15 March 2008


It was interesting to watch on regional TV the visit of Iranian President Ahmedinejad to Iraq. The elaborate official reception, Iranian national anthems playing for the first time in Baghdad after a protracted conflict, were considered part of required protocol. So were those flowery reciprocal statements of mutual collaboration and support. What was most interesting was that, with the exception of the press conference addressed to the media, there was no need for translation. Key Iraqi officials in power today were guests in Teheran for years. Some looked almost elated as they listened attentively to their visitors' declaration in Persian. The most "pro-American," Abdel Aziz Hakim, whose "Brigades" had been actually stationed in Iran throughout Saddam Hussein's rule, could not contain his feeling as he shared a podium. Even his Arabic took a Persian accent. American troops looked on as Ahmedinejad passed through their "Green Zone" to meet Prime Minister Maliki, a longtime Dawa party leader. He must have had special pleasure in dining in Tarek Aziz's house, now occupied by Mr. Hakim. Explaining the extraordinary reception with a wink and a nudge, some conspiracy theorists in the region speculated that the Iraqi government was doing the U.S. a favour by opening a back channel with Teheran. What happened to the Swiss?


"This is by far the ugliest nose I have ever seen, and I compliment you on it -- it suits you."
-- Peter Sellers in "The Pink Panther"


Americans say Potato. A former Vice President will tell you how ridiculed he was when he tried to suggest the "right" spelling to a student in New Jersey. Anyway, as the U.N. celebrates that year the award for best coverage should go to the London-based Economist. In a short perceptive piece "in praise of the humble but world-changing tuber," it explained that it provided more calories more quickly using less land in a wider range of climates than any other plant. Readers of the Economist would have more reason to celebrate because the potato/potatoe is "intertwined with economic development, trade liberalization and globalization." All that and more accomplished by that little unassuming "tuber"! That clever article was picked up by media around the world including the Gulf region where potato comes only in bags of chips. While the U.S. state of Idaho or Ireland would come to mind, the Economist pointed out no country is prouder of its potatoes than Peru, home to 3,500 varieties. We are now informed that there is an International Potato Centre whose headquarters is near Lima. The country's President has ordered more use at hospitals and army barracks. Boiled "chuno" and cheese were said to have replaced sandwiches at cabinet meetings. Good judgment. Poor taste.


Under a subtitle, "Climate change envoy financial disclosure was satisfactory to auditor", the following text followed: "Asked about Climate Change, envoy Han Seung-soo, the Spokeswoman reiterated that he had filed a financial disclosure at the U.N. which was satisfactory to auditors."


During the period between the election of Ban Ki-moon as Secretary General in October 2006 and his taking over in January 2007, his main assistant in the Korean Foreign Ministry, Mrs. Kyung-wha Kang, reportedly an extremely capable woman who helped substantively in his successful campaign, was quietly appointed as Deputy to the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights in Geneva. Obviously, it was an arrangement requested by the incoming boss carried out by the transition team, headed by then Deputy Chef de Cabinet, now Under-Secretary General for Administration. At the time, some insiders were puzzled as to why the appointment in Geneva? Why not in New York where she would be closer and substantively helpful on a daily basis, like Mr. Kim for example. However, in some cases answers take time, like two years. But it may be worth it. Louise Arbour, the Canadian jurist who was appointed Human Rights High Commissioner in 2004, will be leaving by June of this year. The Geneva-based post, hosted in Palais Wilson, named after a U.S. President, was first occupied by Ecuador's Jose Ayala-Lasso in 1994; then Ireland's President Mary Robinson; and our late colleague Sergio Vieira de Mello who died in an explosion while temporarily heading a U.N. Mission in Baghdad. Ms. Arbour was appointed by Mr. Annan, who knew her from a previous assignment over Rwanda. Now that her contract is expiring, it seems that Secretary General Ban is inclined to appoint his own Human Rights High Commissioner, while Ms. Arbour may equally feel it is about time to return to Montreal where she is better appreciated. Mrs. Kyung-wha Kang is very well placed to be very favourably considered for the post. Otherwise, the Secretary General may be open to accusations that he is being anti-Korean! However, those who interviewed the Korean lady for the number two job less than two years ago, have the impression that she is not yet ready for the number one post.


Since Ban Ki-moon took over, the designation of former UNA/U.N. representative Ed Luck has been on-again-off-again. Initially, he was mainly mentioned for the post occupied by Robert Orr, the "American connection" on the 38th floor. Yet Mr. Orr managed to hang in there with a little help from his friends. Recently, Ed Luck was seen regularly visiting the building. The question of one more American, together with a clique of Koreans on the Secretary General staff, has raised questions, particularly amongst the group of 77. Apparently, Mr. Ban had left it to his Chef de Cabinet and Mr. Kim to try and soothe ruffled feathers. The inexperienced team has now come out with a dubious explanation that the appointment would be "temporary -- covering an interim arrangement." More farcical was an indication that "any expenditure would be incurred from voluntary resources". (Like, from the Ted Turner Fund?. A grateful Columbia University graduate? An enthusiastic bystander?!) Asked specifically whether Mr. Luck will be on $1 a year salary, the Spokeswoman responded, as told of course, that "the matter of payment was being discussed" (take your time!). As to the officially entrusted task, it was indicated, equally pathetically, that Mr. Luck's tasks will include "responsibility to protect set out by the General Assembly at the World Summit"! Couldn't anyone on the 38th floor come up with a better cover?


With news that one of the most wanted men on earth with a $25 million bounty was killed, we turned as usual to BBC TV for "in depth" coverage. There were several intriguing elements including the location. Damascus, an ally of Hezbollah, where Imad Mughnyeh operated for years as its chief military strategist under the assumed name of "Haj Rawan". While Fox News and NBC MSNBC were providing some details, BBC's Washington correspondent, Matt Frei, produced an obviously nervous young man by the name of Hussein-Abdul Hassain, described merely as a "journalist." It was not clear whom he wrote for, where he came from, or who in fact he was. He was either clueless or simply scared to utter anything beyond generalities. The name suggested an Iraqi Shiite affiliation, though no one covering the Middle East had ever heard of that name. We appreciate that Mr. Frei must be overworked due to the U.S. election campaign -- though his female colleague Kathy Kay seems to take it in her stride. But we expect to have some respect for his listeners.


The exodus from Somalia's capital has doubled to 700,000 since we were given optimistic news about some very effective mediation somewhere. Already there are over 2 million "vulnerable Somalis," according to U.N. figures. What precisely has been done? Tell us again, who are the envoys to Africa? Poor Africa. More envoys, more trouble.


With questions swirling about the inactive role of Middle East Quartet Envoy Tony Blair over the situation in Gaza and the ponderous role of the U.N. Secretariat, a curious statement was made by the Secretary General's Spokeswoman about a telephone call between the two. It said Mr. Blair briefed the Secretary General "on his recent travel to the Middle East." Those reading Middle East press very carefully had never seen any activity by Mr. Blair in any direction except a tour with his youngest son to Luxor. Then, according to the statement, the two discussed the situation in Gaza "...and the way ahead." What way ahead?! We never heard from Mr. Blair ever since!


  • "The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid"
    -- Hotel in Kosovo
  • "Drop your trousers here for best results"
    -- Hotel in Bangkok
  • "Our wines leave you nothing to hope for"
    -- Hotel in Switzerland
  • "Please leave your values at the front desk"
    -- Hotel in Paris
  • "Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a great time"
    -- Hotel in Rome
  • "Customers who consider our staff uncivil ought to see the manager"
    -- Hotel in New York


Those following closely the peace efforts in Kenya by Former Secretary General Kofi Annan were glad to note the return to action by Elizabeth Lindenmayer. Friends and adversaries of the hard-working former Deputy Chef de Cabinet agree that she was always loyal to Mr. Annan. That is why they felt disappointed at the manner in which she was left to dry in the wind. We would avoid getting into further detail except to feel happy for Elizabeth whose heart was always in the right place regardless of political differences. Her teaching career upon leaving the U.N. proved that her talent was derived from her own dedication to work and that she added real value to Mr. Annan's team. Let's hope she stays on.


