Global Policy Forum

Is Beleaguered UN Chief Caving In to US Pressure?


By Thalif Deen

Inter Press Service
10 February 2005


A rash of recent headlines in mainstream U.S. newspapers portray a U.N. secretary-general struggling to survive: "Kofi Annan Must Go," "Annan's Post at the U.N. May be at Risk, Officials Fear" and "Criminal Probe Eyes Kofi's Son." The unrelenting media and political campaign against Annan has been grounded mostly on charges of mismanagement, corruption, nepotism and sexual harassment in the U.N. system worldwide.

Annan has also been shaken by allegations that his son, Kojo Annan, was linked to a Swiss company currently under investigation in the scandal-tarred, multi-million dollar oil-for-food programme in Iraq. But Annan's defenders say the continued muckraking against the world body has been sparked primarily by the strong stand he took against the U.S. military attack on Iraq in March 2003, calling it "illegal". And right-wing neo-conservatives with close ties to the White House, who believe that both the United Nations and Annan made a grievous error by not supporting the U.S. war on Iraq, are out to get the secretary-general.

So how does Annan, whose second five-year term ends in December 2006, try to survive against such overwhelming political odds? "He is obviously caving into U.S. pressure," Jim Paul, executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, told IPS. "I am just wondering whether we are having an unelected secretary-general." Even recent U.N. reports from the secretary-general's office, he said, were virtually drafted either by British or U.S. nationals, one of them from the U.S. National Security Council. "No policy statement can be uttered by Kofi these days that is not crafted by specialists who are (at a minimum) highly sensitive to Washington's priorities," Paul added.

Annan has refused to reappoint the head of the Palestine refugee agency (UNRWA) Peter Hansen of Denmark, a longtime critic of Israeli policies in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, primarily because of U.S. and Israeli pressure. The long-rumoured appointment of retiring Under-Secretary-General Kieran Prendergast of Britain as the new U.N. Middle East envoy has also been stymied by the United States and Israel. Annan half-admitted the pressure he is under when he told reporters recently: "(Prendergast) would have been perfect. But we don't work in a vacuum."

Meanwhile, as part of a high level management restructuring, Annan's chef de cabinet (chief of staff) Iqbal Riza of Pakistan went into retirement last month, followed by his second-in-command Elisabeth Lindenmayer of France. Riza, who is believed to have been forced into retirement at short notice, has been succeeded by Mark Malloch Brown of Britain, head of the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP). "These are all marks of a purge," Paul said. "The only person who has not been purged is the secretary-general himself. He is probably waiting for the next shoe to fall."

With several senior officials either on the verge of retirement or finishing their existing assignments, Annan has an unprecedented number of vacant posts in need of new leaders -- including the head of UNDP, UNRWA, the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the under-secretary-general for political affairs, the deputy chief of staff in the U.N. secretariat and the U.N. financial controller.

Although Annan has promised "geographical diversity" in new appointments, one Third World diplomat told IPS that the secretary-general "will obviously come under heavy pressure both from the five big powers -- the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia -- and also from donor nations such as Japan and Nordic countries." "Developing nations, which comprise more than two-thirds of the membership of the United Nations, are always marginalised in senior U.N. appointments," he added.

Besides Malloch Brown, the most recent senior U.N. appointments include David Veness of Britain as Under-Secretary-General for Safety and Security, and Ann Veneman, the outgoing U.S. secretary of agriculture, as executive director of UNICEF to replace another U.S. national, Carol Bellamy. One of the frontrunners to head the UNDP is a Norwegian national.

All three countries -- the United States, Britain and Norway -- are key donors to U.N. agencies worldwide. In 1997, Annan said that no U.N. member state should assume "that they own a certain job." "The secretary-general supports the idea of rotating nationalities for senior positions," confirmed U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard.

But in reality some of the key jobs in the U.N. system, including under-secretary-general for management and under-secretary-general for political affairs, are monopolised by the United States and Britain. Paul said there is a lot of talk that senior officials should be selected only on "merit". "This whole business of merit is a code word for getting more white folks in. It is disgusting. The bottom line is that if you don't come from the Britain or the United States, they seem to be saying: 'you don't have any merit'," he complained.

Former assistant-secretary-general Samir Sanbar of Lebanon, who once headed the U.N.'s department of public information and served under five secretaries-general, says the world body's hiring policy is not donor driven -- "it is power driven". This practice continues, he said, despite the fact that senior officials from developing countries display greater determination to produce results than those sheltered by powerful industrial countries. "So the deck is overwhelmingly lopsided."

Sanbar pointed out that even when a Brazilian under-secretary-general left the U.N. office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA), he was replaced by a Norwegian; and when a Sri Lankan under-secretary-general left the Department of Disarmament Affairs, he was replaced by a Japanese.

"I doubt that Annan is caving under U.S. pressure under the current situation; he is seeking to gain support from those whose support he deems matters," he added. Of course it would be wise, balanced and more in line with U.N. spirit if he used the current openings to bring in senior officials from the developing world "That, however is doubtful," Sanbar said. "While Annan could be partially blamed for the current imbalance, his immediate concern may be to survive the last two years with relative quiet," says Sanbar, who is editor of an online website called U.N. Forum.

Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, told IPS that there is a false notion that representatives of wealthy, powerful donor nations are chosen for high-ranking U.N. positions because only they are capable of carrying out crucial international fundraising tasks. "The reality is that those governments -- unfortunately most often that of the United States -- are given first right to appoint their own candidates, and veto power over others, as a perceived means of insuring at least some level of often-insufficient political and financial support for important U.N. institutions," said Bennis, author of "Before and After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Sep.11 Crisis."

The appointment of Bush loyalist and former U.S. agriculture secretary Veneman as head of UNICEF, for instance, has little to do with fundraising for the vastly popular organisation. Rather, it has to do with a desperate effort to keep the United Nations as a whole from being consigned to "irrelevance" by a thoroughly unilateralist White House, by guaranteeing not only a high-profile U.S. presence but a powerful leader committed to expanding the influence of U.S. agro-corporate interests and socially conservative values matching those of the Bush administration, she added.

Hillel C. Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based U.N. Watch, said the appointment process at the United Nations has strayed far from its founding principles. The governing principle of the U.N. Charter is not geographic diversity but rather individual merit. "Today's United Nations-- crippled by corruption allegations in the oil-for-food programme and now at the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), and sexual abuse scandals -- needs meritocracy, not 'geocracy'," Neuer told IPS.

Too often member states choose to forget that under Article 101 of the U.N. charter, the paramount consideration in appointments must be the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity, he said. "To be sure, due regard must be paid to the importance of recruiting staff on as wide a geographic basis as possible, but for some reason we have reversed the order of priorities." "If certain outgoing U.N. officials in fact possessed the integrity required by the Charter, the United Nations would not now be struggling under the black cloud of scandal," he said.




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