High Stakes for the High Commissioner Post

With the anticipated departure of the outstanding Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a high-level competition is under way for her replacement. The remarkable Mrs. Ogata had acquired not only credible respect for the work of HCR, but had succeeded in placing that active UN Office into the mainstream of relevant emergency assistance work around the globe. She raised funds for refugee activities not only from own country, Japan, but also from Governments, financial institutions and non-governmental organizations.

A bungled attempt some two years ago to smear her performance was met with such disdain that the networking plotters who leaked some financial information from internal UN papers had to withdraw, leaving some tracks behind. Apparently, the attempt at the time was to force her resignation and allow for "one of the boys" to get the job. But now that Mrs. Ogata is leaving, in accordance with a set arrangement approved by the General Assembly, a number of high-level names are being mentioned.

Those being suggested from within the system include Sergio Vieira de Mello, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, who has worked in senior positions in various operations of HCR, and who would certainly fill that post with great distinction. Whether he could be replaced after his successes in the field, including East Timor, where he is currently Special Representative, is a matter for the Secretary-General to evaluate, as well as his own relationship with Mr. de Mello as one of his cabinet members. Many would have said that Secretary-General Kofi Annan himself would have been an outstanding High Commissioner for Refugees, given his commitment to assist in refugee situations and the way he reacts to human suffering. Another name was that of Bernard Kouchner, now in Kosovo. During Boutros Boutros-Ghali's mandate, Kouchner's name was mentioned so often by the late French President Francois Mitterrand for that post that an internal joke dubbed him Bernard-Bernard Kouchner.

Two names have been repeatedly mentioned as contenders. One is Prince Hassan, former Crown Prince of Jordan, who has widespread support among groups involved in dialogue among cultures, and clearly has a solid stature built over 30 years of experienced governance and intellectual leadership. The Government of Jordan is definitely supporting that nomination. King Abdullah, who was in the United States recently and met with Secretary-General Annan, seemed very hopeful that the appointment would be made soon. He reflected that feeling during an interview on "Larry King Live".

Another name is that of former senior UN official and former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari, who has been doing varied mediating assignments on the international level since he left the presidency of his country last January. Clearly, a man of his background and energy would wish to continue serving the international community where he has popular standing. His name had even been mentioned for the post of Secretary-General just before he left the UN to become President of his country. According to reliable sources, Secretary-General Annan discussed the matter with Ahtisaari and the impression was that Ahtisaari's response was being awaited by July.

One consideration for the United Nations leadership these days is, obviously, the question of financing. So, with Finland being "UN country", with support in every field from development to emergency relief to peacekeeping, a Finnish candidate, especially someone with Ahtisaari's background and standing, will certainly be a formidable candidate.

So, too, is Prince Hassan, who may not be able to raise the funds that apparently are sought these days. Furthermore, the Secretary-General may wish to appoint an Arab in some senior post since the region has lost substantive positions. The question is, What will happen if Ahtisaari accepts the offer? Would another post be found for Prince Hassan? Most likely so. It could be that of the Special Representative on Dialogue among Civilizations. The UN has proclaimed 2001 as the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations.

The Year was proposed, in 1998, by Iran whose relations with Jordan have discretely but solidly picked up over the last few months. The young Queen Rania was received with overwhelming hospitality during a visit in early July to Tehran, where she met with the wives of all the senior officials of the Government. Despite some apparent political differences, President Mohammad Khatami of Iran, as well as Prince Hassan, could be described as distant cousins as both are descendants of the Prophet Mohammad. This may raise another question about the status of Giandomenico Picco, who is currently Personal Representative for the Year. Hence, the search for another posting to provide Mr. Picco with some airspace through which he could fly, and that would mainly be in the area of the Middle East, which he likes a lot.

Briefly, therefore, the two main names for HCR, until further notice, possibly by the end of July, are: former President Martti Ahtisaari of Finland and Prince Hassan of Jordan.