Why Solheim?




by Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Reading Shamindra Ferdinando’s excellent article, titled, ‘Solheim is back’ (The Island, 8 May) makes one wonder whether a new viceroy is in town! For reasons best known to himself, Ranil appointed Erik Solheim as his advisor on climate change; being one of the first appointments Ranil made after being elected by parliament to complete the balance of GR presidency. Shamindra, quite rightly, points out that Solheim should stick to his climate change brief than trying to issue statements on many other issues.

He is obviously attempting to rake up issues of the failed Norwegian peace process and as pointed out by Shamindra, Solheim acted more as an agent of the LTTE than an honest broker for peace. He misled the Sri Lankan government attaching an invincibility to Tigers. It is not Solheim that ensured peace but the triumvirate of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka, who by their joint effort convincingly defeated a ruthless terrorist group. Why should Solheim be allowed to sneak back?

In fact, I would go a step further than Shamindra and question whether Solheim should even be a presidential advisor on climate change. Considering his record on climate change, which I would come to later, is he qualified to hold such a position? Even more important is the question whether the president needs such an advisor, at all, urgently.

There is no question that what needs addressing is the economy. True, Ranil has steadied the ship but what seems to be the position now is that the ship is not sinking but is not sailing! What Ranil needs to concentrate is how to get our economy moving in the right direction so that we may escape the economic enslavement. Climate change can wait. Considering these facts, it is pretty obvious that Ranil is just helping an old chum to gain some credibility.

Even if a climate change advisor is needed, is Solheim the right person? On paper, he has some claims. After all, he was the Minister of Environment, in addition to being the Minister of International Development of the Norwegian government from 2005 to 2012. From 2013 to 2016 he chaired the OECD Development Assistance Committee. The most relevant appointment was his being the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) from 2016 to 2018 but it is noteworthy that he was forced to resign from this post.

It is pertinent to examine “Why Solheim was asked by the Secretary-General of the UN to resign from the post of Executive Director of UNEP?”

In a piece published in The Guardian of 21 September 2018, Damian Carrington, environment editor, stated the following:

“The globe-trotting travels of the UN’s environment chief have been sharply criticised in a draft internal audit as “contrary to the ethos of carbon emission reduction”.

Erik Solheim, executive director of UN Environment, was travelling for 529 out of the 668 days audited, spending $488,518 (£370,380), according to the report. The audit also said he had “no regard for abiding by the set regulations and rules” and claimed unjustified expenses.

The development comes amid growing concern among some UN Environment officials, with sources claiming his “haphazard and dictatorial management style” has “already made us dysfunctional in many respects”.

Solheim told the Guardian he had already paid back money for instances of oversight and made changes where other rules had been broken. He said he could not comment in detail on the audit until it was completed and published: “If any other mistakes are found, we will immediately correct them.”

Responding to staff concern over his leadership of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), he said: “To secure unprecedented environmental action, we need to change, as individuals, as society, indeed as the UN. No one is immune to the difficulty that type of systemic change often brings.”

The draft audit, leaked to the Guardian, was compiled by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) and will be finalised after responses from the individuals named. It is particularly critical of Solheim’s frequent flying, which included a weekend trip from the US to France and back.

“The extensive travel patterns of [Solheim] did not set an example for the rest of the staff to follow,” it said. “In 2011 … the secretary general stated that ‘What we demand of others, we must do ourselves’. Such extensive travel therefore presents a reputation risk to the organization, especially [given] that UNEP is supposed to be the lead on sustainable environment matters.”

It also said UNEP, unlike several other UN organisations, did not have policies and incentives for staff to reduce their carbon emissions. In August, Solheim told a Norwegian aviation magazine, people should not have a “guilty conscience” about flying and said he held gold frequent flyer cards at all three major airline alliances.”

Following the leak of this report, a number of countries including Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands and Japan temporarily halted contributions to UNEP threatening its viability and UN had to take action. On 20 November 2018, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres accepted Solheim’s resignation, after asking him to step down.

This clearly shows that Solheim is a hypocrite who attempted to save the environment by clocking air-miles at UN expense! Do we need advisors of this calibre? When we have enough crooks of our own why import?

Why Solheim? We need an answer.