Candidate for Top U.N. Job Sets Out Vision for Reform

Interview with Jayantha Dhanapala

By Ayca Ariyoruk

January 23, 2005

With the Secretary General Kofi Annan’s term expiring in the end of 2006, aspirants for the job have begun presenting their qualifications. Among them is Jayantha Dhanapala, an expert in international arms control and one of only two candidates to have officially received their country’s endorsement for the post (the other being Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand Surakiart Sathirathai). In an interview at the Ambassador Grill, located across from the U.N. headquarters in New York City and a favorite haunt for diplomats, Dhanapala said “ there is a lot that is right about the U .N. We have to preserve what is right while fixing what is not.”

The interview took place on January 7, 2005 and began with the simple question “why do you want this job?” The question has particular resonance at a time when many consider the position of the United Nations secretary general to be thankless and fraught with difficulties. Mr. Dhanapala responded with perfect diplomatic aplomb that “a sense of duty and dedication to the principles of the United Nations prompted me to run.” He went on to explain that his name had been circulated in the press as a possible replacement for Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1995, however, it was not appropriate at that time for a non African to be selected. “At this juncture, given my strong commitment to effective multilateralism, long experience in multilateral diplomacy and cumulative experience as an international civil servant, I have the tools, experience and vision to lead this organization to which I have been committed all my life.”

Dhanapala has begun his career in the Sri Lankan foreign service in 1965 and over the following 20 years, held appointments in London, Beijing, Geneva, Washington D.C. and New Delhi. He has a master’s degree from the American University in Washington D.C., and speaks French, Chinese, English and Sinhala. He headed the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) from 1987 to 1992, and is the author of Multilateral Diplomacy and Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) . In 1995, Dhanapala had one of his greatest diplomatic victories when he secured agreement on an indefinite extension of the NPT as the chair of the NPT Review and Extension Conference. In 1997, Dhanapala set his sight on the position of director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but did not get the post. It has been said that he lacked the support of his government, and that he resigned his post as Ambassador to United States in protest. He went on to spend the next year as diplomat-in-residence at the Center for Non-proliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a reputable think-tank. He is the recipient of various peace and honorary awards for his work in diplomacy and disarmament.

In 1998, Kofi Annan asked Dhanapala to join the United Nations as under secretary general to rebuild the department of disarmament affairs, which had been reduced to a ‘Center’ within the department of political affairs under Boutros Boutros-Ghali. When asked why he served only one five-year term in this post, Dhanapala responded “I did what was asked from me and it was time for me to leave.” He added “Kofi Annan has an admirable personality”, but declined to comment on Annan’s second term, or on the ‘oil for food’ scandal.

Job Description
The conversation moved to the topic of a job description for the U.N. secretary general, and whether it should, as stated in the U.N. Charter, be only that of “ a chief administrator”. Dhanapala said “clearly, it is that, and much more. I think our experience from the time of Trygve Lie, Dag Hammarskjöld and others, is that the secretary general becomes the embodiment of the ideals of the organization. There is a certain moral dimension – the ability to be a leader while at the same time recognizing that you derive your mandate from the member states is an essential quality the next secretary general must have.”

So is he a proponent of the idea, originally promulgated by Paul A. Volcker, and now gaining widespread currency at the White House, that the next secretary general should be paired with a Chief Operating Officer (COO)? Volcker, who led an independent inquiry into the oil-for-food program proposed that Security Council nominate a two person slate of candidates in which the “COO like the secretary general himself [would be] nominated by the Security Council and approved by the General Assembly. While reporting to the secretary general, the new COO would have the status conferred by direct access to the Security Council.” Dhanapala believes that “by building into the job description of the existing deputy secretary general that of a COO, the U.N. is more likely to have a lean and efficient management system than by creating additional deputy positions.” Ultimately, however, he believes that accountability should rest with the secretary general and that the COO should be appointed by the secretary general.

Turning to the challenges of the job, he addressed the commonly-voiced complaint of micromanagement by member states, particularly the reluctance of the G-77 – the largest coalition of developing countries – to let go of control over high level appointments and administrative matters. In Dhanapala’s view “the consistent and patient practice of diplomacy” is necessary to bring about cooperation in such circumstances. “First I don’t think there is a need for anyone to ‘give up power’ as you put it. Secondly there has to be a review of the way we evaluate appointments at the U.N. Work performance should be the sole criteria for promotion and for appointments. We need to work towards meritocracy, while at the same time recognizing geographic distribution and gender aspects. Drawing lessons from the corporate and public sectors helps, but we must also recognize that the U.N. is a unique organization. That is why we have to approach the task in a pragmatic manner but recognize that this task cannot solely be undertaken by a top management specialist.”

