15 October 2005


The U.N. failed to co-ordinate the Tsunami relief and was unable to unify its own agencies, let alone others. That was the stark conclusion of a report written by independent experts commissioned by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Despite unprecedented availability of budgets, competition for visibility and show off meant no sharing of information, let alone strategy. The director of the British Red Cross is quoted by Steve Birds in The London Times as backing the suggestion that the U.N. better train its staff in reporting and sharing information. According to the report some local emergency services "became furious at disaster tourists taking the place of doctors. The needs of women were often neglected "because many of those assessing their problems were men." For example, the Indonesian region of Sumatra (Bander Aceh) was inundated with surgeons and field hospitals competing for very few patients (only one patient was mentioned in the report!), while the desperate need was for midwives and nurses. There was praise for the Government of India which delivered relief supplies and water, prevented the spread of disease, reconnected electricity and built temporary coastline. Generous individuals, however, misjudged the needs by offering unwanted clothing which blocked roads, wasted relief workers time and proved to be a hazard to livestock which tried to eat it!

There was duplication of aid, operation areas overcrowded with "relief workers" who never worked in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Just anyone wishing to be there was there, hiring helicopters, renting boats and assumingly drafting relief proposals. An Asian specialist with Christian Aid, Anjali Kwatra noted that hundreds of agencies using abundant money to duplicate one another in the absence of strategic planning on how to rebuild the devastated area. Iolanda Jaquement, a journalist, said: "Instead of being a facilitator, the U.N. became an obstacle."


It was announced that the report of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for children in Armed Conflicts was out on the third floor racks. Intriguingly enough, the name of that Special Representative was not mentioned. Come to think of it, we have not seen or heard from the known Special Representative for a while now. Is it still the same person, a new representative or an interim one? Que pasa?


Bono and U2 may not have accounted for competition from their Iranian counterparts when they launched their song: "How to Dismantle a Nuclear Bomb." Those monitoring Teheran radio and television in the Middle East noted a recent musical campaign to support the country's nuclear capacity. One of the songs, entitled "Eastern Sun is a Nuclear Flag," sung by Ali Tafrichi applauds the greatness of the country that "destroyed the arrogance of the superpowerful." The other, entitled "Nuclear Knowledge" by Riza Sherazi extols listeners to defend independence through sciences. It concludes with the not so imaginative refrain: "Nuclear technology opens the road to new horizons." Although the songs were rhymed along familiar national martial music, they did not get to the Top Ten in the listener's choice. At any rate, they did not seem to persuade Iran U.N. Ambassador, the sophisticated Javed Zarif, to stay on the nuclear negotiating team, from which he just resigned.


Letter to the Editor of The Financial Times:
Out of 1000 pages of revelations in the most recent Volcker report, your U.N. correspondent was driven to spotlight an item relating to Ms. Wagaye Assebe (FT Sept. 8). Anyone inside the Organization with institutional memory knows that Ms. Assebe has been the personal assistant to Kofi Annan in different capacities over the last twenty years. Having known her (and him) since she was his secretary as head of Personnel in the mid-eighties, I have no doubt about her unflinching loyalty to Mr. Annan as well as her meticulous adherence to proper clearance of any relevant action. While it pains me to observe a U.N. Secretary General in such a beleaguered state, I feel it was unfair of Mark Turner to single out a helpless dedicated junior staffer who happens to have no influential friends nor adequate political backing.
Samir Sanbar, Former Head, U.N. Department of Public Information


* There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself: Do trousers matter?
- The mood will pass, sir.
From P.G. Woodhouse


During the recent Assembly Summit, Thailand's Surakiart Sathirathai distinguished himself as the most pushy candidate for any international job. And he wants to be numero uno. While the candidates were discreetly holding side meetings, the inexperienced and unknown Thai must have though that he was keeping a high profile by injecting himself unduly anywhere he could appear (he must be receiving advice from another self-promoter who thinks he is an audience charmer). Anyway, when South Korea's Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon indicated his interest to succeed Kofi Annan, Surakiart went immediately to the blower to request that all Asia should stand behind one candidate -- a reasonable request indeed were it not for the claim that he should be that candidate. By a stretch of arithmetic, he announced that he already had "expressions of support" from 109 countries. Going from 1 to 109 is an amazing stretch indeed. It looks like those Third World authoritarian elections where he already got 99.99% of the vote.


