|TIME TO REVIEW THE GROSS BLUNDER IN EUROPE.
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
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.