15 April 2006

Only days after a Financial Times headline read "Head of U.N. Drug Agency Rebuked over Firearms", that "head" was exceptionally extended by outgoing Secretary General Kofi Annan for a period of four years.

Even the shortest term of extension was questionable, given the circumstances both of the case itself, and of this Secretary General's shaken credibility on corruption questions. But FOUR YEARS by a Secretary General who is leaving in seven months is quite extraordinary.

Antonio Maria Costa has had a troubled operation since he took over in 2002 as director of the U.N. European office in Vienna who is also in charge of combating drugs and crime. An original short list of candidates, including an Iranian born U.K. citizen, were swiftly dumped under political pressure from Italian Prime Minister Berlesconi to appoint another Italian. Soon afterwards, one senior official in Vienna had to leave when investigators uncovered he arranged for his wife to get at least 11 contracts. Another one had to quit "after failing to disclose his links to a drug policy reform group."

At that time when investigators were accumulating around Mr. Costa's office, an intriguing appointment was made. The then Chef de Cabinet Iqbal Riza was eager to place a long time Pakistani friend, Ms. Nasrat Hassan, in a regular senior post after all other efforts had fizzled. As reported by www.unforum.com at the time click here for article, he appointed her as Director of Information Service. Very little was heard afterwards about troubles in Vienna. Not that a tacit deal was made to ensure a cushy appointment in return for a quieter life, but some could not help the impression that there was some benefit out of that appointment other than the need for Ms. Hassan's unproven communications experience.

When troubles started brewing again with wider talk about Costa's passion for guns, he responded like a good marksman with an offensive defense. "A convention against corruption," was the answer. "The world will have a powerful new tool to control corruption on a scale that has never existed before," he said in a statement. He was sending "a warning to corrupt officials everywhere that they can no longer expect to enjoy the fruits of their crimes."

That sounded like his announced target of having a drug free world by the year 2008!

Or his stated prediction of having an Opium trade free Afghanistan -- a prediction he had to abandon after his own staff had to admit in a lengthy study that Opium trade has almost doubled since.

We were somberly told that over one trillion dollars (1,000 billion) are paid in bribes annually around the world, and that a Global Corruption Barometer indicated that households in several countries paid up to 20% of its gross domestic product in bribes. Before we begin to despair we are assured via Sim Sim Wissgolt of Agence France Presse in Vienna that matters were under control thanks, of course, to none other than our Italian leader in the Austrian capital.

All was going fairly well except for the gun episode. Admittedly, Mr. Costa "does a little target practice," according to his spokesman. But when he visited an arms manufacturer, he was offered a gun he had used "free of charge," and "he felt it was discourteous to refuse," (quotations from FT). Now why would the senior U.N. official in Central Europe visit an arms factory, what for would he use the gun during the visit, and why should he wish to keep it are open questions.

In brief, Mr. Costa was investigated -- with a new Chef de Cabinet at U.N. Headquarters -- and rebuked.

A short term extension could have been understandable, at least por la bella figura. But why force the hand of the next Secretary General -- (and the U.N.) for four years?

The TIMING of the extension fueled speculation among delegations around the Italian elections. With the polls indicating a loss by Prime Minister Berlesconi and a win by Romano Prodi, Senor Costa must have forcefully sought a security blanket. But again, why would Mr. Annan force the hand of an Italian Prime Minister after forcing the hand of his successor?

He must have very compelling reasons, like the ones that invoked the other only long term appointment in Addis Abeda. But then, that's a totally different sad story.