Periodically, we at Turtle Bay (actually, just me) offer unsolicited public relations advice to high-ranking U.N. officials who have demonstrated an obvious need for it.
In this instance, we would like recommend that Ibrahim Gambari, the joint U.N.-African special representative in Darfur reconsider the wisdom of launching public attacks against his critics, particularly when it involves conduct that would leave most ordinary folks scratching their heads.
On January 20, Gambari, a former Nigerian diplomat who once served as the U.N. undersecretary general for political affairs, was photographed socializing with Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir at a wedding ceremony for the Chadian President Idriss Deby.
As readers of this blog well know, Bashir is the subject of International Criminal Court arrest warrants, charged with orchestrating war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Darfur.
Now, it’s only fair to note that as the chief of a U.N. peacekeeping mission on Sudanese territory it’s pretty much impossible to avoid doing business with top Sudanese officials, including Bashir. And Bashir, after all, did win a U.N.-backed election.
But the U.N.’s lawyer, Patricia O’Brien, has offered some guidance to help the U.N. traverse this moral minefield without doing excessive damage to the body’s reputation. In an internal memo, O’Brien instructed U.N. officials to limit their conduct with the accused war criminal to "what is strictly required for carrying out U.N. mandated activities." The memo, which was obtained and cited by Human Rights Watch, states that "the presence of UN representatives in any ceremonial or similar occasion with [persons indicted by international criminal courts] should be avoided."
So, the photograph, which was taken by a Reuters photographer and posted on the U.N.-based Inner City Press blog, naturally triggered some criticism. Human Rights Watch’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, wrote last month in a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that Gambari’s photo-op "brings the UN’s credibility in disrepute and sends a terrible message to victims of heinous crimes in Darfur. Indeed, images of Mr. Gambari embracing President al-Bashir have been widely circulated, showing Darfuri victims that the head of UNAMID socializes with suspected war criminals."
To make matters even more awkward, Deby’s Sudanese bride is the daughter of Musa Hilal, a Sudanese tribal leader and alleged commander of the Sudanese-backed Janjaweed militia, which gained a notorious reputation for raiding Darfurian villages on horse-back and carrying out a reign of terror that drove millions from their homes. Reuters also reported that it snapped a photograph of Gambari shaking hands with Hilal, who was targeted with U.N. sanctions in 2006.
The wedding appeared to represent the strengthening of a political alliance between the Sudanese government, its local Janjaweed proxy, and neighboring Chad. Sudan and Chad were bitter allies until the two sides reached an accord that ended years of support for anti government insurgents on one another’s borders.
Initially, the United Nations defended Gambari, telling Human Rights Watch in a letter "Gambari attended the wedding at the invitation of President Deby of Chad, who is an important regional partner in the peace process…Gambari has no control over the guest list and it is contrary to basic diplomatic courtesy and African traditions to ignore greeting other invited guests."
But they have since changed their tune.
Earlier this month, Martin Nesirky, the U.N. secretary general’s chief spokesman, issued this statement: "I can confirm that the Secretary General received a letter from HRW last week. M Gambari’s attention has been drawn to the letter and to the need to avoid such encounters in the future, however unintentional this particular encounter may have been"
At this point, any self-respecting press aide would council his boss to keep his head down and pray that the whole matter would eventually blow over. And indeed, the press coverage had pretty much tapered off this week when Gambari gave it renewed life, denouncing his critics as "people who are specialized in character assassination," according to a report on Thursday by Bloomberg.
It wasn’t long before his critics fired back.
"This was not character assassination," said Philippe Bolopion, the rights groups U.N. representative, "it was character suicide."
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UPDATE: A senior U.N. official subsequently called Turtle Bay to insist that Gambari was not referring to Human Rights Watch when he referred to people who specialize in character assassination.