15 JUNE 2008

The one day all Lebanese came together to celebrate the election of their new President, the U.N. Secretary General was glaringly absent. Representatives of the whole world, including U.S. Congressmen, Foreign Ministers of Iran (yes, Iran), Syria (yes, Syria), Egypt, Saudi Arabia (yes, yes), Spain, and the European Community were proudly photographed by media from all factions and the glaring absence was that of the U.N. Secretary General -- represented neither personally nor through a highly-regarded representative. When speeches were made, there was the solemn honest practical proclamation by newly-elected President Michael Suleiman, and the impressive welcome address by the ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who deservedly shared the podium after clinching an almost impossible mission in Doha. There was also the organizational politically loaded pronouncement by the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri. Everyone who had a hand in the agreement, however distant or secondary, was mentioned. Even the delegation of Djibouti was duly noted. The U.S. delegation, two of whom were of Lebanese origin, received a warm welcome "despite our reservations about the birth pangs of a new Middle East -- a project that failed," Mr. Berri whimsically said, referring to a controversial statement by Secretary Rice during the 2006 war in Lebanon. There was a gracious acknowledgement of the UNIFIL role in the South. That's it.

Not a single mention of the U.N. Not a single reference to Ban Ki-Moon.

Why? Because it did not occur to anyone from all the anointed participants that the current U.N. leadership had played any tangible productive role. If anything, there were suspicions, even among some government supporters like among the opposition, that some so-called U.N. sources were not helpful; sometimes instigating differences and spreading tensions.

Let us repeat that a press statement expressing concern and calling for agreement or welcoming one is not an alternative to real work accomplished. Telephone calls alone don't do the trick. They would crown an achievement not compensate for it.

It also happened that the former Special Representative of the Secretary General had gone away in March while his replacement had not yet appeared. There was no visible noted presence.

Furthermore, there was anger in Beirut at the way U.N. Headquarters shabbily handled U.N. representation at the Parliamentary Presidential meeting. That is something that the diplomatic mission of Lebanon would never explain openly nor would anyone at the Secretariat grasp -- as it seems there is no one in the Secretariat really truly seriously following up daily political business in Lebanon. But those following up public statements would recall that when asked, the spokeswoman of the Secretary General said that his representative at the event would be Peacekeeping chief Jean-Maria Guehenno, who happened to be on a routine visit to UNIFIL. Fair enough. Not a very impressive presence but he could at least utter a few words in French which would charm our sophisticated Francophone members. But then, we were told, Terje Roed Larsen made representations, supported by a very influential friend. Then it was decided that Larsen would be the representative. On that strength, he received a special plane from the United Arab Emirates, whose Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah was also in attendance. Perhaps someone in the Emirates thought that while Doha was carrying the main burden of the Lebanese accord, Abu Dhabi would at least lend a shoulder or a wing. Anyway, no one mentioned Mr. Larsen's name nor showed his face, which could have certainly inspired the same boos he received during the last visit of Kofi Annan to Beirut. How could Secretary General Ban believe that someone as disliked and suspected as Larsen by a wide range of Lebanese -- let alone Arab people -- could effectively represent him on such an occasion.

Secretary General Ban still enjoys a respectful reputation in Lebanon. People of all sides respect his earnest desire to help, although they may feel he is sometimes influenced by big power politics rather than a desire to produce results. As he seems to be ready, able and willing to fly, he himself could have flown to Beirut at the occasion and made his mark as the most senior foreign official present amongst the audience. The ruler of Qatar, who indeed was a co-host, would have equally welcomed him. He would have been a centre of attention, deflating serious talk of U.N. absence and giving his new representative a refreshing start.

But then, we don't know whom to talk to about this within the U.N. Secretariat at Headquarters. Do you?!