Home | Comment & Analysis    Saturday 9 December 2006

Can diplomats write weblogs?


By Jan Pronk*

Nov 27, 2006 — After I had been declared persona non grata by the Government of Sudan I have received hundreds and hundreds of e-mails. About ninety percent were positive. People thanked me for candid reporting, shared their criticism of the violations of the peace agreement with me and urged me to continue. A small minority was negative. Some Dutch said that they had been happy that I, as a left wing politician, had left Dutch politics a couple of years earlier. They urged me to stay away. Others, mainly Sudanese, told me that they were fully in agreement with the Government. Some of them told me to stay away from Sudan and threatened me in case I would return. However, I also received quite a few positive reactions from Sudanese people, both from Darfur, the South, Khartoum and the Diaspora. I have tried to answer all mail in person, the positive as well as the critical ones, provided that rational arguing was possible.

Some people have raised the issue of the weblog itself. As I wrote in my previous weblog, nr 37, the Government had argued that throughout the year I had developed a history of hostility against the Government of Sudan and its armed forces. As an example the Government mentioned, in its letter to the Secretary General of the UN, “damaging and negative statements to the media and in his (i.e. my) own website.” However, I am convinced that the real reason was that the Government wanted to silence me. I had regularly reported that the Government and the army, despite the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement, had continued to violate this agreement as well as Security Council Resolutions. They did so, I argued, by bringing more and more military forces to Darfur, by incorporating the Janjaweed in its own para-military forces and by arming in stead of disarming them, by continuing attacks and bombardments on positions of rebel movements and by allowing and supporting attacks on civilians. The Government, I argued, though having agreed to making peace, clearly continued to seek a military victory.

Since then the facts on the ground in Darfur have shown that I was right. Attacks have continued and intensified. The number of casualties has increased. Villages have been burned down. Many innocent civilians have been killed and chased away. The cleansing continues. There is no peace whatsoever in Darfur. To a great extent this is the responsibility of the Government. I will refrain from documenting this in my weblog of today. It has been documented in the daily situation reports published by UNMIS, in press releases by the African Union, in statements made by my colleague Under-Secretary General Jan Egeland, following his recent visit to Sudan, as well as in reports published by UNHCR and the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights. It is public knowledge.

Should I have published this in my weblog? Some people have argued that my weblog has contributed to the conflict with the Government. In their view I should have exercised restraint in criticizing the Government. I have been told that this is the position of some members of the UN bureaucracy, though none of them ever communicated this to me directly. The bureaucracy is not familiar with the phenomenon of UN diplomats writing blogs. Politicians writing blogs are a more regular phenomenon. From their side I have received only positive comments. In the meeting of the Security Council, which I briefed after I had been expelled from Sudan, no criticism on my writing of a blog was raised. On the contrary, all criticisms were directed at the Government of Sudan for having taken an unjustified and illegitimate decision. From the side of non-governmental organisations and Sudan watchers I have always been stimulated to continue writing. Some press commentaries were a bit more critical, but the attitude of journalists towards journalistic blogs by people in responsible positions is generally rather ambivalent.

I can understand such an ambivalent position. Politicians, high officials and other decision makers writing about their experiences are not objective, neutral, impartial analysts. They tend to be selective and subjective. They will be inclined to emphasize certain aspects of events more than others and to report in a rather coloured fashion. In writing my blog I was aware of this risk. I have made an effort to avoid undue subjectivity. I certainly did not pretend to write my blog as a substitute for independent writings by journalists.

Why did I write? I had two reasons. First, I like combining my work as a politician with analytical reflections on what I am doing and on the environment within which I am working. I have always done so, by lecturing, by writing articles and essays and by making extensive notes for myself. It helps me focus. Blogging for me was a convenient extension of this practice, simply by using a new instrument. I had a second reason. Why not share my reflections with others? I wanted to be accountable, not only to the UN bureaucracy in New York, whom we were sending regularly extensive analytical reports, but broader. I consider myself much more a politician than a diplomat. Politicians have to be accountable and transparent.

