15 March 2007


Wednesday 28 February was the last day for Professor Ibrahim Gambari as Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs. He had tried to leave the office over the week-end but legions of friends, colleagues, and admirers wanted to express appreciation for the sterling work done over the last two years. The confident, decent and distinguished Nigerian had accomplished many challenging tasks: Professor; Foreign Minister; Ambassador; Special Adviser to the Secretary General; before taking his latest task. Throughout he earned admiration and respect through dedicated work and consideration for others. More indicative, he won the loyalty of his staff for whom he cared. The last Town Hall meeting he held with them, they gave an unprecedented standing ovation. It was the human dimension of Ibrahim Gambari's work that gave him a special edge among staff and diplomats alike. That's why they needed no prompting to drop by at his last day in that post to come over and say: Thank You. That collective appreciation must have made its impact when decisions are taken. The day after, it was announced that Ambassador Gambari had been appointed as a Special Advisor on the International Compact with Iraq and other political issues, at the same level as Under-Secretary General. That same day he got busy taking the plane to Saudi Arabia to prepare for the Secretary General's participation at the Arab Summit later this month. A gracious exit and re-entry. Thanks and welcome again.


After a year of enduring a director imposed by Tharoor to promote his candidature, the staff of U.N. Brussels rebelled. An official complaint was sent to Headquarters. We will not go into details for now, to avoid impairing an ongoing investigation. However, we are following up on the problems raised, and watching out for potential political interference, whether from someone in Geneva (who would be contacting someone in New York!) or elsewhere. If points raised by those qualified staff with proven experience in various European Centres are overlooked, then we'll have a few points of our own to make.


For two years the Mission of Lebanon has been without a Permanent Representative. Finally, a few months ago, there was an agreement among the President, Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister on a list (balanced along sectarian lines); a Greek Orthodox would take Washington and a Muslim Sunni would take the U.N. post. However, a collective resignation by Shia ministers included Foreign Affairs -- so action was stopped. One problem is that the U.N. delegate-designate Mr. Nawwaf Salam is from outside the diplomatic cadre. A professor at the American University of Beirut and an active intellectual, he is married to a brilliant columnist in daily An-Nahar, Ms. Sahar Baasiri. Since the political leadership seems to have other pressing priorities to agree on, it may be some time before Mr. Salam makes it to New York. Even if and when he does, there is a deadline of September next year when a new President is to be elected; all ambassadors from outside the cadre will have to resign and another process will start. That means that our charming workaholic Carolina Ziadeh will be acting as head of the Lebanese Mission and interim for a long while.


There are three kinds of people in this world: those who can't stand Picasso, those who can't stand Raphael, and those who've never heard of either of them.
-- John White


"I ate a whole chocolate bar."
-- Claudia Schiffer, Model, Davos lecturer


According to a New York Times story from Madrid, men seem to be giving up their siesta while using Viagra to enhance their social competence. One person used as a reference is Carmen, an information technology executive described as "a Sophia Loren look-alike" (Ms. Loren, by the way, is Italian). She was going out with an equally qualified executive, a psychoanalyst, who resorted to the "Azul" (the blue pill) to keep up with her requirements; but she dumped him anyway for a younger student athlete. But then Carmen (by now she should be "Carmensita" to you) confronts the serious reporter with a substantive question: "Now I have sex six times a day, but I do miss going to the opera." What's a girl to do? Try yodeling.


Newly-appointed Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Assistance Sir John Holmes is preceded by a reputation that he is a personal choice of Prime Minister Tony Blair. One of his last acts as his country's Ambassador to Paris was during a Franco-British Summit when he had to help in the translation. According to a Financial Times Observer column, when President Chirac asked the Prime Minister what was foremost on his mind, he sought to move to a safe topic by indicating his interest in what badgers could do. When Monsieur Chirac wondered what precisely was a "badger," Ambassador Holmes helpfully answered in French: "Blaireau." The outburst of laughter that puzzled the distinguished guests was not only because of an obvious similarity to his name, but because in French slang the word means something between a "nerd" and a "moron" -- a view long held by the French host. Anxious OCHA staff, however, can be reassured through feedback from Paris and London that their new boss may be a "Blairiste" but certainly not a "Blaireau."