Reform is “breaking down of walls between departments”
If selected, Dhanapala will ensure that his priority will be the proper implementation of the reform proposals agreed by member states. “There is no question, reform is the primary challenge, and this is not because one country says so”. In another display of impeccable diplomatic comportment, however, he avoided commenting on two of the most contentious reform issues – on Security Council reform, Dhanapala will say only that reform and enlargement should be dealt with separately, and on the Human Rights Council, that “those decisions will be made by the member states. What the secretary general can do is to be a consensus builder and ensure proper implementation.”

As for the other reform issues, Dhanapala outlined three categories of reform. The first involves abolishing existing, non-functioning U.N. institutions and establishing new mechanisms as necessary. He cites as examples the Trusteeship Council, an outdated body which he feels should be abolished, and the discredited Commission on Human Rights which must be replaced by a renewed concept. An example of an innovative reform initiative, he stated, is the new Peace-building Commission, established in December 2005. The new body breaks down the walls between departments and U.N. organs. “It is the first time in history when a U.N. institution will have representation from the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council and the General Assembly. We need to see more of this kind of breaking down of walls between departments and the coordination of principal organs”.

The second reform category is “program reforms” he said, expressing his support for the review of U.N. mandates older than five years, due in late February. Third is the reform of the Secretariat, Dhanapala believes, “the secretary general must have broad powers of discretion and the authority to ensure proper implementations of the mandates… there is a fine balance between the way in which the General Assembly, Security Council and Secretariat all work together… we have to maintain the equilibrium that was envisioned by those who devised the UN Charter.”

Issues for 2007
Looking at some of the specific issues he might face if appointed secretary general, an obvious scenario to pose, given his background, is that of a rogue state potentially developing nuclear weapons. While Dhanapala avoided mentioning any one country, he said the suggestion of having IAEA guarantee supply of enriched uranium from states that already have nuclear capacity is a good way to ensure that the material is used only for peaceful purposes. “It is an innovative idea and should be explored further to encourage states to voluntarily forego the development of domestic nuclear weapon-making capability.”

Asked what he thought is the primary threat facing the world today, Dhanapala responded that there is no one great threat to the world community. “Dealing with the spread of diseases in Africa or the threat of terrorism is of equal importance to the United Nations, and they have to be dealt with simultaneously. Unless there is a natural disaster, [the secretary general] can’t pick one country’s priority over another”.

U.N. and the Superpower
One of the critical issues he would face as secretary general is that of dealing with the world’s single superpower. Indeed, given the power wielded by the United States over the selection process, it is an issue he has begun to face even as a candidate. In his view “the United States and the United Nations need each other. We have to work with the United States, while protec ting certain fundamental principles of the Charter, such as the sovereign equality of the States. But we also have to recognize that not all States contribute equally in their financial contributions to the working of the United Nations.” Having served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the Washington, Dhanapala is well known in Washington. He has also crossed paths with members of the current administration in his work on disarmament, most notably with current U.S. Ambassador, John Bolton. I n a 1998 article in the Weekly Standard, Bolton commented on Dhanapala’s appointment by Kofi Annan to lead the group of diplomats visiting the controversial ‘presidential sites’ in Iraq. Bolton described Dhanapala as a “bright, highly competent, and energetic diplomat[s], who would not have accepted his new task if he was “content simply to be a new potted plant[s] on U.N.’s shelves.” Asked about his experience in Iraq and how events transpired since then, he said he wasn’t surprised when United States decided to go in Iraq in 2003 without a blessing from the U.N. Security Council. But he is once again pragmatic – “what is done is done, we must now focus on re-building Iraq.”

In 2003, Dhanapala left the United Nations and returned to Sri Lanka to head the Secretariat for the peace process attempting to end the long-running struggle between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Critics have pointed out that under his tenure, the peace process has not moved forward. A cease-fire agreed in 2002 is still officially in force, but violations by rebels are frequent and peace talks have stalled since 2003. When asked about the stalemate, Dhanapala said “[the Tamil Tigers] are not ready to make a transformation from a military organization to a political one.” Dhanapala resigned his post at the Sri Lankan peace secretariat in November 2005 to focus on a race to become U.N. chief. He is now a senior advisor to the President of Sri Lanka.

So how is the campaign going so far, and does he think the tradition of geographical rotation has merit? “We are deliberately refraining from running an aggressive high profile campaign because this is not analogous to running for office in one’s own country. It is something more sacrosanct, almost, and it has to be approached with a certain level of dignity. But there is an obligation on behalf of all candidates to present their qualifications. And this is not a question of affirmative action for Asia. The candidates from Asia can satisfy the universal criteria, they are not inferior to a candidate of any other continent. The Asians are asking nothing but a level playing field”.

Ayca Ariyoruk is a Research Fellow at the Center. The Center does not endorse any particular candidate, but works to promote public interest in the secretary general selection process.


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