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At UN, Holmes’ Humanitarian Tenure Ends With Sudan Silence, Sri Lanka Questions of Good Cop, Bad Cop, Off Record Jokes

[Inner City Press, Thursday, 19 August 2010 19:43 No Comment]

What is the role of the UN’s emergency relief and humanitarian coordinator? The question is raises as the UK’s Sir John Holmes ends his 3 1/2 years in the position.

  Initially the UK put him forward to head the UN Department of Political Affairs. When this was impossible, he was given the humanitarian job. But what is the relation between diplomatic politics and the humanitarian imperative?

The most recent example is the UN’s silence from at least August 2 to August 13 as the Sudanese government blockaded the Kalma Camp in Darfur and starved its tens of thousands of residents.

   The UN’s envoy to Darfur, Ibrahim Gambari, has said he was trying to negotiate with Sudanese authorities. But where until August 13 was ERC John Holmes?

  Similarly, when the Myanmar regime of Than Shwe was, according to UN whistleblowing staff, stealing up to 25% of post Cyclone Nargis aid through enforced foreign currency transactions, why didn’t Holmes speak up until it was exposed by the Press?

These questions were not raised, much less addressed, at a heartfelt farewell reception held for Holmes on August 18. There, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s chief of staff Vijay Nambiar praised Holmes’ diplomacy, using Ban’s golf analogy of Holmes driving straight and accomplishing his goals in as few strokes as possible.

But is a humanitarian coordinator supposed to be quiet? In a view that has been expressed to Inner City Press by a number of non governmental organizations, the UN system needs both good cops and bad cops, the latter rattling the subject in the dock, the other offering conciliation in exchange for changed behavior.

  While some — in the Ban Ki-moon administration, nearly all — UN officials try gentle suasion with dictators and strongmen and cynically hardhearted developed country leaders, the job of the Emergency Relief Coordinator is to be the bad cop, to speak truth to power about access and aid.

The response, including at Wednesday night’s well organized event during which Holmes was given a box of three golf balls seemingly emblazoned with the UN logo, is that the NGOs should advocate loudly, and the ERC somehow mediate between the NGOs and governments.

But in countries like Sudan and Sri Lanka, to simply name two, the NGOs are intimidated against speaking out. Otherwise they will be thrown out. In these settings, the NGOs expect the ERC to be out in front, saying the things that they cannot say. And many feel that Holmes did not do that.

This is not to deny Holmes’ skill as a political analyst, or many miles he flew to such places as Niger, Chad and Yemen. As Wednesday night’s event began, an OCHA staffer approached Inner City Press, seemingly with information about Sudan and other hotspots.

The purpose of the approach soon became clear: that the content of Holmes’ upcoming speech be treated off the record, because it would “contain jokes.” This is a shame, as the jokes with the exception of one that led to groans among the audience, particularly the females, showed a side of Holmes not often seen by the public. But Inner City Press respects such unilateral and indirect requests, even as Holmes sets up his exit or legacy interviews with media thought to be uncritical of his tenure.

John Holmes engages Press on way to Sri Lanka: good cop, bad cop not shown

In other settings, Holmes seemed to assume from such media off the record or sympathetic treatment without even asking for either. During a flight to Sri Lanka in May 2009, Ban Ki-moon told the Press that Holmes would come to the back of the plane and give a briefing about the upcoming visit to the IDP (internment) camps in Vavuniya.

Holmes came back and spoke to a half dozen reporters, who took notes and used verbatim parts of what he said. Inner City Press asked about doubts of the UN’s impartiality expressed by members of the Tamil ethnic group. Holmes said he got such e-mails and deleted them.

This seemed newsworthy, and Inner City Press included Holmes comments in a piece written hours later in a hotel in Colombo. The next morning, other members of the press corps conveyed Holmes unhappiness and anger. Inner City Press rushed upstairs and modified the article, particularly since with no Internet access in the Vavuniya camps, it would not be possible later.

   Still, Holmes was angry. Despite what he said at the time, to his credit — and due to the structure of UN press coverage — communications did continue in what remained of his ERC tenure.

But the question remains: if a disfavored ethnic group cannot expect to get a hearing at the UN from the Emergency Relief Coordinator, from whom can they expect it? It is, as many pointed out on Wednesday night, a thankless and grueling job.

  Earlier this summer, the Permanent Representative of a Permanent Five member of the Security Council complained on Holmes behalf about what was called the pay, even the need to call one’s own taxi.

It is a tough job, but literally hundreds of well qualified advocates would like to have and do it. To listening to the shrill complaints of disfavored groups without turning away may be exhausting, but it is the job.

  Speaking truth to power might feel mechanical, especially to a long time diplomat. But it is the job. How will incoming Baroness Valerie Amis do? Watch this site.

Footnote: as Holmes takes up his new post at Ditchley in the English countryside, Vijay Nambiar joked that it should allow the UN to be invited more to speak there. One can imagine Holmes writing about his time as ERC; he is known as a stylistic stickler, echewing split infinitives and such buzzwords as "ongoing."

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