You know Al Gore has become popular in Hollywood when Queen Latifah affectionately clears the confetti off his jacket. "Global Warming" has become a "hot" issue. What sounded boring a decade ago is now worthy of an Oscar documentary. The former U.S. Vice President has become a celebrity at film festivals with his "Inconvenient Truth" about action to avert natural disasters. On the other edge of the U.S. continent, in New Haven's Yale University, a clash of intellectual titans was taking place between those advocating precautionary measures now and others who feel that the risks are overblown. Sir Nicholas Stern, with his 700 page report says we should; Professor William Nordhaus is more cautious. Both are complimentary about one another but agree to disagree. As the surest way to be run down is to stand between two arguing professors, we are naturally inclined to stay out of the debate. Yet one question comes to mind: Where are the numerous U.N. Environmental Programmes and Funds? Don't we have one single prominent intellectual contributor to that relevant debate? From Nairobi to Arusha to Geneva to Bonn to New York, not a single U.N. voice of authority is heard.


Finally, that bore is out. He masqueraded as Under-Secretary General for Sustainable Development when all he did was specialize in fixing obscure seminars in luxury spots. At least his predecessor Nittin Desai was an authority on the issues. He did sweat it out in Bali and similar resorts to review "preparatory action." But he -- Desai, that is -- had an impact: pleasant, modest, easy-going and efficient. "Campo" Ocampo, who replaced him, neither ran the Department nor added anything new to the table. Pity that Latin America was represented in such a key post with someone with no impact. More than five years after he took over, most staff even in New York Headquarters didn't even recognize his face. Let's hope his Chinese successor will be better.


Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh has declared himself a holy leader. He goes to the hospital and rubs HIV/AIDS patients with his herbal concoction while carrying prayer beads. When U.N. coordinator, Zimbabwean Fadzai Gwaradzimba expressed some doubt about the effectiveness of that treatment, she was ordered out of the country within 48 hours. If UNDP has no backbone to defend its staffer, doesn't the World Heath Organization have anything to say?


The many friends of Wagaye Assebe, the ever loyal assistant who had worked closely with Kofi Annan since his days in Personnel, were concerned what would happen to her with the changing of the guards on the 38th Floor. As it became obvious by mid-December that the man she had served with the greatest dedication was not lifting a finger to help, an old trusted former friend went to see him for a straight talk. We are glad to report that Wagaye was found a suitable assignment at the Secretary General's Executive Office, though on another floor. Fair enough. Perhaps she needs that breathing spell.


Obviously positioning himself for that post of High Representative of the Alliance of Civilizations, former Secretary General Kofi Annan wrote a historically-laden article waxing eloquent about the varied contributions of the Bosphorus waterway and the values of the Spanish Inquisition (sorry, he must have meant Spain's cross-cultural tradition). It was a not-so-subtle approach to Istanbul and Madrid in the hope that they keep their original pledge to finance the operation. There is another source of funding but it has been so frequently used that it may run out of gas for that particular project. Turkey is in the middle of a backlash over the murder of an Armenian journalist and questions about an old dogmatic law about insulting Turkishness. Spain is already groping with problems of illegal immigrants, terrorist extremist activism, and some religious zealots in Granada and Seville. Although a former Turkish ambassador to the U.N. and a former Spanish Director General of UNESCO see a welcome opportunity in the venture, it may be that the two governments will have to think carefully about drawing too much attention to an "Alliance of Civilizations," which would only magnify the problems rather than solve them. Anyway, back to the Annan article. With no U.N. Information Centre to push, and no interest in certain key countries, the only taker was Toronto's Globe and Mail. Maybe he should have tried Le Devoir of Quebec.


Perhaps Shashi Tharoor will be better off outside the U.N. as a free man unfettered by a rush to undercut his colleagues and push himself. During a brief three-minute appearance at the popular Colbert Report on Comedy Central, the former pompous official performed admirably well, responding modestly and precisely to the point with focus on the issue, unusually paying more attention to the U.N. than to himself. "The times they are achanging," as Bob Dylan would say. We sincerely hope that after shedding his chronic image as an obsessive self-promoter, our former colleague gets to build on that new attitude even if it started with a comedy show -- a very good show.


