15 January 2006


"The Secretary General has accepted, with great regret, the decision of his Special Adviser, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, to retire at the end of this year after long and highly valuable service to the United Nations. The Secretary General extends his deep and abiding gratitude to Mr. Brahimi for his courage, counsel, wisdom and dedication, and hopes to be able to continue to call on his advice. He wishes Mr. Brahimi an enjoyable and well-earned rest after a series of profoundly challenging assignments, during which he indisputably helped build better lives for millions of people in some of the most troubled regions of the world." That well-deserved tribute by the Secretary General reflected the high regard the Algerian diplomat and proven international negotiator has earned through dedicated work and enlightened performance. From Lebanon, where he represented the Arab League to his U.N. Representative work in South Africa, Yemen, Congo, Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr. Brahimi made a positive difference while gaining personal friends and admirers wherever he went. His retirement on 1 January 2006, his 72nd birthday, was by no means a slowdown in his active international life. He returned to Paris to join his wife for a long-promised Asian trip and will then resume his active participation in seminars, working groups and task forces. For someone with Brahimi's exceptional talent, retirement means only brief stops to recharge the batteries to proceed full speed ahead. Bon Chance.


So many seekers and so little caviar to go around. The black delicate sturgeon egg is now a threatened species, according to some international convention. Its export is being gradually but firmly restricted. That means a higher price, of course. Not that it matters to those enoying it at exclusive retreats while exchanging views on how to eradicate world poverty at the old Cirque restaurant. To those with connections in the Caspian, caviar comes easy. The tougher task is to find the right lemon!


According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 47 reporters were killed while performing their professional work during 2005. According to those who have been observing a glaring retreat in U.N. Secretariat support for free press, not a single one of those murderous crimes was denounced by the U.N., whose Department of Public Information was at a certain period in the forefront of vocal defense of threatened journalists. What a shame.


When asked about his credentials as candidate for Secretary General, Jayantha Dhanapala, former U.N. Under-Secretary General responded by stressing his experience and proven reformist action as giving him an edge over potential rivals.

"I believe I have a better chance of succeeding than if somebody unfamiliar with the internal workings of the U.N. system tries to approach the task. I don't this task can be undertaken by somebody with experience of national government only. This organization (the United Nations) is unique," Dhanapala told Japan's Daily Yomiuri during a visit to Tokyo.

"Reform of the United Nations will be necessary. I'll therefore pledge (if elected Secretary General) to implement reforms agreed upon by member states," Dhanapala said. He pointed out that "half the battle" for the United Nations is reaching agreement on reform. The rest of the battle is implementing the plan -- something that will be largely up to the next Secretary General -- and this is where his experience will count.

Interestingly, the interview was reprinted in several internationally circulating media including the Financial Times service and -- significantly -- in the Nation of Bangkok.


These days any vacant post from D-1 level and above is open target by permanent representatives. Particularly with a vulnerable Secretariat eager to please either to avert an issue or gain support for a position, it became common knowledge among delegations that all you had to do is ask, or try. If not a regular job, then possibly a special assignment. Even in jobs requiring awareness of inside intricacies, ambassadors were appointed. The absence of real checks and balances, like elaborate appointment and promotion bodies, have made it easier for ambassadors who would have earned much smaller salaries back home to draw much higher income in New York. A recently vacated post of Assistant Secretary General for General Assembly affairs is eagerly sought by a number of diplomats, amongst them an ambassador from a fairly important Eastern European country. An ambivalent attitude by superiors is causing further demoralization among aspiring staff. Since a woman had occupied that post, could they at least consider appointing another woman?


A woman who was recently appointed from outside the U.N. to a post which normally required wider qualifications responded to a query by a European friend on how she got the job by saying in French that she was being rewarded for "service rendue" -- meaning services rendered. To whom and when is not a mystery.


A recent decision by the Spanish government to officially abolish the Siesta drew yawns from all over the Latino world. Who does that fellow in Madrid think he is? First he takes over the government sending the beautiful Palacio sisters into oblivion. Then he heckles Madrilenos with intellectual stuff left, right and centre. One could hardly enjoy a decent jamon without some argument on the bodega television about one thing or another. Who put him in charge of people's lives anyway? Official meeting; international gatherings; welcoming high dignitaries: yes. Telling us what to do between two and four p.m.: that's too much. And if we in Spain let it pass, no Mexican worth his guacamole will ever forgive us. So, forget it, Pepe. Have a Siesta. We'll talk when he wakes up.


Unnoticed by its people, Arab governments decided to establish an inter-Arab "parliament" to be headquartered in Damascus. That would comply with a Western wish to democratize the region. Washington would be kept off their backs, at least for a little breather, until the next crisis. The Syrian capital is, of course, the ideal choice where democracy is on daily vivid display. The first "interim" parliamentary gathering was held end December in Cairo. Its first decision? As Arab League Secretary General settled in his central chair with a fresh cigar, puffing smoothly while surveying the newest extension to his constituency, one participant pointedly proposed a ban on smoking. It was the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, seconded by his Kuwaiti counterpart. Cohibistas grudgingly complied. They hardly realized that democracy went that far.


