|THE TEAM THAT GAVE US 19 AUGUST IS DETERMINED NOT TO LEARN
1 September 2004
They could not have picked worse timing. All U.N. staff, friends and families of loved ones lost on
19 August last year were commemorating the event. But a number of those who evaded any responsibility
for decisions taken at that time were at it again, meeting that same day to select their own
favourites to assign for Iraq -- not to send to the risky area of course, but to assign tasks and
"co-ordinate" turf. But then no one could accuse that team of being sensitive, let alone being
competent enough to make grave decisions. Apparently they were in a rush to make proposals ready for
the Secretary General "who does not have enough time to focus" on the issue. Kofi Annan was in Geneva,
where Sergio Vieira de Mello is buried. It must have been a very difficult moment for him. Presentable
and solemn, he looked emotionally spent, befitting the occasion. Atypically, he misread several words.
Drawing on his ancestral Ashanti tradition, he seemed to talk to the dead -- like carrying on a side
Those joining the New York commemoration, dutifully and punctually took their seats at 8:30am in the
Trusteeship Council Chambers. Security officers politely and efficiently oversaw an orderly arrangement
and guides pleasantly welcomed and directed everyone to their general location.
Then it was like hurry up and wait. A piano player created a solemn mood as diplomats and staff
awaited some signal. Nothing much happened except some whispers and hurried movements by volunteer
helpers on the sidelines. As it became clear that proceedings will start with a Geneva connection,
many started to shuffle. Someone could have taken the stage to fill in the time with some sensitive
talk of welcome and a few suitable words to maintain the momentum. Or, at least the impressive video
which had to be cut off abruptly could have been played earlier. But those arrogant characters who
believe they now own the U.N. showed the same disregard for the occasion that they show daily for
devoted U.N. staff. Then, in a bit of fake staging, Deputy Secretary General Louise Freschette
entered surrounded by fully uniformed guards followed by a number of representatives of bereaved
families accompanied by a greater number of staff who volunteered -- or were asked -- to join them. The
procession was advanced by the gracious and elegant Aminata Djermakoye, Protocol Chief who rose -- as
expected -- to the occasion.
Lakhdar Brahimi displayed genuine grief with a dignified demeanor. Many eyes were on Ms. Freschette
who had chaired the Crisis Group on Iraq which staff representatives feel strongly got off lightly
while junior staff were summarily dismissed without due process. The negative focus on her alone
may be neither accurate nor fair. Other senior officials were in fact making the real decisions.
But somehow, she seems intent on wearing that role. She must have changed from when she was the
engaging and considerate Representative of Canada. We all change. But at least she is straightforward.
What you see is what you get. When gathering with families of departed colleagues, she stood almost
by herself, distant and aloof instead of warmly consoling with them. At the ceremony, she strode to
the podium casually and spoke as if repeating a buffet menu at the Delegate's Dining Room. She
genuinely expressed understanding for everyone's grief. No doubt she was emotionally shaken and very
much withdrawn. The staff hold her accountable for the catastrophe although others had taken the actual
decision and the event was way bigger than any of them. But, even little things mean a lot in such
situations. She could have, for example, avoided wearing that "blanc casse" (off-white) ensemble and put
on something darker -- like the compassionate Catherine Bertini, Under Secretary General for
Administration and Management and her team, including the newly appointed Human Resources Management
chief, Ms. McGreary, who went so far as to wear an ankle long dark blue dress.
Let's hope other locations were more presentable, more sensitive or at least more competent. Speaking
about sensitive, a circular sent out to all U.N. offices just before the occasion instructing staff
not to devote any special conference room, office, statue, etc., to any of the victims. No Sergio
prize. No Nadia Younes Press briefing room. The claim was to honour the group collectively rather than
individually. But the fact is that Sergio's charisma and Nadia's irreverent laugh still haunts those
who lack enough self-confidence to accept other "diplomatic rock stars" and to work with a wider team
rather than through a closed clique.