9 September 2005

Except for Deputy Secretary General Louise Freschette, no one from the U.N. leadership was present as staff assembled on 19 August to remember their fallen colleagues at the terrorist bombing of the U.N. office in Baghdad. Particularly those who were in the forefront of photo opportunities when the catastrophe first hit us all seemed to have found excuses and disappeared elsewhere. Also, as timing would have it, the Secretary General was on holiday in Ghana where he was reported to have received an accomplishment award. Yet he did find an occasion to make a thoughtful reference. Of course, the leapfrogged head of the Department of Public Information Shashi Tharoor was nowhere to be seen, although at the time of immense tragedy, he milked every media angle to make it appear that our beloved Sergio Vieira de Mello was his bosom buddy. Now he was traveling as usual. The Chef de Cabinet who had displayed genuine grief at an impromptu vigil was off that day. To her credit, Louise Freschette, Deputy Secretary General, showed up and milled around, although some staff had blamed her partially when no senior official was taken to task. At least, unlike the rest, she offered to resign. Despite an adverse reputation encouraged by an influential clique within the building, she tells it like it is. And on occasions, like an important gathering in Canada, she defended the staff in their absence without seeking credit.

We still remember those victims of ruthless terror. We recall their names, every one of them, with pride and sorrow. Each of us lost a friend and colleague. Sergio, Nadia, and all the others who gave the ultimate sacrifice. They died in order to make a difference in our world. They died for A CREDIBLE AND SPOTLESS UNITED NATIONS. "We believe in the U.N. flag that flew over the Canal Hotel in Baghdad that day," spoke Michele Montas, a radio officer, on behalf of her colleagues. "WE DEMAND JUSTICE." She stressed, "Without that clear message, others among us will be killed; others among us will be kidnapped." While senior officials generally ignored the event, staff around the world are still smarting under what they feel was lack of accountability among those officials who were in charge of making the decisions. Two reports raised more questions than answers. Action taken or lack of it smacked of expediency and spin, mainly hitting at mid-level officers and staffers with no political backing while big honchos who had supposedly met regularly on Iraq hardly got a slap on the wrist. Again, Freschette at least offered to resign when she felt laser beams directed at her but was asked to stay on; as it was clear that others -- nearer and dearer to the centre -- would have to go too.

The most peculiar comment came, surprisingly, from Kofi Annan. An official statement reported him as saying: "The question of justice lingers, as no one was held to account for this crime"!

It seems the Annan team believes in the eroding impact of diminishing memory. They lower the flame gradually every passing year, in the delusion that accountability -- and people's profound agony -- will fade away. Every passing year they focus attention elsewhere, possibly expecting that such a horrific crime would be somehow minimized. And every year the staff prove them wrong and remember right. And if the Secretary General, the U.N. Chief Administration officer, does not yet know whom to hold accountable, everyone else does.