Thursday, January 25, 2007

Screwed Up Reforms

My latest column from Tribune, London 25 January 2007

The arrival of Sir John Holmes at the United Nations will be a distinctly underwhelming experience for most of the United Nations staff and diplomats. They would have been much more excited if it were his namesake the porn star “Long John” Holmes, whose qualifications were touted at 13 inches plus.

On the face it, the actor's qualifications, even when adjusted for reality at a mere ten inches, still appear more appropriate for his career than Sir John’s c.v. makes him to be Under Secretary General for humanitarian affairs.

Although it is possible that in the best mandarin tradition of the British Civil Service, Sir John will rise to the occasion, being so close a friend of Tony Blair that the Prime Minister ordered the Foreign Office not to submit any other British nominations for high office to Ban Ki-Moon is not necessarily a good qualification for such a demanding position.

What is more, Sir John has a hard act to follow in Jan Egeland, his predecessor, the Norwegian who was nobody’s poodle, and whose outspokenness mobilized billions of dollars for humanitarian aid after disasters like the Asian Tsunamis – at the risk of annoying the White House. Such qualities are not in oversupply in Tony Blair's immediate vicinity.

While all British governments have played this game, their nominations have usually had much more apparent qualifications, and to be fair, have often taken their oaths as international civil servants seriously enough to irritate Whitehall.

But regardless of Holmes’s qualifications, Blair’s nomination is a buccaneering one in many respects, not least in the wreck it has helped make of the UN reforms that he and Bush keep invoking.

The root of many of the managerial and personnel problems of the United Nations -- and there are many -- is that from the beginning the permanent five have ridden roughshod over the UN Charter’s provisions for an independent international civil service.

Under their pressure, Trygve Lie allowed the FBI an office in the building to vet American staff for Un-American activities. For decades, the UN could not employ Russian or Chinese staff who were not sponsored and vetted by their governments.

More recently, the British and French have claimed various high-level jobs, while for the last fifteen years, the Under Secretary General for Management has been an American presidential appointment. Some of them did outstanding jobs, although one notes that when the Murdoch press and Congressional Republicans inveigh against "waste, mismanagement and corruption," at the UN, they rarely mention who is charge of management there!

But regardless of the competence of the appointees, there can be no substantial reform of UN personnel policies when the President of the US, or the Prime Minister of Britain, treat senior posts in the organization as part of their own political patronage.

While it is true that the British, French and Americans do not deign to interfere in lower level appointments, pouring through the breach made by the P5 many other ambassadors work hard to ensure that their nationals get a piece of the UN pie.

Towards the end of his term, Kofi Annan, perhaps a little belatedly, tried to do something to stop this. Admittedly, he waited until after appointing a Bush nominee to head UNICEF, a traditional American position. Senior UN positions were advertised, candidates were interviewed, and Annan appointed people from the non-chosen nationalities.

It was, of course, too good to last. In the last month of office as John Bolton shouted "reform" and demanded that every senior appointment that Annan made should end as soon as he left office, the White House, and Bolton, contrived to nominate a prominent Bush supporter and former editor of the of the Reverend Moon's Washington Times as head of the World Food Programme. The search process went ahead as specified, but reportedly, the White House threatened to pull the funding both from the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the WFP, if the interview panel failed to take note of the manifest qualifications of Bush's nominee. And so Josette Sheeran Shiner was appointed.

And then came Sir John Holmes, whom Blair wanted to be either head of peacekeeping, or political affairs. Ban Ki-Moon demurred, apparently because he had already been pressured into promising these positions to the Americans and the French. So Sir John ended up heading Humanitarian Affairs, for which his main qualification is being a Friend of Tony – and a previous friend of John Major.

It would have been pleasant, if unlikely, to see a British Labour government side with Annan, and his British Deputy, Mark Malloch Brown, in their efforts to reform the UN. Even putting forward several candidates for Ban to choose from would have preserved appearances.

The results may now be disastrous. The leaks suggest that the President will successfully put American diplomat Burton Lynn Pascoe as head of the Department of Political Affairs at the UN. He is indeed unusually well qualified for a Bush nominee.

However it is difficult to conceive of anyone suggested by this administration who will not cross their fingers behind their back as they swear not to take instructions from their governments. For example, Pascoe now has a choice, to implement UN policy on the Middle East – or ruin any career chances he has in Washington!

In any case, appearances do matter. If the UN appears as an unalloyed tool of Washington, that will seriously harm its ability to work across the world. To put it shortly, Tony Blair has joined in doing to the UN what the other "Long John" Holmes used to do to his co-stars.

No comments: