A pacifist, humanitarian and a prolific writer, Mr. Chatterjee is a regular contributor for the Reuters and the Huffington Post. A Princeton University alumnus, he was decorated for gallantry by the President of India during his service in the Indian Special Forces where he rose to the rank of Major.
Wycliffe Muga (WM): I understand the Indian Army enjoys great prestige in Indian society and is considered a good career option. So what prompted you to leave the Army?
Siddharth Chatterjee (SC): As Socrates once said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."
I still remember that day when it was announced in the newspaper that I had been awarded a decoration for gallantry for my role in counterinsurgency operations. Suddenly the events that led to my being decorated for bravery played out like a kaleidoscope.
I didn't feel the euphoria that usually accompanies this kind of recognition. That was the moment I knew that my time to move on from the military had come.
My award for gallantry in combat made me feel I was being recognised for something that was not going to bring the conflict to an end. I wished that soldiers could be rewarded for efforts to ensure peace and reconciliation, not for the number of people they had killed. I wished my own award recognised my achievements in negotiating with village elders and with belligerent groups towards resolving the conflict.
The primacy of politics and dialogue had failed and this was being replaced by belligerence and hate.
Obtaining early release from the Special Forces was not straightforward, and it took nearly 12 months of negotiation to secure my return to civilian life. I became a civilian on the 1st of January 1997 and set off for my first civilian job as a security officer in the UN mission in Sarajevo, on the 15th of January. That is where I started my career in the United Nations, from pretty much the bottom of the rung, and I am glad I did as it laid the foundations of my new work environment, which was very different from the army.
WM: Well, that was a long time ago. By now you have had two decades in the UN. What are some of the highlights of your UN career?
SC: After a short stint as a security officer in Sarajevo, I went to Iraq, where I got a break from security to work as a UN Coordinator in Iraqi Kurdistan in a place called Suleimaniyah. I spent more than two years with the Kurds in northern Iraq and saw first-hand the impact that the UN can make in terms of improving access to basic services like education, health, clean water and sanitation, and nutrition. This in turn had a huge impact on the Kurds' ability to find solutions to their own developmental needs and the foundations of democracy were laid. They are a group of people that have seen so much of pain and deprivation, yet they continued with stoic determination. I have tremendous respect for them.
From Iraq I went to South Sudan, which was fighting with the North but where there was also an internal war between the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudan People's Democratic Front. I set up an office in Rumbek South Sudan for UNICEF in 2000 and my boss, a highly dynamic leader called Dr Sharad Sapra, asked me, "Sid, why don't we get the children out of the military?"
We began dialogue with Commander Salva Kiir, who was then chief of the SPLA, and with John Garang, the Chairman of the SPLM. In October 2000 we got a written agreement from (now President) Salva Kiir to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) chief Carol Bellamy, agreeing to demobilize 3,500 child soldiers from the frontlines of the conflict. This followed months of discussions, during which we never threw the book at them on the Convention to the Rights of the Child, but instead persuaded them that their political capital would go up exponentially if they became the first rebel army to remove children from their ranks.
To see those children in South Sudan return to a normal childhood and to give them access to education, food, immunization, clean water and sanitation was immensely fulfilling for me. It remains one of my proudest achievements to this day. In many ways this particular event was transformational for me personally. It also filled a spiritual vacuum in my life. Here is a TEDx talk I did on it.
I was then appointed chief of the emergency section in Indonesia, working with more than a million internally displaced people due to the conflict in Aceh and the Malukus. We were at the front lines of providing assistance to displaced communities, negotiating days of peace and tranquillity to access children in order to immunize them. We established an Indonesian version of a 'school in a box' programme that enabled us to set up and equip a makeshift tented school whenever belligerent groups burned down school buildings.
Unicef's then Executive Director Carol Bellamy asked me to lead UNICEF's response to the emergency in Darfur in 2004. I helped scale up UNICEF's response to the emergency and led a wide-ranging immunization campaign throughout Darfur. Ensuring we could access every child no matter where they were, which involved negotiating access with the rebel leaders who controlled wide swathes of territory in order to access these children with health, education, clean water and protection.
My work in Darfur was recognised by UNICEF's senior leadership, and in November 2004 I was promoted and appointed UNICEF's deputy representative in Somalia. This was a remarkable experience at a very challenging time for the country. I led UNICEF's humanitarian response efforts spanning the tsunami in 2004 to immunizing children in conflict-affected parts of Southern Somalia to ensuring a back-to-school programme for children in North-eastern Somalia. My office was seen as a pivotal humanitarian and development organization and we developed good relationships with other organisations operating in the country, and with local governments.
WM: Now let us move to some of the more controversial stuff: I understand that you rose from a very junior IFLD 4 position in Sarajevo, in 1997 to a professional level P-5 in Somalia in 2004. That is like seven years and I am told this rarely happens in the UN. There has been some controversy that has followed you around because you are the son-in-law of Mr Ban Ki-moon, the immediate former Secretary-General of the UN. There are those who suspect that maybe this was the reason behind your meteoric rise.
SC: Mr. Ban Ki-moon joined the UN as Secretary General in 2007, after a long and distinguished career as a diplomat. I joined the UN in 1997, a full 10 years before Mr. Ban.
I met my wife Ban Hyun Hee in Darfur in July 2004 and we got married soon afterwards. By then I had already been appointed to P5 level (a senior level of UN management) after seven years of service in some of the world's most difficult and dangerous places, and a full three years before Mr. Ban's election as the UN Secretary General.
