NEW YORK — A longtime confidant and adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan abruptly resigned this week, while two senior management and budgetary experts indicated they plan to leave shortly.
The exodus reflects a period of uncertainty among senior U.N. management as Mr. Annan enters the final two years of his current term, a time that is likely to be focused in large measure on the oil-for-food scandal.
Mr. Annan’s longtime chief of staff, Iqbal Riza, resigned abruptly Wednesday, surprising even those closest to the secretary-general.
Catherine Bertini, the head of U.N. management and administration, also hopes to leave by spring. Mrs. Bertini, 54, the former head of the World Food Program, said she would stay on until her successor is found, but said she’s looking for a new career path.
And longtime U.N. Controller Jean-Pierre Halbwachs put in for early retirement Tuesday.
“The secretary-general accepts the letter of resignation ‘with mixed emotions,’ said U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard of Mr. Riza during the daily press conference. He read from a statement that he had not seen until it was handed to him in the middle of the briefing.
“Mr. Riza has, throughout these years of service to the United Nations, carried out his duties with unflinching dedication to the ideals and principles of the organization.”
Although there was a tendency to connect the departures to the oil-for-food program, several diplomats said they accepted the news as a coincidence.
“I honestly can’t find a link between them,” said one diplomat who has worked with all of them. “Other than all are working for the U.N. for a significant time.”
Mr. Riza, 70 and well past the mandatory retirement age of 62, has spoken of retiring for more than a year. But the speed of the announcement, made hours before Mr. Annan departed for the holidays, generated considerable speculation about a hidden motive.
“This was probably as good a time for him to leave as they could find,” said one U.N. observer, who noted that as chief of cabinet, the Pakistani national was instrumental in crafting the office’s response to questions about the humanitarian program for Iraq.
Mr. Riza, a slender and soft-spoken man known as a prickly gatekeeper to his boss, has worked in the organization since 1978 on various high-profile issues, including the Iraq-Iran conflict, the Nicaragua and El Salvador insurgencies and the Bosnia split from the former Yugoslavia.
Mrs. Bertini, who has also been running the beleaguered staff security office, is an American and a former Republican appointee to the Department of Agriculture.
“I told the secretary-general in September I wanted to look at other things that may be coming my way,” she said yesterday afternoon, stressing that she would stay on until a successor has been found. “We didn’t agree on a date or anything.”
Mrs. Bertini’s planned departure puts new pressure on Mr. Annan to stand up to what many here see as U.S. domination within the United Nations.
Senior posts are supposed to rotate geographically, but the past five undersecretaries general for management have been American. That is in part because Washington is the organization’s largest single donor.
Officials said that just last week Mr. Annan spoke to U.S. diplomats about finding a successor for Mrs. Bertini.
Mr. Halbwachs is also leaving the United Nations after a long tenure — some 30 years as controller. He told colleagues yesterday that he would accept early retirement.
“His leaving is a real loss,” said one diplomat who worked closely with Mr. Halbwachs. “He won’t be that easy to replace, I fear.”
Other senior posts are vacant or will open up soon.
The head of the U.N. agency that oversees aid to Palestinian refugees, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, apparently has not yet decided whether to seek a third term. Peter Hansen, of Denmark, has served nine years in the position, incurring the wrath of Israel, the impatience of Arab nations and the distrust of Washington, UNRWA’s biggest donor.
The head of UNICEF, Carol Bellamy, an American, will conclude her second term in April. She is unlikely to seek a third term given Washington’s insistence that no senior official should serve more than two terms.
That is the Bush administration’s rationale for opposing a third term for Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian nuclear scientist who runs the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Mr. ElBaradei has refused to go along with Washington on two key issues recently, declining to certify that Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were seeking nuclear weapons.
Also, the U.N. inspector-general’s office, filled for one five-year term that cannot be extended or renewed, will be open in April.
Mr. Annan has said that no senior official should serve in one job for more than a decade. Most U.N. agencies have adopted similar time limits.
The Food and Agriculture Organization is about to adopt a two-term rule, but it is not expected to apply to current head Jacques Diouff, who has served 12 years and is seeking another appointment.