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.

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