15 January 2007


When Ban Ki-Moon arrived in New York in October to attend his election by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council, most observers had expected him to take the oath of office at the same time. That was the tradition over the last forty years. When the oath was postponed, those around the incumbent spread an explanation that it was the newly-elected Secretary General who had wanted some time to sort out certain requirements at home and resign officially from his official Korean post. But then Mr. Ban resigned and arrived in New York by mid-November, but the oath ceremony was delayed a month further, to 14 December. According to a well-placed primary source, it was in fact Mr. Annan who had wished to delay the oath ceremony of his successor. Not only did he appreciate the praise habitually given to an outgoing Secretary General as a new one is elected but he arranged for an official farewell on the agenda even at the December oath-taking meeting -- a very unusual procedure. Also, very little effort was made by the communications machinery to promote the coverage of Ban Ki-Moon taking the oath, for example with American television. A BBC interview that day was upon the initiative of U.N. correspondent Laura Trevelyan. Observers who followed Annan -- and his team -- for years say that his main interest in the delay could be that he did not wish to have anyone share the stage with him; that he did not want to look like a lame duck; and that he may have been still in a state of denial in October and needed some time.


Tuscany wins after all. Tuesday, 1 January, 2007, former Secretary General Kofi Annan took a Lufthansa flight to Rome. At least two very grateful Italians could have been waiting to welcome him. The first is his factotum of all seasons and once proud employer in Beirut of Imren Iqbal Riza, Italian Swede / Swede Italian Steffan Demistura who was just granted a cushy job in Italy well beyond retirement age and far exceeding Mr. Annan's term. The other is gun enthusiast Vienna-based head of Anti-crime and Drug Office, Director General of European Office (plus other titles better recounted in Brussels), Mr. Costa who was also unusually extended three years beyond Mr. Annan's term, despite an investigation which resulted in a letter of caution, or apology (it was never clear in those gray areas). A third appreciative official would be the Italian General placed in charge of a "strategic cell" running UNIFIL II in Lebanon from an upper floor in New York. Obviously Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who extended practical useful help during the summer (?) war in Lebanon will be only too glad to receive the visitor and company. The welcome sojourn does not supersede longer-term plans for the Canton de Vaud, Switzerland, where Monsieur Oggia (?), Mr. Annan's Special Envoy for Youth and Sports and well cultivated friends of the "Geneva Internationale" will be only too glad to lend an appreciative hand. It may also be that the retired Gold Omega man, once investigated for his acrobatic desk maneuvers, could still offer his services -- at the Rue du Rhone.


In volatile situations, soothsayers prevail. In Lebanon recently, a new group of political forecasters is appearing on television indicating "visions" they profess to seeing -- vaguely but surely. Broadcasters do not limit their questions to the tormented yet always creative country, but extend to the rest of the world. For example, one forecaster told a broadcaster on New Year's Eve that the new U.N. Secretary General will be getting into some difficulty for something he says. Asked about the outgoing Secretary General, he would have some "surprise trouble" which would "occupy his mind."


It must have been a very pleasant surprise for the new U.N. Secretary General. When Ban Ki-Moon met the Secretariat staff on 2 January, his first day of taking over, he received a standing ovation. Obviously, he handled himself very well. Additionally, however, it was an intuitive reaction by the long-neglected staff as to their disappointment at their former colleague who rose from their ranks to become Secretary General and left without an official farewell to those who ten years ago had been elated at his election. Very sad indeed.


Then there are those who are very eager to know what did the new Secretary General place on his luncheon tray as he visited the Cafeteria on his first day of assuming his functions. To them the new "Spokesperson" (some of her female predecessors preferred "Spokeswoman" while others actually stuck to "Spokesman") informed the press briefing two days later that Mr. Ban had opted for beef and broccoli. A balanced healthy light diet which apparently deserved a sub-headline in the scripted highlights.


