On November 2, 2011, Therese Baptiste-Cornelis presented her credentials to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), thus formalising her appointment as Trinidad and Tobago's permanent representative to the UNOG.
This ambassadorial post is an important one with wide responsibilities. The representative is also ambassador to the World Trade Organisation, the World Health Organisation, the United Nations Environment Programme, the International Labour Organisation, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the International Trade Commission, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in Paris, the Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome and the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation in Vienna. The ambassador works in Switzerland, France, Italy and Austria.
The story of Her Excellency's eight-month tenure is now summarised in a revelatory video of her presentation on cultural diversity—her first keynote address as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary—delivered at the Institute of Cultural Diplomacy (ICD). By now, most of us will have viewed or read the transcript of that painfully embarrassing 30 minutes. This story, though, and the attendant fury, are eight months late; it is a story that started not with Her Excellency Baptiste-Cornelis, but with her predecessor, His Excellency Dennis Francis.
Francis first came to my attention in 2009, well into in his diplomatic career. The occasion was the UN's Durban Review Conference in Geneva, a follow-up to the UN's World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa, eight years earlier. As then ambassador to UNOG, Francis had direct responsibility for representing us at this high-level conference of world leaders. His task was challenging from the start: the United States, Israel, Australia, Germany, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Canada—major world players—boycotted the conference, saying they were concerned it would focus on maligning Israel. Israel would eventually recall its ambassador to Switzerland to protest the conference.
Another diplomatic conundrum awaited Francis—and Caricom—at the conference itself; Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejan disparaged Israel in his speech, calling the nation a "cruel and repressive fascist regime". Diplomats from 23 European countries, including Britain, France and the Czech Republic, promptly walked out. Two protesters, dressed as clowns, pelted Ahmadinejan with their red noses.
There was more to come. One of the most contentious agenda items of the original Durban conference and again at the Geneva conference was reparations for African enslavement. Outspoken in favour of reparations were our neighbours Cuba, Barbados and Bolivia; Tanzania added its important voice.
At the divided Geneva meeting, Caribbean countries worked hard under the umbrella of the Non-Aligned Movement to get the subject of reparations into a discussion that the US, even with its first black president, continues to strenuously resist. Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Jamaica and Guyana are now often quoted across the world for their non-conformist position on this issue.
This is not easy work, but Francis was obviously up to the task. He had assumed the Geneva post in 2006 after serving as High Commissioner to Jamaica for six years during which he was Dean of the Diplomatic Corps. A career diplomat, he disclaimed political ambitions in an exit interview with the Jamaica Gleaner: "Because I like being a bureaucrat. I find satisfaction in that. I am at heart an academic and enjoy the challenge of understanding the logic of the subject matter, analysing it and making sense of it in a way that will have an impact in a wider sphere. I find great gratification in unearthing options available, costing those options, and making a recommendation to my political masters, of course fully acknowledging their right to accept or not. But as a bureaucrat, one always wants to be in the position of having given the correct advice. As a professional... I fully acknowledge that it's not going to be the only opinion on the table..."
Now 56, Francis's early career was in town planning, working on the Tobago Regional Plan and the Northern Range Plan. He entered the diplomatic service because he wanted to have "a reasonably immediate quantum impact on the society". He was assessed over a 16-month period, including repeated interviews, during which he was grilled on geo-politics and international relations. He read for a Diploma in International Relations (UWI) and a Master's in International Finance and Latin American Studies (Johns Hopkins Washington campus). While there, he studied Spanish intensively for two years.
He spent a further three years in Port of Spain before being appointed Deputy Consul General in Toronto. In his seven-plus years there, he worked on the Carib/Can Trade Facility to secure exemption for our methanol, for example, from that agreement.
He returned to Trinidad as deputy director of the Division of International Economic and Trade Relations, working on what would eventually become the Caricom/ Costa Rica Free Trade Agreement.
"In 1997, I worked every Saturday for the year," he told the Gleaner. "At the time informally I had become the major speechwriter for then Minister of Foreign Affairs Ralph Maraj on international trade and economic policy. It was great working for him because wherever he went in the world and delivered a statement, he would phone me in the office and say: 'Dennis, I've just delivered it and congratulations. It was so very well received. Thank you.'"
Having studied his craft with application and dedication, having worked consistently and dutifully under People's National Movement and United National Congress alike, having contributed tremendously to the well-being of all of us and having represented us with distinction and valour, Dennis Francis was summarily removed from the Geneva mission to make room for our current embarrassment.
This is the consequence of a hitherto unquestioned practice of allocating diplomatic postings to politicians so they can recuperate from political humiliation. The story of these appointments is not only how the incumbents perform, but equally about the disservice done to qualified citizens who quietly serve country with distinction.
Francis deserves our unqualified gratitude and apology. I am sure he is not the only one.