I wrote to inform, in particular, the people in Sudan. I gave quite a few press conferences in Khartoum. However, despite the lifting of press censorship in Sudan one and a half year ago, the press did not always feel free to print what was not to the liking of the Government. Instead of being censored before a text was put to print, which until mid 2005 had daily been the case for all texts of all newspapers, press freedom got increasingly curtailed by a combination of self censorship and threats to be charged with violations of security laws. Moreover, the Sudanese press is not free to visit Darfur on its own initiative. Sudanese radio and TV refused to interview UN personnel or to broadcast information contradicting the official position of the authorities, let alone dissenting opinions. For these reasons reports about events in Sudan, published by UNMIS on its website, news broadcast by radio Miraya and the background information that I provided on my own website were a useful complement to what the general public in Sudan could read in the newspapers, hear on the radio or see on TV.

In my weblog I wrote the same as what I said in press conferences, in interviews with the international press, in public speeches or in reports which were published either by UNMIS itself or through UN Headquarters in New York. It has been said that my blog reflected my personal opinion, different from an opinion in my capacity as Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations in Sudan. This is nonsense. In my blog I said the same as in press conferences and on other public occasions, attended in my official capacity. How could somebody in my position make a distinction between official and private? Such a distinction can only be made for statements about issues which do not fall under my mandate, such as the reform of the UN, the war in Lebanon or the elections in The Netherlands. Once appointed as Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations, any view expressed by me about Sudan, at any time, anywhere and with the help of any medium, is the official view.

As a public official I am a participant in a process, not a spectator. As a participant I am subjective. However, that official subjectivity is rooted in norms and values enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and the Charter on Human Rights. It is my duty to disseminate these values and to highlight violations. I am duty bound to do so in a credible and legitimate manner. I have always tried to do so, transparently and consistently. For that reason I have set myself some rules which I should keep while writing my blog:

First: Present only facts, not rumours or hearsay. Check the facts; don’t make up stories.

Second: Present only quotes of public statements. Do not quote what other persons said in official or informal meetings. In references to such meetings only quote your self. Do not breach confidentiality.

Third: Present criticism in a balanced manner. Approach all parties alike. Be even handed.

Fourth: Do not attack individual persons. Criticize organizations, institutions or movements. Criticize their values, policies and behaviour, when they are in conflict with internationally agreed principles and norms.

Fifth: Do not only present criticism. Do not only report negative developments. Highlight also positive facts. Do not withhold praise, when deserved.

Together these rules can ensure a fair degree of honesty. Of course it is always difficult to combine, in one text, news with commentaries. That is the eternal dilemma of a journalist. As I said, I am not a journalist, but a politician. It is the duty of a politician to present opinions on the basis of facts, and to translate these opinions into action. In my position I had to combine a political posture with a diplomatic approach.

In the end I may not have been successful. However, that has nothing to do with blogging. As I said earlier, I had to combine the two approaches also when giving a press conference and when addressing the Security Council or other forums. The Government of Sudan, requesting me to leave Sudanese territory, did not only refer to what I had written in my weblog, but to ‘statements to the media and in (the) website’. They criticized me for the content of my statements, not for the channels that I had used. I utterly disagree with the views and policies of the Government, but in one aspect they are right: it is not important where you say something, but what you say. So, if bureaucrats want to criticize views expressed by politicians or diplomats, they should not criticize the medium, but the message.

Many people have asked me whether I deplore what I had written in my weblog. I don’t. Some sentences could have been written differently. If I would have known before how the Government would react, I would have chosen other language. However, the sole purpose of my statements was to persuade the rebel movements to refrain from further attacks on the Sudanese Armed Forces. I succeeded, because the rebel commanders committed themselves to a purely defensive posture and requested me to bring this message to the Government. However, the Government clearly did not want to lose a possible justification for the attacks by the Army and the militia. For that reason they bombed the place where I had met the rebel commanders before I could bring the message to Khartoum. Since then they have continued to seek a military victory. They would have found another reason to declare me persona non grata if I would have persisted in my public criticism.

The Government is still violating peace and ceasefire agreements as well as principles, norms and values of the UN. It continues to do so, despite having signed these agreements and despite that Sudan, as a member state of the United Nations, is bound to uphold these principles. In my capacity as Special Representative of the United Nations I still consider it my duty to disseminate these norms and values and to report about violations.

* Jan Pronk is the Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations in Sudan. This paper is originally posted in his personal webblog http://www.janpronk.nl

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