15 January 2008


A general media review of Ban Ki-moon's one year as Secretary General noted his dedicated hard work, his persistent contacts with world's senior government officials and his untiring travels to raise U.N. concerns. He was given high marks for self-effacing attempts to deal with a growing list of challenges, despite lack of expected results. His impressive handling of the terrorist bombing that killed U.N. staff in Algeria was particularly noted with special admiration. A story by Reuters' Patrick Worsnip was thoughtfully informative and professionally balanced. A detailed review by the Economist was equally impressive. There was a consensus that Secretary General Ban may need to review his management style and open his circle of advisors to wider experience.


In honouring the memory of U.N. staff killed in the terrorist criminal attack in Algiers 11 December, Secretary General Ban made every effort to raise staff morale and confirm a courageous determination to uphold the U.N. flag. Literally bringing the tattered flag that had flown outside the U.N. offices at the time of the attack was a touching symbolic gesture of loyalty. An excellent sentence in Mr. Ban's speech to headquarters' staff upon his return said, quite rightly, that the U.N. must become better at explaining its role to the public and the media -- "emphasizing that it does not represent the interest of one group of nations against another but rather exists to build better lives for the people it serves." However, that excellent thought that captures an essential aspect of the problem was somehow dropped later from the presented announcement at the official website. That could have only happened by a political decision. By whom?


Only one week into its membership of the Security Council, formerly labeled "failed state" Libya not only took over the rotating presidency of the Security Council for January but managed two key contradictory/conductory? events: U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Rice met for the first time in decades with its Foreign Minister, who is a former Prime Minister, and later, its senior officials received a very senior Iranian visitor. While the first meeting was obviously noted, yet played down for obvious reasons, the second meeting, hardly mentioned, was specially significant because also for decades Iran and Libya have not been on good terms. Ayatollah Khomeni and his successor had questioned Mr. Qaddafi on the disappearance of Imam Mousa Al Sadr, a charismatic Iranian Lebanese Shiite cleric who had launched the "Movement of the Deprived," turned later into the Brigades of Lebanese Resistance, abbreviated as Amal, now a politically influential movement headed by Lebanese Parliament speaker Nabih Berri. For the last THIRTY years, Lebanese Shiite politicians have taken an anti-Libya position, regularly questioning its government about the fate of the Imam and his two companions who had disappeared after an invitation to visit the Libyan leader in Tripoli. The Libyans claimed at the time that the Imam had left for Rome but were accused of falsifying the records to cover either arbitrary detainment or worse. The two recent meetings reflect an emerging role for Libya not only in opening up channels with two important adversaries but possibly as a potential channel between them.


As negotiations on the U.N. budget went through the night of 21 December, several key diplomats started milling around the second floor office of the General Assembly President. The Secretary General, his main advisor Mr. Kim, Controller Warren Sach, were holding forth and searching for consensus while government representatives were bargaining to the last minute. The main remaining objection was by the U.S. delegation to funds allocation for an international conference in Durban, South Africa. Usually, the budget is adopted by consensus with no opposing vote. However, this time -- that is by dawn of 22 December -- the budget was adopted with official U.S. opposition (but tacit approval). Ambassador Khalilzad told someone near him: "I can't wake up Condie for this."


"In the Gulf they are turning the desert into civilized countries. In Lebanon, we are turning a civilized country into a desert."
-- A Lebanese lawyer


"In some ways, mankind is awaiting God. But when the moment comes, there is no room for Him. Man is so preoccupied with himself; he has such an urgent need for all the space and all the time for his own things that nothing remains for others -- for his neighbours, for the poor, for God."
-- Pope Benedict XVI on Christmas


January 4 "Town Hall" gathering was an excellent idea wasted in a boring rendition. Staff were looking forward to a lively dialogue with their Secretary General. Instead, Ban Ki-moon kept reading from a carefully written text, even when supposedly cracking an ambiguous joke. Whoever drafted it must have sought to keep the laugh to himself (it certainly was not a she). Such occasions could be excellent morale boosters, information sources, or helpful guidelines. None of the above, unfortunately, was accomplished. It did not help that almost on the same day some articles appeared, quoting Mr. Ban as repeating his Mr. Kim's claim about a "work culture" found lacking amongst U.N. staff. How could you mobilize or inspire your staff, your main asset, if you keep putting them down or boring them to paralysis?