Under a story entitled "Mr. Sevan, I Presume," Claudia Rosett described a surprise face-to-face between an investigation team for U.S. Representative Henry Hyde and Benon Sevan in Cyprus. The team had been taken by a local policeman to the flat of Mr. Sevan's aunt who had recently passed away after falling down the elevator shaft. When they knocked at the door, it was Mr. Sevan who opened "in shorts, no shirt, and sandals, smoking a cigar." He was "polite but did not invite them in." They chatted across the threshold and he told them to address all questions to his lawyers, saying "My conscience is clear." As the investigators turned around to take the stairs down, Benon typically suggested: "You can take the elevator. It's fixed now."


That's only the family name. His first name is Juvenal. When he was a minister in a Rwanda government, it was preceded by the obligatory Son Excellence. Now it's just uwilingiyimana, the accused, to the International Tribune which questioned him mid-November on charges of complicity in the 1994 genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Three days later he went missing. A month later, in December, his body was discovered floating in a Brussels canal. Was it, perhaps, something he'd said?!


No more dismissive jokes about Juscanz. The odd and rarely-used acronym refers to a powerful small group composed of Japan, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Just when everyone gave up on adopting the budget before the holiday season, the group proposed a plan on 23 December which opened the door to a compromise. It entailed a $900 million cap on spending which would cover the requirements for the first half of 2006. That would give a breathing spell -- and more negotiating time. Anyone who wants to read too much into the proposal will recall that the current U.S. Ambassador had expressed a desire to elect a new Secretary General by next June.


When a spokesman announced at the last day of 2005 briefing that Ms. Alicia Barcena Ibarra of Mexico was appointed Deputy Chef de Cabinet, one of the few reporters present asked if she had been recommended by Maurice Strong. The Spokesman said he was not aware of any such recommendation, adding -- in a wordplay -- that Ms. Barcena had been a strong candidate having worked for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC or CEPAL, as commonly known to the Latin speaking continent). Actually, Ms. Barcena Iberra's career has been entwined with Mr. Strong's well-known interests. At UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which Mr. Strong had launched and headed, she was in charge of the "environmental citizenship" initiative which emphasized the role of civil society, an area close to Mr. Strong's heart. At the 1992 Rio Conference on Environment and Development, run by Mr. Strong, she was an active (and valuable) Principal Officer handling special topics related to Agenda 21. She was a founding director of the Earth Council in Costa Rica, where Mr. Strong has a sizable involvement. It was her work closer to Mr. Strong's interest that brought her a wider international role. But that should neither hinder nor question her new appointment, which very much depends on the chemistry between her and her direct supervisor, the Chef de Cabinet and the Secretary General. There were some questions about Mr. Strong's possible involvement with a South Korean businessman, linked to Food-For-Oil. But having worked for or with Mr. Strong in another area need not be a cause for suspicion. Ask Paul Martin, Canada's Prime Minister. Ask James Wolfensohn, former World Bank Chief. Ask...well, never mind. Just judge Alicia Barcena Ibarra on her own performance.


One of the three division directors at the Department of Public Information, Susan Markham, has been extended six months beyond retirement age. Sue had joined the U.N. in the eighties from a troupe of Polynesian, Australian and New Zealander youth, displaying interest in woman-related issues. Some stayed, others opted for task forces or returned home for public or private lives. Over the last year, Ms. Markham became part of a "communications" group that met almost daily on the 38th floor to review and respond to media coverage. She obviously tried hard enough to allow for an exceptional extension. At least she deserves it more than that Rolex man in Geneva.


Already, some Thai voices are suggesting that Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai should withdraw his bid for U.N. Secretary General's post. The most prominent Bangkok daily, The Nation, had an op-ed piece suggesting that otherwise the country will face humiliation when its bid turns out not to have the overwhelming support of 110 countries claimed by the Prime Minister. Two distinguished Thai diplomats who served in Washington and New York, Asda Jayanana and Kosit Piromya, have voiced opposition to that bid -- as if bidding it farewell. However, Surakiart is blaming it all on some reporters, claiming the media was out to get him. Sounds familiar.


According to a recently issued Arabic book, the most remarkable man during the invasion of Iraq was neither President Bush, Prime Minister Blair, nor Saddam Hussein. A survey in the Gulf region indicated that over 90% thought that it was Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf who got the biggest audience. His bizarre claims of total victory and linguistic variations on a losing theme blended with his theatrical rhetoric drew wide -- puzzled, often entertained -- audiences. It was reported that even President Bush sometimes made time to watch "my man" for sheer entertainment. A new book "Al-Sahaf, the Ghost," compares him to another Iraqi, Yunis Bahri, whose voice blasted allies from Radio Berlin during the Second World War, also describing imaginary battles and fictitious victories. Both faded into oblivion.


