15 MAY 2008

The latest case was that of the Special Envoy for Western Sahara. Dutch diplomat Peter Van Walsum, "Personal Envoy of the Secretary General," attempted to force his views on members of the Security Council before his official boss, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon agreed and authorized the final draft. He made his own views available to the media without the courtesy of waiting for the Secretary General to make his presentation. A general interpretation was that Walsum had the support of at least two powerful permanent members of the Security Council. A press statement by U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad underlined that impression. Be that as it may, the question relates more to the credibility of the most senior official entrusted -- and duly elected by the whole membership -- to run the Secretariat work of the Organization.

Peter Van Walsum behaved more like a shameless self-promoter than an international diplomat. He arrogantly behaved as if he was irreproachable and unaccountable just because he had backing from powerful members. Compare that with the position of the Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, a U.S. citizen, who unfailingly displays consistent respect and conformity with the Secretary General.

Clearly, this is not the first time a Special or Personal Envoy behaves as if he owned the issue. It just so happens that another Dutch diplomat, Jan Pronck, who was assigned to Darfur produced his own personal website and eventually -- after embarrassing himself more than the U.N. -- had to leave. His successor, Jan Eliasson, seems to behave like a super envoy, cornering the Secretary General and the U.N. into a more complicated situation; but at least he keeps a generally proper attitude. Another "envoy," Terje Roed Larsen, barely hides his free hand (also supported by two powerful permanent members). The latest case related to an idea of an international conference on Lebanon he reportedly floated while the Secretary General's spokesman's office was vehemently denying it.

To be fair, that "personalized ownership" started under Mr. Ban's predecessor, Kofi Annan, who hardly bothered to confront any strongly-backed envoy unless his own concerns were directly at stake. But that trend, if allowed to continue, will further erode the stature of the Organization, and the standing of its Secretary General. A more serious long-lasting concern is that such attitude makes a mockery of the principle of International Civil Service.

Why do some envoys venture to embarrass Ban Ki-moon, as they did Kofi Annan? The simple clear answer is: because they are allowed to do so -- because they feel they can get away with it!

Again, Mr. Ban is earnestly trying his best. But his immediate staff, starting with his Chef de Cabinet, should be able to put some order in that embarrassing diplomatic traffic. Only the Secretary General represents the Secretariat. He is the Chief Administrative Officer. He was elected for that purpose -- entrusted with the task. For the duration of a specified term, Ban Ki-moon is the elected designated leader. While all member states naturally pursue their national interest, he is entrusted with evolving an international consensus. If he is too polite or reticent to discipline renegade envoys, someone in his office should.