15 February 2008


Why would anyone want to bug Mr. Annan's hotel room in Nairobi? Because he's there. Whether in the industrial or Third World, it is not uncommon for hotel rooms hosting visiting dignitaries to receive an advance visit by hosts bearing listening devices. You may assume that our former distinguished leader may not add any valuable information to those desperately seeking it. But those buggers think differently. Papa Kofi, as now a new P.R. machine would like to blow him to bewildered Africans, easily gives the impression that he is "sorting things out." Discreetly, of course. What's a Kenyan detective to do? Kukuyu or otherwise, he (for it's a he) has to report to someone even if it were none other than Kofi Annan himself. Otherwise, what would other visiting dignitaries think? How would dormant international reporters know that some worthwhile mediation effort was afoot? Our only question is why did the local U.N. office rush to deny the story? That is usually left to the government.


An animated film reflecting the inner thoughts of an Iranian woman may be the most sophisticated creative artwork of the season. It is really a very simple yet humourous graceful story in the true spirit of that great culture of Iran. Based on a book by Marjane Satrepi, about a girl who grew up in Teheran within an anti-Shah leftist family which faced similar difficulties with the rule of religious leadership. Her exile in Vienna keeps her forever torn between staying away or returning home. Her central question is the most human -- and clearest -- one: freedom. Her love for her country, her quest for freedom and her intricate family relationships are masterfully projected by Chiara Mastroianni (daughter of Italian consummate actor Marcello), French actress Catherine Deneuve who plays her mother (she's Chiara's actual mother in real life), and Daniello Darrieuz, who projects the grandmother.


Indeed. And it's been building up for months, perhaps a year before. 7 February is a bit later than usual as inevitable groundwork was plotting its way among the stars. Zodiac enthusiasts tell us that while the Roman calendar depicting Capricorns, Virgos and Leos are more popular, the Chinese one was more to the point. So, let's see what the Rat will bring to the international community; particularly that a) rats, like dogs, are regarded with respect -- epicurean at least -- in some areas, and b) its year will dovetail with the U.N. declared International Year of Astrology. Look up your fortune cookies -- they may convey something. It may be an unprecedented signal. Harmony comes softly to one who follows instructions carefully. Listen for a change.


During the month of January, the Secretary General met with the regional groups in alphabetical order. While most delegates tried to figure out the real purpose of those meetings other than the welcome spirit of consultations, the Spokesman's Office clarified that the Secretary General told the groups that in the year ahead he will proceed on three fronts. The first two, that "he will work to deliver results" and to "create a stronger U.N. through full accountability of all parties" are clear -- though very general. The third "front" stated was: to "emphasize those goods that are the world's common property." Surely, something must have been lost in translation.


The senior post for the head of the newly-proposed peacekeeping office is still awaiting a short list. The post of head of Office of Human Resources Management (Personnel) is still awaiting a short list. The Assistant Secretary General post in the Economic and Social Development Department is still awaiting a short list. The post of Special Representative in Lebanon is still awaiting a short list. This is just a partial short list of senior hotly contested posts, let alone hundreds of others from P-2 to D-2 awaiting short lists. We have no personal interest in any of them. We, just like the Secretary General repeatedly says, seek results!


It is not clear what preparations are being made for the International Women's Day on 8 March. At a certain time, action was announced at least a month before to allow offices around the world to produce impressive shows of solidarity. When the Annan administration cut down on the number of women in senior positions -- and the Secretary General himself and his Deputy took to frequent flying, Women's Day took an almost bureaucratic format with a few gathering and obliging statements by gender concerned officials. Perhaps Secretary General Ban Ki-moon did not have time to focus on this issue; but it will be worth his while -- if not this year, maybe more substantially new year.