Apparently there is very little for those special envoys to do, so they compete on who will be first in receiving the head of state of their country of designation. There were some embarrassing moments during the recent summit when a U.N. representative to settle certain issues sneaked ahead of other senior officials in the corridor leading to the meeting with the Secretary General so he would be the first to extend a welcome, in a symbolic claim of a special stature. One would have hoped that the envoy made as much effort to help settle the problem as he does in displaying his importance.


One of the least controversial provisions adopted at the recent United Nations Summit in New York was also one of the most promising -- in fact, it could help end some of the world's deadliest armed conflicts, Ibrahim Gambari, Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, wrote in The Washington Times. He described the pursuit of peace is an often hesitant dance; experience has shown it can take three to tango. Third-party mediation is an increasingly crowded field, with governments, regional and nongovernmental organizations, as well as some well-known individuals getting involved. The United Nations has no monopoly. However, the U.N. -- representing, as it does, the international community most broadly -- can provide the task unparalleled legitimacy. Gambari proposed developing an in-house base of knowledge about peacemaking, and a better system for selecting and training mediators for the real challenges they will face in the field, whether for the U.N. alone or in partnership with others. Hence, "We need to be ready when our dance card is called."


"We've heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know that is not true.
- Robert Wilensky


That's in Swaziland. It's the tassel worn by young women to indicate their commitment to five years of virginity. In a sudden gesture of reform, just before the G.A. Summit, the 37-year-old King Miswati issued instruction that it should be removed forthwith. His majesty wanted to meet every young Swazi woman -- one at a time. Mucho Macho for Umcwasho!


As we received queries about our reference to getting into Hozenga, we apologize to those who know the story while we explain. A polished and self-accomplished visitor to his old country wanted to mix with the people in the bush, the real country people. He descended upon them from a shiny limousine with his designer suit surrounded by assistants feigning absolute admiration. After unbuttoning elegantly his shirt, he started his prepared speech. "I am here because I am one of you," he announced. "I care for your welfare and prosperity and will make every effort on your behalf to the world," he went on, to shouts of "Hozenga, Hozenga." Inspired, the man went on: "Your freedom is my freedom. Your fate is my fate. We are one," as the crowded unanimous response of "Hozenga" grew louder and wider. Satisfied that he had done his image thing, he graciously suggested to walk around the place. The local chief welcomed him to do so, suggesting that because of roaming bulls and cows he should be careful not to step on Hozenga. We have deliberately avoided a reference to a special region, precisely because any resemblance to any senior U.N. official is unintended and purely a coincidence.


"Diamonds Take Forever," a debut novel by U.N. staffer Jessica Jiji, will be published next month by Harper Collins. Although its opening words describe a physical act that remains illegal, though somewhat widespread, U.N. senior officials can rest easy. Unlike a notorious memoir by others which caused a stir last year (entitled "Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures"), this light-hearted romp makes no mention of the U.N. nor its peacekeeping missions. Not even its randy diplomats. Well, maybe just one. Let's wait for Jessica's upcoming novel.


While time heals all wounds, it is also our view that eventually time wounds all heels.


March on. March on and fear not the thorns or the sharp stones in life's path. To go forward is to move towards perfection.
-- Khalil Gibran


