15 May 2008


During an open discussion on LBC/TV of the expanding tension in Lebanon, the publisher of Beirut daily Al-Diyar, Charles Ayyoub telephoned the moderator Marcel Ghanem to say that U.N. envoy Terje Roed Larsen had telephoned him urgently seeking his assistance to have Syrian authorities receive him in Demascus. Mr. Ayyoub flew to Paris for a meeting, during which he said Mr. Larsen asked him to intervene on his behalf with the Syrian authorities; he had a special message for President Assad, to whom he could provide valuable help if received. On cross questioning, the blunt-talking Lebanese journalist known to have high-level access in Damascus, explained that the Syrians refused to receive Mr. Larsen. Pressed again, Mr. Ayyoub added that the Syrians don't trust the Norwegian because they claim he had lied to them with false promises at the time of the Syrian army withdrawal from Lebanon. He jovially quoted Larsen, commenting that his experience with every politician he dealt with eventually indicated that one of them was lying. Did anyone mention "confidence building"?!


The only silver lining in the recent clashes in Beirut was the visible number of Lebanese female reporters covering events with great courage, dignity and professional competence. Another totally different image was that of male "fighters" in certain areas of Beirut who were seen on local television giving up; they were wearing Armani signature jeans and t-shirts. Other revolutionary fashionistas wore less expensive Diesel shirts, with the same outcome.


In reporting on the deteriorating situation in Lebanon, Al-Jazeera English website reported shootings and explosions "near the office of Aisha Bakkar, the Sunni Spriritual Leader allied with the government." Anyone who knows Beirut will tell you that sounds like saying that the battle of Normandy was commanded by General Electric. Aisha Bakkar is not a person; certainly not a spiritual leader. It is a neighbourhood!


Expect a stampede for the post of Assistant Secretary General for Peacebuilding. Carolyn McAskie, one of the most effective officials since her days at the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has decided to go home to Canada. Having served with courage and distinction in the field as an effective Special Representative, Carolyn continued her practical and dynamic approach when she returned to U.N. Headquarters in New York dealing with peacekeeping and peacebuilding issues. It is a pity that such valuable individuals are inclined to leave, most likely very frustrated, while a number of political appointees manage to hang on forever.


Those who went to see the first shovel in the turn of the new U.N. Master Plan were given a shovel lapel pin to show for it. Under-Secretary General Alicia Barcena, dressed in an elegant, though conservative outfit (jacket and trousers in a male-dominated event!), she called on those proceeding to the North garden area to wear it. The Secretary General dutifully did. Several ambassadors, taken off-guard, managed to join in. Mr. Ban was also the first to don a blue helmet hard-hat to start the ground-breaking for the construction of a temporary conference venue, a prelude to a five-year $1.9 billion overall. "Today we turn the soil which the U.N. stands on to mark the rebirth or renovation of our Headquarters," Mr. Ban announced, promising to make the renovated complex "a model of environmental stewardship." Let's hope so.


Earlier news about the departure of Alicia Barcena, USG/Administration, proved to be premature. A new, somewhat authoritative round of reports point to her returning to ECLAC (Economic Commission of Latin America and the Caribbean). When appointed Deputy Chef de Cabinet during the last year of Mr. Annan's tenure, she was representing that Commission in her home country of Mexico, the site of its Central American and Caribbean sub-regional office. Before that, in the early nineties, she was in charge of environmental issues at the headquarters in Santiago. We are now told that Ms. Barcena will now return to the Chilean capital at the top post of Executive Secretary.


A popular joke circulating in a certain country which shall remain unnamed tells the story of the ruler/strongman/authoritarian president who sought to show how popular he was to the international press. So he took everyone along to one of his capital's suburbs. He was surrounded by crowds who shouted that they were starving and cold; they needed rice and bread; they needed gasoline; and they needed protection. He asked to talk to their representative and they nominated a neighbour, Hassan, to speak on their behalf. He did. He asked: where is the rice? Where is our bread? Where is our security? The following day, loads of rice, bread and fuel started arriving. After two weeks, they asked to see the ruler who enquired: I sent you all the food and fuel you demanded. What else would you want? The group responded: "We want to know where Hassan is!"


