Saturday, April 26, 2008

Words, Words, Words

Last week I surfaced from a long-term writing project to go to a book reading: T.P. Sreenivasan, India's former Ambassador in Vienna, reading from his book "Words, Words, Words, Adventures in Diplomacy." Tunku Vardarajan, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, moderated the event at the Indian Consulate on East 64th street.

Getting there after the preliminary munch-time was over, I found T.P. (who I knew when he held the key post of Deputy Permanent Representative at the United Nations in the early 1990s), already at the lectern. He was saying nice things about Vardarajan, who had obviously just finished introducing him. The large and stately public room of the Consulate (which is in a palatial mansion steps from Fifth Avenue), was filled almost to capacity. With a plate of spicy chicken wings in hand I tip-toed into a seat at the far end of the room and spent the next hour or so listening to a very personal account of recent history.

The first chapter in the book, "My Story," tells of T.P.'s progress from a small village in Kerala, where his father was a school teacher, to the elite Indian Foreign Service, a process that included passing a competitive examination and immediately thereafter, fending off scores of marriage proposals. The other chapters recount, with a nice surfeit of interesting anecdotes, the highlights of a diplomatic career that took him, after the UN stint, to Washington at a time when the growing post-Cold War intimacy between India and the United States hit the speed-bump of the May 1998 nuclear tests, and then to Vienna, where he represented India in the Governing Board of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Words, Words, Words is more than a memoir. It is an important book about Indian foreign policy, dealing with issues of central importance, served up lightly by a master raconteur. But perhaps the treatment (and the title) do a disservice to the substantive content of the book. T.P. is one of India's foremost experts on the Indo-US nuclear deal and he could have steered perceptions of the matter in a way that none of the various policy axe-grinders can. But then he might have moved on from his status of dispassionate retired diplomat by accepting the responsibility of chairing* an eminent panel on the future of the International Atomic Energy Agency. That panel, he told the audience at the Consulate, had agreed at its last meeting that nuclear energy would and should have a renaissance.

When it came time for audience participation, I asked T.P. to take a step back from that statement and consider the larger issue of whether India should follow the Western model of development. To do anything else, he said, would be too expensive.

This is a matter that cannot be so easily dismissed. Indians (and all of Africa, Asia and Latin America), must seriously consider if nuclear energy should have any role in their future, for it only makes sense in an economic model based on high and wasteful consumption of all resources; if we take that route, there is no way to avoid general environmental disaster.

The issue of nuclear energy is, of course, also inextricably tied in with that of nuclear weapons. If we reject nuclear energy, we are rejecting nuclear weapons; perhaps not right away, but eventually. The argument of nuclear hawks is that this would be suicidal; we must hang on to our nuclear weapons to avoid intimidation. Thus, we must have nuclear energy, even if it generates thousands of tons of deadly radioactive material we have no safe way of handling. The argument is impregnable in its circular rationale.

The trick of dealing with that argument is to sidestep it altogether. Nuclear weapons exemplify the peak of the raw violence that has given coherence to the Western model of development from its very beginning. Without violence that model cannot survive. It is no accident that it developed during the most brutal and bloody period of human history, that the rest of the world sank into great poverty at the same time, or that its impact on the natural environment has been so deadly that other species are now being driven to extinction at a rate not seen since the dinosaurs disappeared. The model is fundamentally untenable.

Of course, it will be expensive to escape this state of affairs. It will also be highly risky. The greed and fear that drive violence are without vision. But people are not. They can be stirred to look beyond personal advantage, as indeed, can nations and international agencies. No matter what the expense or risk we have to try. And in doing so it is good to remember that always, at the beginning, is the Word.
* See Ambassador Sreenivasan's comment for correction

Friday, April 25, 2008

UN Posts for Sale?

In the infamous days when Kurt Waldheim was Secretary-General of the United Nations I was a staff member there, still very much an innocent in the ways of the world. So when an Arab colleague came into my office one morning and, after a few preliminaries, asked if I would co-sign a loan from the UN Credit Union, I assumed he faced some family emergency, and agreed without thought or question.

