15 MARCH 2008

The 3 March helicopter crash in eastern Nepal was the tenth in ten years. This time the victims were four U.N. monitors, three Nepalese staff and three crew members. Out of courtesy to their work and sacrifice, we recognize their names: Mats Nochult (Sweden), Famara Jammeh (Gambia), Hyung Jun Paok (South Korea), Sondong Irawan (Indonesia), Rabindra Knaniya, Rajesh Maharjan, Bhim Gurung plus crew members Sergey Oreshenko, Nikulay Yamshchikov and Dzmitry Malyshav.

The initial reaction by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was to say the least, very disappointing. It seemed very similar to his predecessor's approach of papering over a glaring corruption to promptly investigate a recurring suspicion of corruption. "These colleagues lost their lives while serving the U.N. and the cause of peace in Nepal" he rightly pointed out. He, also rightly, expressed appreciation to Nepalese authorities for their assistance in recovering the remains of the victims. Then came the rub. An UNMIN team, meaning the mission in Nepal, arrived at the crash site -- what for? "TO ASSESS THE SITUATION." What followed was more worrying. The official U.N. statement stated: "Investigation of the accident is primarily for Nepal Civil Aviation Authority, with the participation of UNMIN and the Russian aircraft company"!!! As if the U.N. Secretary General was a casual bystander, an honorary recipient of a forthcoming report on weather conditions in eastern Nepal. As if it was some technical matter of routine oversight in which Ian Martin, the Special Representative who loves to repeat how many players he knows in the region, would merely extend a helpful hand!

Particularly with vigorous talk of new rules of Ethics and zero tolerance with corruption, it is very odd that the Secretary General did not immediately request an investigation that killed seven of his staff including one of his compatriots. With all these newly introduced Procurement oversight groups, it should have been standard procedure to undertake a swift review not only of flying conditions in Nepal, but of helicopter contractual arrangements, the airworthiness of the aircraft, and adequate monitoring checkups.

That tragic crash is not an isolated incident, as anyone with some institutional memory will tell you. A Special Representative of the Secretary General was killed in one of those crashes nine years ago. Except for a ceremonial commemoration, nothing further was heard of an investigation. His bereaved wife, who was given a job in the Secretariat, became so nervous that she would avoid any related discussions. Four years ago, 24 peacekeepers -- that is more than those lost in Algeria -- were killed in a helicopter crash in Sierra Leone. Again, a widely photographed ceremony at U.N. Headquarters, but no announced investigation.

There is no doubt that Secretary General Ban is seriously concerned about staff victims and clearing the U.N. name. He certainly is above machinations by some of those operators in the field who still think they can get away with the death of colleagues merely through a bureaucratic gimmick. An independent investigation is needed to clarify the 3 March crash in Nepal. Investigations of the other nine will need to be announced to avert rumoured suspicions that erode the reputation of the U.N. and its Secretary General. Every one knows that helicopters normally fly. It is CORRUPTION that kills.