Senegal's President Wade's recent announcement that the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) was so useless it should be abolished looked like a direct hit at its Executive Director, his compatriot Jacques Diouf. Although both had maintained a civilized facade for a while the recent tension between them became more open in Dakar with the pressure of the food crisis. Senegal was a main producer of rice until planning by the Wade administration focused more on urban rather than rural areas. The result was that Senegal has to import rice. Some attribute it to bad planning, others to outright corruption. Noting a sensitive internal situation, Mr. Diouf kept his distance; some say he may have hinted that the shortage of rice was self-inflicted. Watch for a wider dual in Dakar.


After serving as Kofi Annan's Spokesman during the most difficult last three years, Stephane Dujarric de la Riviere spent some time helping in the new Secretary General's Executive Office. Beginning in May, Stephane has a definite, clear, new assignment: Senior Adviser and Spokesman, U.N. Development Programme. This is a new -- and higher -- challenge for the professionally qualified French/American who proved his ability to operate -- cool-headed -- under intense pressure. He had joined the U.N. about ten years ago as a young P-4 at the Spokesman's office and earned his way upwards through hard work and enlightened dedication. Best of Luck, Stephane!


U.N. Special Representative on any question under the sun, Ambassador Joseph Vernon Reed made a distinguished appearance during the visit of Pope Benedict VI to New York. While the Pontiff of the Catholic Church was receiving senior U.N. staff, the former Under-Secretary General for Assembly Affairs and White House Protocol Chief under President George H.W. Bush, approached in his impressive flourish. A member of one of the most prestigious Episcopalian families in the United States, Ambassador Reed discreetly displayed ten commemorative medals issued at the occasion, and asked His Holiness to bless them. The blessed medals are now on high demand by friends and relatives which the gracious "Safir Yusuf" is keeping at bay until he finalizes his own list of recipients.


  • What looks real in candlelight may not turn out to be as real under bright sunshine!
  • It is not a matter of who does the voting, but who does the counting.


"A simple righteous act can tip the balance and make all the difference."
-- Maimonides


Remember the Food-for-Oil scandal? What used to occupy media headlines for over a year passed as a blimper this month. When a co-defendant received his sentencing in a New York court, it was a very brief report as follows:
"An Iraqi-American businessman who admitted helping Saddam Hussein's government in the oil-for-food scandal has been fined $300,000 and sentenced to probation. The businessman, Samir A. Vincent, operated a company called Phoenix International."


Not only is the National Officer in Tunis' U.N. Information Centre behaving pompously like a full-time Director, he is also asking for more. That junior fellow who felt untouchable by his more senior colleagues because he was part of the campaign by the Department's head at the time Shashi Tharoor for the post of Secretary General continues to act as if he is beyond approach. The latest incident happened with Tunisian authorities whom he was trying to cajole into allowing him two diplomatic TAX FREE cars rather than one -- although there is no Director to use the one car anyway. Apparently, someone at New York Headquarters has bestowed a new $25,000 car on that office which is hardly functional (instead of giving funds for real operations). What to do with the old available operationally good car? Not sell it, of course, and return the money to the Organization. Instead, he wants to keep both, obviously at least one for his own "overtime." In Tunis, authorities are still resisting saying, logically, that one car was enough. But in New York, someone is giving away too many cars -- perhaps they are still following out-dated instructions.


It's official. New York Times U.N. Correspondent Warren Hogue will take over public relations for the International Peace Academy. Interesting. For someone to voluntarily leave the Gray Lady for another less prestigious -- and less guaranteed -- job is by itself a puzzle. To leave it to join the Academy is intriguing. Either Mr. Hogue was encouraged to get a Golden Handshake as the Times management is cutting its staff, or he has received a very tempting offer. The real question is: how come the Academy now has so much money that it could afford to make such an offer? The answer would more likely be found with Terje Roed Larsen, who doubles as its Director while operating as a U.N. Special Envoy in the lucrative Middle East politics.


Nicaragua will take over the Presidency of the next General Assembly session. The 33 member Latin American and Caribbean group whose turn it is to put forward a candidate voted informally mid-April to officially present the nomination at an organizational meeting of the Assembly between end of May and the beginning of June. The most likely name is that of a Catholic priest, the Reverend Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, a former Sandanista Foreign Minister throughout the "revolutionary" Eighties -- who is now Foreign Affairs adviser to current President Daniel Ortega, a Sandanista leader who returned to power in a popular vote. The Reverend d'Escoto, now 75, was born in California.


