Open letter: Re: The conduct of certain United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) staff members deployed in Eritrea
His Excellency António Guterres
405 East 42nd Street,
New York, NY, 10017,
USA 5 June 2017
Re: The conduct of certain United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) staff members deployed in Eritrea
It is our understanding that, as Secretary General and Chief Administrative Officer of the United Nations (UN), you have oversight of the organisation, its staff and their activities. We are also aware of the commendably high standards of conduct you have personally exhibited, standards that are expected of the staff of all UN agencies. It is for this reason we write to you with concerns regarding the conduct of certain United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) staff members deployed in Eritrea.
As you are aware, according to the “Standards of Conduct for the International Civil Service” (2013), international civil servants bear “primary responsibility” for translating organisational ideals into reality. The document states that it is “incumbent on international civil servants to adhere to the highest standards of conduct; for, ultimately, it is the international civil service that will enable the United Nations system to bring about a just and peaceful world.” Moreover, according to this document, the guiding principles of all their actions should be “social justice, the dignity and worth of the human person and respect for the equal rights of men and women and of nations great and small.”
In addition, under these Standards of Conduct, international civil servants are obligated to “share the vision” of the organisations by which they are employed. International civil servants also “have an obligation to understand and exemplify” a wider loyalty “to the whole United Nations system and not only to the organization for which [they work].” In order to maintain impartiality, they “must remain independent of any authority outside their organization”, and “their conduct must reflect that independence.” Their allegiance should be primarily “to the Charter and the corresponding instruments of each organization.” Thus, UN officials should be independent of any national government; they should be neutral representatives of an international body, and must be seen to be acting independently of any national interest.
Unfortunately, there are indications that some members of staff deployed at the UNDP office in Eritrea may not be abiding by these Standards of Conduct, and may potentially have violated the UNDP’s own framework of ethics and principles of working by identifying too closely with the practices and purposes of the government, including by speaking on subjects outside of the organisation’s mandate, and undermining the findings of the Human Rights Council’s (HRC’s) Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea, and the country mandate holder.
Your Excellency, as you know, the UNDP is tasked with eradicating poverty by assisting nations to “develop strong policies, skills, partnerships and institutions so they can sustain their progress.” Amongst the sustainable development goals (SDGs) the organisation assists nations to achieve are a reduction in poverty and hunger, quality education, gender equality, as well as peace, justice and strong institutions. However, there are long existing and continuing concerns regarding the resident UN Humanitarian Coordinator and UNDP-Eritrea country representative, Ms. Christine Umutoni, who has often appeared to act more like a cheerleader for the Eritrean government. In the words of a diaspora-based Eritrean journalist: “Eritrea has no parliament, no independent media, no freedom of expression. But Eritrea seems to have three foreign ministers: supreme and de-facto Mr. Yemane Ghebreab; Mr. Osman Saleh (de jure) and Ms. Christine Umutoni (de-facto and de jure, UNDP-representative in Eritrea).”
In 2014, the Eritrea Development Partners’ Forum was revived by the UNDP under the watch of Ms Umutoni. She has subsequently met with donors on a frequent basis in private and open forums, and has also participated in hearings and conferences designed to promote the Eritrean government as a credible partner in development efforts.
Far from exemplifying a loyalty to the entire UN system, Ms Umutoni appears to have undermined the grave conclusions of the COIE, which in its June 2016 report found “reasonable grounds to believe” that crimes against humanity have been committed by state officials in a “widespread and systematic manner” since 1991.
For example, when speaking on behalf of the Eritrean Women’s Union at various European Union conferences during 2016, Ms. Umutoni defended the Eritrean government by highlighting its achievements in so-called “registered developments”, at a time when the COIE report highlighted rape as being among the crimes against humanity that have been and are being committed against the civilian population as part of a campaign aimed at instilling fear, deterring opposition, and exercising pervasive control. Moreover, in a country where travel permits are required in order to move from one town to another, it is unclear whether the UNDP is able to conduct any truly independent assessment studies.
