Sunday, November 30, 2008

Media Punditry on Mumbai

The recent terrorist attack on Mumbai has received massive global media coverage, but analysts and commentators have displayed little insight or understanding. Here's what editorials/columnists had to say in two of the India's "elite" newspapers on Sunday (30 November)

Times of India
On page one, under the incendiary headline "Our Politicians Fiddle As Innocents Die," India's largest circulation English newspaper berated the country's leadership without naming names or noting specific failures. On the editorial page commentators had this to say:

Swapan Dasgupta: Noted "two small points of reassurance" from the Bombay carnage. The first is that the television coverage of the event has "brought home to Indians" the "ugly face of terrorism." The second is that the "fatalism" of Mumbay citizens in the face of terrorism in the past (which "wasn't a display of the gritty stiff upper lip resolve Londoners showed during the Blitz in 1940-1941"), has given way to palpable anger. Mumbai wasn't a victim of "ordinary intelligence failure." The "grim truth is that there was zero intelligence. India was caught napping." This was evidently written before it was reported that there had been numerous and specific warnings from a variety of intelligence agencies.

Swaminathan Aiyar: Mentioned the Mumbai attack towards the end of a long piece headlined "Electoral Mood is Anti-incumbent." While the attacks have shown the Congress to be "more incompetent than ever," there have been "terrorist incidents" also in BJP-ruled Rajasthan.

Bachi Karkaria: An affecting account of how her friend and TOI colleague Sabina came from Delhi to attend a Karkaria wedding, and was thus placed in Death's way at the Taj.

Jug Suraiya: A meditation titled "Athiest's Prayer" noted the "appalling selectiveness of God's mercy" as evidenced by TOI colleague Sabina's "appointment in Samara" at the Taj. (The reference is to the story about the merchant of old Baghdad whose servant saw Death make a threatening gesture at him in the marketplace and ran in a panic to borrow his masters horse to ride away to Samarra and escape. After the man had ridden away, the merchant went to the marketplace and asked Death why he had made a threatening gesture at his servant. "That was not a threatening gesture" said Death; "I was just surprised to see him here, for I have an appointment with him at Samara tonight.)

Gurcharan Das: A piece titled "Changing Rules of Dharma" began with criticism of Sonia Gandhi for saying the nationalization of Indian banks by Indira Gandhi gave the country "stability and resilience." It then hopped sequentially to: (1) the current "dire" financial crisis, amidst which "we don't seem to realize how much we are hurting;" (2) a defense of the strong action taken by governments to intervene in the free market (the Mahabharatha, it noted, recommends adaptation of Dharma in times of crisis); (3) a recommendation for making credit cheaper in India; and finally, (4) a reassurance that "capitalism will eventually correct itself."

Shashi Tharoor: In "Keep Up The Spirit to Fight" Tharoor noted the"savage irony" that the terrorists had disembarked at the Gateway of India, which was built in 1911 "to welcome the King-Emperor George V." (It is rather less ironic if we consider that George was part of a line of terrorists who presided over the deaths of some 500 million Indians.) In the wake of the Mumbai attack "platitudes flow like blood," and "inevitably, the questions have begun to be asked: 'is it all over for India? Can the country ever recover from this?'" The answers are provided: "No" and Yes."

Hindustan Times
Vir Singhvi:
In "We're All Bombayites Today" Singhvi asked why India is in the company of Afghanistan and Pakistan in experiencing an unchecked reign of terrorism. The question went unanswered as the article swung easily into a condemnation of inept politicians. The people of India were described as "fed up of politicians who use terrorism as an excuse to win votes. ... fed up of the way they seek to pit Muslim against Hindu over the dead bodies of victims of terror in the cynical hope of winning the next election. ... fed up of their incompetence."

Manas Chakravarty: In an article titled "A Sitting Duck Country" the self-described "Loose Canon" (sic) imagined what Osama bin Laden might say about India in writing to his supporters. The piece ended: "Is there any chance that we may be attacking them too many times and that they're close to losing their legenday patience? ... Don't worry, they'll do absolutely nothing, except go quack, quack, quack."