It was a small sum he wanted, $15,000 if I remember right. After the formalities we went down to the cafeteria for coffee. I thought he might unburden himself of whatever problems faced him, but the conversation was all about in-house politics. Then, as we prepared to leave, he said casually: "You know, I needed the loan to get a promotion." My blank stare prompted an explanation. The Assistant-Secretary-General for Personnel would arrange for a promotion if he was paid; there was a set scale, depending on the level of the job. His promotion would take $14,000. (What the extra $1,000 was for, I never found out.)

The confession left me speechless and wondering about the United Nations, which till then I had considered in the fuzzy light of its own propaganda and my idealism. My colleague got his promotion within a few months, and we never talked about the matter again, not even when the Assistant-Secretary-General in question became the subject of a very hush-hush official investigation and was quietly allowed to resign.

I bring all this up because of what has happened with the the appointment of the Executive Director of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

Last year, after UNIFEM Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer (Singapore) was appointed to head the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in Bangkok, her old post in New York was advertised. Some 150 applications were received. The UN Development Programme (UNDP), the parent organization of UNIFEM, convened a panel to go through the applications, and after much labor it short-listed six. The six were interviewed, and the panel agreed unanimously to recommend Gita Sen of India, who has a sterling background in public policy (she teaches at the Indian Institute of Management at Bangalore and at Harvard), and as an 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, Chile (where Spanish Prime Minister Rodríguez Zapatero got into his famous exchange with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez), it was given out that he would initiate a fresh review of the short-listed candidates. After interviewing four of the candidates himself in February, Ban did not act on the appointment till after Prime Minister Zapatero was re-elected in March. Then he announced on April 8 that the UNIFEM job would go to Inés Alberdi of Spain.

Non-governmental activists who had been looking forward to having a live wire at UNIFEM were bitterly disappointed, and have issued a stream of statements complaining about the manner in which the formal and rigorous appointments process had been nullified. High-level UNDP staff are also reported to be not too happy with the outcome. "There's no doubt about it" one NGO representative told me. "The Spaniards have just bought themselves a UN job. It's clear what happened. Even the timing; Ban just waited to see if Zapatero would be re-elected and would pay up."

No one is saying that Ban was personally paid off; the presumption is that additional Spanish funds will go to UNIFEM. But it still leaves the impression of corruption. UN jobs should go to the best qualified, not to those whose governments offer money.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

High-Level Talk With Low Level Impact

There was wall-to-wall talk about the world economy at the United Nations on Monday (14 April). The occasion was the annual high-level meeting of the UN Economic and Social Council with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). There were official Press conferences, informal briefings, chats in the corridors, and of course, continuous speechifying in the graciously appointed ECOSOC chamber. It was a typical UN affair, with hardly a thought given to how meaningful the proceedings were to the real world of financial fraud, foreclosures and food riots.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's opening speech had a hastily inserted paragraph echoing World Bank president Robert Zoellick's call for action on the growing problem of rising food prices, which "could mean seven lost years in the fight against worldwide poverty." The World Bank, he said, had "indicated that the doubling of food crisis (sic) over the last three years could push 100 million people in low-income countries deeper into poverty. We need not only short-term emergency measures to meet urgent critical needs and avert starvation in many regions across the world, but also a significant increase in long-term productivity in food grain production." The international community would "also need to take urgent and concerted action in order to avert the larger political and security implications of this growing crisis." The UN needed "to examine ways to lead a process for the immediate and longer term responses to this global problem."

After that Ban passed on to the theme of the day: “Coherence, coordination and cooperation in the context of the implementation of the Monterrey Consensus, including new challenges and emerging issues." The 2002 Monterrey Consensus on financing for development was supposed to provide significantly more support for developing countries but it has had little impact. Aid has increased but most poor countries have not benefited; in fact they continue to transfer large amounts of money to the rich. This reverse flow of capital has continued over the decades since the end of formal colonial rule because of unfavorable terms of trade and a variety of illicit transfers. Norway noted that about half of the $1 trillion to $1.6 trillion a year in illicit financial flows is estimated to originate from developing countries.

