Wanted: New Chief for UN Humanitarian-Aid Program

AS 1994 dawns, the United Nations is at a critical juncture. The position of Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, the closest thing the world has to a humanitarian ``maestro,'' becomes vacant Feb. 1. Stepping down is Jan Eliasson, a respected Swedish diplomat whom UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali must replace.

Mr. Eliasson was the first to hold a post created 20 months ago to avoid another stumbling UN performance in crises such as that in the Persian Gulf. He organized the new Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA) and saw it through its infancy. He and his New York staff have been involved in ``humanitarian diplomacy,'' working at the political level with governments to gain access to people trapped in civil wars around the world. His Geneva staff helps to coordinate the work of the UN's many humanitarian organizations.

Eliasson succeeded in bringing more coherence to the UN's often disorganized responses to major crises. But his 150-person bureaucracy has made too little difference in places such as Somalia and Bosnia. He has been even less successful in internal lobbying on humanitarian issues with the secretary-general, the Security Council, and those in charge of peacekeeping and political affairs. Even admirers concede that at a time when the infant DHA was experiencing natural teething problems, Eliasson needed to bare more teeth.

Three major challenges await his successor. First, the secretary-general and the Security Council are giving humanitarian activities new and welcome priority in places like Angola, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Somalia. Yet such efforts have also become entangled in UN and governmental politics and in military operations. The new maestro will need to find ways of insulating the UN's desperately needed humanitarian succor from association with its political and military activities.

A second challenge is to get more productivity from the UN's limited humanitarian resources. Again, the deck is stacked against the new appointee. He or she will not outrank powerful UN agency heads, whose resources talk and who report to their own boards of governors. Taking this weak hand, the new appointee will need to persuade and cajole UN aid agencies to function more efficiently and collegially. Reviewing DHA's work in November, the General Assembly encouraged it to be more assertive but still dealt it no new cards and certainly no trumps.

The third challenge ranges well beyond the UN itself. Will Eliasson's replacement succeed in championing and harnessing the many resources available outside the UN for emergencies? The world organization will have to work hard to earn the trust of other humanitarian agencies and of people around the world committed to the relief of suffering and the protection of human rights. While the UN for now may be the preferred vehicle, others are prepared to assume greater responsibilities if and when it falters.

Governments and their military establishments are seeking new missions. NATO and other regional groupings may become more active. Private relief agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross demonstrate a dynamism that the UN lacks. While many private relief organizations urge a UN role in mobilizing support for humanitarian needs and in opening up access to besieged populations, few will tolerate heavy-handedness or have much patience with UN practices that sap rather than invigorate action.

The choice of a new humanitarian maestro is the secretary-general's, and his alone. We wonder whether Mr. Boutros-Ghali appreciates fully the pivotal significance of the appointment. The job was first offered to a New York-based diplomat who, by all accounts, would not have brought much management savvy or punch to the task. Next in line was a European minister known for impatience with bureaucracies, who would have seen to it that UN power centers took humanitarian issues more seriously. The job was apparently not even offered. Meanwhile, the candidate queue is lengthening.

We urge the secretary-general and those in a position to influence his choice to opt for a person with a passion for humanitarian concerns and an assertiveness to ensure that these receive due emphasis. Those victimized by civil wars and deprived of their right to receive humanitarian assistance deserve no less. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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