Karan Thapar: "When Zardari Spoke To Us" recounted the Pakistani President's astonishingly conciliatory speech to a Delhi audience a week ago via a television hook-up. He broke with past policy in declaring that his country would not be the first to use nuclear weapons. He said how Indians and Pakistanis all had a bit of each other in them. He declared that Pakistan did not see India as a threat. Thapar did not mention the attack on Mumbai.

Indrajit Hazra: In "Fight Terror? Whatever" adopted a world-weary attitude to terrorism and the political platitudes trotted out in response. Anyone who thinks he is cynical is directed to those who "blow us up with drop-dead ease and delirious smiles on their faces."

The Sunday Hindustan Times also had several guest columnists, most notable among them novelist Amitav Ghosh. In a piece headlined "Defeat or victory isn't determined by the success of the strike itself, but by the response," Ghosh warned against an Indian response to the Mumbai attack based on accepting 9/11 as a precedent; if we do that the "outcome will be profoundly counterproductive." Another guest columnist was Naresh Fernandes, editor of Time Out magazine. He wrote how the attack on the Jewish outpost at Nariman House made Indian Jews "feel like Jews" (i.e. endangered) for the first time in the country's history. "That, to me, has been among the most tragic casualties of this terroist attack" Fernandes concluded.

The columnists in The New York Times and the Times of London were hardly better; will review them asap.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Slippery Eel" at UN Obstacle to Reform

When South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon first took up his job as United Nations Secretary-General in January 2007, a story in The New York Times noted that the Press corps in Seoul had nicknamed him “slippery eel”. Ban then took to referring to himself at Press conferences as the slippery eel, obviously trying to pull the sting of criticism with his openness. The strategy did not work, for his early days in office resounded with a number of high-profile controversies that reinforced his unflattering image. Nearly two years later, the controversies have been largely forgotten, but it is clearer now that issues of character and competence are real, and could stand in the way of any real reform of the United Nations.

The first of the controversies was the appointment of Asha Rose Migiro of Tanzania as Deputy Secretary-General. She was hired without any kind of selection process, not even a formal interview. When asked about that Ban told journalists that he had talked to her; then it came out that he had done so a year earlier, when they happened to sit next to each other on a flight into Addis Ababa. Ban's assertions that Migiro was the best person for the job were hard to swallow, for she had no visible qualifications for the post, having been Tanzania's Minister for Community Development, Gender and Children for five of the previous six years. The unkind construction put on this by UN insiders was that Tanzania, a member of the Security Council when it picked Ban to be Secretary-General in 2006, was being repaid for helping his candidacy.Another slippery situation was precipitated by the appointment of Britain's ambassador to France, John Holmes, as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, a post that requires hands-on operational experience, of which he had none. Non-governmental emergency aid organizations dismayed at the appointment were not mollified by the assurance that Holmes, a former private secretary to Tony Blair, was a quick study. They saw the appointment as payoff for the British decision to lift its opposition to Ban in the Security Council straw polls that preceded formal action on the appointment of the new Secretary-General.

Quid pro quo arrangements in personnel appointments have continued over the past two years. The most visible case was that of Gita Sen of India, who a search panel picked from a field of over 150 candidates to be appointed the head of UNIFEM, the UN Women's development fund. Sen has a sterling background in public policy (she teaches at the Indian Institute of Management at Bangalore and at Harvard), and is a respected activist on women's issues. The panel made its recommendation in November 2007, but nothing happened. Then after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had attended the Ibero-American Summit in Santiago, it was given out that he would initiate a fresh review of the six candidates the panel had short-listed before picking Sen. He set aside the panel's recommendation and chose Inés Alberdi of Spain. Non-governmental activists who had been looking forward to having a live wire at UNIFEM erupted in anger, charging that Ban had nixed the panel's recommendation because Spain had offered money for UNIFEM. One NGO representative told me: "The Spaniards have just bought themselves a UN job."

