Breaking the Rules: Working for the UN can be fun. And it can also do some good provided one is ready to lie, fib, obfuscate and break all the rules

REVIEWS, 10 Nov 2014

René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

Alexander Casella, Breaking the Rules: Working for the UN can be fun. And it can also do some good provided one is ready to lie, fib, obfuscate and break all the rules, Geneva: Editions du Tricorne, 2011, 368pp.

Alexander Casella has written a lively account of his years first as a journalist for the Journal de Genève covering events in Vietnam and China and then as a staff member of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees dealing largely with Indochina with short stays in other trouble spots − Beirut and Albania after the Serbia-Kossovo conflict. He has kept his journalist ability to paint word portraits of colleagues and Vietnamese and Chinese officials.

Thus he writes “During the twenty years that I spent in the cut-throat world of humanitarian action, from Hanoi to Beirut to Bangkok to Hong Kong, the humanitarians I encountered included more than their share of the self-righteous, the unimaginative and the careerist. And as for the philanthropic organizations they served in, while these were certainly doing some good they were also spending an inordinate amount of time stabbing each other in the back as they vied for visibility and a larger slice of the publics money. To my mind, the worst of the lot were to be found among the so-called ‘advocates’, those who had made it their mission to preach rather than to act. Vain, arrogant, self obsessed and with human rights violations as their daily bread they would on occasion not hesitate to fabricate fodder in the race to appear more proactive than their competitors.”

Casella jumps over his yeas as a student at the University of Geneva and his PhD studies at the Geneva Graduate Institute for International Studies where he might have seen some back stabbing and also his years as a journalist where all his colleagues were not necessarily imaginative and selfless. However his emphasis is on his years with the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. (UNHCR)

He began with UNHCR early in 1973 at a particularly critical moment in the history of the US war in Vietnam. The High Commissioner was the atypical Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan who had a particular interest in Vietnam. He was the son of the Aga Khan, who as a delegate of India had been for a year the President of the Council of the League of Nations as well as the head of the Ismaeli branch of Shia Moslems. Thus Sadruddin grew up in a diplomatic milieu, studied at Harvard where he made US friends and contacts and had personal money which let him do things without checking with UNHCR accountants. Sadruddin also had a large château on the edge of the Lake of Geneva where he could invite people to whom he wised to speak informally. For Casella, all the following High Commissioners who came from national politics or the International Committee of the Red Cross had less ‘style’, fewer doors that opened at the sound of the name, and followed more closely bureaucratic rules.

‘Breaking the Rules’ gives the book its title and somewhat its theme. But, there is a difference between ‘the rules’ and the ‘spirit of the rules’. The rules are set for an organization whose headquarters are in Geneva and where following rules in the narrow sense is part of the city’s culture. Thus to give an example Casella uses, if you want to buy a ton of cement to build something in Geneva, you need to summit three estimates from three different companies to get an O.K. In Geneva, you can get three estimates in a hurry. But Casella wanted a ton of cement in Hanoi, which had to be shipped from China. There were not three companies in competition. So he bought cement from the one company available. Casella had a good local Vietnamese assistant so he did not pay too much.

As with much national diplomacy, UN organizations have to obfuscate while knowing the real situation. Thus in the early days when North Vietnam was not a member of the UN, the UNHCR had to deal with what was called ‘the North Vietnamese Red Cross’ though in practice the people were from the Foreign Ministry. So also with the ‘boat people’ issue of Vietnamese landing in other Asian countries. Some ‘boat people’ could not be granted refugee status and agreements had to be reached on their return to Vietnam with a government agreement not to prosecute for ‘illegal exit’. The negotiations were difficult. Some things had to be made very clear; other things left vague. People known earlier reappear in different categories. You need a good memory.

A main difference between being part of a national diplomatic service and a UN agency, is that in a national service, although people have different temperaments, they share a common culture while in the UN, people come from different cultural backgrounds. Thus when Madame Ogata became High Commissioner “ however well she spoke English, she still had the mind set of a Japanese and there was no getting away from it…The stern-looking woman who received me that evening at six did not move from her desk as I was ushered into her office and did not seem particularly pleased to see me either.”

Another difference is the need to raise funds to carry out activities. While most of the bureaucratic functions of UNHCR are covered by a regular budget, activities on behalf of refugees in the field must be covered by special donations, usually from rich countries. Thus there is a need to ‘sell’ programs and not to offend the leaders of states who donate funds. There have to be as few ‘waves’ as possible and no reports of financial mismanagement.

Thus the need at times to ‘whitewash’ events, to make complicated situations look simpler, to have ‘regional representation’ of staff and yet somehow to weave the mosaic into one operational entity. Casella has written a realistic picture of UNHCR both in Geneva and Asia − a welcome addition to the small body of writings of firsthand experiences.


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 10 Nov 2014.

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