Was the U.N. Protecting Phony Treaties?

The controversy involving a United Nations-affiliated organization that uses members of President Barack Obama's Kenyan family to tout its anti-hunger campaign deepened this week, when Fox News learned that the two treaties upon which the group bases its U.N. credentials may be fakes.

The government of Italy, which supposedly signed the treaties used to give the organization international standing, told Fox News this week that it never did so. And neither treaty is included in a database maintained by Italy's Foreign Ministry of treaties that Italy considers binding and valid.

Fox News questions to the U.N. about the matter earlier this week produced one immediate result: by January 13, the two documents had disappeared from the U.N.'s official registry of international treaties, where they were installed in 2001, as ordered by the U.N. Charter itself, which ordains in Article 102 that "Every treaty and every international agreement entered into by any Member of the United Nations...shall as soon as possible be registered with the Secretariat and published by it."

Fox News' latest series of questions to the U.N about the treaties were sent on the morning of January 12.

But the sudden disappearance of the documents only added to the questions surrounding the treaties and the U.N.'s custodianship of them. Diplomatic sources tell Fox News that the U.N. has known that Italy views the treaties that it supposedly signed as phony for nearly two years—since February 26, 2009, when Italy formally requested that the U.N. remove its name from the documents. Only after Fox News initiated its latest queries did the U.N. do so.

Italy's desire to have its name removed may well have been part of the vanishing official record too, since archival records previously obtained by Fox News show that a "communication" from Italy was registered with the treaty on February 27,2009—the day after Italy's Foreign Ministry delivered its removal request . (Fox News weeks ago asked the U.N. treaty collection for a copy of the "communication" but got no reply.)

Click here for the record of the "communication"

On January 12, diplomatic sources had told Fox News that Italy was continuing to pursue its campaign that the U.N. correct its official record through discreet diplomatic channels, with the aim of having its name completely erased from the documents.

Adding further to the mystery, diplomatic sources tell Fox News that it was the U.N. itself that first raised questions with Italy about the treaties and the organizations they create, back in October, 2008. The exact nature of that communication remains confidential.

How did the tainted treaties become part of the world's most important legal record in the first place? What did the United Nations know about them before Italy did?

Fox News has asked these and a number of related questions of the U.N. Secretariat over the past several days, but has not yet received replies.

The strange case of the tainted treaties adds a new dimension to the controversy surrounding the Intergovernmental Institution for the Use of Micro-Algae Spirulina Against Malnutrition (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." Fox News first raised questions about the organization's supposed connection to the United Nations earlier this year.

IIMSAM has reinforced its claim of U.N. affiliate status with a steady 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 Obama family. IIMSAM claims an office address in Rome and maintains a suite of offices in mid-town Manhattan.

IIMSAM has habitually claimed that it is "registered under the United Nations Treaty Series Number 37542-37543 dated 7th of June 2001," which are the index numbers in the U.N. Treaty Collection for the documents rejected by Italy.

It has sporadically issued press releases announcing new adherents to the "IIMSAM treaty," which do not show up in the U.N. registry. In May, 2009, for example, it announced that Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetang'ula had done so, resulting in "IIMSAM’s full diplomatic recognition by Kenya."

It has also, in the past, claimed among other things that it carried out operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo with the aid of such organizations as the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid department. When contacted by Fox News, the office of the E.C.'s Humanitarian Commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, denied ever having had contact with IIMSAM under any circumstances.

IIMSAM not only advertises that President Obama's grandmother, Sarah, and his uncle, Saidi, are "goodwill ambassadors" for the organization, but told Fox News in an interview last month that President Obama himself knows about IIMSAM and his family’s involvement. The White House has denied any knowledge of the organization.

After Fox News publicized the White House position, IIMSAM removed a photo from its website showing a youthful Barack Obama with his grandmother in Kenya, but continues to tout the Obama family connection. The Obama photo currently remains in a video clip extolling spirulina on the IIMSAM website.

IIMSAM claims something called "de facto diplomatic status on U.S. soil," something a State Department official told Fox News he had never heard of.

IIMSAM also has claimed on the home page of its website that it is a "Permanent Observer to the United Nations Economic and Social Council" (ECOSOC)—a designation that does not exist. To date, the U.N. has not answered questions from Fox News about what it is doing to prevent IIMSAM from using the fictitious designation.

Early on the morning of January 13, however, IIMSAM abruptly took down the claim of that status from its home page, but left the claim in a letter to readers on the same page.

Click here for IIMSAM's previous "permanent observer" home page

However, IIMSAM is officially listed on U.N. records as an ECOSOC intergovernmental observer "on a continuing basis," alongside such well-known institutions as the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the U.N.’s own World Tourism Association.

Click here to see the record of IIMSAM's ECOSOC status

Such credentials are not permanent; they must be periodically renewed by the U.N., on the basis of the intergovernmental treaties that establish them. They involve the U.N. Secretariat's Office of Legal Affairs, whose job description includes "preparing agreements and other legal instruments regulating relations of the United Nations with Member States, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and other legal entities."

Italy's Foreign Ministry told Fox News that it had never received any communication from the United Nations about IIMSAM or the controversial treaties prior to 2008.

IIMSAM's current ECOSOC status gives it the right to attend and submit its views where relevant at the Council ‘s meetings and forums, and at other U.N. gatherings that recognize ECOSOC observers. It also gives the organization a profile and prestige with governments and institutions around the world that it would otherwise not have.

All of those activities derive from IIMSAM’s claimed role as a U.N.-endorsed "intergovernmental organization"—which in turn is bestowed on the basis of the treaties that Italy says it never signed.

How IIMSAM got its "continuing" observer status on the basis of the treaties is yet another mystery, since neither document mentions IIMSAM specifically by name. According to the document registered with the U.N. Treaty Collection as Treaty No. 37542, an institution called the "Intergovernmental Institution for the use of Micro-alga Spirulina (Spirulina Program) is designated as an "affiliated body" to yet another organization called the Collaborative Inter-governmental Scientific Research Institute (CISRI), whose creation is the main aim of the treaty.

A second treaty, No. 37543 in the U.N. registry, announces creation of "The International Centre for Food micro-alga against Malnutrition (ICFAM), with "the goal to promote study and production of food micro-algae in favor of people in need." A second institution, the "Intergovernmental University Institution of Cooperation," is also created. Once again, CISRI is prominently named, as the "depositary" of the treaty.

Click here for the treaties

The second treaty is also contains a subtle mechanism: it only goes into effect when the fifth country signs it. In this case, the fifth signatory is Italy. This raises the intriguing possibility that if Italy's inclusion is invalid, the entire treaty is invalid—a kind of legal ghost in the U.N.'s records.

On its own website, CISRI positions itself amid a smog of techno-verbiage that could mean almost anything, or nothing. Its function, CISRI says, is to "promote scientific research, initiatives and education in favor of international cooperation, both at technical and advocacy levels and represents a platform of institutional relevance for the issues related to international and development cooperation." Other statements may indicate the website has not been updated since 2008.

CISRI also claims that it is a member of the Global Compact of the United Nations, which is a U.N.-sponsored "strategic policy initiative for business" that aims to garner corporate-sector adherence to U.N. objectives.

A Global Compact spokesman confirmed that CISRI became an NGO ("non-governmental organization") participant in June, 2005, and said that "we haven't had any contact or relationship with them since."

George Russell is executive editor of Fox News