Ban announced that he had appointed M. Philippe Douste-Blazy, former Foreign Minister of France as "Special Adviser on Innovative Financing for Development" to lead the UN Secretariat’s "efforts to support that important process." (Bruised feelings at the Quai d'Orsay at its loss of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations are unlikely to be salved by the appointment.) He also designated two Special Envoys for the Doha Review Conference: Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Minister of Development Cooperation of Germany, and Trevor Manuel, Minister of Finance of South Africa; they will "help mobilize political support for, and high-level participation in, the Conference." Ban left the meeting with the uplifting exhortation:
“Let us make 2008 a truly great year in the field of development.”

Another moment of unintended comic relief came in the speech of a representative of the World Bank (not Zellick but someone of the order of Chief Assistant to the Assistant Chief). He told the meeting that a "Monitoring Report" prepared in collaboration with the IMF showed that the world is on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on gender parity in schools but not on nutrition, education, health and sanitation. Many "fragile" countries are "falling behind on most, if not all, the Millennium Goals." However, he added cheerily, the MDGs could still be met if global economic growth momentum is sustained, there is more progress on human development, aid is scaled up, trade is harnessed to inclusive and sustainable growth, international financial institutions provide more "leverage," and environmental sustainability is ensured -- all at the national and international levels. Sad to say, the audience did not laugh.

At the end of the day ECOSOC president Leo Merores of Haiti told delegates that a special meeting of the Council "in the very near future" would consider a global response to the food crisis.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Great Famine of 2008-2009?

Over the last year rising food prices have affected poor people in countries around the world and in recent days many thousands of them have taken to the streets to protest. There have been food riots in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Haiti, Mauritania, Mozambique and Senegal.

The World Food Program has reported food crises in 37 countries, and told governments that it faces a $500 million shortfall to meet the needs of 89 million hungry people. That number could rise dramatically if the inflation in food prices -- which analysts ascribe to a perfect storm of soaring petroleum prices, natural disasters linked to climate change, growing demand in China and India, and the ever-rising demand for raw materials to make biofuels -- is not brought under control. The rampant speculation that has contributed to skyrocketing food and fuel prices is hardly ever mentioned as a cause of the crisis; however the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has noted that speculation and market failures have reduced the impact of increased production.

Recommendations to deal with the situation have not been too specific. World Bank President Robert Zoellick, who has warned that the inflation in food prices "is not a this-year phenomenon," has proposed a "New Deal for a Global Food Policy"combining emergency aid and long-term initiatives to boost agricultural productivity. The "Group of 24" Developing Countries in the World Bank-IMF has urged affluent countries to increase financial aid.

There does not seem to be an air of urgency about the situation yet, much less one of panic; but that could develop within a matter of weeks if it becomes apparent that governments do not have a handle on the situation.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

UN Scorned in US-Russian World View

There is just one mention of the United Nations in the White House summary highlighting noteworthy aspects of the "strategic framework" agreed to by Presidents Bush and Putin at Sochi on 6 April. It occurs in the final paragraph, and refers to their commitment to "work with all major emitting economies to advance key elements of the negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change."

There are more references in the full text but they do little to recognize that the United Nations was conceived as an organization central to the international strategies of all its 192 member States. In fact the first mention of the UN puts that idea firmly aside: "Going forward, we intend to deepen our cooperation wherever possible, while taking further, even more far-reaching steps, to demonstrate our joint leadership in addressing new challenges to global peace and security in accordance with the principles of international law, taking into consideration the role of the United Nations."

The next mention comes in passing, as the two sides take note of their "Joint Statement on the INF Treaty at the sixty-second session of the UN General Assembly." (The statement committed them to "a high-level dialogue to analyze current and future intermediate-range and shorter-range ballistic and cruise missile threats and inventory options for dealing with them.")

The third reference is more direct but hardly supportive of the primacy of the UN in multilateral affairs: "We are determined to work closely together on all the major global international issues that confront us, including the pursuit of peace in the Middle East, security and stability in North East Asia through the Six-Party process, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and elsewhere around the world, working with other nations through the United Nations, as well as other international and regional mechanisms, including the NATO-Russia Council and the G-8, to strengthen our cooperation wherever possible."