The 1100 Spanish soldiers stationed in UNIFIL received a valuable morale booster with the visit of their new Defense Minister to South Lebanon. That was her second visit abroad -- after Afghanistan -- since she took over. What made the gesture impressive was the fact that the Minister, Ms. Carme Chacon (age 37) was in the last days of her pregnancy -- to the point that a doctor accompanied her every movement just in case. Yet Ms. Chacon soldiered on, arriving by helicopter to the border area accompanied by UNIFIL Force Commander Italian General Claudio Gazzieno. She made a point of placing a wreath to commemorate the 6 Spanish soldiers who had died in a booby-trapped car last June. The assembled crowd in that almost isolated troublespot stood like one to drink a toast to King Juan Carlos of Spain. Even the local crowds, who welcomed the pregnant visitor with intrigued enthusiasm could not help but shout: Viva Espana. It was not only a tribute to the young woman's obvious courage, but also to the priority of gender equality.


The latest diplomat to be rewarded for eliciting Ban Ki-moon as a Security Council non-permanent member is the outgoing ambassador of Belgium Johan C. Verbeke. Having reached retirement age and with a change in government normally meaning a return home, Verbeke was rewarded with the post of Special Representative for Lebanon -- a post entailing mostly photo opportunities as the real international decisions on the situation there are made by Terje Roed Larsen (supported by the U.S. and France). However, an experienced diplomat like Verbeke is not likely to stand idle, particularly that Belgium has long-standing relations with most members of Lebanon's civic society. His status will get a boost as he presides over the Security Council in August before leaving for Beirut.


With the appointment of Belgium's Johan Verbeke, almost all non-permanent members of the Security Council who had voted for Ban Ki-moon in October 2006 have been appointed as Special Envoy somewhere -- or a similar posting in the field or within the Secretariat. Another appointment in the works is that of Miroslav Jenca of Slovakia -- a voting Security Council member. The only one seemingly missing is our great friend, the ebullient and dynamic Greek Ambassador Adamantios Vallilakis, who presided over the most crucial informal consultations, including a series of "blind" voting exercises. He is now back in Athens, busy of course but could be busier.


Ambassador Marcello Spatafora may be hitting on hard times. Perhaps with a changing government in Italy -- and the re-emergence of Prime Minister Berlusconi -- he may be desperate to demonstrate that he's macho enough to stop the work of the Security Council (and remain in his New York post!). At least that's what he claimed to Corriere della Sera which on 24 April reported that he interrupted the Security Council meeting the day before, when a Libyan delegate compared Israeli actions in Gaza to Nazi camps. Everyone at U.N. Headquarters knew the claim was not true and the Council's President, South Africa's Dumisani Kanalo expressed astonishment. In fact, a number of delegates, including the U.S., France, U.K., and others did walk out; Italy was among the last to leave. The President chose an appropriate moment to close the meeting. The surprising part is that Spatafora had been courting his Libyan counterpart profusely since January. Libya was a former Italian colony and there are close political and commercial links between Rome and Tripoli. Those present at the Council's meeting did not notice any special flash of anger, only something of an enquiring look towards the President as certain other delegates started to shuffle in their seats. There is a camera that records the Council's deliberations. Some Italians unhappy with their Ambassador's selective support for favoured individuals are taking the opportunity to expose his theatrical claim. Anyway, it ws noted that a week after Spatafora's reported "heroics," the son of Libya's Gaddafi; who carefully reads Corriere, publicly cautioned the Italian government with "serious potential results" if an anti-Islamist politician joined the cabinet of Premier Berlusconi. He revived an incident in February 2006 when a popular protest against the Italian Consulate in Benghazi led to Libyan casualties and the burning of the consulate. A Libyan and an Italian minister had jointly resigned to avert a crisis between the two countries. Over fifty Italian large companies operate in oil rich Libya. Qaddafi's son, Seif Al-Islam, who heads a non-governmental organization, usually reflects the unfiltered position of his father. Due to his family's interest in Juventas' soccer team, he is a regular reader of Corriere. Ciao Spatafora.


