15 June 2006

Only four years ago, East Timor or Timor Leste as it is now officially called, had the makings of a U.N. success story. These days, media reports of women and children seeking refuge in churches bring back memories of the Rwanda tragic failure.

As Somalia seems to be a looming disaster, Eritrea was once singled out as a U.N. success story. Now, it is on a deadly hazardous brink of war with its Ethiopian neighbour as its leader berated the current U.N. Secretary General's claim to moral authority.

Sudan's Darfur had provided the U.N. with a challenge to take timely action and regain recognition for its rightful role. Instead, senior U.N. officials and Security Council members are so confused that they do not know who's coming or going and when.

Clearly, there are forceful developments spiraling beyond normal control. Regrettably, however, a tendency to throw more envoys at a growing crisis has proved tragically dysfunctional. The more the envoys, it appears, the greater the calamities; and, in some cases, the more the embarrassment to the U.N. as they either compete for access or vie for visibility or roadblock one another.

Special envoys and representatives have always been there. But at no time did they reach such an enormous number (over 80; more than 18 in Africa alone). And at no time has there been so much politically expedient appointments. Almost any outgoing President, or Prime Minister, or Foreign Minister could count on finding some sort of a "high level" designation. In dubious cases calling for careful consideration, where a former senior official was being investigated in his own country, an appointment was made without even an effort at a creative cover. Instead, a rehashed refrain is repeatedly used. The sad point is that most of those designated are outstanding people in their own right -- but they are expediently given any open designation, even if it were neither relevant nor timely. Others with no experience whatsoever in the area of conflict or even a counterproductive background were dispatched without a second thought. When a real crisis blows up other special envoys are urgently dispatched. A confusing traffic of "high level" people clogs the route to a peaceful settlement of growing tragedies.

Let's take three current examples: Darfur, Dilli and Eritrea/Ethiopia.

After two years of ponderosity, Mr. Annan visited the Darfur in such a hastily arranged way that the Sudanese authorities changed refugee camps on him. His effort "to sort things out" on the spot was not entirely fruitful. His appointment of Jan Pronk as Special Representative was certainly unrelated to his unique knowledge of the issue or access to key players in the region. Mr. Pronk is a very distinguished Dutch official with a proven commitment to social development and environmental questions. To his credit, he almost single-handedly arranged an international agreement on climate change through a working group with an unusual acronym: U.N./FCC. He had been Europe's (and his country's) candidate for several senior posts, notably UNDP Administrator, given to Mr. Malloch Brown and High Commissioner for Refugees, given to his compatriot -- former Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers. In search for a consolation prize, he was offered Darfur which, in his dedication, he accepted. But there was no REAL U.N. POLICY towards Darfur, except to explore the options and show concern for the poor destitute people. At U.N. Headquarters, the cause was initially highlighted by newly arrived U.S. representative, former Congressman John Danforth. Known in Washington as "Saint James" for his preaching talent, the Ambassador swiftly placed it on the Security Council agenda. Mr. Pronk made his best, sometimes charming, sometimes threatening, sometimes cajoling -- with little result. Indeed, more massacres, more displacement. It was then that his other colleague, Jan Egeland sought to try his hand. Diverting his swiftly shifting gaze from the Asian Tsunami -- where failure was clear -- what better focus than a media attention item. Traffic started to build up when a retiring Lakhdar Brahimi -- who at least spoke Arabic -- and Hedi Annabi -- who at least is well versed in peacekeeping were urgently sent. A press announcement hinting possible acceptance of U.N. troops proved premature.

As the last deadline for a peace agreement on 31 May passed, our distinguished Secretary General was worrying in an appeal about local factions like Abdel Wahid and JEM rather than having someone capable handling matters on his behalf on the spot. His prestige -- and that of the U.N. seemed so vulnerable. A Security Council team was also getting ready to go but senior Secretariat officials were not clear on timing until they finally departed early June. Meanwhile, an internal dispute was brewing because the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) had not been able to fulfill any audits during the last three months as a result of instructions from envoy Jan Pronk to his staff in Sudan. In an email quoted by Edith Ledered of the Associated Press, USG Inga-Britt Ahlenius said she informed the Secretary General on May 16 that she would be instructing her auditors to prepare to withdraw from U.N. Mission in Sudan because of Pronk's interference. Another Under Secretary General, Jean Marie Guehenno of Peacekeeping got into the act by indicating his hope that "good working relationships" would be worked out. On his part, Mr. Pronk "does not comment on internal memos." Too many cooks with no recipes and a desperate, destitute, hungry -- very hungry -- people.

In Timor Leste, widespread looting and armed gangsters replaced the hopeful signs of newly built national unity. After the outstanding accomplishments of our late colleague Sergio Vieira de Mello and Ambassador Kamalesh of India, U.N. representation tilted sadly towards the expedient. We do not know what clue does Mr. Sukehiro Hasegawa have about nation building. But we see that once the situation broke down, there was an urgent need to "task" another envoy, Ian Martin to go. A pathetic statement that he will "in no way take away from the authority of the Special Rep" only compounded the farce. If he "had experience in working with all the major political actors" and will make an effort "to try to calm the situation and try to find some political solution," what will Hasegawasan be doing in the meanwhile? When asked about what went wrong, our distinguished Secretary General, possibly by force of habit, suggested waiting for the report. Pressed for some sort of an answer, he opined: "Obviously there has been some miscommunication, some misunderstanding as to who is responsible for what and contradictory instructions having been given to forces." With Ian Martin's presence -- and the arrival of "international force" (meaning Australian troops) -- he hoped "we will be able to get the situation under control." Wither Special Representative Sukehiro Hasegawa?!

If what was happening in Dilli was "really sad and tragic" as Mr. Annan stated the following day, then what is happening along the Horn of Africa is a disaster waiting to happen while U.N. Secretariat policy is neither clear nor determined -- except for expedient appointments. After discreetly withdrawing former Canadian Foreign Minister Axworthy and shifting our outstanding former colleague Ahtisaari to Kosovo, the special envoy for Eritrea/Ethiopia (UNMEE) Legwella Lagwella was appointed in New York as Special Advisor on Africa, replacing Ambassador Gambari who had taken over as Under Secretary General for Special Political Affairs. While no one has yet been designated to deal directly and effectively with this brewing issue, a former Norwegian senior official Kjell Bondevik, has been given a "special envoy" assignment there, despite calls in Oslo for an investigation into his role in funding The Oslo Centre for Peace and Human Rights. Daily Dagbladet indicated that "such a private institution on the borderline of politics -- and a career plan to finance retirement -- has no tradition in Norway. We should ask ourselves whether it is appropriate to mix business and politics."

And we should ask whether it is appropriate to continue mixing political expediency with serious peacemaking. We can go ahead with so many examples in so many conflict spots. For example, Somalia, where total neglect is turning it into a potential base for more instability in the region. But what matters now is to make an urgent point to take extra care in appointing the right envoy to really and truly handle a brewing problem. Otherwise, it is ordinary people who keep paying the price as politicians keep adapting their calculations -- at U.N. expense.