15 March 2006
February is normally very slow. Even the diehard regulars of the Delegates Lounge split to another haven, like the
Viennese Cafe in the basement where they could at least bump into someone lost looking for a meeting room.
Yet, this year nerves were tested and turf contested when that month Security Council President U.S. Ambassador John
Bolton wanted to review procurement finances and sexual exploits in peacekeeping operations -- usually a domain of the
General Assembly. The largest grouping of members headed by South African Ambassador Kumalo contested the attempt to
commandeer the issues. A letter from two U.S. Senators, Hyde and Lantos served only to fuel the dual. Some wondered
whether the Secretary General, who had just visited Washington and met his friend Congressman Lantos, had anything to do
with it. After some dithering, it was mentioned that Mr. Annan had received a copy of the letter, period. The actual
President of the Assembly disappeared -- only for a few days until a press encounter jointly with the Secretary General
provided a wide range of non-answers which managed not to provoke anyone. All member states have a right, nay a
responsibility, to deal with crucial current issues, the awaiting media was told. While Mr. Annan generally accommodated
all concerned, it was the Assembly President who had more at stake. You see, he is discreetly (if that is the word)
running for Secretary General. All that Hammarskjold 100 years commemoration was being craftily channeled to remind
everyone how a Swede could run the U.N. in the most admirable way. Only Eliasson is no Hammarskjold, though he doesn't
seem to know it. He is told by professional opportunists around him that he's the one. And being the One, he will need
the support of the Security Council and the agreement of General Assembly members. Caught in the middle, he first
ducked, then issued a statement through a wonderfully giggling secretary. When it was not clear whether he was coming
or going, he took to walking determinedly up and down the escalator between his office on the second floor and the press
area on the third floor, shaking hands profusely with anyone in-between.
Eventually, someone had to deal with substance. The amount of $255 million may sound like peanuts compared to billions
of Food-For-Oil; but it is a lot of money. Sexual exploitation of young women and men those peacekeepers were entrusted
to protect is a serious violation of human values by any standard.
Chef de Cabinet Mark Malloch Brown was entrusted with addressing the issues at the Security Council. That was a wise
choice, considering the alternatives. A first step in handling any problem is admitting it existed. Mr. Malloch Brown
did so from the outset. We are extremely concerned, he said; we have to deal with real problems that need real
investigation; and until we have those investigations results, we cannot sleep easy. Now, while we know there is a
problem, we think it has to be put in a much more appropriate scale. Moving to specifics, he deflated the
misappropriations of procurement millions from scandalous fraud to mismanagement and waste, stressing that action was
being taken to address the broader underlying weaknesses.
Shoring up defence lines, Mr. Malloch Brown reminded delegates that U.N. Peacekeeping was done on the cheap; it was
by far much less expensive than national government's missions abroad. He also stressed that the vast majority of U.N.
people are honest, hard working and committed to implementing mandates faithfully, often at a cost of great personal
sacrifice and risk. "The challenge now is to work together to build a system that permits them to do their jobs as
effectively as possible, while management and member states have the information, tools and resources to ensure proper
accountability and oversight," he said. Well said.
Having dissuaded Security Council members from raising hell, Mark Malloch Brown then persuaded the gathering reporters
to give his U.N. Secretariat colleague a break.
For a couple of days, it looked again like a normal February of yesteryear -- too good to be true. Other players had
to get into the act. Another Council meeting had to hear about some peacekeeping scoundrels offering two eggs or $5
per sexual encounter together with one briefer stressing his incoherent "remediation" strategy while appealing to
member states to send "an uncompromising message" against prostitution -- as if there was a message for it and as if
they not him are in charge of operations in the field.
Enfin. Two steps backward, yet one step forward. That's life in these chaotic yet challenging days at our
beleaguered yet beloved U.N. in our cold yet sunny February in New York.