The fourth reference is more of the same: "We will expand our cooperative efforts through continued partnership in the United Nations and in other multilateral fora to include the OSCE, NATO-Russia Council, and the G-8, and in expanding the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. We will advance our counterterrorism goals at the United Nations, including through strengthening the Counterterrorism Committee and the [Security Council resolution #] 1267 sanctions regime."

That is it.


Three days after the Sochi Summit UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was in Moscow, his first visit since assuming office. He met with Putin and his successor Dmitry Medvedev, who assured Ban, according to ITAR-TASS, "that the UN was the only global body with the authority to resolve international disputes." That was a lead-in to expressions of discontent with what has happened in Kosovo, a Muslim-majority province of Serbia that declared itself independent in February and was immediately recognized by the three Western Powers on the Security Council.

With China and Russia in opposition, the Security Council cannot legitimize Kosovo's secession, but Ban has been less than eager to note that or the danger of a widely destabilizing conflict if the situation is not peacefully resolved. Russian unhappiness with that is said to have been conveyed in rather personal terms: a threat that Moscow would veto a second term for Ban as Secretary-General.

According to published reports Medvedev also offered a carrot, the prospect that the Russian Federation would be open to a significant increase in its contribution to the UN budget. (One publication cited a Kremlin source in saying that Moscow would be willing to match Washington's 22 per cent share of the UN's $2 billion biennial budget; that would be a stunning spike from its current 1.2 per cent.) But it was to no avail. At a Press conference Ban said it was impossible to retrieve the pre-February position of Kosovo, and unrealistic to expect that it could be done.

Meanwhile, Kosovo authorities are reported to have moved quickly to dismantle the infrastructure of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), asking it to vacate two centrally located buildings in Pristina. Reports in Kosovo newspapers say that UNMIK will close its doors in June, and be replaced with a "UN Office in Pristina;" how that can be arranged in the teeth of Chinese and Russian opposition remains to be seen. Also subject to speculation is whether the Serbs in Kosovo will now declare the independence of territories where they are in a majority; if they do, we could be in for another murderous confrontation in the Balkans.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Picking Sides For Armageddon

Two United Nations conferences, one in April 2008, the other in 2009 will bring into focus the concepts, priorities and strategies guiding the economic growth of developing countries. One is the 12th UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to be held in Accra, Ghana; the other is the UN Conference on South-South Cooperation (CSSC), which will convene in Buenos Aires, Argentina, next year. Both are likely to sleepwalk through or entirely ignore the need for decisions on four key issues that will decide whether the world will evolve towards general peace or face a cataclysmic future:

  • Environment and Development: If developing countries continue to follow the Western model of development, the global environmental impact will be disastrous. There is no way that the three billion people now living in poverty can achieve anything approaching Western levels of prosperity without accelerating global warming, desertification, pollution of terrestrial and marine habitats, and the increasingly rapid extinction of species (which is already at a rate not seen since the dinosaurs disappeared). A new development paradigm is needed, but that is not on the agenda of either UN conference (or indeed, anywhere else) .

  • The Power of China: The growing economic and military power of China is pushing the world into territory that is increasingly hostile to liberal democracy, yet both UN conferences will studiously ignore that dire trend as they celebrate “South-South cooperation for development.” The phrase refers to cooperation among developing countries which now account for some 48 per cent of world GDP estimated on the basis of “purchasing power parity.” Unless there is a creative democratic response to the mutual support system of tyrannical regimes, we face an Orwellian future.

  • The Rich Poor Gap: Despite the spectacular economic growth of a number of developing countries some three billion people remain mired in poverty. The rapid economic globalization supporting the growth is widening the gap between poor and rich in every country, developing and developed. Both UN conferences can be expected to make empty declarations on this issue and do little. Unless the problem is effectively addressed we will continue to have a world in which a rich and powerful global elite will be at constant war with an impoverished and disenfranchised underclass.

