15 January 2009


The war in Gaza led to the creation of a group of seven wives of Presidents in the region appealing to end the agony of tormented women and children in Gaza. The gathering was hosted by Amina Erdogan, wife of Turkey's Prime Minister and attended by Queen Rania of Jordan, Asma Assad of Syria, Aisha Qaddafi (daughter) of the Libyan leader and Wafa Suleiman of Lebanon.


The last appearance by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was about to be her siren song exit. On arrival, she took charge and outshone every other Foreign Minister including the media savvy Security Council Chairman Dr. Bernard Kouchner. She worked closely with her counterpart from Egypt in persuading Libya -- the Arab member of the Council -- to withdraw its draft resolution and encouraged the British to explore another text. The Secretary General of the Arab League Amre Moussa was briefly unhappy when she excluded him from a closed meeting with other diplomats. But she managed to move from bilateral to multilateral meetings with her standard high heeled pace, stopping at press stakeouts to give brief statements. However, when it came to the Thursday evening vote, she looked clearly dejected. According to the Huffington Post, Vice President Cheney wanted her to veto the resolution she had mainly helped draft, but National Security Advisor Hadley proposed a compromise abstention. In another version by Agence France Presse from Askelon, Israel, Prime Minister Olmert was quoted as telling a crowd that when he gathered that Dr. Rice would vote for the resolution, he telephoned President Bush and when told the President was addressing a crowd in Philadelphia, Olmert added he insisted on talking to him anyway in order to ask that the vote be turned against. An abstention was a compromise. However, the State Department issued a denial, stating that the Israeli government did not decide U.S. policy. Whatever the background, the usually upbeat and normally confident U.S. Secretary of State regrettably had a mellow U.N. exit.


"Dear Friends. We are not here running a grocery store. We are running the affairs of the Republic of Turkey."
-- Prime Minister Erdogan to arguing members of Parliament


With the resignation of Kemal Dervis, the post of UNDP Administrator will be open for tough competition. He was the first official from a developing country to head the Programme. Initially, it had been almost reserved for a U.S. citizen until Mark Malloch-Brown, of the U.K., took it over while several European candidates, especially from the Netherlands and Norway, competed. It is unlikely for Turkey to get a similar high level post, despite its new membership in the Security Council. With its contributed funding diminished, there is a question on whether the top post would go to a top contributing country. Would the U.S. seek to regain it? Would the U.K.? Europe would have a strong claim if it united behind one candidate, but that's unlikely. A short list will have to be drawn by end March, the time Mr. Dervis leaves from which the Secretary General will select a candidate. You have to feel for Mr. Ban. The pressure for this plum prestigious post will be enormous.


Confusion about who co-sponsored a resolution revived an otherwise boring General Assembly 11 December meeting. In the absence of the Assembly's President, the Tanzanian ambassador chaired. Normal proceedings were first interrupted by a Turkish delegate who claimed his country had been listed as a co-sponsor when in fact it had not indicated so. Someone on behalf of the Secretariat Department concerned gave a polite yet vague answer. Then a Chinese delegate stood up to announce otherwise; that his country had requested to co-sponsor but was not listed accordingly; a perturbed Chair turned again to the Secretariat which responded, again, briefly and vaguely. The agitated Chinese then went into details: how the sponsorship was requested during a specific visit to a certain office which claimed it had no forms but would record the request. The Tanzanian got more perturbed. The Chinese was more agitated. Secretariat staff started whispering to each other. Translations and interpretations were exchanged in various languages, although no one bothered to read the resolution in question.


During a December meeting on the financial crisis attended by the Secretary General in Doha, Qatar, there was a side argument on who should be the real spokesman. Actually, a specific person was designated but another staffer with a history of pomposity thought that he should be the one -- although he is junior to the designated officer. That argument only served to embarrass the U.N. in the eyes of the local authorities and media. No one else seemed to notice either of the two contesting colleagues. None of them had had any impact anyway. No wonder the Secretary General, who was an official co-host, hardly got a mention; he was duly photographed but his efforts were nowhere reported as the two contesting "Spokesmen" were busy emailing one another.


