United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced on October 16th the appointment of Sigrid Kaag of the Netherlands as Special Coordinator of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)-United Nations Joint Mission to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons program. The appointment was made in close consultations with OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü and supported by the UN Security Council.
As Special Coordinator, Ms. Kaag will be responsible for overseeing all activities on the ground undertaken by the OPCW and United Nations personnel. She will work directly for both the UN Secretary General and the Director-General of the OPCW.
This is a curious appointment in that Ms. Kaag has no evident experience in the relevant subject matter of the team she will be coordinating in Syria. What she brings to the job is that she is the consummate UN insider, rising up the ranks in various bureaucratic positions since 1994, including her most recent post as Assistant Secretary General of the Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
To her credit, Ms. Kaag has served previously in various UN posts in the Middle East and is said to be proficient in Arabic. Her Middle East experience includes stints as Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Amman, Jordan (2007-2010) and as Senior Program Manager with the External Relations Office of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), covering the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and the Syria. While in her UNICEF and UNRWA positions, she was at times critical of Israel’s defensive measures in Gaza, including the blockade. However, she also balanced this criticism with a condemnation of militants in Gaza who were vandalizing children’s summer camps and “manipulating” children with hate messages on TV programs. Ms. Kaag’s husband, who is a Palestinian, has worked for reconciliation and urged that Palestinians be taught about the Holocaust.
Yet while Ms. Kaag may have good organizational skills, in-depth knowledge of the Middle East and a relatively open mind for a UN bureaucrat, she does not appear to have any background experience directly related to the tasks assigned to her in Syria. For example, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters that Ms. Kaag’s “role includes ensuring access and security for the OPCW inspectors, as well as logistical, communications, medical, administrative and policy support.” It is highly doubtful that working on children’s and development issues has prepared her to figure out how to ensure access and security for chemical weapons inspectors doing their work in the midst of a bloody civil war.
A far better choice would have been Major General Robert Mood, whom had previously served for several months as the Chief Military Observer and Head of Mission of the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria. He was in charge of 300 observers, but his mission was aborted at the time because of intensified armed violence across the country, including from Syrian government forces, that imperiled his unarmed observers. This time, with the Syrian government said by even Secretary of State John Kerry to be cooperating with the OPCW inspection, Mood would be in a better position to use his experience in handling security and logistical matters. His previous experience included serving as Chief of Staff of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization from 2009 to 2011.
Alternatively, why not leverage the knowledge and contacts already gained by Lakhdar Brahimi, who has been serving as Joint United Nations and League of Arab States Special Representative for Syria since August 2012? While trying to jump start peace talks between Syrian government and opposition leaders in Geneva, why can’t he also oversee the program that offers the only glimmer of hope for peace so far – the Syrian government’s willingness to submit to international chemical weapons inspection? How many heads of joint UN missions in Syria do we really need?
To be sure, Brahimi has no more subject matter expertise regarding chemical weapons than Ms. Kaag does. However, at least Brahimi is already plugged into the major players in Syria, both in the government and the opposition, which would put him into an advantageous position to perform one of the principal roles of Special Coordinator according to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – to “liaise and coordinate with the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic, opposition groups and the international community, as this relates to the mandate of the Joint Mission.” Ms. Kaag, on the other hand, will have to build those relationships from scratch.
Maybe there does not need to be any designated new “Coordinator” at all. The joint UN-OPCW team seems to be doing just fine without such a top bureaucrat, having already managed to begin conducting verification and destruction activities at multiple sites. UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky said that the joint mission has now conducted verification activities at a total of 11 sites that are identified in Syria’s disclosure. “Activities have also included overseeing the destruction of critical equipment at six sites, as well as some destruction of so-called Category 3 weapons, and that is, in other words, unloaded chemical weapons munitions,” he added.
The joint mission, according to the Secretary General, will cost the UN around $2 million in its initial phase alone, most of which will come out of the regular UN budget that U.S. taxpayers disproportionately subsidize. There will also be a UN trust fund to cover additional costs and likewise an OPCW trust fund.
What will be the value-added of appointing a highly paid UN bureaucrat to a position for which she has no relevant experience or any apparent established relationships with the key players in the Syrian government and opposition that would enable her to effectively “liaise and coordinate with the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic, opposition groups and the international community, as this relates to the mandate of the Joint Mission?” The question answers itself.
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