Racial tensions stalk UN's Joan Clos

Senior UN official Joan Clos stands accused of belittling staff through 'racial presumptions', but the charge comes at a time when he is cutting staff and costs to turn UN-Habitat around. (Albert Gea, Reuters)

Senior UN official Joan Clos stands accused of belittling staff through 'racial presumptions', but the charge comes at a time when he is cutting staff and costs to turn UN-Habitat around. (Albert Gea, Reuters)

Somewhere between the escargots à la bourguignonne and dessert served at one of Kenya’s finest French restaurants, something left guests with a bitter aftertaste.

It had nothing to do with either the cuisine at the Lord Errol Restaurant or the no doubt hefty bill picked up by the United Nations.

That four-day retreat for senior managers of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) has saddled one of the UN’s most senior officials in Africa with a misconduct complaint, which has now landed on the desk of the agency’s secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.

Joan Clos, a Spaniard and former mayor of Barcelona, is the executive director of UN-Habitat, one of only two UN agencies headquartered in Africa. He is accused of, among other things, an abuse of authority in that he used words to “belittle”, “humiliate” and “demean” staff in Nairobi.

His crime? During the retreat, he was allegedly disrespectful to member country Japan, one of the agency’s biggest donors, when he bemoaned how overly “diplomatic” UN staff can be, and he questioned the value of the English language.

“The problem is with the English language.
What is partnership? There is no word for partnership in Spanish. What is mainstreaming? English is full of woolly ideas,” Clos told delegates from the more than 50 member countries that attended the annual strategic planning meeting in Nairobi last November.

But it was a statement he made during his closing remarks that shocked his colleagues. Besides telling the room that UN staff were “overpaid while they are doing nothing”, Clos told them that, in his homeland, Spain, his compatriots saw the UN as “a good white man looking for a poor negro to help”.

Was this a mere faux pas or perhaps what Clos really said was simply lost in translation?

He has since tried to explain his analogy in terms of the UN’s perceived paternalism in Africa and referenced a famous Spanish book by Gustau Nerín, titled Blanco Bueno Busca Negro Pobre (A Good White Looks for a Poor Black). UN investigators have begun an investigation into the matter and the outcome is expected “soon”.

Roland Adjovi, the United States-based lawyer who is acting pro bono for the aggrieved employees who attended the retreat, says his clients do not believe his comments about black people were an isolated incident. The fact remains that “innocent mistakes” occur, but “the accumulated insults and indignations caused by racial presumptions are very destructive in ways that are hard to measure”, Adjovi wrote.

In his 10-page complaint to the UN secretary general and the agency’s office of internal oversight services, Adjovi has called for an investigation into Clos. He also called on the UN to protect the staff in question against retaliation by Clos. “Mr Clos has consistently engaged in these behaviours towards staff members who tend to be helpless and have remained quiet because of fear of reprisals.”

The complaint states that Clos’s behaviour at the retreat was not an isolated incident and that it was an “unfair distinction of a group based upon race, nationality, language and academic status”. This, Adjovi said, was in violation of UN rule ST/SGB/2008/5. The document calls for a public apology from Clos and his suspension from office pending the outcome of the investigation.

Although Adjovi couldn’t comment on the possible sanction Clos may face if the allegations are proven true, he said the UN could simply reprimand and instruct him to undertake some training in multicultural sensitivity – or worse, end his services with the UN Secretariat.

“These allegations are being reviewed by the UN in accordance with the administrative due process applied to all allegations, and findings are expected shortly,” said UN-Habitat spokesperson Gordon Weiss. “Meanwhile, Dr Clos is not able to prejudice the outcome with public comment. He does, however, point to his long public record as a defender of human rights in his former roles as mayor of Barcelona and as a minister in Spain’s government.”

Although Clos, a career administrator and highly regarded for his solid human rights background, is not the world’s most “warm or fuzzy guy”, the complaint against him does appear to be mischievous, said at least one senior UN insider.

“The allegations of misconduct, especially those referring to racism, are unsubstantiated,” said the official, who has knowledge of the complaint and investigation.

The official gave some sense of why Clos may be in the firing line at UN-Habitat, where he was tasked with turning a “slack” and expensive arm of the UN around. Since taking up office as executive director of the agency, Clos has reduced staff by 60% and trimmed costs by 40%.

“He may not have the greatest interpersonal skills, but he is an intellectual and austere practitioner.”

He stopped the practice of allowing people to retire only to return as consultants at payments of up to “120% more” than their salaries.

“It’s been a bruising process for staff internationally,” said the insider. “So it is to be expected that he has not made many friends along the way.

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