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
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
"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
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
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
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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic
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
For information on National Journal Group publications, see
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All