15 February 2006

Jean-Marie Guehenno must be living in his own world. Without batting an eye, he told daily Le Soir of Brussels that 2005 was "a good year for the U.N. concerning peacekeeping"! Little did the Under-Secretary General recognize that around the same time of that overconfident pronouncement, there were widespread press reports that more than $265 million was misused with peacekeeping procurement in the past six years -- that is precisely his time in office. The U.N. Office of Internal Oversight has reviewed 27 contracts totaling about $1 billion of procurement between 2000 to 2005 (Guehenno's very good year!) in its management audit of the Department of Peacekeeping. Reports all over the international mainstream media mentioned that even the contract caterer embroiled in allegations of corruption had said that its own internal investigation had found "serious irregularities" involving U.N. contracts awarded to its subsidiary Eurest Support Services (ESS) -- which had won a series of contracts in peacekeeping missions.

At the same time, the Secretary General was issuing urgent appeals in English, French and every possible local language, indicating deep concern about continued threats against U.N. peacekeepers in Cote d'Ivoire. Still, groups of popular protestors prevented the return of UNOCI soldiers to their outposts in Guiglo -- after they had killed five of the "vigilantes." Negotiations continue for the dissatisfied customers "to see reason" as a communique put it.

The missions in Eritrea and Ethiopia has broken down and U.N. troops crippled. Mr. Guehenno personally was refused a meeting with the Eritrean President in Asmara. In Darfur, 70,000 people were displaced in one day (the same day of the "good year" pronouncement), while over 1.5 million died of conflict and starvation caused by it. That same day also, the bodies of 8 U.N. soldiers in the Congo were discovered with signs of torture while one body was badly mutilated according to an official U.N. statement. "They found all of them with their hands tied and signs of abuse -- one was disfigured beyond recognition."

The widest scandalous report in Haiti was the violent death (presumed suicide) of the chief peacekeeper, the Commanding Officer of the force dubbed locally as TURISTAH. The General's dispute with the Special Representative was so public that after the death the Special Rep had to denounce rumours about a fight they had the evening of the incident.

Monsieur Guehenno was no doubt following these developments closely from the discreet safety of Bruxelles and New York. In fact, since Monsieur Guehenno took over, 3.5 million people died in the Congo alone -- while 12.5 million Africans were displaced by conflict within their countries.

Also in the Congo, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees announced that tens of thousands of people were being forced to flee their homes in the southern and eastern parts because of continuing violence. Another anouncement came from an office just a few floors away from the inflated "good year" man in New York. The Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on 10 February that some 1,200 people die daily from the armed conflict, malnutrition and disease. "In other words," the statement stressed, "every six months as many victimks die there (the Congo) as died as a result of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004."

No need to continue listing grim examples. With such awkward realities, the best one could do -- especially if directly in charge of peacekeeping -- is to continue trying as best one can and be more modest. Yet, don't expect modestly where there is no accountability.

That reminds us of the pompous approach the same man applied shortly after he assumed his job in a politically expedient deal.

In a mostly deserted briefing room the then new Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guehenno, stated solemnly that the U.N. "could no longer afford to continue the gifted amateurism that has characterized this Organisation's approach to peacekeeping."

Forget about Ralph Bunch, Brian Urquhart, and his own Secretary General Kofi Annan, let alone Mr. Guehenno's compatriot and predecessor Bernard Miyet. Here comes J-MG to tell those who devoted their careers, and some even their lives, to soldiering for peace that he, lui meme, is now in charge. And who may one ask is HE? What qualifies him to make such a sweeping claim? A careful reading of his half a page biographical note issued as a press release indicates that he has "vast experience in the field of diplomacy, defense and international relations as well as administration and management." To support that claim, it was indicated that he headed the Cultural Affairs section in the French Embassy in Washington, directed Policy Planning Staff in the French Foreign Ministry and served as Ambassador to the Western European Union (a very delicate assignment indeed). There was no indication as to what he was doing between 1995 and 1998 but it was stated that two years before his U.N. assignment he was chairman of the Institute for Higher Studies for National Defense. Oh, yes, in 1999 he was a member of the Secretary-General's Advisory Board on disarmament matters. The press release helpfully adds that he was "Chevalier de la Legion d'honneur" and "Commandeur de l'ordre du merite allemand". Now how that would qualify J-MG to make sweeping announcements on peacekeeping, past, present and future remains a mystery -- if not a joke. The man does not even make an effort to give his own experienced staff a chance, seeking mainly to please those he thinks could be connected to authority. His impact is so limited that despite years of parading as a cabinet member, his face is hardly known to most staff let alone non French journalists. Anyone walking the corridors of the Secretariat building knows that he got his job upon the insistence of the French government, due to a political deal. France, a crucial veto power in the Security Council, a country that fully supports the Organization and pays its dues in time and in full, has every right to demand its fair share of representation in international posts. Indeed, France has a special affectionate place in the hearts and minds of millions of Francophones and Francophiles around the world who would have loved to cheer on their senior official at the Secretariat. But then that official has to know how to effectively reflect the exceptional cultural and subtle strength of his country. Also, he may need to pay better attention to his language especially now that he has developed the habit of speaking in English.