When a French official declared Yoghurt as a strategic national asset, an Italian counterpart has to step in. What about the Parmiggiano? Most people can get by on a non-yoghurt diet, especially the one pumped up by our bureaucrat in Paris. But what would a veal or chicken cutlet taste like without its customary frommaggio? What about other creative variations, like Caesar's salad? What about your basic spaghetti, let alone the paparbelli, tagliatelli and capelli d'angeli?! Would any self-respecting chef dare serve them bare, twisting in the wind with nothing shredded, melted or grated? We fully appreciate that the financial crisis has hit everyone's morale, morels and pockets. But, when it comes to the Parmiggiano, we have to draw a line -- at least por le bella figura. Will anyone in Rome stand up?


It's a long word, but some people seem to enjoy it. Despite every effort by hard working staff, a certain chief of service keeps arguing and complaining; the practical outcome is demoralizing rather than stimulating them. At a recent meeting with the head of the department, some staff believed that they could make their honest opinion known, in the hope of having a productive exchange. Instead that service chief button-holed them at the exit door. Ungracious and incompetent.


An experienced professional with a practical approach, Chaim Litewski was appointed as the new Chief of U.N. Television. He knows the mechanism inside and out, having worked hard as an executive producer in that service. As a team leader in a media ever growing in importance, Chaim knows what motivates his colleague while recognizing the limitations both in resources and in demands by member states. One of his recent accomplishments was the excellent service he provided the Secretary General during a rare visit earlier this year to Antarctica. Hug a penguin. It could bring you good luck.


With the beginning of January, the five newly-elected non-permanent members of the Security Council will take their seats. They are: Austria, Japan, Mexico, Turkey and Uganda. All of them have a record of active performance. Austria's prominent ambassador has proven experience in handling intricate issues. Japan's ambassador, a former U.N. controller, is expected to devote special attention to the "reform" of the Council, meaning to ensure Japan's permanent membership. Mexico, a pivotal country in Latin America and the Caribbean, would also welcome "reforms" which would offer it regular membership. Turkey is now playing a special mediating role in the Middle East while trying to gain European membership. Uganda? Look for Uganda's hand in so many African conflicts, from the Congo to Darfur. Its membership in the Council will be a test on how it uses the other hand!


Karen AbuZayd stood out with her dedication and courage during the recent Israeli military assault on Gaza. An American woman married to a Sudanese, she stood her ground at her Headquarters in Gaza despite seven days of incessant bombing. While under greatest pressure, she inspired her staff and kept her good judgment, calling on all parties to stop the violence. She did not hesitate to speak out publicly on the humanitarian loss and the political drawbacks. Her interview with Larry King reflected a clear presentation and a clear commitment to perform her designated functions. She sounded like a voice in the wilderness. Other senior U.N. officials seemed to have gone on holiday!


Now we don't have mere envoys. We have "top" envoys. No day passes without being told that "U.N. Top Envoy" on (they are rarely "in") Somalia or Iraq or wherever, has expressed pleasure, regret or something in-between. Of course, they are so irrelevant to actual events that no one else notices except those dutiful colleagues in the Spokesman's office churning out those pompous deliberations. An envoy who cannot even enter a country is given elaborate space to pontificate to himself, for himself, by himself. Whatever happened to real down-to-earth-on-the-spot envoys?!


Dr. Madeline Albright, who was described as Chair of Albright Capital Management and Former Secretary of State told Tina Brown's "The Daily Beast" that the National Democratic Institute started this new program for improving access to information for communities in Sudan:

"By distributing these small portable blue radios that are the size of a book and solar-powered. They are encouraging freedom of expression and providing information that is vital to democratic change. The Sudanese people will finally have a chance to participate in the development of new political institutions just in time for the 2009 elections and 2001 referendum on Southern independence." And then you wonder how serious thoughtful "Foreign policy" officials get carried away with their own gimmicks.


The irrepressible Claudia Rosett came out with a take on Kipling's "If" when the controversial Governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich quoted the famous British poet. In an entertaining "Pajamas Media" item, her version included the following:

"If you can scheme - but never scheme in writing,
If you can talk - but not from your home phone,
If you can face the press and keep reciting
That truth is on your side, though you're alone;
If you can bear to hear the bleeps you've spoken
Quoted on Fox TV and "Meet the Press"
Or watch that Senate seat become a token
Of all the things they'd like you to confess"


The rain it raineth every day
Upon the just and unjust fella
But mostly on the just because
The unjust has the just's umbrella


  • Long statements have plenty of small errors.
  • Very good things come to one who arrives very early.
  • If a road goes nowhere, try again.