An article appeared in a London daily attacking the U.N. in New York for not giving actor George Clooney a wider audience to address the General Assembly, or at least the Security Council. Why would he do so? Because "it is hard to imagine any British or American politician treating showbiz royalty with such lack of consideration." The article refers to "a group of delegates widely suspected to be lead by Russia and France"! However, it targets "that group which is nothing less than the United Nations". The author seems to have relied on someone who in turn relied on someone in New York where "certainly the press descended en masse to hear Clooney lecture what is invariably called the international community on its duty." Somehow some expressions reminded us of the flashy style of the failed self-promoter who still has one or two plugs in New York, particularly in media relations offices. Apparently that oxygen blonde still has to cater to the old while feigning loyalty to the new. She may need a weatherman to show her which way to blow the wind.


Why would a U.S. State Department Spokesman issue a statement indicating that U.S./U.N. Ambassador Khalilzad's "appearance" in Davos with Iranian officials was not authorized? The experienced Ambassador can certainly fend for himself. But did it occur to the Spokesman in denial that participating in Davos, which is a small village in the Alps, means having to meet whoever happens to be there? And if a backchannel could be discreetly established with Mr. Mottaki and Mr. Samara from Teheran, exposing it through a futile denial would be counter-productive. And doesn't the Ambassador in New York happen to bump into his Iranian counterpart in almost every occasion at U.N. Headquarters? Why pick on one single simple appearance? Could it be that there is an intriguing internal powerplay in the wings?


Where did General Musharraf go immediately after Davos? Did he really stay the whole week in the Swiss resort? Well-informed Lebanese sources claim that the Pakistan ruler slipped to London where he met in a nearby farm with opposition leader Nawaz Sharif in the presence of Saudi-Lebanese Parliamentarian Saad Hairiri, whose murdered father Rafik was reportedly a partner. Saudi officials were fully behind the meeting, according to the sources that pointed to the relative quiet in Pakistan so that more focus -- and resources -- could be shifted to Afghanistan. Clearly, the Saudis are not acting alone.


A lecture in New York's Carnegie Council on "The Future of U.N. Peacekeeping in an Era of U.S. Primacy" was given on 24 January by Jean-Marc Coicaud, representative of the U.N. University in New York. The purpose may have been to draw attention to Mr. Coicaud's international credentials in the peacekeeping field, particularly that another Frenchman who headed peacekeeping for the last decade is reportedly on his way out. His resume includes a senior Fellowship in U.S. Institute of Peace (Washington, D.C.); Harvard Law School and N.Y. University's School of Law. He has "held appointments" with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the European Parliament's Financial Committee, the Sorbonne and the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. A circulated brief indicates that he served in the Executive Office of the U.N. Secretary General as a speechwriter for Dr. Boutros Boutros Ghali from 1992-1996. Anyone who had worked with the Egyptian Secretary General at that time will tell you that the French speechwriter was none other than Herve Cassin. Unless Professor Cassin has changed his name to Jean-Marc Coicaud, there must be a "quak" somewhere.


Lakhdar Brahimi is certainly an outstanding choice to chair an independent panel on the safety and security of U.N. staff worldwide. As Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated, he possesses vast experience and knowledge of U.N. operations and is certain to operate with objectivity and independence in order to bring about useful realistic and effective recommendations. Some felt that it may have been better if the other members of the panel were announced at the same time. But perhaps the Secretary General wanted to show swift action on an overdue issue; that also would give Ambassador Brahimi a substantive hand in selecting his team. The most intricate part of his task will be how to handle the Algerian side in the aftermath of the December 2007 bombing that claimed the lives of 17 U.N. staff. Of course, Brahimi is proud to be an Algerian and Algerians are proud of his international accomplishments. But there are obvious political and personal sensitivities. Surely, Algerian officials who by now are trained experts in dealing with the U.N. Panel's chairman, a former Algerian Foreign Minister, will find a mutually agreeable -- and productive -- outcome.