After an initially difficult period, Geir Pedersen managed to prove himself in a very challenging task as Special Representative of the Secretary General in Lebanon. He did his homework well and kept in touch with all parties, regaining some recognition for the Organization's essential role. He was of valuable help to the new Secretary General during his two visits to Beirut. During his term, his role was expanded to cover co-ordination of all U.N. activities in the country. Pedersen has now informed colleagues at Headquarters that he will be leaving Beirut soon to return to Norwegian diplomatic service. While we wish him well in his new endeavour, we hope he will be replaced by an equally qualified candidate. The type of new envoy to Beirut will indicate the type of role, if any, the Secretary General envisions playing in Lebanon.


A 60th birthday party by Rita Hauser for Terje Larsen confirmed the widespread impression that the New Yorker woman behind the International Peace Academy has enough reason to be very satisfied with her choice to bypass all candidates for the Academy's Director in favour of the former Norwegian diplomat. His fund-raising capacity in the Middle East where he doubles as a U.N. envoy must have helped. The Academy is about to have a new, more modern, larger premises, certainly not from contributions of viewers like you and me.


Just before he left the Department of Political Affairs for a stint in Yale, Sir Kiernan Prendergast was a whisker away from being designated as a Special U.N. Envoy to the Middle East. Having spent his younger days between Ankara, Tel Aviv and elsewhere in that complex region particularly well known to British diplomats, he was fully prepared to lead a new venture. But then, as the Secretary General at the time stated, we do not live in an ideal world, especially when a key player singled out the Under Secretary General as a loyal scapegoat for his boss. Perhaps tempers have softened since and with a new Secretary General with a special entree to Washington, Sir Kieran may add his experience -- and sense of humour -- to his former Department. He has kept a U.N. link through his role on the Nigerian Cameroon border question. Anyway, he was spotted recently walking the corridors of the 37th floor to the delight of his former assistants and the anxious curiosity of others.


Those keen on celebrating the African Kwanza during the holiday season were disappointed. Not too many seemed to share their enthusiasm, now that the African Secretary General is gone. Those who pretended to joyfully proclaim "Harambe" mainly kept to themselves. With a new regime, they are still looking for the Korean equivalent.


That oxygen blonde with a fake British accent believes she runs the U.N. Brought in by the shameless self-promoter and tucked away on the 38th floor under some guise, she was mainly charged with warming up to certain reporters and blowing the horn of her "leader," particularly in the run up for his failed quest. Now, with her "leader" gone, she shifted gears and is posing as a most loyal horn blower for those with current influence. Shameless.


How about when a man kills a dog? Is it news? You bet. Especially if the dog was Hentish. If you have to ask, then you didn't know that the N.Y. Times "compound" in Baghdad had its guardian pet. Now lamented. News that's fit to print, discreetly. After all, people are dying with names unmentioned, withheld or disregarded. But then Hentish was something else. Apparently killed by an agitated Blackwater terminator -- suspecting clear and present danger. Didn't realize an ongoing rule: you kill my dog, I kill your cash cow.


How times change! In the mid-eighties the guides who were termed Public Information Assistants initiated job action after several work-related demands with their Department of Public Information, then headed by Japanese diplomat Yasushi Akashi. Exactly twenty years later, the guides exercised a "sick call-in" to pursue work-related demands pending with the same department headed again by a Japanese diplomat. This time however action was swiftly taken as USG Akasaka worked overnight to put a settlement on track, particularly after a stunning Korean guide briefed the Secretary General during a social function. What is worth noting, ironically, is that amongst the six staffers nominated to represent the administration this time, three were part of the Eighties guide's side.


