Squabble over a UN Position

A small storm has erupted over the decision of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to support the reappointment Thailand's Supachai Panichpakdi for a second five-year term as head of the Geneva-based United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

Supachai's aides are being accused of improper lobbying on his behalf and Ban is being accused of being overly influenced by a block of western countries and their Asian allies. Some say Ban's support for Supachai is part of his own bid for re-election in the face of opposition from many members of the Non-Aligned Movement who view him as a western protégé.

In the case of Supachai, the attack has been led by African nations who had their own candidate for the job in the person of Ambassador Gauze, the Ivory Coast's ambassador to the UN in Geneva and formerly his country's trade minister.

According to e-mails published by Inner City Press, an UN insider site, Supachai's special adviser Kobsak Chutikul had written to senior staff at UNCTAD in response to a note sent to the non-aligned movement mission. The Kobsak email said that it was "the assessment of Thai and some ASEAN ambassadors" that the goal of Supachai's opponents was "to insist on a geographical rotation of posts, and undermining the practice/tradition of two continuous terms, with the real target being the UN Secretary general (and his perceived western backers". This was seen as an attempt to link the re-elections of Ban as well as Supachai.

Separately, Kobsak was accused of making e-mail allegations against Gauze relating to his private life and the paternity of a child.

Critics of Ban and Supachai claim that though they complained about the various emails to Ban and to the UN Office of Management and its Ethics office but had had no response. Since then Ban has tried to pre-empt the issue by supporting Supachai's bid for a second term.

Second terms in these top UN jobs are usual but by no means universal. Supachai, coming from a successful Asian developing economy, is seen as insufficiently sympathetic to the less successful, and too attached to the western-derived rules such as those of the World Trade Organization, which he previously headed. The WTO's own boss Frenchman Pascal Lamy is also up for re-election and draws similar criticism for his previous role as EU Trade Commissioner. However the Asians are suggesting that he is less under attack because he is white and because of French influence in Ivory Coast and elsewhere in Francophone Africa.

As for Ban his re-appointment looks likely for lack of obvious alternatives despite what even western backers view as a lackluster performance thanks to his apparent acceptability to China as well as most other Asian countries.

As for the emails and general backstabbing, some accompanied by comments about race, they are not exactly rare at the UN. But petty though they often seem, they do represent deep divides, and particularly an African sense of grievance that its candidates for top jobs are seldom taken seriously by westerners and east Asians.