A New Year town hall meeting was arranged for the Secretary General to connect with most offices away from Headquarters. It was a welcome opportunity for staff in different -- and distant -- locations to communicate with their Chief face to face, listen to his guidance and -- if feasible -- express their concerns. The initiative was organized by Angela Kane, newly-appointed Under-Secretary General for Management, who had a vital role in launching the U.N. official website when she was a Director in the Department of Public Information. To what extent did such a welcome initiative allow for a much needed open debate remains an open question. What is definite is that an open dialogue is always a good occasion and that all sides -- Administration and staff -- should make further efforts to better communicate.


Was it just a change of words or a real measure to stop permanent contracts? The new term used is "continuing." Whether it has the same connotation or not will be argued at least by Mr. Ban's spokesman while staff representatives will argue otherwise. One could clearly quote Article 101 of the Charter, referring to "permanently assigned" staff as a way to maintain their independent performance as international civil servants, not vulnerable to outside political pressure. That's why an increasing number of staff now believe that a hidden target is to undercut independent international civil service.


During a one-hour interview analyzing the war in Gaza at Al-Jezeera, Mohammed Hassenein Haykal, the most prominent Arab media personality and former close associate of Egypt's former President Nasser began and concluded by mentioning the myth of the River of Madness. It is about a river whose water was polluted with madness. Everyone who drank from it became crazy. In time, most people were driven insane. There came a point in time when even the most sane and wise felt that to survive in that atmosphere, they also better take a sip from that river of madness.


Initially there was confusion with the other Christopher. A usually well-informed U.N. based reporter to whom a name of a new envoy for Western Sahara was leaked described him as former Secretary of State Warren Christopher. We at www.unforum.com clarified at the time that the confusion was with Christopher Ross, a U.S. diplomat with a long and distinguished career in the Middle East and North Africa. It took some time -- like seven months -- to clear the nomination, particularly with the Moroccan authorities who were fond of outgoing envoy Peter von Walsum. Meanwhile, during the waiting period, there was a slight brief confusion with Dennis Ross, a chronic Middle East negotiator. Finally, on 7 January, the Secretary General announced the appointment of Christopher Ross. He served, among other posts as U.S. Ambassador to Algeria and Syria. Incidentally, he speaks Arabic -- fluently, though with a slight Syrian accent.


Bad artists admire each other's work.
-- Oscar Wilde


A newly arrived delegate whose country started occupying a key decision-making body seems to believe that the most crucial test of an accomplished diplomat is to doze off undetected in consecutive intervals.


At a recent ceremony in Oslo accepting the Noble Peace Prize, former U.N. Under-Secretary General Martti Ahtisaari appealed to U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to make a special push for peace in the Middle East as soon as he can. "The international community and those in power are sitting there letting them destroy each other," he announced. Will anyone listen?


An excellent initiative was started by DPI Under-Secretary General Kiyo Akasaka. He appears on the website of the U.N. Information Centres to give an introduction on brief words and concise terms. By highlighting the role of a crucial network which connects the United Nations with the people it serves, Ambassador Akasaka displays a welcome understanding that our worldwide organization cannot and should not operate only from its Headquarters. Operating with about 100 languages, the Centres serve as a focal point with national media, and a valuable resource for government officials, civil society organizations, NGO's, students and the intellectual community. The Information Centres Service is to be commended for maintaining that site. Kiyo Akasaka is to be commended for visibly supporting it.