One of the most effective U.N. aid operations, the World Food Programme, is seriously short of cash. Its current Director, Josette Sheeran, appeared on more than one TV show with a cup in her hand to demonstrate how much more is now needed to fill it. Granted, matters have gone downhill since the political appointment of Ms. Sheeran. But she cannot command the forces of nature: wind, sun and rain. WFP food purchasing power has gone down 40% since her appointment. Not that she isn't trying. Now that her own reputation is linked with the delivery capacity of the Programme, Ms. Sheeran has been making admirable presentations to win public support. Actress Drew Barrymore was recruited for the task as Ambassador Against Hunger. Ms. Barrymore came up with a million dollars, more than all other U.N. "envoys" put together. However, the former "Charlie's Angel" can only do so much -- considering that her span of attention may not sustain a project to feed 19.4 million children in 71 countries. But at least she tried -- unlike many of her colleagues who show up mainly for a photo op and then disappear.


With continued jockeying for the second post of Peacekeeping, one of the main candidates whose name had been repeatedly mentioned, has been assigned elsewhere. Said Djinnit of Algeria, formerly Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs at the African Union, has just been appointed as Special Representative of the Secretary General and Head of U.N. Office for West Africa. It was the post that had been occupied for some time by Mauritanian diplomat Ahmadon Ould-Abdallah before being reassigned to Somalia. It is a signal that the deck is being cleared. For whom?


The appointment of experienced Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide as U.N. Special Representative in Afghanistan ended two months of speculation, particularly after the controversy on the appointment of British former Liberal Party leader Paddy Ashdown, who was mentioned for an unusual arrangement as joint UN-NATO representative. He was reportedly jointly recommended by U.S. Secretary Rice and U.N. Foreign Secretary Miliband, but was opposed by Mr. Karzai ostensibly encouraged by U.S. / U.N. Ambassador Khalilzad. Very complicated kitchen politics where in the end nobody really wins. That appointment had seemed likely when Mr. Ashdown wrote an article in The Financial Times, indicating that neither withdrawal nor "continuing as we were" were options. "We have to concentrate fiercely on the necessary and not be distracted by the merely desirable; to have too many priorities is to have none." Alas, he did not have the opportunity to elaborate further. But perhaps he could pass on some advice, particularly on the strategy of Sun Tzu to the Norwegian diplomat.


A United Nations flag is to be flown to the International Space Station in April before returning to Earth to be displayed at a space exhibition in Vienna. The blue and white emblem would be ferried to the orbiting space station by South Korean astronaut Ko San who is to conduct scientific experiments there for eight days in April. On its return to Earth, the flag is to be presented to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon before being taken to Vienna later this year to be prominently displayed at the space exhibition at the International Center in the Austrian capital. The tradition of astronauts taking the U.N. flag to outer space began during the earliest manned space missions. The flag has orbited the Earth, flown aboard space stations and reached the moon.


The engaging Austrian died as he may have wished: in the line of journalistic duty -- a reporter reporting a story. Hans Janitschek had faded out of U.N. sight during the last few years after appearing with panache on the scene two decades earlier when a number of Austrians followed their compatriot to U.N. Headquarters. Hans, though, was different. He was a "socialist" in a "conservative" group, although he managed to give the impression that he was well-connected to the 38th floor. Yet after all the Austrians left, Hans remained in New York, keeping in touch with key figures, connecting people together and holding "events" of political interest. Only recently he returned to U.N. Headquarters as a correspondent for the Austrian daily Kronenzeitung. Still working at the office at 7 p.m. on 19 February, he had a massive heart attack. Three security officers trained as Emergency Medical technicians tried to rescue him while an ambulance was on its way. Despite efforts to perform CPR, he was pronounced dead by 8 p.m.


Last issue we mentioned that the front runner for the newly created Peacekeeping 2 post was an Argentinean woman with practical field experience as a senior U.N. World Food Programme official. We are glad that reliable sources have just recently confirmed that Susana Malcorra will be announced for that post. A serious competitor, an Algerian senior African Union official was given another U.N. assignment in Africa.