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UN smothers critical Baghdad report
By Alexander Casella

Any hope that the report produced by an independent panel headed by for Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari on the August 19 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad would lead to some rethinking of the way that the UN secretariat in New York operates is now a thing of the past.

This is the opinion of many diplomatic observers in New York, as well as of a number of senior UN staff. In his report, Ahtisaari, a no-nonsense administrator indebted to no one, not only qualified the UN security system as "dysfunctional" but also referred to major shortcomings regarding "qualified professionals ... internal coordination ... threat assessment .. discipline ... and accountability". It was a damning indictment, not only of the way that security threats were addressed in Baghdad, but even more so on how Secretary General Kofi Annan runs his shop.

Many at the UN hoped that, confronted with this indictment, the secretariat would rise to the challenge and launch a process that would open the door to major reforms of the institution. It was not to be. On November 4, Annan decided to appoint a "team" to determine "accountability at all managerial levels" as it regards the Baghdad bombing. Many UN staff members, well versed in the art of reading between the lines of UN communiques, had one word to describe the decision: whitewash.

What made the Ahtisaari panel particularly relevant was the fact that it was independent. Though nominated by the secretary general, no restrictions were placed on its operation and it was understood that the conclusions reached would be made public unedited. By comparison, the "team" appointed by the secretariat to follow up on Athisaari's observations is a far more constrained entity.

First, it is essentially an insiders' group, which will report directly to the secretary general. Its head, Gerald Walzer, a retired Austrian UN staff member, has been described as the ultimate bureaucrat. Walzer joined the UN refugee agency as a finance clerk at the age of 20. Over the following 40 years he slowly wormed his way up the bureaucratic ladder, a gnome laboring in the dark in a labyrinth of budgets and financial rules, administrative procedures and regulations.

In 1993, when the then High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, was looking for a deputy, her choice fell on Walzer. In him she found the person on whom she could discharge the burden of administration and finance, for which she had no affinity. For all practical purposes, Walzer was deputy high commissioner only in name. In practice, he remained the punctilious, hard working finance clerk he had always been, the sort of person who, is the words of one of his former colleagues, is programmed not to find out what he should not find out.

Second, while the task of the team is to review "accountability", it is clearly spelled out that this applies only to "managerial levels". Thus the failings identified by Ahtisaari in "internal coordination", "threat assessment" and the like, in other words, the disfunctioning of the crucial political process within the secretariat, remains beyond scrutiny.

The "managerial" shortcomings that preceded the bombing are essentially known and are an endemic to the UN system. One is procurement. According to UN regulations, all procurement of equipment requires tenders and the submission of competitive bids. On paper the rule makes eminent sense. In an emergency situation, however, abiding by the rule can result in fatal delays.

Thus, when the UN office in Baghdad requested that special anti-fragmentation films be fitted to the windows of its building, and had the funds available to procure it at short notice, the UN in New York held up the purchase by demanding bids. There is no doubt that had the films been fitted to the windows, the number of casualties in the August 19 bombing would have been greatly reduced. However, it can be argued that had the bombing not occurred, the UN staff who would have authorized the purchase of the films without going through a bidding process would have been liable for infringing on UN procurement rules. Thus, ultimately, it was the system more than individual staff members which proved "dysfunctional" when confronted with an emergency situation. And it is that very system that the Walzer team has been tasked with not assessing.

The two main departments of the UN secretariat are Peace Keeping (DPKO) and Political Affairs (DPA). On paper, the UN office in Baghdad reported to DPA, and to the secretary general on political matters, while the administrative support was provided by DPKO. In practice, lines of control and communications were never formally established and ultimately no one knew exactly who, at the upper echelons of the bureaucracy, was responsible for what.

Conversely, responsibility at the lower levels was easier to pin down: as the Walzer team went to work the UN announced that two officers, Tun Myat, UN security coordinator, and Lopes da Silva, officer in charge in Baghdad, had "asked to be relieved of their responsibilities" while the team conducted its work. Why they had "asked" to do so two-and-a-half months after the bombing is unclear. What is clear is that Tun Myat, who started his career with the World Food Program, had no security background. "The real issue" commented a UN staff member "is a system that puts a person with no background in security in the position of security coordinator".

How far up the hierarchical ladder the inquiry will precede is a moot point. Officially, both the heads of DPA and DPKO are appointed by the UN secretary general. In practice, both are political appointees. Governments submit a list of candidates to the secretary general who then endorses the choice.

Traditionally, the DPA has been a British preserve, with the current incumbent, Kieran Prendergast, being a former ambassador to Turkey. As for the DPKO, it was given to France in exchange for its lifting of its veto to the election of Annan as secretary general in 1995.

Its current incumbent, Jean-Marie Guehennot, is a graduate of France's prestigious National Administration School and was an auditor in the Defense Ministry before his appointment. Both Prendergast and Guehennot have no alternative but to operate within the bog of an entrenched bureaucracy where tenure is the rule, accountability a myth and promotions have more to do with political correctness and "regional balance" than performance.

The overall consensus among UN staff is that, while Walzer might identify a few scapegoats, the search for accountability at "managerial levels" will not go very far. Alternatively, the search for political responsibility, had it ever been attempted, might well have gone too far for comfort.

Would it have implicated the secretary general, the heads of the DPA and the DPKO, the heads of the UN agencies who flooded Baghdad with their staff members to show the flag? And who was responsible for "threat assessment" in the system? "The bottom line," commented a senior UN staff member, "is that all are guilty but none are responsible. Ultimately it was the system that did not work."

While "the system" shows no taste for reforming itself, it can be argued that this is the responsibility of the member states and not of the secretariat. It can also be argued that, from the Bush administration to the International Committee of the Red Cross to the Italian police force, no party in Iraq can claim success in either "threat assessment" or the prevention of attack.

While the failure of others is hardly a consolation for the UN secretariat, its bureaucracy, which prides itself on being better than the sum total of its members, should be sobered by having been exposed as being not even the best of a bad lot.

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Nov 15, 2003

'Dysfunctional' UN takes stock
(Nov 4, '03)


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