EXCLUSIVE: A controversial organization with tenuous ties to the United Nations -- and which counts Kenyan relatives of Barack Obama among its good-will ambassadors -- is supplying its officials and advisers with travel documents designed to look much like U.N.-affiliated diplomatic passports. The problem is, they aren’t.
The documents, known in diplomatic parlance as “laissez passers,” or LPs, ask national authorities to grant privileges and immunities to their holders on official business for the grandly named International Institution for the use of Micro-algae Spirulina Against Malnutrition (IIMSAM), which claims that it will solve the world’s hunger problems through the cultivation of algae as food.
Photocopies of IIMSAM documents examined by Fox News show that bearers have titles such as “special adviser,” and “special envoy,” as well as good-will ambassador, and that the documents have been issued to people born in a variety of countries, including Iran, Jordan, India and Germany, as well as Hong Kong, which is a special administrative region of China.
The most recent photocopy of the identity pages of an IIMSAM LP examined by Fox News showed the date of issuance as April 21, 2013.
All were signed by IIMSAM’s Secretary General, Remigio Maradona, who has apparently held that position since IIMSAM’s inception about a decade ago. Emails sent by Fox News to various email addresses used by Maradona had not been answered by the time this article was published.
Just how many of the documents have been issued is not known. But issuance numbers on photocopies of some of the documents examined by Fox News are higher than 1,000, possibly indicating that at least that many have been handed out.
By comparison, a 2005 study of official U.N. documents declared that about 70,000 official laissez passers were in existence for the entire United Nations.
The brick-red IIMSAM travel documents are a different color than U.N. diplomatic passports, which come in a brighter red (for senior officials) and light blue (for lesser functionaries), and are prominently labeled with the full name of IIMSAM, the organization’s logo, and the words DIPLOMATIC LAISSEZ PASSER. U.N. passports bear the name of the United Nations in English and French, and the words LAISSEZ PASSER only.
The misleading travel documents are the latest manifestation of the strange existence of IIMSAM, which claims its main purpose is to make spirulina, a type of algae, "a key-driver to eradicate malnutrition, achieve food security and bridge the health divide with a special priority for the developing world and the least developed countries."
IIMSAM has reinforced its claim of U.N. affiliate status with a voluminous but erratic flow of press releases since 2006, urging support for its work; extolling the health and nutritional advantages of spirulina platensis, a common algae that is used as a dietary supplement and fish food; issuing elaborate statements on various U.N. issues; and announcing partnerships and projects involving various organizations, corporations, international institutions and individuals -- including the Kenyan branch of the Obama family.
On an official U.N. website, IIMSAM lists as its address a suite on the 23rd floor of offices at 211 East 43rd Street in midtown Manhattan, but the offices there have been ripped out; nothing remains but raw building space. Secretary General Maradona is now said by dissident former IIMSAM members to be spending most of his time in Dubai.
The IIMSAM laissez passers seem to have an equally doubtful status in reality. They cite as the basis for their request for IIMSAM’s diplomatic treatment a pair of inter-governmental treaties registered in U.N. archives. The original registered signatories were a smattering of African nations—including the strife-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, where government barely exists—and one European nation, Italy.
The Italian Foreign Ministry told Fox News two years ago, however, that it did not officially sign and does not recognize the treaties.
Nonetheless, the treaties remain in U.N. archives—along with Italy’s official request to be erased from them.
The IIMSAM diplomatic travel documents also include a three-letter identification code almost indistinguishable from those assigned to a machine-readable diplomatic passport by the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Authority, ICAO, the sole agency authorized to issue such codes .
In the case of an IIMSAM document examined by Fox News, and photocopies of several others , the code used is IGO, apparently short for Inter- Governmental Organization. But an ICAO spokesman, Anthony Philbin, told Fox News that while his organization does issue such codes to intergovernmental organizations, no code has ever been issued to IIMSAM.
Moreover, even when issued, such codes authorize travel documents only for officials of the organization’s secretariat, and not anyone holding such nebulous status as goodwill ambassador or special envoy.
Along with intergovernmental status, the IMSAM laissez passers claim the organization’s official accreditation as an “Intergovernmental Observer” to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) under a U.N. resolution dating to 2003.
A U.N. spokesman confirmed to Fox News that IIMSAM does, in fact, still retain that observer status, under the 2003 resolution , which has never been rescinded. But that status does not give any organization the right to issue diplomatic travel documents, or, indeed, convey diplomatic status of any kind, other than the right to attend ECOSOC meetings.
IIMSAM burnishes its status where it can-- and the U.N. apparently does not make that too difficult. Among other things, IIMSAM is included on an official U.N. website devoted to voluntary commitments to sustainable development made by U.N.-recognized organizations in the wake of last year’s Rio + 20 environmental summit.
On another linked page, IIMSAM spells out a pledge to provide seminars and workshops “for women and male local farmers, local NGOs and decision-makers to share knowledge of spirulina cultivation, harvesting and processing,” at a Kenyan location known as the “IIMSAM Sheikh Zayed Spirulina Distribution Centre,” in Kisumu, Kenya—hometown of President Obama’s relatives -- by the end of 2013.
In response to questions from Fox News, U.N. spokesman Eduardo Del Buey confirmed the pledge, and IIMSAM’s continuing ECOSOC observer status at ECOSOC, originally based on a resolution dating back to 2003.
According to Del Buey, “An organization, whether governmental, intergovernmental or nongovernmental, may apply for a username and password for access to the site. The application is normally vetted by the Secretariat in terms of the background and bona fides of the organization and its relevance to sustainable development.”
The U.N., however, “does not take responsibility for the exactness or accuracy of the voluntary commitments, which remain the sole responsibility of the organizations putting forward information about them.”
“Aside from the IGO observer status with ECOSOC,” Del Bouey said, “we are not aware of any other status having been granted to this organization.”
Whether President Obama’s Kenyan relatives are aware of their current status with IIMSAM is another intriguing question. On its current website (www.iimsam.org), IIMSAM prominently lists President Obama’s grandmother, Sara Obama, and his uncle, Said, as goodwill ambassadors for the program in East and Central Africa, and says they will play a “pivotal role” in an IIMSAM feeding program “to alleviate severe malnutrition and hunger.”
The Obama photographs, and similar claims about the relatives, had appeared on IIMSAM”s website for years, but disappeared for a time after Fox News noted on their existence in January 2011, and reported that “the White House is not familiar with this organization,” nor with the photographs of the President. Questioned again about the website this week, the White House said it was unaware of it.
According to an email examined by Fox News, Said Obama and his mother apparently resigned their goodwill ambassador status with IIMSAM in mid-2012, citing dissatisfaction with “the ongoing negativity of the organization.” Among other things, the email charged that IIMSAM’s Kenyan staff had not been paid in a year and were themselves malnourished.
Emails sent last week by Fox News to Said Obama to confirm the resignation had not been answered before this story was published.
Fox News has seen no evidence that either Said Obama or the President’s grandmother were issued with IIMSAM laissez passers.
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell