15 April 2005

About two years after the failed state of U.N. Communications in Europe, it is about time to review the rash decision to hurriedly close offices in key capitals and the incompetent failure to build a viable alternative.

Now that the U.N. and its Secretary General are being savaged almost daily for over a year by media of habitually U.N. countries, it is crucial -- for this Secretary General in particular -- to have a reality check and take corrective action. It is no more the U.N. alone that is being discredited, but Kofi Annan personally. Covering up, refusing to face the problem, will only aggravate it.

Good communications work like oxygen -- it is only recognized when it is cut off. Offices in Copenhagen, Bonn, Brussels, Paris, Rome, Athens, Madrid, Lisbon and London were functioning regularly, maintaining valuable contact with key media, sending timely feedback, building increasing contact with potential supporters in civil society, the academic community and NGOs. Their reference libraries alone were a focal point for young students -- an overlooked constituency -- and university professors advocating all fields of U.N. interest. Besides, the staff went out of their way to assist senior -- even all -- visiting colleagues in their varied missions. All that was at a minimum expense. Except for London, which had an unacceptably expensive rental, the cost was minimal. Host countries offered rent-free premises and assisted in operational expenses, including local staff salaries. In fact, the U.N. sometimes made some money when government contributions covered temporarily unfilled vacancies. It was not a perfect set-up, but considering the failed alternative it was functioning properly. At least they generated a positive atmosphere of support, made human contact on the spot to avert potential problems and alerted headquarters when matters required higher level care.

Suddenly, Shashi Tharoor, supported by Kofi Annan, gave away the whole store, built over 55 years by dedicated, professional, consistent work. A fortune was carelessly, thoughtlessly given away -- a material and intellectual investment of human experience and institutional memory; prize location offices with U.N. flags flying for everyone to see and contact. Almost barbaric was a decision to destroy the centres' libraries, a unique accumulation of documentation and references since the U.N. establishment at a London adhoc assembly session. As if the "Barbarians at the Gates" wanted to destroy the U.N. memory. Nothing existed before them. History began with their karma. Another irresponsible waste was losing loyal professionals, who offered valuable service at minimal cost. National officers who were for years the credible and trusted face and voice of the U.N. were let go. No human consideration for their fate and no serious survey of implications. All that was done under the guise of "reform." Why would such damage be inflicted? Arrogant ignorance could not be the only explanation. Some suspected that it could have been some sort of self-promotion. Besides having a reason to start engaging private public relations firms, Shashi and Shashi, who had bragged about their closeness to the Clinton administration were hoping to show the new Washington that they had no use for "Old Europe." Asked at a staff meeting about the reason for such action, Tharoor referred to a statement by Richard Holbrooke -- as if shifting responsibility to the former U.S. delegate. What would a former government official have to do with such internal decision is unclear and, most likely, very unfair to him. In other instances, Tharoor placed the brunt on Deputy Secretary General Louise Freschette. That was the impression passed on to the grumbling staff. Interestingly, when Freschette visited the bungled alternative office in Brussels and the staff politely told her they were doing their best to meet her instructions, she responded correctly and clearly that she in turn was following instructions. The idea was not hers but she soldiered on.

A farce known to the diplomatic community in Brussels was that the official OPENING of the "Regional" Information Centre took place in the LOBBY OF THE BUILDING. The Secretary General, the Under-Secretary General of DPI, and European officials made speeches as if the offices were actually there. In fact, only a few desks were available and a whole floor was under construction. A visit to that office several months ago confirmed that work is yet to be completed. There are hard-working, capable staff there. But the problems lay elsewhere.

A reality check has to focus not on a cosmetic justification of a gross blunder but on how to take corrective action. Is Brussels alone satisfactory? Is a presence of sorts still required, for example, in Paris, Rome, Athens and Bonn? Already, money is being wasted paying per diems for the German national officer who spends some time in Berlin as well as Brussels. Italy is raising the question. France is grumbling. Greece, a new member of the Security Council, will have to pursue its interest regardless of how much its active ambassador would wish to accommodate Secretariat officials in New York. But most important is the U.N. vital interest. At the time the gross blunder was made, incense burners tried to justify it by referring to how popular Kofi Annan was in Europe. We will not repeat examples of such pathetic claims. We will not even elaborate on our cautioning at the time that the Secretary General will become the hostage of three aides in New York and the fleeting goodwill of the supportive editors.

All our interest is to lift the U.N. out of its current dysfunctional communications mess. An internal review report or a statement passed through the Committee on Information will not do. It would merely scotch tape a glaring gap. A real serious review is needed on the current state, options and alternatives, followed by corrective action. Otherwise, the current Secretary General will find out how much what goes around comes around. His own legacy is at stake.