As the competition heats up for the two non-permanent member's seats in the Security Council representing Europe starting 2009, Secretary General Ban discovered during a recent trip how sensitive even the most careful yet polite expressions could be interpreted or -- to be blunt -- exploited. There are three countries -- Austria, Iceland and Turkey -- competing; meaning one of them will be out by December. It got to a point where the Secretary General issued a statement in both New York and Geneva "to clear any misunderstandings that may have arisen." Of course, as Secretary General he did not wish to signify any preference for one over any other.


The diplomatic car licenses, long a signal of status and a magnate for popular resentment in New York, have been changed. After over 60 years of an official-looking red white and blue license plate, a new one is being introduced with a psychedelic-looking rectangle and a paler shade of pale. Looks like an old hippie is trying to relive the sixties. Taking a quick count around the immediate neighbourhood, it looked like some missions have swiftly surrendered while others are holding out. Canada has dutifully followed immediate instruction, while the U.K. is sticking with the classical format. Both are in the same building. So are about 20 other missions -- on the corner of 47th Street and 2nd Avenue. Their drivers are having a great time in that confusion.


The Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions is mainly composed of experienced realistic down-to-earth U.N. experts. That is why they were puzzled when receiving one of the latest proposals on behalf of the Secretary General on peacekeeping. What does a special section on the "Rule of Law" do? Why an Assistant Secretary General? Isn't the U.N. fully committed through all its programs to the rule of law? What about the role of the Legal Affairs Department? What about the special section in the office of the Deputy Secretary General? An explanation that the difference is between "operational" work, "logistical" preparations, and "convening" capacity, did not persuade anyone. The general impression is that there is a political expediency to please a permanent member of the Security Council by providing a cush, however irrelevant, senior job for one of its favoured citizens. That country is likely to find in due course that their man is not worth the deal. More in due course.


Publicity-obsessed businessman "Dick" Branson seems eager to stamp his name on every "now" venture, from hip hop music to gathering of political "elders," whom he invites to schmooze on a Caribbean island about how to fight poverty. A new venture is a train station in Dubai -- the up and coming Emirate in the Gulf. It is mainly a publicity project since trains are not necessarily functional. Hence the quip among expatriates that the Virgin station has trains that do not go all the way!


For about eight years the inhabitants of the mountainous Baalbek area of Lebanon went along with a U.N. Program for Rural Development. Historically, they were living on the illicit trade in homegrown Hashish. In the Eighties, for example, the annual revenue was estimated at half a billion dollars -- a very tempting amount for an impoverished almost overlooked region. Now with the political tension and absence of government authority, that trade is back again -- with guns to protect it. Perhaps the U.N. anti-Drug director Mr. Mario Costa, himself a gun enthusiast, could have a persuasive word with invigorated weed developer -- and gun-toter -- Issam Ali.


On Staff Day, celebrated this year on Friday 25 April, the names of every civilian and military colleague who died in the service of the Organization was read. In the absence of the Secretary General, his Deputy Asha-Rose Migiro led the ceremony with brief remarks. At last count, the names read were of 293 colleagues.


Plus, she's a woman. Circles close to the ruling family in Bahrain indicated that new diplomatic movements will include the appointment of Ms. Huda Azar Nunu as that country's ambassador to the United States. The Nunu family came from Iraq over a century ago and are well-known for their educational and civic services. Ms. Nunu in particular was the Secretary General of Bahram's Human Rights Commission who had been appointed by the King as a member of the Consultative Board in December 2006. She will be the first Jewish Arab ambassador and the second female Arab envoy to Washington after the Ambassador of Oman who happens to be the wife of that country's Permanent Representative to the U.N. and the sister of a former Omani U.N. couple.


Among the unannounced meetings of Pope Benedict during his visit in New York was a private session with Cardinal Dulles, a Jesuit theologian, who is retired in the Boston area. He was discreetly brought to the Bronx area to meet the Pontiff following an event at St. Joseph Seminary. The significance of the meeting is not that the Cardinal, the son of President Eisenhower's Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (after whom an airport in Washington is named), had converted in his youth from a prominent Protestant family. It reflected the intellectual influence that the Cardinal had acquired amongst the ranks of the clergy, particularly those in the U.S. and the Pope's continued interest in theology issues which he handled while still a Cardinal in Rome. Word amongst Catholic reporters is that one of the main purposes of the Pope's visit was to "renew" Catholicism in the U.S.