mass murder. That problem does not emanate from Hong Kong. It comes from the regime in Iran. Not only does Iran’s regime violently abuse and oppress its own people, train and support terrorists, and gloat over its dreams of “purifying” the human race (starting with Israel) while developing weapons to kill millions. In an opportunistic manner, it also infests systems that were meant for far healthier uses, from the governing boards of major United Nations agencies, to the by-ways of such commerce-friendly polities as Hong Kong. This may not look like a direct threat, but it is corrosive.

Where Is Syria’s Asma al-Assad?

August 27th, 2011 - 11:32 pm

It’s just six months since the first lady of Syria, Asma al-Assad, was on a roll as the plushly-accessorized human face of Syria’s Assad regime. British-born, well-educated, multilingual, slim, young, and shod by Louboutin, Mrs. Assad had already been feted for her wardrobe by the Huffington Post, hosted Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Damascus, and been tapped by the Harvard Arab Alumni Association to serve as patroness and keynote speaker for its March 2011 Arab World Conference in Damascus. For the February edition of Vogue, she made herself oh-so-accessible to writer Joan Juliet Buck — who produced a widely circulated article describing Asma al-Assad as on a mission “to put a modern face on her husband’s regime.”

Courtesy of Asma, Vogue’s readers were effectively invited right into the home of the Assads — a home run on “wildly democratic principles.” There were insider moments, with Asma whipping up fondue in the kitchen, and a tour of the triple-decker playroom where Asma and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad (in his “off-duty” jeans) played with their children — happy neighbors dropping by, to look in on Assad family life.

This Assad idyll was interrupted by mass protests from Syrians who have had a bellyful of the Assad dynasty. To hold onto power, Assad’s regime has relied on carnage in which the United Nations estimates more than 2,200 people have so far been killed. Assad’s forces have been using heavy artillery against Syria’s own people, availing themselves of the help and expertise of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and posting snipers on rooftops. In May, they returned the mutilated corpse of 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb to his family, reportedly on condition they keep quiet about how he was murdered. This past week, Syria’s best-known political cartoonist, Ali Ferzat, was grabbed by armed, masked men, who beat him and broke the bones in his hands, to stop him from drawing.

Somewhere in there, between the Harvard Arab Alumni dinner, and the heavy-artillery assaults and crushing of Ferzat’s hands, Asma al-Assad vanished. If there has been a reliable sighting in recent months, by all means, please write in. I haven’t found one. There have been articles speculating that sometime this spring she and her children slipped out of Syria that they may be in hiding somewhere in the UK.  The Atlantic Wire wondered about this back in May — “Where Is the First Lady of Syria?” So did Al Arabiya: “President Assad’s wife, Asma, could be in London.” Earlier this month a web site called The Syrian asked “Asma Al-Assad, Oh Where are you?”

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A Handy Video Guide to Durban III

August 24th, 2011 - 9:23 pm

Confused about plans of the United Nations General Assembly to host a troubling “high-level” conference next month called Durban III?

Who wouldn’t be? This meeting will be held Sept. 22 at UN headquarters in New York, not in Durban. The UN is advertising it as a 10th anniversary commemoration of the first Durban conference’s efforts “towards eradicating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.” But the UN’s “Durban process” has proved from the get-go to be one of its most bigoted endeavors, fixated since its 2001 curtain-raiser in Durban itself on institutionalizing anti-Semitism and the excoriation of the democratic state of Israel.

Perhaps all you really need to know is that Durban II, held in Geneva, in 2009, featured just one head of state as a speaker: Iran’s bigot-in-chief, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. If you want to know a bit more, there’s also the item that the original Durban conference featured, as star speakers, Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat. For Durban III, the usual UN gang that makes a near-chronic mockery of the Human Rights Council is hoping to attract as many heads of state as possible, with a date and venue coinciding with this year’s annual opening of the UN General Assembly’s posturing in New York.

