15 January 2005

The unprecedented Tsunami unified all Asians. Disaster struck Moslems, Hindus, and Christians alike. It hit Indonesia with the same force as Sri Lanka and, in Sri Lanka, it devastated the Tamil rebels and government officials with similar impact. In one minute, everyone's life was suddenly and forcibly changed. And Asia united the world. The outpouring of support exceeded expectations as the number of victims grew by the day. As human frailty was proven at its weakest, human solidarity was shown at its best.

Once more, the world looks to the U.N. for leadership. At times like these, no one would question its central role as the only viable inclusive framework for collective international collaboration. Seizing that challenge, the U.N. leadership has no option but to succeed. There is no other way out. No gimmicks will do. No way blaming failure on member states. No pathetic letters to the editor "leaving no stone unturned." This is it. There is no alternative to effective, down-to-earth, hands-on, practical co-ordination and an alert leadership with a compassionate thrust. In a way, key countries are offering the U.N. a needed opportunity to prove itself. The "peoples of the United Nations" are looking up to it. A giant wave could either carry Kofi Annan to new higher levels or pull him down. A positive indication is that he seems to realize what is at stake. His enhanced partnership with Mark Malloch-Brown, an experienced field leader and talented communicator should help. Clearly the magnitude of the task is beyond regular capacity. The total destruction, the unprecedented number of victims, the breakdown of basic infrastructure, lack of needed telecommunications, scarcity of fuel, congestion in strategic points of entry or assembly of aid, the absence of effective local focal points, the erosion of government authority, as well as political sensitivities make it imperative to have a highly regarded sharply tuned U.N. command. The usual routine will not do. The visible presence of UNICEF's Carol Bellamy on the spot in the early days was commendable. Pity that she was the only U.N. Senior program officer to be seen there. Pity that two weeks into the disaster and while an emergency summit was held in Indonesia, there was not yet an impressive U.N. advance team on the spot, say in Banda Aceh, the hub of emergency relief. The Secretary General's brief tour was a welcome step but it would have been more impressive if a visible operation was already set up and running there to show that we mean business. Pity that Jan Egeland keeps talking non-stop from an empty New York briefing room. Avoid bragging that "good news keeps coming by the day" about forthcoming funds and deal with tragedies growing by the day in the field of suffering. Lose that saved elephant and focus on distraught people. Walk the tough walk and let the spokesman do the talking.

There are already signs of unrest among voluntary groups that the U.N. is not taking real charge, nor does its staff seem ready to take on its expected role. It may be worthwhile for the Secretary General to lead, or at least designate an action-oriented task force to handle possibly the biggest challenge to the U.N. today, and certainly a test case for its current Secretary General. All of us have a stake in extending practical support. Only he has to show the way. And the only way out is uncontested success.