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Ban Ki-moon’s New Team Earning Positive Reviews


Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, new head of public information at the UN
Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal of Austria will start running the UN’s public-information office in August. Previously, he was a foreign-ministry spokesman. ASHRAF MAHMOUD

When leaders of the world start descending on the United Nations in September for the opening of a new General Assembly session, there will two new internationally well-known figures in prominent positions at the top of the organization. In July, Jan Eliasson of Sweden became the UN’s deputy secretary-general, and in mid-August, Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal of Austria, an expert in communications and new media, will take over leadership of the crucial department of public information, which has been languishing in recent years.

Around the UN, these are considered bold appointments. Eliasson rejoins the UN with a strong reputation not only as a diplomat and leader in international work on humanitarian issues but also for a stellar term as president of the General Assembly in 2005-2006, when he succeeded in marshaling support for a summit document that introduced the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. He went on to oversee the abolition of the Human Rights Commission and its replacement by the Human Rights Council. As deputy secretary-general, he is expected to handle UN management issues with skill.

Launsky-Tieffenthal is a newcomer to the UN – he calls his appointment “a coronation of my career after nearly 30 years” – but not a stranger to international diplomacy and media relations worldwide. He has most recently been Austria’s foreign ministry spokesman, after several decades of diplomatic service. He was Austrian consul-general in Los Angeles as well as a diplomat in the Middle East and Asia, notably in India. In July, Ban also named Launsky-Tieffenthal UN coordinator for multilingualism, heeding the General Assembly’s request that a senior United Nations official be appointed to manage questions on multilingualism throughout the Secretariat.

In creating a largely new team for his second term in office, Ban has made other prominent appointments, often drawing on experienced insiders with successful track records. Among them is Susana Malcorra of Argentina, Ban’s new chief of staff, who was formerly an under secretary-general directing field support for UN peace missions. Earlier, she was chief operating officer and deputy executive director of the World Food Program after a career in the private sector, including at IBM and Telecom Argentina.

Ban has replaced Malcorra in the department of field support with Ameerah Haq of Bangladesh, who most recently headed the UN mission in Timor-Leste as it consolidated its vulnerable and sometimes shaky democracy. She is a 37-year veteran of UN work, much of it in the field: Sudan, Afghanistan, Laos and Malaysia. She has also served as deputy assistant director for crisis prevention and recovery at the UN Development Program headquarters in New York.

Susana Malcorra of the UN
Susana Malcorra of Argentina, the new chief of staff for Ban Ki-moon; Herve Ladsous, the peacekeeping chief, from France, is next to her. MARK GARTEN

Angela Kane of Germany has been named high representative for disarmament affairs after a term as under secretary-general for management and earlier as assistant secretary-general for political affairs. She has more than 35 years of experience at the UN, where she rose through the ranks during a period when women found it hard to advance at the world body.

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“Her credentials in the UN system and her success in her former position in managing financial and human resources issues successfully bodes well for this next position on disarmament issues,” said Kennette Benedict, the executive director and publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which focuses on the threats of nuclear weapons.

“We are all seeking vigorous leadership on nuclear disarmament at a time of great opportunity,” Benedict said in an e-mail to PassBlue. She added that with the United States and Russia concentrating on the new Start treaty, “the international community can contribute through the Conference on Disarmament to negotiate a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, among others measures.” The international community could also be more effective in pursuing nuclear weapon free zones, especially in the Middle East and in Northeast Asia, Benedict said.

“Even if the United States and Russia made drastic reductions in their arsenals in the coming decade, other countries, such as France, Britain, and China in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, will need to be engaged to bring down the world’s arsenals,” she added. “In addition, how to engage those outside the NPT, namely India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea, will be a great challenge.”

The new head of the UN’s department of political affairs is American, Jeffrey Feltman, who has extensive Middle East experience, including as US ambassador to Lebanon and later as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs at the State Department, where he dealt with the tumultuous changes of the Arab Spring.

 The appointment of two Europeans to the top positions of deputy secretary-general and head of communications for the UN led to grumbling among nations in other regions, especially in the developing world. Both Eliasson and Launsky-Tieffenthal say they are confident they can overcome such challenges by stressing that they are working in the interest of all member countries and are open to all ideas.As under secretary-general directing UN public information and communications, Launsky-Tieffenthal said in an interview with PassBlue that he hoped to better focus all the diverse daily messages of the organization and its offices and agencies. He wants to do this with more attention to new media and social networks.He has been meeting members of what he describes as his “great team” in New York and in European information centers – including in Vienna, a UN hub city – to tap department of information staff members for their suggestions. It will be up to his global team, he said, “to win over the member countries that may have questions or may have doubts in what we’re doing. I’m very confident that we will be able to do so.”

Ameerah Haq of Bangladesh
Ameerah Haq of Bangladesh, the new head of the department of field support at the UN.

One task of his office will likely be creating a better Web site for the Secretariat, to match the lively sites of many UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations that work with the UN.

“I wouldn’t want to criticize the Web site per se,” he said, “but I would like to say that there are so many messages coming from the United Nations on a daily basis on the many projects the United Nations is involved in that reflect the broad spectrum of activity. I think that will remain the same. The only question is what we can do jointly to maybe focus those messages a little bit more. It’s not meant to be a criticism, it’s just meant to be a thought that I would like to bring to the table to be discussed.” He’s looking to his staff for thoughts for improvement.

The occasional moments of tension between the department of public information and the office of the spokesman of the secretary-general may be over. The spokesman since 2009 has been Martin Nesirky of Britain, a former foreign correspondent for Reuters and later spokesman and head of public information for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna, where Launsky-Tieffenthal got to know him.

“I hope others, too, who’ve worked with me would have considered me a genuine team player,” Launsky-Tieffenthal said. “On a more personal note, I’m very confident it’s going to work out because I’ve known Martin for a long time when he was spokesman for the OSCE in Vienna.”

Deputy Secretary-General Eliasson has already received a warm welcome in New York by UN officials and diplomats alike who have sought a stronger office in the organization’s second-highest job.

Warren Hoge, senior adviser at the International Peace Institute in New York, said in an interview that Eliasson’s legendary diplomatic abilities were on display at a private dinner the institute held when the new deputy secretary-general arrived in the city in early July. About 20 ambassadors to the UN came to the off-the-record event, including several current members of the Security Council. Eliasson took time to hear everyone’s grievances.

“Some people complained that there were too many resolutions, too much paperwork,” Hoge said. “Or else they wanted to have more meetings. Others complained about the overlapping nature of UN responsibilities. One major ambassador complained that the UN was taking on too much, that every time a situation arose, they would create a mandate, they would a commission or a committee – and this had just gotten out of control, and what it did was create expectations that could never be met, which led to disillusionment.”

All the while, Hoge said: “Jan was taking notes assiduously. And then when it was through, Jan spoke probably for about an hour, went through what must have been 25 or 30 pages of notes – and he addressed every single one of the comments that were made. Every single ambassador who left that dinner felt that his or her complaint had been addressed.”

Hoge said that Eliasson enjoyed enormous credibility with the global South for a man of the global North. “Several of the ambassadors who were prominent ambassadors from the global South pretty much said that,” Hoge recalled.

To many around the UN, appointments like those of Eliasson and Launsky-Tieffenthal — and others in Ban’s new team – show the secretary-general to be more confident and, in his second and presumably last term, free to name the best people he thinks he can find, without the pressures of geopolitics.

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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