This “Durban process” is not some harmless, irrelevant bit of UN bureaucratic nonsense. It is virulent. Under the guise of fighting racism, it revolves around the aim of isolating and delegitimizing Israel. This is damaging to the fabric of any prayer of a civilized world order, and does no service at all to genuine victims of racism. If you want a handy five-minute video guide to what’s really going on, www.EyeontheUN.org has now released a five-minute video, Israel and UN Double Standards, that neatly sums it up.



Ahmadinejad and New York Maid Service

August 17th, 2011 - 12:03 am

September brings the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly, and sure as nukes are nukes, that means Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will again be coming to New York. UN sanctions on Iran notwithstanding, this will be Ahmadinejad’s seventh performance from the UN’s main podium — not counting his appearances in recent years at UN conclaves such as an FAO food summit in Rome, Durban II in Geneva, and last year’s “nonproliferation” conference in New York.

Ahmadinejad’s UN-enabled access to Manhattan and the UN stage is quite bad enough. But the outrages keep piling up. The UN General Assembly this September is planning a festival of treats for Ahmadinejad and his ilk. On Sept. 22, the same day on which he is scheduled to speak in the General Debate, there will be a Durban III “commemoration” of the 10th anniversary of the anti-Semitic 2001 Durban conference. There may be a General Assembly resolution attempting to conjure a Palestinian state infused with terrorists who, like Ahmadinejad, are dedicated to the eradication of Israel. And, special icing on Ahmadinejad’s U.S.-subsidized UN cake, Iran this September will take up a post as one of the 21 vice-presidents of the General Assembly.

Various intrepid souls are doing what they can to counter this. The Hudson and Touro Institutes are planning to oppose the Durban III jamboree with a conference that same day, featuring speakers such as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, former ambassador John Bolton, academy award-winning actor Jon Voight, and former NY mayor Ed Koch. And a former U.S. envoy to the UN, Mark Wallace, now the head of United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI), is urging New York hotels to refuse rooms to Ahmadinejad and his entourage. Wallace notes: “International law requires only that he receive an entry visa, not maid service.”

Which brings me to a thought about the incongruities of diplomatic courtesy, as applied these days to those who visit New York on errands surrounding the UN and its related institutions. Recall the case just three months ago, when a hotel maid accused the then-managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, of sexually assaulting her in his New York hotel suite. That case fell apart. But not before New York cops had marched Strauss-Kahn off a plane, in handcuffs, to face justice.

Compare that to the handling of Ahmadinejad. Granted, there’s no sign that he’s in the habit of personally assaulting New York hotel maids. He has bigger plans. When he arrives in the room of a New York luxury hotel, to attend the festivities at the UN, he is there to advance the goals of a regime that has bombed, butchered and tortured its way to power and influence, bankrolling and arming terrorists, plotting to strangle and subvert western democracy, threatening to wipe Israel off the map, and pursuing weapons of mass murder. Is that, perhaps, at least as bad as allegedly assaulting a hotel maid?

Yet, Ahmadinejad when he jets into New York, receives official U.S. cooperation and extravagant security, courtesy of U.S. and New York taxpayers, to ensure that while he is in the U.S. — toiling away to damage America and its allies — he is safe from any harm, or for that matter, safe from any justice. I’m sure there are elaborate rationales for why this should be so. But in plain and simple English, it is wrong.

Debating Iran, or Just Plain Taking the Bait?

August 11th, 2011 - 12:25 pm

Were the world merely an Oxford stage, Britain could congratulate itself for scoring a debating point against the Iranian team. Earlier this week, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cohorts criticized the British for their handling of the recent riots in the U.K. Iranian officials accused British police of “savage” aggression against the “protesters” and called for human rights investigations into, and United Nations condemnation of, Britain’s actions on its own turf.

The British Charge d-Affaires in Tehran has now responded with an open letter addressed to the spokesman of Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ramin Mehmanparast, politely explaining that the U.K. has a standing invitation to all UN rapporteurs, has already launched its own investigation, and “British policing is among the best in the world” — thank you very much. The debater’s touche comes in the fifth and penultimate paragraph of the letter, where, with a wry British twist, the Charge flips the argument, writing: “I urge the Iranian Government to extend a similar courtesy to the dedicated UN Special Rapporteur for the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, to enable him to address the international community’s grave concerns about ongoing human rights violations within Iran.”