In principle we stand by the sturgeons -- whether they produce caviar or not. After all, they have been around for 300 million years while we are merely passing through. Over the holidays some distraught diplomats discussed over dinner the bleak prospects of caviar. To those of us who are uninitiated in the artful consumption of the Caspian black pearl, a quick reference to its price per ounce is likely to keep us away. But not for those determined to overcome social handicaps. We are told that the most valuable is produced by the Beluga female sturgeon. Iran, a Security Council frequent customer, is a main producer and careful distributor. But other neighbouring parties lend a smuggling hand, particularly where the females are involved. In brief, limited circulation is rivaled by contraband, fake labeling and creative attempts to bypass customs. All that is at least officially supervised by a U.N. agency entitled CITES, Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species. And you didn't know.


Andy Warhol who invented the principle that everyone in New York was entitled to 15 minutes of either fortune or fame explained the reason behind one of his artistic decisions by saying: "I'd asked 10 or 15 people for suggestions. Finally one lady friend asked the right question: 'What do you love most?' That's how I started painting money."


Reporters who made a story out of Ban Ki-Moon's difficulty in responding to a question by a French Canadian correspondent certainly do not speak French. With all due respect, even French government officials are often overwhelmed by the "Quebeqais" accent which is very much affected by the social structure of "Canadza." A very Francophone Secretary General always insisted on speaking with one of his "French Canadian" senior colleagues in English, despite her relentless efforts to shift to French.


Our friends in London tell us that the new top executive of the Financial Times Rona Fairhead is not only acquiring wider office space but obtaining the latest tech furniture that will have to go with it. So while FT's New York U.N.-based correspondent Mark Turner has to plod his weary way from a tiny office on the third floor next to a hardly kept but frequently used men's room, Ms. Fairhead reportedly got a new $20,000 chair to rest her equally valuable bottom.


A sentence repeated by outgoing Secretary General Kofi Annan throughout December was "I never thought I'd get to that day." If you think of it, Mr. Annan has been in the U.N. building -- in and out -- for over 40 years. It's a lifetime. Having spent the last ten as the supreme leader with a special team of incense burners telling him every day what a most popular, thoughtful, gentle, suave, velvety-voiced, regal and elegant man he was, it will certainly feel very lonely even when surrounded by millions (of people) near Lake Geneva. It is a pity he did not make an extra effort to keep in touch with his grass root support -- his former colleagues who were elated at his selection from their ranks but ended up being frustrated by his administration.


There goes Ed. Not to London where he came from to become a speechmaker and prolific writer of futile letters to the editor. It will be Salzburg, Austria, home of those Tyrol jackets and very healthy mountaineers exchanging yodels. A semi-international group would wish to utilize his perceived experience. Good for them; good for him. To use one of Ed's favoured phrases, he will "leave no stone unturned" to get to the bottom of whatever that group is doing. Most likely that group is what the British civil servants used to call a "Qaungo" -- a "quasi non-governmental organization" with some governmental back-up. Ed Mortimer was brought to New York by the Annan/Tharoor team, having helped with the campaign in the British press. Having worked for the Financial Times, he kept it fed with tidbits and mutually useful leaks until a higher authority took over to direct strategic traffic. He was interviewed in London for the job in 1998 by an outgoing head of the Department of Public Information, who knew that the deal was already on. Now, alas, time is up. Sensibly, Ed, who is basically a decent man, sought a dignified exit, unlike that other shameless self-promoter who is hanging by his teeth until the last moment.


Another colleague of Ed during Annan's time, Fred, was in New York recently. The former Spokesman, Fred Eckhard, a scrupulous professional, was visiting headquarters during the transitional December period, possibly saying "hello" to the incoming and good-bye to the outgoing. He was recently doing academic work in China, although we understand that his retirement home -- with his wife and our former colleague -- is still in France.


The first Arab-Israeli orchestra performed at Carnegie Hall in December. It was a joint determined effort by Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim and Palestinian American intellectual Edward Said. A unique creative avenue to explore in the violent Middle East, the Diwan group was formed in 1999 when gifted young Palestinians and Israelis got together for a workshop to explore their options. The outcome was manifested seven years later as enthusiasts braved cold New York December weather (and metal detector check-ups) to hear the group perform at Carnegie Hall. It was a glimpse of hope, however brief, seeing those gifted youth coming from conflicting backgrounds move artistically together in harmony, jointly pursuing a passion they shared.