As Special Representative Pedersen left Beirut end January, there was no indication of a replacement. Despite earlier skepticism, the young Norwegian diplomat did an outstanding job considering the extremely difficult situation in Beirut and the very limited resources at his disposal. While interested countries, like the U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China, even Italy and Spain, had a contingent of qualified staff with varied disciplines closely monitoring and sometimes influencing events, Pedersen had a handful of dedicated staff. What may have kept him afloat was his determined effort to keep lines open with all parties and gain for the U.N. a distinctive role. With so much controversy in Beirut, it is feared that credible U.N. absence on the ground would gradually erode its standing with some conflicting parties, particularly if, as is now rumoured, the Secretariat policy would be guided more by what is whispered in New York than what is actually happening in Beirut.


Those of us who grew up with the Beatles will remember Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, known simply as the Maharishi. A whole world generation was taken by his simplicity and optimism as his influence on pop music produced an unprecedented thoughtful melodic rhythm. From the "Flower Revolution" to the Peace movement to public mediation, so many tried to imitate or interpret his message of love, but he remained a distinct figure, inspiring great respect and deep affection, reflecting a special worldwide dimension of that unique Indian culture. In January 2008, he took a vow of silence, after expressing a desire to add his own thoughts to spiritual classics. A month later, he died at the age of 91. Never did such a frail person influence so many with nothing more than a soft voice and a palm's touch.


Rose Hacker, who died last week at the age of 102, was the world's oldest columnist. Born in East London in 1906, she first worked as a clothes designer before writing books and advising on sex therapy. She started writing a column every fortnight for the Camden New Journal in September 2006 -- that is, when she was 100 years old. That makes her one of the youngest oldest columnists.


Having watched other Hollywood stars turned into special U.N. goodwill envoys, Sylvester Stallone is pushing his luck by claiming that his newest Rambo film is inspiring the fight for freedom in Myanmar. In it he pronounces in his special overtone baritone: "Either you live for something; die for nothing -- it's your choice." These days you never know.


How do you know that France has regained its world role? Because its Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner asked U.S. Secretary of State Rice to extend a decision on the fate of Kosovo six more months and she agreed. That was only one conclusion drawn by an "embedded" James Traub who traveled with Dr. Kouchner. In an article that appeared recently in the Sunday New York Times, Traub, who seems fascinated by those in authority, resorts to the same exaggerated flattery he applied to Kofi Annan and similarly misses the point of his subject's personality. While Traub may believe he was doing the legendary human rights French activist a favour, he makes him look totally egocentric, prone to making major decisions only after heavy drinking ("bad Macedonian wine until late in the night" in the case of Kosovo, where he was "surrounded by his French buddies"). That's unfair to Kouchner and to his multi-national U.N. team. While the real story behind Kouchner leaving "Medecins Sans Frontieres" was garbled, Traub pontificates his own version on who "virtually invented intensely politicized humanitarianism" as well as the genesis of "responsibility to protect." The French term "ingerence" is injected to give his far-fetched claim some credibility. The most ridiculous part was related to Lebanon. While Dr. Kouchner in fact delivered an outstanding performance in Beirut, reaching out to every side, uncharacteristically listening patiently to prolonged political exchanges, he was made in the article to look ridiculously lightweight "coaxing, holding hands and telling his friends to shut up". More damaging was describing him at odds with Claude Gueant, the President's influential Chef de Cabinet, and an off-handed dismissal of someone with the quality and stature of Ambassador Levitte, former Ambassador to Washington and the U.N., who is currently the French President's diplomatic adviser. The Lebanese press had a field day highlighting the reported Kouchner / Elysee difference, which did not much help the positive role played in that uniquely pro-France country.


Soccer is the most popular game in Africa. Africans everywhere were following up the championship held over the last few weeks. Egypt, the defending champion, fought for the cup again this year in the final match with Cameroon in Accra on Sunday, 10 February. When the result was final, with one goal scored by Egypt's centre forward Mohammed Abou Treikeh, Egyptians went through the streets of Cairo carrying their national flag, hooting their cars' horns and blowing referee whistles. Even slow boats on the Nile shared in the national celebration. Interestingly, the population of Gaza took time out of their daily conflicts to join in welcoming the result. They have a special affection for the goal scorer who always mentioned their plight in pre-game interviews.