Yes, I progressed quickly in my career. That was because I was privileged to serve with phenomenal leaders like Ms. Carol Bellamy, Dr. Sharad Sapra and Mr. Rolf Carrier (who was UNICEF's Representative in Indonesia), who recognized and rewarded results. I am deeply grateful to them.
In 2007, I turned down an offer from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to head up their Nepal office and instead accepted an invitation from the UN's special representative in Iraq to work with him. Ironically, it was at that point that the gossip about nepotism started, though it is hard to imagine that going to serve in Iraq at one of the most dangerous periods in its history could be viewed as a soft option for a family member!
But soon after my father-in-law's appointment my wife and I became a target of vicious and malicious media attacks. The period between 2007 and 2016 was difficult for both of us, because, suddenly, our private lives were thrown into the public domain. In those circumstances, it becomes not just about your family honour but protecting the name of the institution too. There was nobody who would speak out to defend you, the UN could not, so it was a complicated situation.
I soon realised that we were left to our own devices to protect our name and honour. The situation got so bad that our prospects for employment in the UN system were in jeopardy, because institutions were wary of bringing media attention on themselves.
It was a tough situation.
Everything that happened from January 2007 was viewed through the distorted lens of nepotism, with no regard for my 10-year career at the UN prior to that. Suddenly, it was all about being the SG's son-in-law. It was relentless and distressing.
One of the few media houses that presented the story in a fair and just and truthful way was Forbes, which in 2013 published a piece titled, "Misread Nepotism At The U.N.: Why Siddharth Chatterjee's Well-Earned Appointment Requires Explanation".
I am deeply grateful to Ms. Carol Bellamy, Dr Sharad Sapra, Mr. Rolf Carrier, Ambassador Frank Wisner( former US Ambassador to India) and my former boss at the Red Cross, Ms Goli Ameri. Not only are they great leaders, they also had the courage to speak out publicly in my defence.
WM: I recently saw an interview you did which was published in WION News India, where you were asked about the UN Deputy Secretary General, Amina Mohammed, and her role in the "rosewood scandal" when she was Minister of Environment in Nigeria. You defended her. How come? And for those who may not know what this scandal was, maybe you could explain a little of the details.
SC: Well, the question was sprung at me by WION news, and I could have easily ducked it, but decided not to.
The Nigerian government emphatically rejected allegations of rosewood export racketeering to China levelled against UN Deputy Secretary-General Ms Amina Mohammed, when she was the Minster of Environment. The ministry stated that all the CITES permits signed by the ex-minister were done in line with stringent guidance and procedures.
Having been a target of malicious and fake news myself for close to 10 years, I could empathise with her. I felt it was most unfair to target Ms. Amina Mohammed, whose professional, ethical and integrity standards are excellent and beyond reproach. I have no regret speaking up for her. In my view that was the right thing to do.
Wycliffe, as the famous 1855 saying by Rev Charles Haddon Spurgeon goes, "If you want truth to go around the world you must hire an express train to pull it; but if you want a lie to go around the world, it will fly; it is light as a feather and a breath will carry it."
WM: By now you must be acquainted with the sad reality of just how polarising Kenyan elections are. International civil servants like yourself, can suddenly find that either they or their staff are viciously attacked because something they said or did – really quite innocently – has upset one side of the political divide or the other. I noted during the elections in Kenya in 2017, one of your staff and also you personally were attacked by some bloggers. I took note that you came out strongly in your colleague's defence. Are you saying people within the system should speak out in defence of their staff?
SC: Absolutely. I firmly believe that we all have a moral responsibility regardless of our rank, paygrade or station in life, to stand up for the truth without fear or favour.
I am the face of UNDP so it is easy to attack me. A lot of fake news got propagated after the elections. I can take the attacks but will stand in between when it comes to my staff. The safety, security and reputation of my staff is paramount. I will go to the end of the earth to defend them.
WM: Let's go back a bit. You were offered the position of UN Resident Coordinator in Namibia in 2009, how did that come about and why did you not take up that position?
SC: Every Resident Coordinator has to pass a UN Resident Coordinator Assessment. Failure rates are quite high. An independent human resources company from Canada carried out my assessment, which I passed in 2008 and was proposed by UNICEF (the agency I served with) to become the UN Resident Coordinator in Namibia in 2009. A post of that seniority and responsibility has to be signed off by the UN Secretary General, and so I made the difficult decision to decline that job offer because of my personal situation. I did not want to expose myself, my wife, my father-in-law or the UN itself to any suggestions of perceived impropriety. Perceptions matter and that is what I have had to deal with since 2007.
Instead I made a life-changing decision, perhaps my best decision. I decided to go back to school and spent a year studying for a Master's in Public Policy at Princeton University. It was again a leap of faith, I took a year's leave without pay and there was no right of return to my previous job or to any position for that matter. I would have to compete for any position. It was a big risk and I knew because of my special situation organizations in the UN were reluctant to hire me.
My year of study and reflection at Princeton was without doubt one of the best experiences of my life. I developed intellectually through engagement with teachers and with a fascinating mix of fellow students from all parts of the world and from all walks of life. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity I had at Princeton.
As Alvin Toffler said, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."
I would encourage everyone to take a year out of their careers to pause and go back to school. 0It gives you the freedom to pursue your intellectual interests, develop new capabilities, expose yourself to new approaches and methods and advance your career.
(Read the third part about Mr. Chatterjee's stint with the Red Cross and his views on leadership.)