  • An Ineffective United Nations: The United Nations is now as ineffective as the League of Nations was in its long final phase. It was not able to prevent the proxy conflicts of the “Cold War” that killed over one hundred million people, nor has it been able to check the commercial and “ethnic” wars that have continued to kill millions every year after the end of East-West ideological confrontation. It has stood idly by as repeated episodes of genocide have occurred in full view of the world's mass media. The UN, as the repository of hopes for the rule of international law, is critically important to developing countries; but neither conference will say much beyond expressing formulaic support for the organization, and meaningless reform efforts will continue, as they have for over a quarter century. Unless we have an effective peace organization, the trends described in the three previous paragraphs will push the world into ever more destructive conflict. With the continued proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, it is possible for conflicts to escalate rapidly to a scale at which all civilization will be at risk.

The world's governments are unlikely to act on any of these problems. An effective response must come from ordinary people. See my post of 2-20-08 for suggestions on what can be done.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Ban Ki-moon Stumbles On

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's stumbling progress in office continues with little improvement, especially on cabinet level appointments. Little seems to have changed since the early 2007 announcement of Asha Rose Migiro of Tanzania as UN 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: they had sat next to each other on a long flight a year earlier.

Ban's assertions that Migiro was the best person for the job did little to help the UN Press corps suspend its disbelief, for she had no visible qualifications to be Deputy-Secretary-General, having been Tanzania's Minister for Community Development, Gender and Children for five of the previous six years. She had been Foreign Minister for less than a year before taking on the UN job. The unkind construction put on this by UN cynics was that Tanzania, a member of the Security Council in 2006, was being repaid for helping Ban get his own job.

Another clear quid pro quo was seen in another early appointment, Britain's ambassador to France, John Holmes, as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. The post requires hands-on operational experience, of which he had none. Non-governmental organizations engaged in emergency aid were dismayed at the appointment and not mollified by the assurance that Holmes, a former private secretary to Tony Blair, was a quick study. UN cynics speculated that the appointment was linked to the British decision to lift its opposition to Ban in the Security Council's 2006 straw polls to pick the new Secretary-General.

At present British nationals occupy two Under-Secretary posts in New York (the other is a pre-Ban appointee, David Veness, head of Safety and Security). There would have been a third if Paddy Ashdown, Ban's nominee to be his Special Representative in Afghanistan, had not run into opposition from Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai (see post of 2-10-08). The post went to Norway's low-key Kai Eide. Another British national in a key spot is Ian Martin who is the Secretary-General's Special representative in Nepal as it tries to emerge from a period of Maoist insurrection.

The Migiro and Holmes appointments were scandals whispered about in-house; Ban's 2007 effort to "reform" the UN Departments of Disarmament affairs (DDA) and Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), was publicly damaging. Evidently acting under pressure from Washington and ill advised by his own staff, Ban proposed that DDA be reduced in status and made part of his own office; he wanted to divide DPKO to separate its policy and logistics capabilities. Both proposals ran into a buzz-saw of opposition in the General Assembly. DDA remained unchanged. DPKO was divided to create a new Department of Field Support, but only with much eating of humble pie by the Secretary-General. The net result of that "reform" has been to dilute French influence in managing the UN's 32 field operations with over 100,000 military, police and civilian personnel.

Since July 2007 Field Support for UN peacekeeping has been under Jane Holl Lute of the United States; in July this year she will hand over to Susana Malcorra of Argentina, who comes from the World Food Program. Jean-Marie Guehenno of France, who used to head the undivided DPKO, is leaving the UN.

The latest chapter in Ban's continuing misadventures has to do with his decision to combine two Under-Secretary-General posts created by the General Assembly to serve specific developing country constituencies: Special Adviser on Africa; and the High Representative for Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States. Ban implemented the change by not renewing the contract of his Special Adviser on Africa, Legwaila Joseph Legwaila of Botswana.The Africa office was then put under the supervision of Cheikh Sidi Diara of Mali, High Representative on the specially disadvantaged countries.

Small islands and landlocked countries, which are scattered around the world and have problems quite different from those facing most African countries, see little sense in combining the two offices. Africans see the move as a dilution of attention to their own concerns. Feelings on all this have been running high, and Ban's assurances that both offices will retain the resources allotted to them by the General Assembly have not assuaged the widespread outrage. Quite undiplomatic statements have been reported out of closed meetings. The last time a Secretary-General attracted such blunt criticism was when Boutros Boutros-Ghali ruled the UN roost.