Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

U.N. Still Battered by U.S. Action On Iraq (July 1, 2003)
"Americans seem to hate the United Nations for not supporting the war, while a lot of the rest of the world hates the organization for not preventing it."

AIDS, Other Trends Give New Prominence To U.N. Population Division (June 23, 2003)
"Ethnic wars, epidemic diseases, huge migrations of people have helped make [the U.N. Population Division] one of the busiest offices in the U.N. Secretariat."

Fixing The Security Council (June 16, 2003)
"If the United States and the rest of the world seem to be looking at the same Security Council and seeing two very different images, most governments can agree on one point: the council needs fixing."

Peacekeeping's Unsavory Side (June 10, 2003)
"Among the uglier stories surrounding international peacekeeping in recent years is that U.N. operations too often fuel booms in local prostitution."

More from U.N. Notebook.


U.N. Notebook | July 8, 2003
 
from U. N. Wire A New Step for the U.N.—an Ombudsman

by Barbara Crossette
 
....

UNITED NATIONS—The United Nations is trying a little preventive diplomacy on itself. For the last eight months, an ombudsman has been setting up shop to listen to staff grievances and try to address them before office battle lines form and confrontations erupt. Amazingly, this is a revolutionary step for the organization. Until now, most employees had to wait until an internal dispute provoked administrative action—and then appeal it. Festering and backbiting are thus pastimes in many offices, and capable people can turn into dispirited cynics, or flee the U.N. system altogether.

"This has been under discussion for a long time," said Patricia Durrant, a Jamaican foreign service officer and recent ambassador to the United Nations who was named the first ombudsman a year ago by Secretary General Kofi Annan. Her office opened in October.

"Because the administration of justice is based primarily on an appeals process, someone who wanted a formal resolution of an issue before it reached the stage of administrative action did not have a clearly defined place to go," she said.

The terms of Durrant's appointment, at assistant secretary general level, are unusual too. She will serve for a nonrenewable five-year stint and cannot hold any other U.N. job when that term ends. She operates independently of all other organization officials and reports directly to the secretary general. She is expected to be nonpolitical and neutral and to deal with employee problems in total confidence.

A U.N. staff member said that Durrant's power may look invisible but it is real, because she cannot be dismissed except by the secretary general and is not subject to the usual management pressures and jealousies. He also said that Durrant came to the job with a solid reputation for impartiality and hard work on the Security Council when Jamaica was a member, and that "no one will close the door on her" when she takes up a case.

Leading me out of her office through a back door, she jokes that the door is unmarked so that her visitors can creep out without advertising where they've been.

Any organization the size of the United Nations, with thousands of employees at headquarters and in branches scattered around the world, would have workplace problems: discrimination and favoritism, bullying, harassment, unfair transfers or undeserved promotions—just to name a few. When the organization also has linguistic and cultural misunderstandings, no uniform legal system, long absences from families and homes, depressing and heartbreaking work to do and a high level of danger in many assignments, jobs can carry intolerable stress. Complaints often bring only retribution.

"It is a challenge to operate in a multicultural system," Durrant said in her characteristically quiet, understated mode. "All of us come with our own national baggage," she said, "and we have to leave that at the door. Sometimes it's extremely difficult to do that, especially when you have persons who have been working in their national services for a long time and are accustomed to operating in a certain environment." Although Durrant would not say so, that "certain environment" can mean anything from tolerance for corruption to systematic demeaning of women.

Some outposts, often run by appointees not trained in management skills, have been particularly troubled. For years, the war crimes tribunal for Rwanda, based in unsatisfactory quarters in Arusha, Tanzania, was an example of a poisoned work atmosphere. African and European or Canadian officials traded charges of racism, nepotism was reported to flourish, money was wasted and cases dragged on or were fumbled—not by judges but by the administrative staff assigned to support them. Employees, some of high professional standing, had no recourse but to call for investigations by the U.N. inspector general or seek out journalists to tell their stories. Reporters could do little; the United Nations is remarkably devoid of paper trails.

The ombudsman's office was designed to provide a sympathetic if impartial ear for the disaffected— "to create, so to speak, a safe haven," as Ms. Durrant describes it. She added that by striving for increased productivity and adherence to the standards of the organization's international civil service code, the ombudsman "can provide a certain amount of assistance first of all by taking some of the conflict out of the workplace." The role of a U.N. ombudsman, she said, was modeled on those found in national governments, other international organizations or the private sector.

Durrant won't say how many staff members have visited her office or tried to reach her by telephone (collect from anywhere in the world on a non-U.N. line) by mail (to an off-premises post office box) or by secure e-mail, but she did say that the number is growing steadily, and is about equally split between women and men, and between headquarters and the field. "The numbers have grown; it was just getting the word out," she said.

She has made one trip to Geneva, where the United Nations maintains its second-largest center, and hopes to visit other cities with large U.N. offices. The office, which distributes pocket-sized guides of dos and don'ts in conflict management, has a Web site: www.un.org/ombudsman.

So far, most of the complaints the ombudsman has dealt with are related to conditions of employment, the short-term contracts under which many people work for the organization, performance appraisals and promotions, Durrant said. But the United Nations has unique underlying problems.

"Because so many of our staff operate in very stressful conditions, that is something that we always have to be conscious of," she said. "Many are employed in a country not their own. So many of our staff have to deal with persons outside the organization in a conflict setting." The United Nations has stress counselors, but they cannot be everywhere, and this is an era when more humanitarian workers than peacekeepers are being attacked, abducted or killed in the field.

Durrant is finding that just getting a story across or advice digested has perils in an organization like this. "So many of our staff work in a language that is not their own,"she said. Culture can also intrude. "We have to be very careful when we communicate, so that they understand," she said. "What people often hear is not what we intended to say."

"My office has no interest in the outcome of a particular issue," she said, emphasizing that she is not an advocate for the disaffected nor an arbitrator, and will take a case up with office colleagues or a supervisor only if asked to help in finding a resolution. After barely eight months of work, she senses what is needed most in the U.N. family is a sense of trust and justice. "The basic requirement is that if they feel they are treated fairly," she said, "then a lot of the problems ... will go away."


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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see NationalJournal.com.

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.