Field work has been good for Eric Falt. A former press officer for the mission of France, Eric joined the Secretariat in varied assignments when he displayed professional competence and a dynamic capacity for teamwork with colleagues from all backgrounds. Although much of his work was in Asia, Eric, who works comfortably in the two U.N. working languages managed to display equitable geographical interest. It is heartening to see a field person return to Headquarters in a more senior post. Eric Falt has just been appointed Director of the Outreach Division in the Department of Public Information.


With Jan Beagle going to Geneva, the Assistant Secretary General's post of Personnel Chief is now open. Candidates were asked to apply. Lots of jockeying for a very delicate job these days: low staff morale, varied interpretations of rules and regulations and an absence of specific guidance. Now that application time is over, we hope Ms. Barcena, the USG for Management, will be able to select a capable, informed and experienced insider -- capable not only to sign appointment or promotion contracts -- but to COMMUNICATE effectively with both the staff and the administration. If no such person is amongst the closed list of applicants, then open it flexibly to ensure that all options were explored while thinking outside the box.


  • Don't step on a crocodile while barefoot.
  • Don't change your electronic room card keys before dinner.
  • Don't eat on an empty stomach.


Modern technology
Owes ecology
An apology.


It is common knowledge that throughout Peacekeeping zones there is a growing tragedy of forcing children to participate in murderous conflicts. Some are shorter than the guns they carry yet are drugged, tempted or threatened to use them. The most pressing one is in the Congo where all sides resort to abusing children -- from the Mai-Mai militias to Rwandan Hutus to pro-government militias. However, the only voices rising in protest are civil society groups like Save the Children or interested reporters. No real protest or preventive measures by United Nations officials or those already tainted peacekeepers. By the way, there is a Special Representative of the Secretary General to prevent abuse of children in armed conflicts. What is that office doing except for the odd press communique about a visit to Turkmenistan? We had hoped that when a woman replaced a man in that post a new spirit would be injected.


The post of Assistant Secretary General formally occupied by Patrizio Civili in the Department of Economic and Social Development has not been filled yet. It has been vacated since March. It was originally thought that a delay was in deference to the new head of Department who eventually took over in June. By early January, there was no indication of a nomination. Perhaps it could drag along two months more until March. If during one year, business has been conducted as usual, then perhaps there is no need for the post. Perhaps the same could also apply in other Departments. But then, what to do with hopeful outgoing ambassadors seeking jobs in New York?


In an interview with Al-Jazeera upon his request, Secretary General Ban answered a variety of questions including those about the perception that he does the bidding of only one big power and that he was perceived as habitually siding with the Israeli viewpoint against the Arabs. There were awkward moments, particularly where neither the original English nor the interpreted Arabic were clear to listeners. But it is always better to have a dialogue than exchanges of one sided recriminations. Regardless of substantive points, the initiative by the Secretary General proved welcome.


From reported miseries in the Arab world, in Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon and elsewhere, you'd think that Arab media has nothing to do but mourn. Instead, there were widespread eruptions of joy during Christmas and the New Year, particularly with young popular female singers appearing on all TV stations. Two songs were predominant. One by a flirty woman advising a very handsome but unduly serious man that she intended to get him no matter at what cost; and the other playfully informing girls and boys that they were all "naughty" -- which is the song's title. Last year the most popular song was call "Wawa," again by the same playful singer seeking a kiss on her wawa -- Arabic slang for where it hurts.


He was one of those prominent diplomats caught by swift historic change. A former representative of the Soviet Union and Russia to the U.N., Yuli Vorontsov, who died recently, played an important diplomatic role on key international issues. As ambassador to Washington and Afghanistan, he closely handled the withdrawal of Soviet troops. As ambassador to France and India, he was entrusted with delicate tasks both in Europe and Asia. One of the most distinguished at his country's Foreign Ministry, he tried to cope gracefully with unexpected historic change. From the year 2000, he took an undemanding job as the U.N. Special Envoy on Kuwaiti repatriations. Even those who questioned the value of that appointment maintained their personal respect for a professional and decent diplomat.