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A Task for the Next UN Secretary-General: Review the Special Envoy System


Leila Zerrougui, an Algerian lawyer who tktktkUNAMA
Leila Zerrougui, an Algerian lawyer who is the United Nations special envoy for children and armed conflict, addresses media in Kabul, Afghanistan, in February 2016 regarding government efforts to protect children. FARDIN WAEZI/UNAMA

When a tough independent report sharply criticized the United Nations in December for its bungled attempts to cover up, or at least ignore, the sexual abuse of children by peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic in recent years, it named among the people responsible for letting the children down Leila Zerrougui, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special representative for children and armed conflict. That is right: the UN’s special representative for children and armed conflict.

The report — by a panel of three experts led by Marie Deschamps, a former justice on the Supreme Court of Canada — took Zerrougui, an Algerian lawyer and human-rights specialist, to task in blunt language for knowing about the allegations of abuse (by French troops) but not following up with Unicef, French officials or others in the UN “despite the fact that the sexual abuse of children in the context of armed conflict falls at the core of her mandate,” the report said.

Zerrougui, in a defense appended to the report, said in a statement through her office that she was never sent a promised written follow-up response from Unicef on the allegations that she had been told about by a Unicef official. Other responsible UN officials also did not give her information or documentation, she said.

“At no point in the period between July 2014 and April 2015 were the Allegations included in the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) quarterly or annual reports from the Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting, which is co-chaired in CAR [the Central African Republic] by MINUSCA [the UN peacekeeping mission] and Unicef Country Representative,” her statement said. The panel report found in this explanation not only ground for criticizing her but also more evidence to support its condemnation of the UN’s general dysfunction and obfuscation.

Paula Donovan, a co-founder of AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue campaign to end immunity for peacekeeping personnel, is among those who agree that to single out Zerrougui despite her special responsibility for children is not fair, given the larger issues of denial, inaction and lack of communication in the broader UN system that the Deschamps investigation uncovered.

Donovan has served as a gender and AIDS adviser for Unifem, the predecessor of UN Women; as Unicef’s regional adviser on HIV/AIDS for eastern and southern Africa; and as adviser to the UN’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS. She was among the first to report on the sexual abuses in the Central African Republic last year. More reports of new allegations were published in February of this year.

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The case of Zerrougui’s role, or lack of one, raises the larger issue of the proliferation and sometimes below-par performance of special envoys of the secretary-general. At last count, there were 106 of them listed on Secretary-General Ban’s website, with abysmally low ratios of women to men by region, with no women at all in the Asia-Pacific sector.

The envoys fall mostly into two groups: the heads and deputies of peacekeeping or stabilization missions around the world (some working in tandem with regional organizations) and the other “personal representatives, envoys and advisers.”

Samir Sanbar, a retired former UN under secretary-general and head of the UN’s Department of Public Information, said in an interview that over a long career in the world body he has seen the concept of a special representative change fundamentally, well beyond the intention of the organization’s founders.

One of the first and best envoys, Sanbar said, was Ralph Bunche, an American diplomat who in 1950 won the UN’s first Nobel Peace Prize for successfully negotiating an armistice between newly independent Israel and the Arab states.

“He was a very special envoy, sent out for a specific mission,” Sanbar said in an interview. “You do a specific task, and when it’s accomplished, that’s it. It used to be they did only one job and came back. Now it’s forever. There are unlimited mandates. And there are so many of them, the secretary-general wouldn’t know who’s who.”

Ralph Bunche
Ralph Bunche, a UN envoy from the US, won the UN’s first Nobel Peace Prize.

The secretary-general’s list includes special advisers and high representatives on themes like bird flu, climate change (four of them) food security, migration, the prevention of genocide, road safety and sport for development and peace. Sanbar argues that the splintering of the UN presence results in a diminution of UN leadership: “The retreating role of the UN and the eroding of leadership.”

It has other dangers for the system, he added. Some representatives, among them former diplomats, are viewed in national capitals more as representatives of their home governments than of the UN. Some do not take salaries, but they can cost the UN considerable money in travel expenses and per diem payments on frequent visits to New York.

In the field, the special representatives can get in the way of career UN staff in the country offices of UN agencies, Sanbar said. “What has happened often is that the system demoralizes the staff that is supposed to do the work. There are staff who are dealing with many issues.”

The sudden arrival of a roving envoy can be an intrusion that can undo delicate arrangements on the ground. “The special envoys have no accountability to anybody,” Sanbar said.

Among the appointees are outstanding career diplomats who have navigated the UN through difficult and dangerous times. These include the late Sérgio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian killed in a bomb blast in Baghdad in 2003; and an Algerian, Lakhdar Brahimi, one of the most famous and effective troubleshooters on three continents, now retired, who has just been awarded an honorary doctorate from the Sciences Po in Paris for his outstanding contributions to international diplomacy. They, like others who headed large missions as well as conducted shorter assignments, have been among the most successful UN envoys.

Jeffrey Laurenti, a writer on foreign and political affairs who follows the UN closely, said UN envoys heading major missions full-time around the world are in a class of their own.

“There’s a huge difference between the country-specific SRSGs and the thematic ones,” he said in an email. “The former have a modicum of operational authority, and to the extent the political decision-makers who have representatives at the Security Council care about a situation, the SRSG in that country can have a significant impact in laying out the facts, warning of the consequences under various scenarios, and giving talking points to the NGO advocacy groups that can drum up political support for responses beyond benign neglect.

“Of course, to be successful that SRSG has to be trusted as competent, astute, and articulate — and not have engendered backbiting from within the UN mission staff that makes its way back to New York,” he added.

“The thematic SRSGs don’t have a localized focus that fits within the bureaucratic organograms of leading foreign ministries,” Laurenti continued, “and their work is less likely to trigger concrete responses by political decision-makers, especially if the issue under study relates to a large number of states, including those for whom those decision-makers feel a special tenderness.”


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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A Task for the Next UN Secretary-General: Review the Special Envoy System
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