As an administrator Ban has proved to be secretive, building his own little clique of officials imported from the South Korean Foreign Service. Although brought in as members of his Executive Office (thus avoiding the normal recruitment process) they have been posted to key Departments as his eyes and ears, short-circuiting established hierarchies. The most senior of them was made deputy to the Secretary-General’s Chef de Cabinet, Vijay Nambiar of India, who was thus put in the unenviable position of being constantly second-guessed and sidelined by a Ban confidante.

Diplomatically, Ban proved to be even more ham-fisted. Shortly after taking office, he set off a noisy flap by trying to make major structural changes in the Secretariat without consulting the 132-member “Group of 77”, the influential caucus of developing countries. The G-77, which is convinced that UN top brass serve a handful of powerful countries, reacted with fury, and Ban had to reverse himself. That was followed by a fait accompli directed at African countries: Ban eliminated the post of Special Adviser on Africa, saying that his High Representative for Least Developed, Land-locked and Small Island Countries could do the job. As the focus of the High Representative is on countries scattered around the world which have problems quite different from those facing most African countries, the latter saw the move as a dilution of attention to their own concerns. There was widespread outrage, and all of Ban’s subsequent initiatives on Africa ­– the region that accounts for some 80 per cent of UN activities – have floundered.

The most obvious of the UN’s African failures has been in the Sudan, where only a small fraction of a projected 26,000-strong force for Darfur has been able to deploy. Another is in the Horn of Africa, from where Eritrean harassment forced UN peacekeepers to pull up stakes earlier this year. Meanwhile, the “commercial wars” over the rich resources of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have continued unabated despite the presence of a large UN force; the mostly civilian death toll of the decade-long conflict is estimated to be between five and ten million.

Clearly, these failures cannot be blamed on Ban alone, for they are symptomatic of large institutional and political problems on which no Secretary-General can have much purchase. The Security Council is far more responsible for UN failures in Africa; its five permanent members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) are perennially at odds with each other as they pursue colonial, neocolonial and strategic interests in the region. The five have been unable to muster the will to act even to protect children caught up in armed conflict, a problem put firmly on the international table by a ground-breaking 1996 report from Graca Machel (the widow of President Samora Machel of Mozambique).

Just in the past decade, said the report: "an estimated two million children have been killed in armed conflict. Three times as many have been seriously injured or permanently disabled, many of them maimed by landmines. Countless others have been forced to witness or even to take part in horrifying acts of violence."More than a decade later, and despite annual reports with ever more specific details about the horrific crimes being perpetrated against children, the Security Council has done nothing effective to deal with what is unarguably the most unequivocal moral issue on the UN agenda. Every annual report to the Council for the last five years has identified 16 armed groups making brutal use of child soldiers, but instead of establishing a sanctions committee and initiating meaningful action, all it has done is issue worthless declarations and call -- in 2005 -- for a "monitoring and reporting mechanism" that has no funding or independence from existing UN structures.

On more complex issues such as global warming, or most recently, the financial crisis that has swept the world into economic turmoil, the United Nations has been largely a spectator. The Secretary-General has claimed repeatedly that he is “working very hard” on global warming, leaving unspecified what exactly he is doing. UN insiders say his efforts consist of traveling around the world urging leaders to act. At the end of his first year in office he had chalked up more travel than any of his predecessors in a comparable period: 125,000 miles according to AP; 346,000 Km according to Reuters.

On the financial crisis, Ban’s statements leave the impression that he doesn’t really understand the issue. On his recent visit to Delhi, for instance, he told Walk The Talk host Shekhar Gupta that “when Bretton Woods institutions were established in 1945, the International Monetary Fund was not given the mandate to oversee and monitor all these financial and banking regulations”. He seemed to be confusing monetary and financial affairs (one has to do with the macro relationship of national economies as reflected in the relative values of their currencies, the other has to do with the actual flows and use of money). Ban also seemed to be unaware that the UN has a long history of pushing for a global regulatory framework for transnational corporations (which are the major agents of global financial flows). They have ranged from an abortive effort to negotiate a Code of Conduct for TNCs in the 1970s and 1980s, to much fruitful and continuing work to standardize accounting practices. Such lack of knowledge about UN history is probably as serious a problem as lack of principle and political savvy in a Secretary-General, especially in a period when the entire Organization stands in need of fundamental reform.