NBC's Brian Williams confirmed to diplomats, journalists and other guests at the annual Memorial Fund luncheon what they already knew: No one can say "no" to Raghida Dergham. In this particular case, that meant helping to raise over $100,000 for the Hammarskjold fund created by U.N. correspondents in a tribute to the former Secretary General. It was an accurate reflection of Raghida's approach. Pleasant, charming and attractive, the chief diplomatic correspondent for Al-Hayat is always committed to professional excellence -- and to producing results. As her many friends among politicians and senior U.N. officials recognized: friendship does not preclude aggressive reporting. She worked with an equally determined team of distinguished women correspondents to ensure success. Evelyn Leopold of Reuters, Edith Lederer of The Associated Press, and Judy Aita of the Washington file had unassumingly orchestrated the impressive outcome. There were also former U.N. Correspondent Association members like its former President Iftikhai Ali who had lent his services to the U.N. in Tehran and Kosovo. The President of the General Assembly, Jan Eliasson, Ambassadors of Italy, Sweden, Denmark, France, Qatar, Yemen, Algeria, to mention a few together with Chef de Cabinet Malloch-Brown and Under-Secretary General Ibrahim Gambari blended with Al-Jazeera's Abdel Rahim Fouqara, New York Times Warren Hogue and Los Angeles Times Maggie Farley. Contributors from the private sector were there including a director from Italy's energy giant ENI. Everyone welcomed the three young Fund Fellows for this year, from Lebanon, the Maldives, and Nepal. As master of ceremonies, Raghiba Dergham managed to keep events flowing while getting the voluntary services of a special chef for the occasion. A very pleasant and productive event.


Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson intends to ensure practical follow-up on the recent General Assembly summit. He plans to establish a network to champion concerted action. Initially he has in mind inviting "reform-minded" leaders from (alphabetically, to avert offending anyone): Britain, Canada, Egypt, Gabon, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey and Ukraine. While he hopes to have the group meet next year to keep the momentum, his well wishers would advise not to close that circle nor raise expectations. It may be helpful to include other "reform-minded" countries with potential impact and possibly some insiders with practical knowledge of how a rhetorical platform could become more real.


Latvian President Mrs. Vaira Vike-Freiberga was one of the leading women to address the special summit. As a reformer in her own country, and one of the Secretary General's five envoys, she made a precise statement within the allocated time limits that combined her practical experience with her country's commitment to the United Nations. After dealing with the Human Rights Council, Democracy Fund, Terrorism and expansion of the Security Council, she came to the concluding point: "The United Nations has recently gone through some difficult times. We must never forget the many years of devoted service and even sacrifice on the part of the majority of U.N. workers. Unfortunately, we have also seen cases of graft, theft and embezzlement in the U.N.'s administrative structures. We have heard horror stories of women and children being raped and abused by individual blue helmet peacekeepers. That is why we must take some hard and responsible decisions, and that is why we must implement some resolute measures to ensure that such major transgressions do not occur again. We must do what is required to strengthen and reform this organization, for despite its imperfections, the world needs the United Nations. Now more than ever before.


Guess why Japan has not yet paid its dues of $607,089,989 in full for this year? Could it be that it has to do with its failure to get a permanent seat on the Security Council? If so, it would explain why Japan has not succeeded until now: a blatant financial approach which is indeed unworthy of the discreet subtle Japanese culture. But what to do when such matters are handled by the same clique in the Foreign Ministry over the last 30 years? Even Yamaguchi syndicate has changed its leadership, but not that same group in Tokyo that has been promising the Japanese people a seat on the Council since 1990 -- and is not accountable to anyone.


It may be of some interest to the isolated yet still active clique lurking in an "advisory" role. Yamaguchi, the most influential syndicate in Kobe Japan has changed its leadership for the first time in many years. Its unquestioned senior management had become either too cranky or too embarrassing or both. Word was passed around that now Tsukasa (Latinos pronounce it Mi Casa) has taken over. He is known affectionately as "Shinodo." He is also known as an unflinching sake drinker -- and a generous tipper!


General Assembly President recounted in a Financial Times interview one of his favourite Groucho Marx movie scenes. Groucho orders a tough guy to do what he tells him "as a matter of principle." When the bulky bloke responds with a threat to blow him away, Groucho "deftly amends his position" suggesting that if that principle was offensive, he had others. Talking in code signals, eh? Times must be tough for poor Groucho.