Increased security measures surrounded U.N. compound in downtown Beirut. During the holiday season, non-essential staff were encouraged to take time off. A positive development is the feeling that senior staff at Headquarters are recently showing more understanding towards their situation and taking wise and preemptive measures to avert potential problems. Much of that credit is given to the new Chief of Security Affairs in New York, Sir David Vaness, who is making regular trips to survey the situation on the spot and to ESCWA Executive Secretary Ms. Mirvat Tellawy for her alert attitude.


The similarity in approach and terminology is amazing. While a Swiss negotiator is examining whether Ghanian Michael Wilson, formerly of Cotecna, acted illegally in obtaining a $3 million fee in connection with a $45 million winning bid to renovate WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) building, prestigious accounting firm Ernst & Young produced a report saying it has yet to find any evidence of bribery in its examination of the contract award, but it was too soon to rule out any wrongdoing. "The existence of financial wrongdoing can be neither excluded nor confirmed," the report said. As if that was not too familiar a reference, WIPO -- whose Directors General had ordered the report -- was quick to issue a statement that it had "put to an end the recent allegations that had appeared in the media." The Volcker report ordered by the U.N. Secretary General had noted the WIPO case, including a payment by Mr. Wilson of $256,000 to Khamis Suedi, then head of WIPO "Strategic Policy and Planning," who was promoted to an Assistant Secretary General's rank by Director General Kamil Idris. Mr. Suedi said the money was for an unrelated business in Tanzania. www.unforum.com had reported that relationship a year ago, highlighting the promotion given to Mr. Suedi. It was pointed out at the time that WIPO staff were allowed to conduct outside business as long as it was with the approval of the Director General. Upon receiving the report, WIPO swiftly claimed it has been "exonerated," Mr. Suedi had already resigned, and WIPO spokeswoman said none of the senior officials will be available to comment. Sound familiar?


The Kremlin web site reported a decision to appoint a new Russian representative to the U.N. offices and agencies in Geneva. Ambassador Valerie Luchitin, a former envoy to Balarus, has served until recently as Deputy Foreign Minister responsible for relations with the 12 Newly Independent States (formerly Soviet Republics). The Geneva post is significant because the Director General of the U.N. European office there is a Russian diplomat.


"Maybe the constitution says we should sell our country, who knows?"
Congolese student Stella Ivinya about a vote on an unknown constitution.


Paul Hoeffel, who headed the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) section in the Department of Public Information will be taking over as Director of the Information Centre in Mexico City. Although there was an internal controversy about the selection process, very few would doubt the integrity, dedication and professional performance of Paul, whose work with NGOs was marked by widening the networks of partnerships with civil society and sharpening the focus on the reform process. In whatever post, Paul has demonstrated a keen sense of teamwork and shared concerns for his staff colleagues. Pity he will be spending only one year in Mexico before retirement.


Those who thought Santa Lucia was a traditional Italian song are half right. It is also a traditional Swedish Christmas event. To launch the holiday season, beautiful Swedish girls are adorned with a crown of candles around their head while they chant "Santa Lucia:" Lady of Light. General Assembly President Jan Eliasson did not miss the opportunity to introduce Lucia Day to delegations. He gave a joyous celebration at the Delegates Lounge where ambassadors from various countries, including the Italians, joined in admiration.


Former General Assembly President and Malaysia Ambassador Razali Ismail has resigned from his assignment as Envoy to Myanmar. Actually, he just did not renew his contract which expired 4 January. A highly regarded diplomat, Razali's name has been mentioned as a possible candidate for Secretary General. Some speculated that he wanted to focus on his campaign. Others, more close to press briefings, recalled questions raised about a potential conflict of interest between his Myanmar assignment and the electronic company he chairs. Both versions may be linked. An Asian at U.N. Headquarters in contact with the media may have leaked the story about conflict of interest to get the Malaysian out of the way.


The last setback U.N. peacekeeping needed was a suspicious death of an auspicious General. When it was reported that the Brazilian Force Commander of troops in Haiti was found shot in his hotel room, rumours started flying around so wildly that Special Representative, former Chilean U.N. Ambassador Valdez had to denounce a "hate campaign" against his person. He had reportedly argued loudly with the General the evening of the proclaimed suicide. Haitians generally feel that the mission is almost separated from their daily life. It hardly maintains order, nor do U.N. troops, police or civilians buy much from the local market -- they rent modern apartments in safe neighbourhoods and frequent selected restaurants to the point that middle class Haitians changed the name of the mission from MINUSTAH to TURISTAH. .