UN deadlocked as candidates queue up for refugees job

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The Independent US

The World's most powerful donor countries have locked horns over a successor to Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, responsible for the lives of 22 million people and a budget of almost £1bn.

The World's most powerful donor countries have locked horns over a successor to Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, responsible for the lives of 22 million people and a budget of almost £1bn.

The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, is expected to announce by the end of the month the decision as to who will replace Mrs Ogata, a Japanese national who is retiring at the end of the year.

But UN officials said yesterday that after Mr Annan held talks in Geneva about her replacement, there was still no agreement on which of a handful of candidates to select.

A Western diplomat in New York said yesterday: "It's obviously very difficult for Annan, because otherwise he would have done it by now."

As with all the top UN jobs, political horse-trading takes place behind closed doors, with personal merit not necessarily the most pressing consideration. Bernard Kouchner, the UN administrator in Kosovo, is seen as one of two main front-runners for the post, which will come vacant just as the Yugoslav province enters a critical phrase following elections.

Mr Kouchner has, according to sources in the UN, been lobbying hard to become high commissioner. The former French health minister told reporters in Pristina this week: "I have been put forward as my country's candidate and of course it is a great honour. But at the moment I'm concentrating all my efforts on Kosovo.''

Mr Kouchner has overcome a major hurdle by securing his country's support, which he could not initially take for granted. His lack of obvious management skills are seen as a negative factor. One Western diplomat said that his poor management record in Kosovo could actually be a good reason to ensure that he was named to another post quickly.

Mr Kouchner's role as the effective pro consul of Kosovo has been controversial, with claims that the inertia of his staff has resulted in the province suffering from corruption, lawlessness and continuing persecution of the remaining Serbian population.

His main rival for the post is Sergio Vieira de Mello, who he calls his "dear friend", the UN administrator in East Timor and a former assistant high commissioner of the UNHCR. Mr Vieira de Mello is an ambitious Brazilian with wide experience in the field. Diplomats say he is probably Mr Annan's favourite but is considered to be performing well as the pro consul of the former Indonesian territory.

Norway, a major donor country, is lobbying heavily for its candidate, Knut Vollebaeck, a former Norwegian foreign minister. The King of Norway was in New York yesterday.

But against Mr Vollebaek's candidacy is the fact that Norway already has a top job in the UN system: former prime minister Gro Brundtland heads the World Health Organisation.

The fourth serious candidate is considered to be Jan Pronk, a former Dutch minister for overseas development who was earlier a candidate to be the head of the UN Development Programme. Two Italian candidates, Emma Bonino, former UN commissioner for humanitarian affairs, and Guiseppe Migone, the head of the Italian senate's foreign affairs commission, are seen as having no chance of succeeding Mrs Ogata.

* The UN yesterday outlined proposals for a special war crimes court for Sierra Leone to prosecute those most responsible for killing and maiming tens of thousands of people - including a provision to put child soldiers on trial. Mr Annan laid out a proposed plan for prosecuting young soldiers but left the ultimate decision on whether to proceed with such trials to the Security Council.

Mr Annan's legal advisers and the Sierra Leonean government, who negotiated the creation of the joint court, had earlier concluded that because of the brutality of some of the crimes committed, 15 to 18-year-olds should be brought under the court's jurisdiction.

The draft statute that would establish the court includes that provision.