15 NOVEMBER 2009


Neither the $85 million currently requested by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon following an attack in Kabul, nor the $95 million granted to Secretary General Kofi Annan five years ago following a criminal bombing of U.N. Baghdad premises, will ensure staff safety.

The first amount was mainly used to transform an existing section headed by a D-1 to a full-blown Department headed by an Under-Secretary General. Yet after a new attack on the U.N. compound in Algiers, the newly appointed chief -- a Scotland Yard professional -- honorably fell on his sword and resigned. Months after a new replacement took over, another attack in Afghanistan killed five dedicated U.N. staffers.

The usual statements of shock and condemnation were made. Investigations, like the ones in Baghdad and Algiers, were in order. "New" firm measures were promised.

The basic fact is that U.N. security is not a military task. Even Generals are now recognizing that much depends on the approach -- the way people involved are treated and the manner in which related issues are handled.

The security of dedicated staff in the field is seriously affected by the politics of senior officials at Headquarters. If the Secretary General and his Special Representative are perceived as too weak, partial in a dispute, or proxies to other powers, the staff fall automatically in harms way. On the other hand, if the U.N. leadership and presence are credibly perceived as honest brokers, the staff is on safer ground. Take the recent example of Kabul. When the two most senior U.N. officials are slugging it out in world media and key capitals while the Secretary General lapses into ponderosity, the local staff become open prey. There is always the need for caution and precaution. But the credibility of the U.N. mission and its leadership plays a crucial role.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is asking for $85 million for more security measures. Recall that Secretary General Kofi Annan asked for $95 million after the terrorist criminal bombing of the U.N. office in Baghdad -- mainly spent to establish a whole Security Department at Headquarters headed by an Under-Secretary General, a distinguished deputy chief of the famed Scotland Yard, who had to resign (honorably) after a catastrophic attack on U.N. Algeria offices. Like in the case of Baghdad, reports were duly prepared and two or three mid level officers were fired; ironically, the person most likely set to blame, the compound's chief of security, was already killed under the rubble.

Regrettably, field staff are becoming more vulnerable as the "nowhere man" public perception of the Secretary General grows, and his appointment of Special Representatives continues to be based on political expediency rather than on a serious determination to handle a brewing situation. In several hotspots the U.N. official presence has become part of the problem rather than the solution.

Several Special Reps are unable to actually visit the area they are supposed to handle (Ould Abdalla in Somalia); or are Personna non Grata (Terje Larsen in Syria, the Palestinian territory, and practically, Lebanon); or are very qualified individuals generally but have no clue about their designated area of conflict (Jan Eliasson during his first two crucial years in Darfur, a Korean diplomat in Cote D'Ivoire); or someone of proven incompetence (Ashraf Qaz from Iraq to Sudan); or investigated for corruption (we'll skip that one!); or assigned to a non-existent mission (like the Belgian ambassador who had voted for Mr. Ban while at the Security Council, but did not take up his assignment in Beirut for three months until given another one in Georgia, only to stay in Geneva "to conduct necessary consultations" as the mission itself was terminated); or have political business conflict of interest (Downer in Cyprus who has a political "speakeasy consulting agency").

Basically, the current trend deviates from the original purpose of having a truly qualified international civil service of the highest calibre drawn from an equitable geographical and cultural spread with unquestionable integrity and proven performance. A return to such a desired level of credibility would play a more effective role in protecting the staff than the $95 million plus the $85 million put together.

During Samir Sanbar's seven years of armed conflict in Beirut between 1975-1982, including two Israeli army invasions, not a single U.N. civilian was intentionally harmed despite the presence of over 300 varied armed groupings from every ideology, ethnicity, or religious faction. With obvious precaution, the U.N. presence there as an honest broker representing the international community and international legitimacy was credible enough. Hence, the battle for the original U.N. culture of dedication, enlightened competence, and political integrity is worth the fight.