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.