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THE TEAM THAT GAVE US 19 AUGUST IS DETERMINED NOT TO LEARN FROM IT

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 conservation.

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.