UNITED NATIONS. DOES "VERBEKE" SPELL TROUBLE?

 

15 SEPTEMBER 2008

DOES "VERBEKE" SPELL TROUBLE?

We don't know enough Flemish to figure out what the name of the outgoing Belgian Representative to the U.N. means. But it looks as if Johan C. Verbeke has become a signal of trouble ahead.

Initially he must have done something right to be appointed Special Representative of the Secretary General, as he was about to leave his post in New York. It does not require rocket science to know that good deed: he had voted, in the Security Council, for the election of Ban Ki-moon as U.N. Secretary General. Raise your hand to give and you shall receive.

The distinguished ambassador had wanted to stay in his Belgian seat throughout the month of August, when regular rotation would have given him the Council's Presidency -- and the media visibility that comes with it. But that was not feasible. A new government in Brussels wanted its own candidate to take over as soon as possible. Similarly, the situation in Lebanon, where Verbeke had been designated, was getting very tense. His successor had already left in March. Government officials in Beirut started to wonder what was going on. A total absence of U.N. presence was being interpreted by an intriguing list of conspiracy theories. When Verbeke finally made it to Beirut, some militant Islamist website singled him out as an adversary from earlier service in Africa. He first sought to rent an apartment in the well-protected area of Monteverde, the site of the Chief International Investigator. The asking price was prohibitive. He moved to the Movenpick hotel on Beirut's seaside Corniche, owned by Saudi Billionaire / Lebanese Prince Al-Walid. His sudden disappearance after only a few days raised more questions than the delay of his arrival. He requested a guarantee of his personal security from certain senior Lebanese government officials at a time when they could hardly ensure their own safety. Militants were exchanging tough rhetoric, including talk of a civil war. The trouble seemed to escalate as Verbeke was sorting out his options. However, his glaring absence was reaching the point of a diplomatic scandal. Though unreported, it was simply leaked to draw attention to an upcoming crisis.

By June, something had to be done. Either pretend or amend. Either claim he's still there when he actually was not or send someone else. But then, with the initial purpose being to accommodate the jobless Belge, the actual question became what to do with him. Well, Georgia seemed to be an attractive spot. It is in Europe, a two-hour flight from home. It is likely to join the European Community, based in Brussels. More important, on the surface, it looked generally quiet. Yet only days after Verbeke's name was announced to head that mission, a war broke out in Georgia. Worse, there was no sign of U.N. presence -- neither in alerting "the international community" to an upcoming conflict nor in any effective mediation. Sadly, like in several other spots these days, the U.N. was perceived as either severely handicapped or unfit to play the role of an honest broker. It took French President Nicolas Sarkozy, on behalf of Europe, to arrange a ceasefire. Had Verbeke arrived by then, or did the mere mention of his name herald a new era of world disorder -- we'll never know!