The U.N.’s war against leaks
Stephen Mathias, one of the U.N.’s top lawyers, recently warned a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Neil Macdonald, that he planned to alert Canadian authorities that the reporter may have obtained leaked U.N. documents in violation of international agreements, prompting a sharp response from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Joel Simon, executive director of ...
Stephen Mathias, one of the U.N.'s top lawyers, recently warned a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Neil Macdonald, that he planned to alert Canadian authorities that the reporter may have obtained leaked U.N. documents in violation of international agreements, prompting a sharp response from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Stephen Mathias, one of the U.N.’s top lawyers, recently warned a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Neil Macdonald, that he planned to alert Canadian authorities that the reporter may have obtained leaked U.N. documents in violation of international agreements, prompting a sharp response from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Turtle Bay that a letter Mathias sent to Macdonald containing the warning was "menacing and inappropriate." He urged the U.N. to desist from pursuing an international investigation into CBC’s reporting. "This letter could be construed as an indication that the U.N. could pursue legal action and we would take an extremely dim view of that," Simon said. "If the U.N. has an issue with the leak they need to pursue that within the United Nations and not target journalists who have an obligation to use this kind of information to inform the public."
Macdonald had obtained copies of highly sensitive internal memos from a U.N. commission that purportedly linked Hezbollah militants to the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, and that referred to U.N. suspicions that a top Lebanese intelligence official may have been involved in the plot. The documents — which surfaced as part of a lengthy CBC investigation into Hariri’s killing — came from the U.N. International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC), which carried out a five year long inquiry into the Valentine’s Day murder of Hariri and 22 others.
The U.N. has "been informed that you have possession of certain UNIIIC documents," Mathias wrote to Macdonald. "I am writing to alert you to the fact that UNIIIC documents are United Nations documents enjoying inviolability under Article II of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. Inviolability entails that United Nations document cannot be disclosed to a third party, copied or used without the consent of the United Nations."
Mathias also asked Macdonald to contact the U.N. about the documents "so that we can assess whether the United Nations can agree to their voluntary disclosure. We are also alerting the Canadian authorities to this matter."
The letter represented an extraordinary effort by the United Nations to seek the cooperation from a member state to pursue a leak of U.N. documents. In June, 2002, the U.N. Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia sought to compel a Washington Post journalist, Jonathan Randall, to testify before the court about an interview he had conducted with a Bosnian Serb official. An appeals court ruled that a reporter could only be compelled to testify to a U.N. if "the evidence sought is of direct and important value in determining a core issue in the case … and cannot reasonably be obtained elsewhere."
The U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been highly sensitive to leaks. Inga-Britt Ahlenius, the U.N.’s former head of internal oversight, wrote in a highly critical end-of-mission report in July that Ban’s office was "consumed by leaks," and that she had refused requests to conduct internal investigations into such disclosures.
"I made the reason for this very clear: such investigations are non-starters," she wrote. "We do not have subpoena power and should not have. Journalists will not disclose the source of a leak….In my opinion, it would also be seen as very negative on the secretary general, who had advocated transparency, to pursue leaks….Such secretiveness serves us poorly, it only serves to feed rumors, gossip and finally distrust within the organization and between the organization and its external stakeholders, including the media."
U.N. officials at the time countered that it is improper for employees of the organization, just like government officials, to divulge confidential information to the press, saying it is within the U.N.’s right to take steps to prevent such breaches. Some U.N. officials have called Ahlenius’ views towards disclosure naive, noting that the disclosure of privileged information can upend delicate diplomatic work, or in some cases endanger lives. The authors of one of the UN investigators memos leaked to the CBC expressed concern that the safety of a key suspect might be endangered if Hariri’s assassins discovered he had come under scrutiny.
Mathias’ letter was sent before the CBC published some documents in full on its website on Sunday night, raising concerns that the U.N. may have been seeking to intimidate the reporter into withholding some of the most sensitive information in the documents.
It might also reflect suspicions by U.N. lawyers that an individual Canadian official may be responsible for passing the documents to Macdonald. Spokespersons for the U.N. and for the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which has taken over the responsibilities of the commission, declined to comment on the substance of the investigation. "I…don’t have any comment on the substance of those documents," said Farhan Haq, spokesman for the U.N.
"I found it puzzling," Macdonald told Turtle Bay. "We have no idea whether the U.N. actually ‘alerted Canadian authorities,’ as its lawyer threatened. But the issue is moot. I told the U.N. Tribunal’s public relations person yesterday that if the UN wanted to examine the documents we have, it is welcome to do so. They are posted in PDF form on our website."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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