It would all make a neat bit of dialogue for a thriller about the showdowns of our time, or a movie starring, as the articulate British diplomat, Colin Firth. First you have the cynicism and raw hyopcrisy of Iran’s accusations. Then you have the cool British reply, meticulously courteous, yet biting. As a debating point, it works.

But the world is not an academic stage. While Britain is scoring debating points, Iran’s regime is scoring its own points, by way of being dignified by British democracy as a worthy debating partner — on human rights, no less.

The bigger question here is: Should Britain stoop to debate Iran’s government at all?

The Obama administration, not to mention the rest of the democratic world, has already and repeatedly tried the experiment of offering Iran’s regime dialogue and “mutual respect,” including breast-beating Western self-criticism sessions in venues such as the UN Human Rights Council — meant at least in part to inspire the likes of Iran’s regime to follow suit. That’s failed. Iran’s regime takes whatever platforms and access it can get, puts out whatever propaganda it chooses, and in this case has just been dignified by the British with the favor of a direct reply.

To correct the record, or remind the world of Tehran’s hypocrisies and atrocities, not least against its own people, there is virtue to speaking out. But better to speak past the Tehran regime, which long ago forfeited any reasonable claim to take part in any remotely serious discussion of human rights. Congratulations to the British Charge for debating skill, and deft turn of argument. But next time, please address any such letter to the people of Iran, the people of Britain, the citizens of the world, or even the bigwigs of the UN — anyone except the officials of the current Iranian regime.


The Upside of the Downgrade

August 6th, 2011 - 1:21 am

The good news — and yes, this part really is good news — is that Standard & Poor’s has finally reduced the spending bacchanal of the U.S. government to a sound bite that anyone can understand: S&P has downgraded America’s sovereign credit rating.

There are plenty of nuances, to be sure. Not everyone agrees with S&P. The U.S. Treasury is attacking S&P’s arithmetic, and haggling over the impact of two trillion dollars, here or there, give or take. Analysts are explaining that S&P did not downgrade America’s short-term credit rating. It’s just long-term U.S. credit, which, after 70 years on its AAA pedestal, has now been knocked down to AA+. There’s lots of debate over just how much difference S&P’s rating downgrade will make to the markets, because mighty though S&P may be, its influence is a function of its ability to accurately assess things already going on. In other words, shooting the messenger, as the White House apparently hoped to do, does not change the reality the messenger was trying to convey.

Nor has S&P stumbled upon extraordinary information of which the world was unaware. The problem is not S&P. The problem is U.S. government spending and borrowing so profligate that American debt now tops annual GDP. The deeper problem, driving all this, is that American politics has become a realm in which the response to every difficulty of the human condition is for government to amass more power and dole out more money. The presumption of the U.S. government by now is that Americans cannot be trusted to arrange for their own medical care, pay for their own tuition, save for their old age, or “create or save” their own jobs. Big Brother will do that for them, even if the resulting rise of the dole and erosion of the private sector means 9.1% unemployment, almost 50 million Americans using food stamps, a stalled economy, soaring public debt, and now, a long-term credit rating lower than that of Australia, Hong Kong or France.

All the debate and Tea-Partying to date has made some difference. But it has not yet prevailed to change the profligate and power-hungry dynamic in Washington.There have been plenty of wake-up calls these past few years, but too often they have been smothered by Washington’s vast political fog. Among ordinary Americans, who has time to keep track of  the trillions spent, the endless expanding government programs, or the to-and-fro over deficits variously projected over the next decade?

The virtue of the S&P downgrade is that it serves as a simple bottom line. For a long, long time, the U.S. government earned itself a triple-A credit rating. It’s gone. Downgraded. Maybe, just maybe, that’s exactly the sound bite Americans need to hear, to concentrate voters’ minds on how to get that AAA rating back.