15 February 2007

Twice in one month a New York Times editorial rushed into attacking a U.N. target. The first was only days after Ban Ki-Moon took over; a mishandled error was magnified not merely to make a point of principle but more pointedly to invite comparison in favour of his outgoing predecessor. Our only concern then was that the assault was premature; otherwise it was a question for Mr. Ban and his selected team to handle.

However, again on 24 January, an editorial entitled "Product of the U.N. System" used a U.S. judicial action against Benon Sevan to hit at the whole U.N. system. As if the Organization that inspired thousands of dedicated decent honest people was mainly fertile grounds for corruption, nepotism and mismanagement. That sets a new pattern for the New York Times, normally a backbone of media support for the U.N. in its host city and its host country.

While waiting for the outcome of Mr. Sevan's case, we could claim that the U.N. system includes some of the most competent and efficient individuals in the world. They have suffered recently more than anyone else witnessing their beloved Organization torn to pieces by negative reporting of misdeeds surrounding a limited few. They are fighting daily for a better, prouder U.N. Most of them have dedicated their whole career to defend human dignity, peaceful resolution of conflicts and human development. Several made the ultimate sacrifice. Our beloved Sergio Vieira de Mello, Nadia Younes, and their colleagues killed in the field of duty should never be tainted by the misdeeds of a very few. In fact, with the exception of Mr. Sevan, who vehemently denies the accusations against him, most others reportedly accused of violations were appointed from OUTSIDE the U.N. system.

Never has the U.N. been subjected to so many reports of scandalous behaviour than in the last five years. Senior officials accused of sexual harassment, promotions in return of favours, evading staff rules to appoint relatives in a new form of "family planning," investigating the head of the Investigation Office, procurement irregularities, were only a few examples surrounding the senior team, in addition to the infamous Food-for-Oil while almost brought the U.N. (and its Secretary General) down and culminated with the still controversial Volcker's report. During all that the New York Times took a position which was very helpful to the Secretary General involved -- Mr. Annan. That is its right. In fact, some of us thought it may have been helpful in calming the waters during a succession of unwelcome storms. But then it should not practice a double standard, nor should it misrepresent the facts.

And the facts are that it was not Dr. Boutros-Ghali who nurtured and promoted Benon Sevan. When the Egyptian Secretary General took over in 1992, Mr. Sevan was already Special Representative in Afghanistan. He came back to Headquarters in New York with the rank of Assistant Secretary General in charge of Building Management and Security Coordinator in the Department of Management. It was Kofi Annan, particularly after his 1998 visit to Baghdad, who launched and expanded a special, separate venture -- the Iraq Programme -- better known as Food-For-Oil. It was Kofi Annan who selected Mr. Sevan and PROMOTED him to the rank of Under-Secretary General, giving him full authority over that operation.

Let's clarify. We are not taking issue with Mr. Annan's decision. We are stating the fact that he was the one who made the decision to appoint Mr. Sevan, since the New York Times seems to be taking issue about who made that appointment.

One more point for Mr. Sulzberger, or Mr. Rosenthal or whoever rushes to judgment in these New York Times editorials. If they admire Secretary General Annan so greatly and disdain the "U.N. System" so much, have they stopped to ask themselves where did Mr. Annan actually rise from?