We repeat our best wishes to everyone over the holidays and for a successful, prosperous, peaceful 2007. We also repeat a remark we made last year around the same time about the terminology used in official communiques about a particular day. On the occasion of the Moslem "Sacrifice Day," Yaum Al-Adha, an announcement is made that the U.N. headquarters will be closed because of "Eid." That is not accurate. Christmas and Easter are as much "Eid" as "Al-Adha." "Eid" means "holiday." Out of deference and respect, call it by its specific name. Otherwise, it would look as if it was picked up as merely a day to close shops in-between two other well-defined holidays.


A brief word of appreciation. Marie Okabe worked as Deputy Spokesman throughout a very difficult trying period. In several awkward cases, she was left to fend for activities by higher ups on which she was not adequately briefed. From many Oil-for-Food stories, to the Green Mercedes to Tharoor's glaring self-promotional activities, Marie Okabe handled herself with professional competence. She tried very hard with dignity and grace. She has earned special thanks for performing a thankless job -- during an embarrassing time. Thanks, Marie.


The bereaved family of former U.S. President Gerald Ford intuitively displayed a right set of priorities when they enumerated his fine qualities to remember: man of human compassion; a loving husband; a caring father, grandfather and great grandfather; and a President of the United States.


Lots of presents over the holidays. While it is a great pleasure to give and receive, it is also a problem to have to offer some presents just because someone expects it. Not someone near or dear but an accidental bystander. While an unofficial survey has indicated the difficulty in locating the most desirable present, there seems to be a consensus that the worst present to offer is: cologne.


Al-Arabiyah TV reported that some wealthy men in the Gulf are competing to buy the rope that hanged Saddam Hussein. By now, the witness who took the widely circulating phone video of the hanging is known though not identified. He is a very influential Iraqi who has been in power since the fall of Baghdad, remaining in his very influential position regardless of three governmental changes. Most likely he also has that rope. Most likely, he will not sell it to that Kuwaiti businessman. He may, however, offer it as a present to someone else -- much more powerful. How macabre can it get?


UNICEF has received the single largest earmarked donation in its 60-year history -- $201 million pledged by the Government of the Netherlands to radically expand the agency’s efforts to ensure that youngsters caught in conflict and natural disasters as well as those emerging from crisis can go to school. Some 25 million children in 40 countries in emergency or post-crisis situations are expected to benefit from the additional funding, which will enable 10 million youngsters currently deprived of any form of education to return to school, and another 15 million living in crisis situation to receive a better education. The countries include Sudan, Liberia, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Lebanon, occupied Palestinian territories, Nepal, Myanmar, Haiti, Sri Lanka, Côte d'Ivoire, Azerbaijan, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Swaziland. The funds will be distributed over four years. UNICEF will also receive an additional $56 million for water and sanitation programmes, $24 million for child protection programmes and $24 million for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment from the Dutch Government.


British press had a field day on the appointment of Sir John Holmes as the new U.N. Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs. A protege of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and host to some of his holidays, Sir John is currently U.K. Ambassador to France. The British had hoped he would be given Peacekeeping or Political Affairs, but apparently that job was already spoken for. The French hope to retain Peacekeeping, changing its incumbent after a few months of gracious breathing space and the Americans hope to get Political Affairs. The Brits reportedly came up with only one name, with no alternatives -- the name selected by the Prime Minister.


A timely announcement for outgoing Deputy Secretary General Mark Malloch Brown. He was on the Queens honour list as an Officer of the British Empire. As predicted, he left the U.N. building on December 31, 2006, not exactly transporting the Secretary General's suitcases -- as he once promised -- but managed to cut down on some heavy baggage which Kofi Annan would have carried. Regardless of personal views, Sir Mark -- as he is now entitled to be called -- managed to pull Mr. Annan (and by inevitable linkage the U.N.) from a very difficult predicament. Farewell, Sir Mark -- and good luck.