Daniel Korski

Britain’s man inside the UN

Britain’s man inside the UN
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Sir John Holmes, the highest placed Briton at the UN, is leaving his job early. A long-serving Foreign Office mandarin, Sir John’s appointment by UN chief Ban Ki-Moon to be the UN’s Coordinator for Humanitarian Relief originally came as a surprise. The post is responsible for oversight of all emergencies requiring UN humanitarian assistance, and acts as the focal point for relief activities. Everyone had assumed that the British diplomat’s background lent itself more readily to the top political job at the UN, rather than the humanitarian portfolio.

But Sir John (who will replace Jeremy Greenstock as director of Ditchley Park), has by all accounts done very well in the job and will be missed at the increasingly dysfunctional UN headquarters, which is haemorrhaging senior staff at an alarming rate.

Holmes’s impending departure has set off rumours not only about who will replace him, but about which job Britain might grab should the UN secretary-general reshuffle his top team. For years, the post of Under-Secretary General for the UN’s Department of Political Affairs was British almost by rights, with mandarins like Marack Goulding and Kieran Prendergast occupying the role for years. It is no secret the Foreign Office would like to have that job back. The French government, in turn, is said to want the vacant Humanitarian Coordinator job: Frenchman Alain le Roy now runs the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.

Tony Blair’s former Middle East envoy, Michael Williams, a long-time UN official, is tipped as the leading candidate to replace Sir John. But it may be worth reconsidering who the best Briton for the job really is.  If Britain goes for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the government should appoint Paddy Ashdown. If it goes for the humanitarian job, it should tap up former Defence Secretary Des Browne. If it gets the slot of Under-Secretary General for the UN’s Department of Political Affairs, then someone like Sherard Cowper-Coles would be a good fit.

Britain’s role at the UN has been slipping. Under Kofi Annan, there were three high-ranking British officials on his staff: Mark Malloch Brown, Kieran Prendergast and David Veness. Now there is only one. Britain needs to send a heavy-hitter to New York not only to enhance London’s influence, but help buck up the Ban Ki-Moon’s administration.