UNITED NATIONS. A DEMISTURA APPOINTMENT IN AFGHANISTAN WILL MAKE SECRETARY GENERAL BAN MORE VULNERABLE. (DO BIG POWERS PREFER A VULNERABLE SECRETARY GENERAL?)

 

15 JANUARY 2010

A DEMISTURA APPOINTMENT IN AFGHANISTAN WILL MAKE SECRETARY GENERAL BAN MORE VULNERABLE. (DO BIG POWERS PREFER A VULNERABLE SECRETARY GENERAL?)

Particularly following the embarrassing public dispute between the two U.N. senior envoys to Afghanistan, talk about a likely designation of Staffan Demistura as the Secretary General's Special Representative there has raised already damaging questions: about sending someone branded with exploiting unabashed nepotism to a government where corrupt nepotism has been denounced even by its closest allies. It also placed Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in an awkward corner at a time when he was about to recover from the confusion that immediately followed rubber-stamping the first Presidential "election" results four months ago. The U.N. standing and credibility -- let alone its presumed role -- in Afghanistan drastically deteriorated as its confused senior officials looked not only internally ? but ready yet uncertain how high -- or low -- to jump.

Seeking the favour of new Secretary General for his own senior appointment in Iraq by transferring and promoting Ban Ki-moon's son-in-law (whom he had met at UNICEF) was not the only self-serving perceived ploy by Demistura. The Italian/Swede/Swede/Italian (as the case may require) had displayed similar ploys since 1995, when he was mainly known as a Meeter/Greeter at UNICEF Greeting Cards.

Mind you, that appointment of Mr. Chatterjee in Iraq was not against staff rules. Like his dedicated Korean wife, he was already employed by the U.N. though in a different field. Yet it smacked of nepotism, particularly as Mr. Ban called all officials at Under-Secretary and Assistant Secretary General's level to a very costly gathering at a rarely functional "Staff Cottage" in the Italian mountains overseen by the outgoing new envoy. Presumed accommodations were not available; dignified managers had to scramble for whatever hotels were available. No substantive debate was feasible within a couple of hurried days. The only obvious beneficiary was the pleasantly surprised municipality of Torino.

The more flagrant evasion of staff rules was a few years earlier during Mr. Annan's mandate when the former meeter/greeter arranged for the recruitment of the Chef de Cabinet's son, Imran Riza, for a P-5 in Beirut as he, that is Demistura, was promoted from a D-2 post to Assistant Secretary General level as Special Representative in South Lebanon, replacing another Swede, Ralph Knutsson. That Chef de Cabinet, Iqbal Riza, famed shredder during the Food for Oil scandal, did not feel awkward about that evasion, although he in particular was supposed to lead by example in applying staff rules. Instead the wily Riza "seethed with "anger" -- as he described himself in a meeting -- at unforum for exclusively reporting the story which was circulated by the staff from desk to desk. Staff representatives raised that case, amongst others, repeatedly, particularly when they officially issued an unprecedented censure of that administration.

However, Demistura never blinked, never looked embarrassed. He had lobbied to leave UNICEF Greeting Cards for the post of Director, UNIC Rome, when the head of the Department of Public Information selected its incumbent, the late Nadia Younges, to work with him at the Department's D-2 post. He repeatedly went behind the back of his official boss to contact the "38th floor."

When Secretary General Annan prepared to visit Baghdad in 1998, during the theatrical threat to bomb Iraq, an agreed package, a fig leaf and ladder for everyone was needed. Annan sent Demistura from Rome (and Tharoor from New York) in advance to test the waters and announced that after checking Saddam Hussein's palaces, they found them free of any suspicious material. This was a prelude to that memorable cigar smoke and the relaxed assurance that "we can do business."

Yet, when Saddam Hussein fell, Demistura, unblinking as ever, found another route to a different Baghdad -- through new Secretary General Ban. He rarely stayed there of course, his role being as irrelevant as that of his predecessor Ashraf Qazi. He moved around Jordan, Cyprus and other less risky, yet per diem remunerating spots. But he held the title and the rank, leaving the heavy lifting in that country to young Gilmore and cornering the otherwise good reputation of son-in-law Chatterjee.

Talk of a third posting as Special Representative in Kabul may cause some cynics to welcome the appointment. Like Hamid Karzai, Demistura doesn't blink, is not embarrassed, at corruption. Indeed, they may be able to talk the same language!

More relevant is the following: such an appointment will place Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in a reputedly vulnerable position. Big powers -- all big powers -- prefer a vulnerable Secretary General!