No good deed remains unpunished. Benon Sevan carefully selected a young aspiring man as his special assistant in the Food-For-Oil program. When, due to incompetence, connivance and greed, it turned into a world famous scandal, Michael Soussan turned out to be a vague witness but eventually produced a clearly hard-hitting book. Backbiting or "Backstabbing for Beginners." Very entertaining and cleverly written stuff -- meaning more damage to an already battered U.N. image. Ridiculously detailed, it draws a sarcastic picture of a paranoid group suspicious of one another yet keen on presenting a respectable front to the rest of the international community. Regardless of the theatrical smoke, Sevan comes out looking very clever in cutting through red tape, very effective in handling Iraqi officials and vulnerably human in dealing with his colleagues. That's not bad for someone once befriended by so many friends, colleagues and acquaintances, but deserted by most at the hint of trouble. Colleagues who know Sevan for years did not know that his favoured nickname was "Pasha," although they were very familiar with his repeated references to "faking" things and imitating people. The upshot of Soussan's book is to place the blame on "the U.N.," and -- with a smile -- miss Benon.


Insider talk about a departure by senior British U.N. Secretariat Under-Secretary John Holmes is coupled with an indication that the U.K. would be seeking a different post; that is, other than Humanitarian Affairs. Sir John, a former ambassador to France and a Blairite, was initially mentioned for Political Affairs before the Americans reclaimed it. Would U.K. be seeking, in turn, to retrieve Political Affairs (like under Urquhart and Goulding days)? And do they have a hint that the American incumbent may be leaving? Or is the U.K. actually interested in the post of Chef de Cabinet, once ably held by Lord Malloch-Brown?


Here is a cautionary tale. As there is no real control over nominating actors and actresses as "ambassadors" by any head of U.N. program keen on reaching Hollywood, there is a downside. Like non-ambassadorial behaviour by a designated star. According to French weekly, Voici, a well-known actress somehow "lost" a very expensive bracelet (about $140,000) lent to her by Bulgari for a show in Madrid. She claims to have handed it for safekeeping at the hotel's security desk; but the management denied any knowledge or record of deposited jewelry. On the brighter side, she has dutifully returned to another lender a pair of shoes. Perhaps they could be forwarded to the eager program manager in New York.


After trying very hard to get a job with the U.N. (the latest was Special Envoy for Afghanistan), former British Liberal leader Paddy Ashdown is pontificating about how the U.N. is now very passe. "I think the U.N. is an old organization," he told a bored audience at the Institute of Public Policy Research. It was not structured for executive action (obviously by leaders like him), but for "discussion and legalisation of action." Mercifully, the former paratrooper spared a side lecture on the strategic implications of the Tseng-Ye military approach. Incidentally, though referring to himself as mere Paddy, to you it is Baron Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon.


A first rate diplomat and profound believer in United Nations principles, long-time Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas died in a Singapore hospital at the age of 75. He had served as Permanent Representative in New York before returning to Jakarta when he played a pivotal role in reaching an international agreement over Cambodia. His influence spread way beyond Asia. He was an integral part of every serious international gathering. When the proposal to have an Asian U.N. Secretary General was first mentioned in 2000, Alatas' name was the most prominent but was handicapped by the issue of East Timor and internal difficulties in his own country, in addition to his age, and his declining health. Those with institutional memory remember him fondly -- an experienced compassionate effective diplomat with a winning smile. May God bless his soul.


What is more important: freedom of information or the reputation of a Sheikh's horse? A court in the United Arab Emirates closed down a newspaper for reporting that some of the Sheikh's horses were injected with steroids. Not only did "Al-Emarat Al-Yom" insult the horse, it also expressed the view that using steroids in an international competition was an embarrassment for the reputation of the country. Sheikh Hazzaa Bin Sultan Bin Zayed Al-Nehyen and his brother Sheikh Khalid Bin Sulten Bin Zayeb Al-Nehyan joined forces to obtain a decision to close the paper 20 days and charge the editor and the chairman of the publishing company about $6,000 each.


Andreas Leviras had nothing to do with politics. He only cared for yachts. The British Cypriot who had retired at 50 to make a $365 million fortune buying old boats, refurbishing and reselling them. His base was in Monte Carlo. When he arrived in London in 1963 as an immigrant he worked as a delivery boy for a grocery in Kensington. A love for the sea and his enterprising spirit propelled him to commercial success. It also led to his catastrophic death in Mumbai's terrorist attack. He was dining when the criminal terrorists went in shooting. He moved from room to room and emailed his son, Dion in London from his cell phone. He was 73 years old. Most sincere condolences to his son Dion and to daughters Maria, Sophia and Carla.