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At UN, Tales of Ban Ki-moon and the U.S. Trigger Concern from Developing World

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, December 31 -- In the flurry of bleary-eyed votes on UN budgets and year's-end recap stories, a central question raised by developing countries at the UN about the tenure of Ban Ki-moon is his relation with the hyper-power, the United States. From the allocation of top jobs and no-bid contracts to his selection of issues of concern, the specifics of negotiations and votes on the long night of the budgets, December 21, provide a snapshot review of Ban's first year as Secretary-General. In subsequent in-depth interviews with diplomats, Inner City Press has sought explanations of provisions of the budget resolutions, and of Ban's back-room presence at the UN until 6:30 a.m. on December 22.

            As responsibility for peacekeeping in Sudan's Darfur region is passed to UN hands at year's-end, an under-reported note of concern was expressed in the December 21 resolution on the budget for the UN mission there, UNAMID, in which the General Assembly

"Notes with concern the decision of the Secretary-General to utilize a single source contract without competitive bidding and requests the Secretary-General to take immediate action to supply good and services in compliance with the established procedures for procurement, based on international competitive bidding and the widest possible geographical base of procurement, so as to avoid a non-competitive extension of the present contract...Requests the Secretary-General to entrust the Office of Internal Oversight Services to undertake a comprehensive review of the use of the extraordinary measures for this mission..."

            The "single source contract without competitive bidding" referred to was for $250 million, to U.S.-based military contractor Lockheed Martin through its subsidiary, Pacific Architects & Engineers. After the deal was quietly announced on October 15, Inner City Press twice asked Mr. Ban to explain the lack of competitive bidding. He responded by promising transparency; his spokesperson's office explained that following the Security Council's July 31 resolution on UNAMID, requiring the UN to take responsibility for Darfur by year's end, there had been no choice but Lockheed. But then whistle-blowing UN staffers showed Inner City Press an earlier letter, from April, from the head of the UN's new Department of Field Support, Jane Holl Lute, pushing Lockheed Martin's PAE for a sole source contract.

    The incongruity was never explained. Despite numerous requests, Jane Holl Lute never came to a briefing to answer questions (although she did write a December 26 letter to the editor of the Washington Post arguing that reports of corruption in peacekeeping procurement were overblown). On December 21, the General Assembly itself, even in compromise language, criticized the Lockheed Martin contract and called for an investigation of the lack of competition.

            In fact, the creation at Ban's request of the Department of Field Support, and Jane Holl Lute's continued holding of the top job, was also a matter of concern to member states, particularly those in the 130-nation block of the Group of 77. "They told us it was an emergency to create DFS," a G-77 insider told Inner City Press, "and we went along because it was Ban's first reform. But then he never filled the top post. And so we refused to approve his next reform, of the Department of Political Affairs."

    The calculus, according to this diplomat, was that by placing American Lynn Pascoe in the UN's top political job, the U.S. lost its claim on the DFS post. But Jane Holl Lute continued to hold it, on an interim / acting basis. When finally the Secretariat asked member states to propose candidates, they were given only ten days, for a job description that, the diplomat quipped, was tailored only for a combination of Microsoft's Bill Gates and General Colin Powell. "Most countries didn't even bother asking their capitals" for candidates, the diplomat continued, adding that a similar hurry-up-and-wait approach was taken to filling the top human resources job, vacated by Jan Beagle following persistent Staff Union complaints. "They are politically tone deaf," the diplomat concluded, pointing as another example to the attempt to eliminate the long-standing UN position of Special Advisor on Africa.

At the UN in 2007

            A sample "one year of Ban" roundup opined that

"Ban Ki-moon has spent an unwelcome amount of time fending off critics of a closed management style they say comes from his native South Korea. As the year ends, diplomats and analysts give Ban, a former South Korean foreign minister, good marks for persistence, but say many member states find his decision-making secretive."

            While the UN Staff Union recently passed a resolution diplomatically noting the "the senior levels of the organization should lead by example and avoid creating the perception of conflict of interest by, for instance, not seeking employment of their own relatives and friends," which Staff Union sources tell Inner City Press is among others directed at Mr. Ban, the focus on South Korea, covered early by Inner City Press, is superseded in the view of most diplomats interviewed for this article by the Ban - U.S. dynamic. There are counter-trends, such as another way mentioned in the Staff Union resolution, that "the Secretary-General has failed to protect the one staff member of UNDP who was designated by the UN Ethics Office as a bona fide whistleblower." The U.S. mission initially championed this case, although later backing off and acquiescing in the UN Development Program's rebuffing of the UN Ethics Office and creation of its own in-house ethics office and review panel, which missed its own end-of-year deadline.

            In full disclosure, Inner City Press has spoken with Ban Ki-moon in several settings throughout the year: hurried one-on-one questions and answers in transit from the basement rooms where the budget negotiated to his elevator to the 38th floor, on-camera answers in front of the Security Council and in the briefing room, at the Secretary-General's residence on Sutton Place (about climate change and carbon offsetting) and, at year's end, at 6:30 a.m. on December 22, as Ban left the General Assembly president's office after the budgets finally passed. In person, Ban is likeable. Clearly he is hard-working. On the other hand, the night of the budget many ambassadors, left to twiddle their thumbs while UN officials negotiated with the U.S. about its objection to a budget item for a conference the U.S. views as anti-Israel, offered a different explanation of Ban's presence in the building. They said that while the U.S. had been unable to get others to agree to a budget cap, Ban would take the floor during the General Assembly's vote at dawn and would commit to such a cap. As one of them put it, "there no way to prove what Ban would have said, since he ended up not speaking. But no one would have believed this of Kofi Annan or Boutros-Ghali," Ban's two immediate predecessors. The U.S. voted against the budget anyway, citing to the conference.

News analysis: Any UN Secretary-General must listen to the U.S.. Boutros-Ghali in his memoir "Unvanquished" notes that he allocated the UN's top management job first to George H.W. Bush's choice, Dick Thornburgh, then to Bill Clinton's choice. But if the S-G gets perceived as overly close with the U.S., a needed counter-balance is lost. In a similar vein, the UN needs reform, and to its credit the United States is the main country pushing for it. But when the U.S. has a conflict, as in the case of the Lockheed Martin contract, the need for a counter-weight to the U.S. becomes apparent. Stay tuned in 2008.

* * *

Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece about the Somali National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund.  Video Analysis here

  Because a number of Inner City Press' UN sources go out of their way to express commitment to serving the poor, and while it should be unnecessary, Inner City Press is compelled to conclude this installment in a necessarily-ongoing series by saluting the stated goals of the UN agencies and many of their staff. Keep those cards, letters and emails coming, and phone calls too, we apologize for any phone tag, but please continue trying, and keep the information flowing.

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540