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Lankan, Thai diplomats in run for top UN post

September 26, 2005

UNITED NATIONS, Sept 25: One of Sri Lanka’s top diplomats, Jayantha Dhanapala, is quietly moving around in crowded lobbies here, making contacts with leaders from around the world in pursuit of his bid for the post of UN Secretary-General. An unassuming man, he is one of the two candidates for the “world’s most impossible job,” as the UN’s first secretary-general Trygve Lie of Norway described it. Lie said that when the UN membership was less than 70. Now a secretary-general has to work with 191 members, and tackle some issues and phenomenon that were not envisioned in the UN charter.

But Mr Dhanapala is not the only one who has thrown the hat in the race.

The other declared candidate in the field is Dr Surakiart Sathirathai, Thailand’s deputy prime minister, who was the first to announce his intention to run for UN secretary-general. A third candidate being mentioned, but not yet officially in the race, is President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland, an East European country.

But diplomats expect more candidates to surface as the campaign gathers pace. Secretary-General Kofi Annan steps down at the end of 2006, when his second five-year term, marked by sandals and charges of mismanagement, expires. The election for the next secretary-general will take place in fall next year.

During a break in his campaign on the sidelines of the 60th session of the UN General Assembly, Ambassador Dhanapala met Pakistani newsmen. He emphasized that he will keep his campaign quiet, not loud, keeping in view the dignity of the position of secretary-general — obviously he had in mind the recent damage it had suffered.

Mr Dhanapala said he was fully equipped to take on the enormous challenges that confront the “highest diplomatic job in the world.”

He said he has the right stuff. “I have seen the United Nations from inside and from outside.”

Mr Dhanapala was Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva and also to the United States, and worked in missions in several other countries. He later served as UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs (1998-2003) and the President of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, at which he hammered out a consensus for the final document when deep divisions prevailed.

There is a consensus within Asia and among the continent’s superpowers that “this is going to be Asia’s turn to head the UN,” after Mr Annan steps down.

China and Russia, the two veto powers on the UN Security Council, have publicly declared that they would back a candidate from Asia. The last secretary-general from Asia was U. Thant from Myanmar who served for a decade from 1961.

Discussing the difficult challenges of the job, Mr Dhanapala said, “I think I have the diplomatic skills to manage the tasks.” A diplomatic practitioner for more than 30 years, he said he has the experience to synthesize the national interests of 191 member states so as to move forward.

“I want to emphasize my managerial competence as an ambassador and a senior manager at the UN who is aware of the difficulties at a multinational organisation, with staff from various nationalities,” Mr Dhanapala said. He said he would ensure productivity, gender equality, mobility of staff in an effort to maintain high ethical stands, integrity and transparency.

“We have been carrying out a quiet campaign befitting the post of secretary-general, which is sacrosanct and represents all the values the UN stands for,” Mr Dhanapala said. He said his country was not seeking commitments from governments, but would do so closer to the time of election in the fall of next year. “So, there is great deal of time; this is an opportunity for assessing the situation . . .”

Replying to a question, Mr Dhanapala said preliminary contacts have already taken with officials of the US National Security Council (NSC) and State Department and Sri Lanka President Chandrika Kumaratunga has written letters to President George W. Bush.

Asked what he would do differently if elected, he said UN’s major problem is compartmentalization. “I will de compartmentalize the UN, adopt a more integrated approach,” he said, adding, “We all know about the lip service paid to coordination, but nobody wants to be co-ordinated.”