15 January 2006

Carina Pirelli should have known she was in trouble the moment U.S. President George Bush uttered her name in praise during his 2005 State of the Union Address. It is, of course, a special honour to be singled out by the most powerful man in today's unipolar world. It was also a special significance that a U.N. official was being praised at a time of delicate U.S. - U.N. relations. However, that did not help her with those sharp shooters in New York desperately seeking the attention of the U.S. President -- bragging about a Texas style handshake or even a casual pat on the shoulder. Who was that Uruguayan woman to divert attention from the real enchiladas?!

First came the leak, then the announcement. Although "no statement would be provided on the matter" by an official spokesman, a "senior U.N. official" passed the word that the top electoral expert praised for her professional competence in several countries, particularly hot spots like Afghanistan and Iraq, will be fired for management lapses and for "allowing sexual harassment to flourish." The decision by the Secretary General was based on a report by a Swiss consulting firm which "admired her personal courage" but faulted her for an "offensive work environment where employees were subject to unwanted sexual advances" and "a constant sexual innuendo." Then, after paving the way through the artillery of the press came a mid-December official announcement. Two officers -- or was it three -- came over to take her laptop and escort her out. Politely. Correctly. This is to notify you that you are not to enter the premises, certainly not your own office. This way out, Ms. Pirelli. It was not clear whether they also wished her a Merry Christmas.

The TIMING was interesting -- days before the touted election in Iraq where she had visited. During the press briefing a female reporter asked why, if such a senior official was under such suspicious scrutiny was she allowed to go to Iraq and Lebanon in the first place?

But then, who was the most capable person to lead the electoral troops in such deadly neighbourhoods like Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon except that courageous -- yes, courageous -- woman. Which leads to the question: where were all those macho men who are so concerned about their chastity?! And what verbal literature do those soldiering in these deadly neighbourhoods use? Certainly not the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett-Browne.

Let us take the reported accusations at face value. By the way, that Swiss firm that prepared the report was launched in Geneva and continues to flourish on almost exclusive U.N. business -- including these instructive "retreats" in Glen Cove, Long Island. That is another very interesting store altogether. But let us assume a serious case of sexual harassment. Let us also forget that soldiers with proven cases in the Congo and elsewhere were allowed to leave untouched on the claim that they are technically outside U.N. jurisdiction although they used the official U.N. emblem for cover.

Also, forget about specific cases that those with institutional memory can easily recall. Let us take recent individual cases.

How much did it take to deal with Ruud Lubbers? Public reports were circulating for over a year and a half, six women came out publicly to complain, and one persisted through employing a lawyer. In fact, his case was officially closed, but forced open under glaring public scrutiny.

What about Dileep Nair? At least a year while he was the Chief Oversight Under Secretary General and now nine months after he already left, the case is still "under review."

It may have been merely a matter of timing. This may be a new policy. For years a "sexual atmosphere" by men was tolerated, even discreetly admired by pseudo macho men. It took so long to decide on sexual harassment cases relating to senior men. Now a new management leadership team may have decided to take swift action on all cases. Let's wait and see. Meanwhile, starting zero tolerance with a woman raises unfortunate questions particularly from women who have put up with years of tolerance with men.