15 July 2006

It is against U.N. rules for Shashi Tharoor to continue heading the U.N. Department of Public Information after being officially nominated by the government of India to the post of U.N. Secretary General. Before then, his self-promotion activities at U.N. expense, U.N. time and U.N. prestige were improper. He was bending the rules, exploring what he could get away with under the supportive -- often amused -- gaze of his mentor, Secretary General Kofi Annan. But when an official candidature was announced, the rules are clear.

The oath of office for U.N. staff member states as follows: "I swear to exercise in all loyalty, discretion and conscience the functions entrusted to me as an International Civil Servant of the United Nations, to discharge my functions and regulate my conduct with the interests of the United Nations only in view, and not to seek or accept instructions in regard to the performance of my duties from any government or other authority external to the Organization."

When Tharoor met the Indian Prime Minister following -- or even before -- the official nomination, the substance was certainly not about the next NGO general conference. Even meetings with officials of other governments clearly have more to do with his campaign rather than the regular work of the Department of Public Information. Also, there is bound to be a record of such meetings -- "minutes" as they are internally described. Where are these minutes, and to whom were they made available?! Does he report on them to the Secretary General -- directly or through anyone? Does the Secretary General authorize Tharoor to make these approaches on his behalf?

When Mark Turner of the Financial Times raised a general question -- even before the nomination -- about Tharoor's activities being against staff rules, a Spokesman responded that "it was in the hands of member states." That's a deceptive evasion. It is in the hands of the Secretary General who, after all, is the Chief Administrative Officer.

Furthermore, being an official candidate while directing relations with world media, U.N. accredited correspondents, Non-Governmental Organizations, Visitors Service, publications, exhibits, radio, press, television, relations with delegations' press offices, in addition to guiding the positions of U.N. Information Offices in most important countries -- including four of the Permanent Five -- seems improper if not unethical.

Where is that Ethics Office, by the way?

Tharoor has been taking refuge under what he claims are Kofi Annan and James Jonah precedents. Not correct.

James Jonah was never an official candidate. His name was listed by an African Summit among those the Council could choose and was discussed only in a straw poll.

Kofi Annan was very careful not to go round openly lobbying, although his name was floated particularly by the United States. Some of his immediate staff like assistant Tharoor and spokesman Fred Eckhart lobbied on his behalf particularly with the British and Americans. But Mr. Annan was not a declared candidate until Ambassador Gbagbo of Ghana submitted his name to the Security Council days before his selection. His peacekeeping department dealt with one main issue, it did not oversee multi-audience contact channels.

Several senior officials in the Secretariat acknowledge that Tharoor is violating U.N. rules and may have approached him discreetly. But he seems adamant to get away with whatever he can, betting that his mentor and partner in a former campaign, the current Secretary General, who had promoted him exceptionally from a D-1 to Under-Secretary General within three years, will never have the heart nor the determination to lay the law on him.

The real question is: will this Secretary General take the decision?

No one knows the rules better than Kofi Annan. As a former (successful) Personnel Chief he certainly recognizes the difference between an evasion, a "stretching," and a clear violation. Yet no one knows the "new" Annan better than his old and renewable Special Assistant. Although the relationship is relatively new (since Peacekeeping) they have shared interesting ventures. As an experienced lady who should know would say: "Tharoor knows many things!"

Upon taking over as Secretary General, Mr. Annan exercised his newfound authority to promote his assistant exceptionally from D-1 to Under-Secretary General in charge of the Department of Public Information.

Until then, Tharoor never managed anything nor anyone. He was a one man show for a one man audience. Running one of the largest and most crucial departments during a controversial period required professionally experienced leadership with painstaking patience and substantive office time to mobilize hundreds of staff, handle everyday obstacles and carefully weigh substantive decisions. Instead he was rushing about traveling everywhere; mostly to introduce himself to Security Council capitals at U.N. time and expense. He seemed to apply a "curry in a hurry" approach where the purpose was not what to accomplish but whom to please. There were also questions about producing those personal books. Not only how did he find time to write them (internal rumours about helpful sources notwithstanding); the issue was more about their political nature as he was establishing his Indian credentials having been born in London. In order to maintain unbiased credibility, a U.N. official, especially a Communications Department head is not entitled to express personally political views (nor sell books for money). Indeed, any personal publication requires written authorization.

Those who drafted U.N. staff rules and regulations expected their international civil servants to display the highest calibre of adherence to the spirit as well as the letter of unbiased and exclusive dedication to the Organization. And while Tharoor was not the first -- nor the last -- of self-promoters, he notoriously used his gained authority as a first class ticket to impunity. His purpose is now clear beyond any doubt.

The question really relates to the extent of tacit support he is getting from the current Secretary General after continuing to use U.N. time, resources and prestige while being an official governmental candidate -- contrary to standard practice and written staff rules.

Kofi Annan practically launched his protege's official campaign when calling for a conveniently timed press conference -- with nothing much to say the same day Tharoor sent out his "Indian announcement." Any reporter who had not yet heard was informed of it. As if synchronized, Annan's response was identical to the substance of an email Tharoor sent to DPI staff almost the same hour. Asked by Maggie Farley of The Los Angeles Times, he gave his readily prepared answer: The Under-Secretary General should focus on his work as Under-Secretary General and his responsibilities to the U.N. Then came the almost comical suggestion that "if he or she is elected (as Secretary General) he or she will have to resign" -- as if we're talking of a hypothetical case and as if a Under-Secretary General elected to the highest post would prefer to stay in the same job! Annan added assertively that he will "have to make sure" that "that" is respected!

In his note to "dear colleagues and friends" of that same day, Tharoor confirmed "he was staying on regardless while focusing on his work as Under-Secretary General. "Any activities I am obliged to undertake that are not directly related to my role as an international civil servant will be undertaken on my own time and on annual leave".

Annual leave again? Annual leave or no annual leave, the rules apply -- an international civil servant has to act accordingly. Then there was that crafty admonition to the staff dealing with the public and with the media "while responding to questions about the process is part of your public information responsibility, you are certainly not obliged to answer questions about me as a candidate which you are welcome to direct to me personally." So, particularly those awaiting promotion, extension of contract, or designation to another post, let's see what you can do and be sure to keep me posted. I will remember you, when you remember me.

In the midst of an internal debate on the propriety of Tharoor's activities, including a recent visit to Washington to plead his case (while on leave, of course!), one more move by Mr. Annan drew special attention. Tharoor was included, or allowed to go, with the U.N. delegation headed by the Secretary General to the African Union Summit. There he was expected to openly make a presentation on his own behalf under the wing of the Secretary General. Again under the supportive cover of Mr. Annan, he will no doubt approach heads of African states, members of the Security Council, like Ghana (Mr. Annan's own), the Congo, and others. The current Secretary General was fully aware that Tharoor's "focus" will certainly not be on the work of the Department of Public Information.

The person to watch in this campaign is not Tharoor, whose claims and fortunes are clear for all to see, but this Secretary General whose ardent search for a "legacy" of "continuity with change" may have serious impact on his decisions in the crucial coming month. We have always wished him a successful 2006 and a most fitting conclusion. But it seems that his statements that he has "no horse in that race or no dog in this fight" are not entirely accurate: some indications are that he indeed has a dog. And it is already unleashed.