15 September 2006

Battle lines were drawn this summer between the President of the 61st Session of the General Assembly and the U.N. Secretariat. Ms. Haya Rashed Al-Khalifa claimed that she was given an inappropriate unsafe interim office on the 29th floor. The Secretariat insisted that the office "was allocated with the knowledge that this is a safe working environment according to the experts' opinions, including those of our U.N. Medical Service." A letter to that effect was signed by Jan Beegle on behalf of Under Secretary General for Management Christopher Burnham, whose office is on that same floor.

Sheikha Haya, as she is generally known, was elected on 8 June to assume her task when the Session opens in September. She will then use the official premises on the 2nd floor. In preparing herself, she started building her staff and made a few selections which were complicated later by internal intrigue and diplomatic maneuverings. To start making an impact right away, the Sheikha sought and got an office in the Secretariat building. In mid-July a visitor told her that the space had been vacated some time ago due to a high concentration of electromagnetic radiation. The seemingly calm lady went into a rage. Someone was out to poison her, or, at least, direct electromagnetic vibrations at her fragile body and alert mind. She demanded to meet the then Chef de Cabinet, who dutifully requested an immediate investigation. It was concluded that "at no location was the ELF field found to be greater than the threshold value recommended by existing national and international standards." Still, she was offered alternative space, should she wish. No. The Sheikha did not wish. She fired off a letter to the Secretary General on 28 July "addressing her concerns on this matter." Although she was not keen on that space from the beginning, she was told by a Mr. Martin Bender that due to lack of office space no alternative could be offered. She then brought in an independent expert who informed that the "threshold" was high.

The discrepancy, the Bahraini letter stated, "may prove to be extremely health threatening to us, not to mention its effect on our morale and anxiety levels." It argued that withholding information by the relevant U.N. officials was unacceptable "and amounts to an intentional act." The official responsible "should be held accountable" while they were consulting more "independent experts" that will assess the effects of this exposure "and will proceed accordingly."

The answer came this time from Chef de Cabinet Alicia Barcena. Office space was to be allocated "within existing resources" (para 11 of resolution 58/126) she effectively stated, pointing out, coolly indeed, that the suspected level at the assigned office "is about one half of the level produced by an electric can opener." U.N. medical experts, in consultation with the World Health Organization, have advised that even the peak spot reading was about that produced by a hair dryer.

The argument was not limited to letters. Some delegations were contacted by the President-elect to draft a resolution adding new staff to the office and ensuring appropriate office space. It comes under the item: "The revitalization of the work of the General Assembly." So, the farce goes on.

Based on wrong information and bad advice, the President-elect not only overreacted but she was unfair to some of those who had genuinely wanted to help her. Why would devoted staff with a proven record of loyalty wish to intentionally hurt her? While we are confident of her qualifications, as a newcomer and outsider she will need all the help she can get, particularly from those who know the workings of the place from the inside. Why start on the wrong footing with the Secretariat?

The interim work between June and early September is not so overwhelming. If she needed to work so badly but thought the interim space was not appropriate, unsafe, or too electromagnetic, she could graciously say thank you, perhaps leave a secretary to take phone calls and operate from the spacious Bahrain mission close to a very effective experienced Permanent Representative. Who needs the aggravation?

Let's hope it's just a passing summer cloud. When Sheikha Haya plunges into the Session's swift pace, she will certainly prove the other side of her personality: a capable Arab woman and a successful Bahraini professional lawyer with much to gain and much to offer.