In a new book about his role as F.B.I. Director, Louis Freeh describes a condition he perceived of former President Clinton's final period, which would make interesting read at the U.N. these days: A New York Times article quotes him as follows: "The scandals and rumored scandals, the incubating ones and the dying ones, never ended. Whatever moral compass the president was consulting, it was leading him in the wrong direction, and he lacked the discipline to pull back once he found himself stepping into trouble. Worse, he had been behaving that way so long that the closets were full of skeletons just waiting to burst out."


The new Executive Director of UNICEF Ms. Ann M. Veneman and Deputy Director Rima Salah joined in welcoming diplomats, international officials and representatives of civil society on the occasion of their Executive Board. Unlike the usual official receptions, it was more like a gathering of friends with a joint commitment to health, education, equality treatment and protection of every child. Ms. Salah, who had returned from a field assignment only months before the appointment of the former U.S. cabinet member, made a point of introducing her new Executive Director in a warm, pleasant and affectionate way. Ms. Veneman took time in chatting with guests, listening to their suggestions and making her own informal remarks. She made many new friends and gained more supporters for UNICEF.


Those who had met Tina Andersen when she joined the U.N. after passing the national exam in Norway will be happy to know that she is well and working in UNHCR, Geneva. Having served as a somewhat challenged adviser on gender issues to outgoing Commissioner Ruud Lubbers, Tina is taking her work in stride with her new boss, a Portuguese politician whom the staff hope will provide good leadership. Tina, who now uses her married name, Tinde, has a boy aged 5 and a girl aged 11. Her former colleagues in New York look forward to seeing her soon again in the Big Apple.


The Sultan of Oman in the Gulf has appointed Ms. Hunaina Bin Sultan Bin Ahmed Al-Mughairy as Ambassador in Washington, D.C. She will be the second Arab female Ambassador after an initial new Iraqi appointment and the second Oman woman sent abroad. The first was their Ambassador to Holland. The appointment was part of a wide diplomatic reshuffle which included returning to the home office at least three Ambassadors from key positions abroad. Incidentally, there is a Hunaina Al-Mughairy in New York. She is the wife of the current Omani Ambassador to the U.N. and happens to be the sister of our friendly U.N. colleague Lyutha Al-Mughairy. Could she be one and the same person? Indeed, she is.


We bumped into Norman on First Avenue. Known to thousands of U.N. staffers by his first name only, Norman was for years the pillar of the Delegates Dining Room, meeter greeter at national day receptions and maitre d'hotel par excellence at all U.N. events. With a change of hands on concessions for restaurants within the building, Norman was relegated to the Staff Cafe where those looking for a limited menu and a quainter atmosphere found refuge on the third floor. Now we learn there are more changes afoot. We asked Norman who was sipping coffee on a bench at Hammerskjold Park one afternoon. But he was as discreet as always. What's going on in the staff cafe?


Those who followed international affairs during the U.S.-Soviet competition will recall a shadow of a man accompanying all Soviet leaders, from Kruschev to Gorbachev. Observers at the U.N. during that same period will easily recall the name: Victor Sukhodrev. Brought up in London during the Second World War, the cool and precise Moscovite was the envy of U.N. interpreters, not only for the access he had to all those heads of state during so many crucial summits, but because of the authority with which he conducted business. In a recent New York Times interview, Sukhodrev who is living quietly after retirement did not give away any confidential treasures. He only admitted that once on a trip to the U.S. with Foreign Secretary Gromyko he stole a bible from a hotel room, thus violating both Christian and Communist commandments.


Although the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2015 remains clearly elusive, an unexpected projection for the same years remains on course. According to World Health Organization estimates, the number of overweight people will increase by half. In the year 2015, the one billion people will become 1.5 billion. Great news for those of us who know that misery loves company.


Nejib Friji U.N. Information Officer in Beirut was pulled out, without much notice to the rest of the staff, on 9 October. Instructions came from the 38th floor to his immediate supervisor Shashi Tharoor, who is himself fending for his own skin these days. Initially, Friji will be posted to the mission in Western Sahara. He is said to suffer from a swollen head.


"May the sun rise to meet you. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand."