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UN Errs on the Side of Hysteria in Macedonian Security Clearance Policy

May 18, 2006


Five years after the end of the Macedonian conflict, United Nations employees are still obliged to obtain security clearances in advance for travel across whole swathes of this beautiful and not-very-dangerous Balkan country. So what are they so afraid of?

Maps and documents detailing guidelines for security clearance, leaked recently to, reveal a degree of caution bordering on the psychotic in the United Nations’ security policy towards its personnel. They also show what the UN thinks, rightly or wrongly, about Macedonia’s security situation. The news is not only bad- it is also ethnically biased.While the most detailed information involves Macedonia itself the regulations, updated on January 16, 2006, are applicable to varying extents for several countries in the region. Greece, for example, is entirely free of travel restrictions, whereas Georgia in its entirety requires a security clearance for travel, as does Bosnia. Parts of Turkey, Serbia and Albania are also liable to prying UN security oversight. These cases indicate the world body’s astonishing disconnect with reality, the sort of nannyism which we thought only applied to American high-school summer travel groups and the Peace Corps.

According to the regulations, UN staff can only travel freely within tightly defined areas of certain nations that have alleged security issues after having received security clearances at least two days in advance. Macedonia is one of them. As we understand, the conditions set out in a January 16th renewal still remain in force.

The UN defines national regions according to “security phases,” in other words, territorial zones that bear or appear to bear some relationship with areas of varying stability. In the case of Macedonia, the security clearance regulations apply to a map last modified almost a year ago, in June 2005. In a leaked map, the west of the country is divided into three “phases,” while the rest of the country is classified under the title, “no phase.” Another leaked document states that “Security Clearance is required for Phase II and III areas of the fYRO Macedonia.”

Painfully, the distinctions between “phase’ and “no phase’ seem to have been made according to areas where ethnic Albanians do and do not live, respectively.

According to the map, the most dangerous locations – “Phase III” areas – correspond generally to the rural areas of highest Albanian population concentration. The villages to the north and west of Tetovo, and to the northwest of Kumanovo, for example, are categorized as Phase III. So are the villages northwest of Skopje- though the capital city itself is apparently open for business in its entirety.

Among the “Phase II” areas also requiring security clearance are the main Skopje-Tetovo highway, including the Albanian villages to the south of that highway. Phase II continues through Gostivar to the south, and then heads dramatically west towards the mountains along the Albanian border, appearing to favor sleepy mountain villages while surprisingly avoiding other areas completely such as the Albanian nationalist strongholds of Debar and Ali Ahmeti’s birthplace of Zajas, as well as villages were Muslim fundamentalists make the average tourist feel intimidated, such as Labunishta, Oktisi and Podgorci, all of which were given only a “Phase I” designation, thus requiring no security clearance.

The UN’s security map of Macedonia speaks for itself.

Yet anyone who has spent any amount of time in Macedonia can attest to the ludicrous nature of such a dimwitted categorization as the UN has done. Almost everywhere in Macedonia is safe, especially for the mostly foreign UN work staff. Nevertheless, the world body’s security experts have managed to place areas that are truly innocuous on the danger list while ignoring parts of inner-city Skopje that many people would feel leery about visiting, especially at night.

The rules set out by the UN are strict and follow the usual ridiculous series of acronyms, radio code words and mumbo-jumbo. For example, one document describes security clearance guidelines to be followed while one is traveling on the road from Globocica in Kosovo through the Macedonian border at Jazince to Tetovo, and then to either Skopje to the east or Gostivar to the south. The guidelines “are based on the FYR Macedonia country-specific Minimum Operating Security Standards (MOSS) and the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) on Security Clearances.” They lay out five steps that the dutiful UN employee must follow in order to comply with the law before traveling, as well as a final caveat.

The following excerpts from the original document indicate the precise steps that UN employees must take in order to avoid running afoul of the rules:

“1. All UN staff should request security clearance from the Designated Official for FYR Macedonia at least 2 working days before the departure day. The request (attached) to be e-mailed to (or as exception faxed to +389 2 3131 040). A completed sample is attached as well.

2. The Working hours of the UNDSS Country Office (responsible for registering and processing the security clearance requests) are Monday-Friday, 08:00-17:00 hrs.

3. The travel should be in line with the Minimum Security Operating Standards (MOSS), including travelers should plan to travel on the route Jazince – Tetovo – Skopje (Gostivar) only at day light.

4. The staff members have to be provided with 2 of the following 4 means of communication: cellular phone (with roaming), satellite phone, VHF radio (programmed on the frequencies for FYR Macedonia) or HF radio. The means of communication should be identified in the request for security clearance (phone numbers, cell sign or selcall).

5. The traveler should call on both directions the UN Communication Centre (cell phone: +389 70 206 218, satellite phone: +871 761 644 384, VHF radio call sign “Sierra Base’, HF selcall “3001ˆšÂ¢Â¬Ã„¬‰¤) at:

Jazince border crossing, location code “Oskar 2ˆšÂ¢Â¬Ã„¬‰¤

Tetovo town, location code “Sierra 2ˆšÂ¢Â¬Ã„¬‰¤

Skopje city, location code “Sierra 1ˆšÂ¢Â¬Ã„¬‰¤

Gostivar town, location code “Sierra 3ˆšÂ¢Â¬Ã„¬‰¤

and at the same locations on the way back.

For example: “Sierra Base, this is “XXX’, vehicle “YYY’, driving from “Oskar 2ˆšÂ¢Â¬Ã„¬‰¤ to “Sierra 1ˆšÂ¢Â¬Ã„¬‰¤, now at “Oskar 2ˆšÂ¢Â¬Ã„¬‰¤, passenger with callsign “Alpha 1ˆšÂ¢Â¬Ã„¬‰¥ and passenger with callsign “Alpha 2ˆšÂ¢Â¬Ã„¬‰¥ on board, over”.

6. Staff members are encouraged to travel from Kosovo via Serbia and Montenegro – Tabanovce border crossing – Kumanovo – Skopje.”

The intricacy and excessive prudence of this scheme seems both too bureaucratic and too juvenile to be enforceable- let alone even true. Attempts to confirm it were not helped by the failure of a UN official at the above given e-mail address to reply to our request for verification. However, according to three current and former officials, it is indeed in place, and punishments are indeed meted out when UN employees get caught by the wrong superiors when traveling after having failed to obtain the required security clearances in advance.

Considering that the UN has failed miserably to keep the peace in Kosovo, we can all breath a sign of relief to know that it is doing its level best to preserve its own both there and here. While the solution – cutting down on travel – doesn’t really square with the United Nations’ own Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states in Article 13 that “everyone has the right to freedom of movement,” it is hardly the first time that the UN has been exposed in an awkward self-contradiction.

The real tragedy, however, for the good people of Macedonia is that the powers-that-be are perpetuating their own ill-conceived notions of what is risky and what is not on the basis of outdated ideas and outdated maps.

Indeed, at a time when Macedonia is paying for advertisements on CNN and trying to market itself as a tourism destination, is it really helpful that some of the country’s most visible local customers seem to have little faith in its safety? One wonders whether the UN bosses have superior knowledge of things to come, or are really just as out-of-touch as we have always thought they were.

The UN’s internal policy on security in Macedonia is, even if probably not always enforced, a very unfortunate and unsubstantiated political statement. It indicates, among other things, that for all their talk of confidence-building and ethnic harmony, the foreigners have not spent enough time at the homes and hearths of their local hosts to really appreciate the friendly and welcoming nature of the Macedonian peoples.

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