9 September 2005

Days before a crucial summit of heads of states to endorse an agreed platform, no text seemed to have reached consensus as no one seems to know WHERE IS THE LEADERSHIP of this venture or WHAT PRECISELY is being put forward. The Secretary General, who called the meeting, went on holiday + official travel + holiday until he had to briefly interrupt, two weeks before the opening of the special session. An official release claimed his interruptus was to "lend his weight" to a consensus on the document. But it transpired that the real purpose was to meet Mr. Volcker before his anticipated report; he then flew away again, this time to London. Days before the opening of the special session, there was still no agreed text.

A visitor to the Secretariat during the last two weeks of August leading to the long Labour Day weekend could hardly find a senior official closely overseeing anything substantive, except for a hurriedly returning Secretary General. Even Mark Turner, a usually accommodating reporter, noted in the Financial Times of Friday 26 August a general perception of "a badly managed process that did not take account of political realities and lacked effective leadership from political and U.N. figures." Experienced diplomats were exchanging philosophical expressions about an upcoming "disaster" as logistical staff dutifully and effectively were nailing down practical arrangements, like seatings, arrivals and departures -- a drill well-rehearsed, almost to the point of perfection over the years of celebratory occasions. There was also the earnest and elegant, yet clearly exhausted General Assembly President Jean Ping walking the corridors. Keeping the few die hard journalists at bay by indicating some hopeful movement. He may not realize, despite his proven experience, that putting him entirely and fully in charge of this process may have meant setting him up for a fall. If things fell apart, he could be fingered as accountable, not those who called for the gathering in the first place. In fact Mr. Ping will not even be presiding over the Special Summit when the platform is expected. It's like "Merci et au revoir, Monsieur Le President," as the Ambush closes in.

While the General Assembly was trying to gather for an "informal" (meaning "deserted") meeting on the platform, a puzzled reporter asked at the briefing whether the Secretary General has become "disengaged". The courteous and professional Ms. Okabe responded that U.N. Reform was a "key topic" which the Secretary has had "at the forefront" of his discussions "whether this was in Africa, Asia..." Somehow, that was not very reassuring. The "Platform" is certainly NOT a priority for President Tandja of starving Niger or President Kuofor of his native Ghana. Ditto for Tsunami hit countries. What matters in growing a consensus is real hands-on oversight and relevant persistent non-stop negotiations with especially key players, particularly to avert last minute obstacles.

Not having a comprehensive platform would not have been catastrophic, were it not for the repeated reference to it as a great achievement vital for U.N. survival. Particularly at this time of eroded credibility and string of reported scandals, it would have been much wiser not to blow the horn so loudly and repeatedly when political realities were not going in the same direction. But having decided to put forth a platform, possibly to get out of a bottleneck, then the whole Secretariat leadership should have mobilized every effort and canceled every vacation first to indicate it meant business, but mostly to obtain a credible achievement. The Secretary General's optimistic interpretation to some heads of state earlier this spring that "the train has left the station" seems to be premature. That train must have stopped at every station, including of course, Grand Central, to double-check whether it really had a road map or whether the conductor was actually at the wheel.

Let's hope there is time for last minute consensus. Otherwise, the only platform for an unprecedented collection of heads of state and governments would be the one required for a historic group photograph. Ironically, to many, that may be enough.