UNITED NATIONS. RE-OPENING THE CASE OF UNIC PARIS

 

15 SEPTEMBER 2012

RE-OPENING THE CASE OF UNIC PARIS

When Kofi Annan went along with his former Assistant (whom he had leapfrogged to Under Secretary General, head of DPI) to close the U.N. Information Centre in Paris, he aimed to please those who were belittling "Old Europe" and aiming to cut off any U.N. independent voice abroad. When he got into real trouble over Food-For-Oil, he realized what an awful mistake he had committed; no one came to his defence when he needed it most.

However, closing a centre like Paris, the hub of Francophone activity, could not have been done without the consent and active collaboration of three French citizens: the Senior French Under-Secretary General Jean Marie Guehenno (lui meme!); France's Permanent Representative at the time, whose main ambition was to tag along with neo-con Ambassador John Bolton, and an average DPI "functionaire" by the name of Therese Gastaut whose devotion to pleasing influential superiors was common knowledge. While the two senior Frenchmen mainly arranged for getting no serious objections from Paris, it was Ms. Gastaut who prepared the paperwork for closing all the Centres in Europe, erasing a U.N. institutional memory of over 50 years. Brought from Geneva with a promotion to D-2, she shifted from being a very passionate admirer of Dr. Boutrous-Ghali to running errands for Tharoor-Annan, who placed her in charge of the area covering the network of Information Centres.

Saving money was not even mentioned as a pretext, because it was obvious that UNIC, Paris was cost effective. It was hosted at a UNESCO annex with a separate entrance at Rue Moilis; had the best reference library about the U.N. in Europe; and a formidable Director, Hassen Fodha, who worked effectively for three successive Secretaries-General and kept excellent links with the Quai d'Orsay and the Élysée Palace. Paris Centre was distinguished for its close working relations with the Francophone media, academic community, and grass root NGOs. All that institutional memory and professional energy was wasted at a whim!

To butter up Annan's ego, he was told that no offices were needed in Europe anymore because he, that is Annan, was by then more popular in the continent than its own heads of state and government leaders. In Sweden, it was added, he was the most popular man in the whole world. What's a "Diplomatic Rock Star" to do, then, except go along?!

Since then, Annan and his successor Ban Ki-moon, have been deprived of experienced, well-connected staff, whose exclusive loyalty and professional talent had been focused on the U.N. Secretary General, and -- generally -- the U.N. organizational work.

After a decade of silence, the new administration in France seems to be stirring. Some influential civil servants are starting to wonder what happened and what could be done to correct it. A possible option may be similar to Germany where, despite a symbolic nod to the dysfunctional so-called "European Office" in Brussels, a professional runs an information unit in Berlin. There is a question of per diem for travel between the two offices, but that has to be sorted out by a serious management decision.

UNESCO could still offer premises in line with a standing agreement with U.N. Headquarters. A couple of U.N. media staff could initiate a process in close collaboration with UN/DPI in New York and UNESCO in Paris, where Director General, Ms. Irina Bokova, has been a solid supporter of U.N. Communication strategy in her varied successful career; she could certainly lend a helpful hand.

A French approach may start in September with the arrival of a delegation attending the next General Assembly Session. It could be officially revised during the deliberation of the Committee on Information. It will be interesting to observe the reaction of the Department of Public Information and, of course, the Office of the Secretary General. It will also be interesting to note the reaction of other European capitals, whose Centres were similarly closed.

A decision is particularly relevant, not only because France is a Permanent Member of the Security Council, but also because the U.N. political structure remains -- until further change. Eurocentric. Five out of Fifteen members of the Security Council (ONE THIRD) are from Europe.