Ms Umutoni persistently prioritises sustainable development goals that advance economic and social rights3, while neglecting the parallel goal of ensuring peace, justice and strong institutions, which are essential to sustaining Eritrea’s alleged economic and social advances in the long term, and which are rooted in civil and political rights. For example, in 2016, she applauded the commitment of the Eritrean government to engage and the “value for money” for its projects; yet the value for money illustrated by a government that refuses to engage with HRC special procedures may in fact have been accrued through the use of forced and slave labour in executing these projects.
The Eritrean compulsory national service is indefinite, and conscripts are made to work in every government project, including farming, construction, and UN/EU funded. Not only are working and living conditions harsh; conscripts are also underpaid, re receiving around $10 US dollars per month for six and a half days of work per week. However, not once has Ms. Umutoni made mention of this rampant use of forced labour practice by the regime in Eritrea, which amounts to slavery and the root cause of the exodus of over 5,000 Eritreans every month.
The government that Ms. Umutoni is promoting does not have a history of abiding by agreements; neither does it tolerate any criticisms, and it reacts harshly to requests for accountability. For example, in 2005, the European Union (EU) donated food aid to the Eritrean government, and they agreed the aid to be given to certain targeted vulnerable groups, i.e. children, nursing mothers, the disabled and elderly persons. Instead, the government sold the food and the proceeds were used for government work programmes4: “Eritrea’s misuse of aid: How the EU recalled its ambassador for telling the truth”
Where Ms Umitoni has led, some others in the UNDP appear have followed. For example, it is reported that Mr. Mansoor A Mirza, a Policy Specialist also from the UNDP, has in the past made political statements, in public meetings, absolving the Eritrean Government of having committed any human rights violations. A diplomat who attended a meeting held in June 2016 in Geneva stated that Mr Mirza had “cast doubt on the findings of UN entities about human rights violations in Eritrea,” adding that “the man undermines the work of his colleagues at the UN and is disloyal to the UN that employs him.” In 2016, he accompanied the political adviser of the Eritrean president, Mr. Yemane Gebreab, during visits to Europe, and was at the HRC for four weeks in June, where he reportedly took part in a side event organised by the Eritrean delegation, and appeared to also be lobbying country delegations on behalf of the Eritrean government in the run up to the vote on adopting the findings of the COIE. During those four weeks he was regularly spotted in conversation with the Eritrean government delegation and sitting with them. He was approached and warned of his conduct by members of civic societies and also by a head of delegation.
Your Excellency, according to the Code of Standards “It cannot be too strongly stressed that international civil servants are not, in any sense, representatives of Governments or other entities, nor are they proponents of their policies.” However, by their actions, public pronouncements and effective disregard for the testimonies of victims of human rights abuses in Eritrea, it is our contention that Ms Umutoni and Mr. Mirza have not exhibited the impartiality and independence required of international civil servants. Furthermore, their actions and pronouncements have contradicted and downplayed the findings of the COIE and the special rapporteur, creating the impression that on Eritrea, the UN speaks with two mutually negating voices: one which recognises that atrocity crimes are underway and seeks to address this urgently, and another which appears to overlook atrocity crimes and other grave violations, disregards the inalienability of human rights and, despite the human rights upfront initiative, accepts claims of economic advancement blindly in spite of the absence of independent verification mechanisms.
Your Excellency, under the current regime the Eritrean people have suffered 26 years of unremitting abuse, which went unremarked until the HRC began to take action. If international civil servants from another UN organ were to undermine efforts to address the gravest of all crimes before these efforts are fully underway it would be deeply distressing for victims who overcame fear in the hope of securing justice, and would also negate the Charter’s reaffirmation of the “the dignity and worth of the human person.”
Therefore, we urgently request that you use your good offices to address the issue of UNDP officials speaking on matters outside of their remit and expertise, and ensure that the UN organs and their respective officials dialogue and harmonise policy on Eritrea, exhibiting mutual respect as they work within their competencies towards ensuring the realisation of “social justice, the dignity and worth of the human person and respect for the equal rights of men and women”.
Yours most sincerely,
Elizabeth Chyurm (Director) Dr Khataza Gondwe (Team Leader)
Human Rights Concern – Eritrea Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW)
 http://www.asmarino.com/press-releases/4367-eritrea-formal-complaint-about-certain-controversial-statements-attributed-to-some-senior-un-officials ; http://awate.com/christine-umutoni-in-eritrea-another-abuser-of-undp-mission/