U.N. Legal Counsel Will Depart in August
BY BENNY AVNI
March 17, 2008
In one of his first acts upon taking over at the United Nations last year, Secretary General Ban ended a practice that allowed some staffers — including the U.N.'s top legal authority — to bypass, if not outright violate, staff rules.
As Mr. Ban launches the next phase of his power consolidation in coming weeks with an expected major personnel reshuffle at the top of the institution, the story of the U.N. legal counsel, Nicolas Michel — and how the Swiss government paid his housing and other expenses under Mr. Ban's predecessor Kofi Annan — is instructive. Even more instructive is Mr. Ban's decision to end this arrangement.
Several top officials of Mr. Annan's era are expected to depart from Turtle Bay along with Mr. Michel, who told me Friday he will leave after his contract expires in August. The decisions made by Mr. Ban will be closely examined as he fills soon to be vacant top spots at the U.N.'s most powerful offices, such as the peacekeeping and management departments. So far, Mr. Ban has led by example, but failed to make the bureaucracy follow.
Mr. Michel, a mild-mannered 59-year-old Swiss law professor who had served as his country's legal adviser, came to the U.N. in May 2004. His tenure's legacy will forever be tied to the international tribunal designed to try the assassins of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Hariri. In building the tribunal's foundations, Mr. Michel has tirelessly and expertly navigated the pitfalls of Beirut's politics, which included facing Syria's very dangerous ire.
When the Swiss government first approached him four years ago about a U.N. appointment, Mr. Michel was intrigued. But he needed to know about the salary and benefits involved, and specifically whether he could afford living in New York with a family that included six children of school age. After hearing the answer, "I said I can't accept this position," he told me last week. It was up to the Swiss government and the Annan administration to find a solution.
According to U.N. Staff Regulation 1.2(j), "no staff member shall accept any honor, decoration, favor, gift, or remuneration from any government." This rule — a source of embarrassment for U.N. officials who ended up violating it — was designed to flesh out article 100 of the U.N. charter, which tried to create a class of loyal international civil servants who "shall not seek or receive instructions from any government."
Through the years, Turtle Bay has become a place where the rules are there for the bending. The arrangement between Berne and Mr. Annan's top aides allowed the Swiss government to bypass regulation 1.2(j) by subsidizing rental fees at a Westchester County residence to accommodate Mr. Michel's housing needs, as well as contributing to his retirement fund.
The arrangement "was done without my participation and before I accepted the position" of U.N. undersecretary general, Mr. Michel told me. He also showed me several official documents from Mr. Annan's era, saying staffers should play by rules such as 1.2(j) – except when "expressly authorized by the Secretary General" to do otherwise. This practice was "very well established" at Turtle Bay "for decades," Mr. Michel said.
This and similar arrangements were not disclosed to the public or to lesser staffers who could only dream of similar flexibility in obeying house rules. Mr. Michel did not have on hand the exact figure of government subsidies he had received, but he did not dispute my estimate that they added up to at least a high five-digit sum a year.
Once Mr. Ban arrived, Mr. Michel told the new chief about the housing subsidy Mr. Annan had authorized. "I want to change it," Mr. Ban immediately said, according to Mr. Michel, and the practice ended. A stickler for the rules, Mr. Ban has similarly tightened several other corner-cutting arrangements that allowed, for example, only the secretary general to be exempt from financial disclosures demanded from all top managers. Mr. Michel is an honest, straight shooting, and effective public servant. I tend to agree he was not at fault for going along with arrangements that in effect had allowed him to break the rules. Mr. Ban showed his desire to end such absurd anomalies, but others at the U.N. will follow only if he appoints strong and capable managers with like-minded sensibilities.