9 September 2005

More involvement by a limited number of U.N. officials in Lebanese politics means more security concerns for the bulk of U.N. staff in Lebanon. The joint U.N. House is centrally located in the rebuilt downtown area. That's very useful in ordinary conditions. But anyone riding a "service" taxi (a cab shared by five passengers) will be able to throw a stone, picket outside its entrance, and insist on sending a petition to the Secretary General or the Security Council. Most of the U.N. work is in social and economic development, mainly through the regional commission ESCWA, and programs like the UNDP and UNICEF.

Visits by special envoys have been managed generally well without causing much difficulty. Problems arose recently because of political posturing by one or two staffers who seem to feel entitled to brazenly indulge in local politics. Clearly, they feel unaccountable to anyone, as no one in New York seems to be aware of what exactly they are saying and the negative impact on others.

The Executive Secretary of ESCWA has reported her concerns repeatedly to Headquarters, particularly after having to build a temporary barrier on one side of the building. The new U.N. Chief of Security, Sir David Vaness, has already made two visits to Beirut and discussed the problem at length. A consensus view among staff there is that he is thoughtfully understanding and making every effort to help. The problem lies with political freelancing characters. The reference is usually to three or four younger ambitious staffers in Beirut and New York known as the "Larsen boys" -- that is, those who receive directives from Terje Roed Larsen, who seems determined on playing a very openly active role in Lebanese politics. That concern was compounded early September when Arab media "oracle" Mohammed Hassanein Haikal, former Chief Editor of Cairo's Al Ahram told Al-Jazeera TV that Larsen was a proxy for Israeli former Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

During a recent Lebanese cabinet meeting, the Foreign Minister had to raise the question of the U.N. compound -- whether to remain in central Beirut or move to a better protected suburban location. Already special investigator Detlev Mehlis has selected separate offices in the hilly neighbourhood of Monteverde, after an initial stay at a beach resort hotel. Judge Mehlis has been meticulously correct in his public appearances and extra careful to distinguish his mandated work. If anything, he regained some stature and credibility to the U.N. through his professional handling of his investigation. The problem lies elsewhere. The host government pays $8 1/2 million yearly to Solidaire, a real estate company charged with rebuilding central Beirut controlled by recently murdered former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri who, when taking over the government in the mid-nineties, made a special effort to accommodate the housing arrangement. That conformed with a trend at Headquarters to have unified U.N. presence in all host countries.

The Foreign Minister, while realizing the problem, had to request a three-year extension of the lease. The pressing problem is that of security. The majority of staff would wish those determined on displaying their political freelancing skills would find offices elsewhere. Otherwise, they will make a huge campaign to move out. Meanwhile, there is no one in New York interested. And no one in Beirut seems to know who's in charge of whom.