A long article in the New Yorker profiled Iraq's Turkish President Jalal Talbani who has had varied alliances throughout his interesting, long career. Maoist socialist, grateful guest of Syria's former President Hafez Assad, political ally of both Iran and the U.S., "Mam" Jalal (as he is known to his friends) visited the Iranian capital recently. Some speculated he was mediating between the Iranians and Americans with the knowledge of the U.S. Ambassador in Baghdad; others claimed he was merely continuing his constant balancing act. Anyway, a story is told that during his discussions with the Iranian "High Guardian" Sayyed Ali Khamenei, he went into an emotional description about what the Iraqis were going through. The more suffering he described, the more frequent his Iranian listener kept repeating "I'll be praying for you." Talbani then commented: "We need some medicine, not just prayers." Khamenei paused then responded: "The prayers are on me. As to the medicine, you will get it from the government."


Did we ever confuse the name of Bjorn Wahlroos with Bjorn Walrus? Do we know who he is? Of course, Wahlroos is a big fish at Sampo, Finland's insurance group. But what about Walrus? Did we ever mention one name or the other? Anyway, apologies, etc...


That distinguished diplomat must have fallen into very hard times socially as he hurried to display his talents to impress a female journalist by throwing peanuts in the air then rushing to catch them in his open mouth. The more the surprised woman giggled, the quicker His Excellency rushed to make a public spectacle of himself. Let's hope he wouldn't try it as a Special Envoy. The locals wouldn't understand.


With news of UNIFIL II in South Lebanon, some with institutional memory wondered whatever happened to former spokesman Timor Goksel who had almost become part of the territory. The former Information Officer of Ankara's U.N. office did not return home after his retirement. Instead he moved to Beirut were, we are told, he is teaching at the American University while being available to visiting foreign reporters seeking background or commentary. Timor has always maintained very good professional contact with all parties on the ground -- although sometimes he seemed unfair to some of his U.N. colleagues, he always did his best to accomplish his task.


If you are a senior government official, a dean of a college, editor in chief or chief executive officer of a company, then Davos' enterprising chairman Klaus Schwab wants you. A whole page was taken out in major publications like the Financial Times and the Economist urging applications for the post of Managing Director. The staff of about 300 "highly committed people" from 50 countries "comprise world-class capabilities related to conceptual thought leadership, community building and project management." Their motto is: "Enterpreneuring in the global public interest." Its headquarters are in Geneva, Switzerland, with offices in New York and in Beijing. We are not sure how much was paid for these ads, if any. We're doing it for free to benefit some senior U.N. officials caught between Ban Ki-Moon's policy of continuity and change.


Commemorating the International Woman's Day in New York on 8 March this year was almost as routine as last year. A newly-appointed female Deputy Secretary General and a woman Under-Secretary General for Management should have inspired more spark. Maybe next year; or the year after! Anyway, the U.N. gets credit for launching that Day and making a difference by highlighting the issues since Copenhagen 1975 through Beijing until today. One of the main problems is that governments that make those rhetorical statements do not match them with action. The number of female Permanent Representatives to U.N. Headquarters remains almost the same (between 6 - 8) over the last two decades. Incidentally, on that day we remember with fond gratitude Angela King who just passed away after years of struggle for gender equality. While there were varied reports about the way the Day was celebrated all over, one interesting event was in South Beach, Miami. A group of cheerful young women spread around the sunny streets offering everyone a free hug. Why not a belated hug. Right now.


Jayantha Dhanapala, former Under-Secretary General for Disarmament, made a brief visit to New York where he participated in seminars and other meetings. Interestingly he met with Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon whose reform proposals include a restructuring of the Disarmament Department once headed by the Sri Lankan diplomat, a prominent expert in that field. They may have also very briefly exchanged observations about the past campaign for Secretary General. His clearly busy time did not allow for contacting his many friends and well wishers in the Big Apple.