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Welcome home, Peter Leslie

Staff Reports

“We prefer world law, in the age of self-determination, to world war in the age of mass extermination.”John F. Kennedy”The United Nations was not set up to be a reformatory. It was assumed that you would be good before you got in and not that being in would make you good.”John Foster DullesPeter Leslie is one of those fortunate individuals who can jump in and out of several different languages with ease. During a recent lunch at a local Italian restaurant, for example, Leslie managed to break away from a sentence in English, order in flawless Italian, then return to the frayed ends of a conversation and weave it back into poignant semblance.The topic, not surprisingly, was the United Nations. After all, Leslie came to Vail a little over a year ago after spending 13 years with the United Nations, where he served as the Director of the Division of Finance of the Development Program from 1990-1996 and the Executive Secretary of the Consultative Committee on Financial and Budgetary Questions from 1996-2003.The first thing Leslie encountered when he began working with the U.N. was an incredible amount of red tape, bureaucracy, and inefficiency. He describes painfully redundant accounting techniques, miles and miles of unnecessary paperwork, and a worldwide accounting system that lacked a unified standard. As a CFO from the private sector (he had been recruited from a NASDAQ company called V Band in 1989), Leslie was appalled at the outdated and random methods used by U.N. accountants. One of Leslie’s primary accomplishments at the U.N., in fact, was to help standardize the accounting practices of more than 25 different U.N. organizations. He also managed to cull his own staff at headquarters from a burgeoning 198 employees to a manageable 103.Despite the over-inflated bureaucracy of the U.N., which Leslie was able to see first hand, he has a positive view of the organization’s general principles. The diplomatic realities of the U.N. may make it inefficient, but Leslie feels strongly that the organization has a vital role to play in the future of the world.”Fundamentally the organization has a role, and that is to stop international crises from developing into war,” he said.Now frame the conversation: As Leslie spoke these words, gunfire was erupting in Iraq as American soldiers battled with rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the holy city of Najaf; hundreds of thousands were fleeing and dying from ethnic cleansing in Darfur, Sudan; thousands more were fleeing to China to avoid starvation in North Korea; Burundi, Rwanda, and Congo were poised on the brink of another war after 160 Tutsis were massacred there Aug. 13; and two passenger planes were only hours from simultaneous, 9/11-style destruction in Russia.As Leslie knows, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The combined threats of war, genocide and massacre are always looming over the heads of international officials. Leslie believes that, with continued work and improvement, the United Nations is in a unique position to help the United States and Britain suppress war and ease tensions. It can act diplomatically and profoundly as when it played a key role in the nuclear disarmament of South Africa and it can act as a sanctioning body, as when it helped unify the world behind the U.S. and Britain in the first Gulf War.”I pray the U.N. will succeed,” he said, “Because the worst thing that happened in between World War I and World War II was the lack of commitment from Britain and France to do something when the efforts of the League of Nations were flouted.”From India to EnglandThe importance of uniting the people of the world has a certain immediacy in Leslie’s life.He was born in the mountains of Baluchistan, part of today’s Pakistan, although his family was based in Calcutta, India. One hundred and fifty years earlier Leslie’s family traveled to India from Great Britain as Baptist missionaries. After two generations of working as missionaries, Leslie’s family went into the legal system, becoming judges and attorneys in India.As just a young child, Leslie witnessed first hand the ethnic cleansing that embroiled India at the time. In 1947 India as split up into three parts, India Proper, West Pakistan and East Pakistan.”Essentially you had a mixture of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians, and the Muslims said we want to live by ourselves, so Pakistan was created,” Leslie said. “The only problem was there were about 1012 million people who had to leave their homes because if you were a Muslim in the middle of India then the Hindus might massacre you or if you were a Hindu in Pakistan, the Muslims might massacre you.”I saw my father go out at night, with only a baton and no arms. He went out patrolling the streets just to cool people down. There was terrible bloodshed,” Leslie said. “When you’re six years old and you see dead bodies lying in the street in the gutter, it makes an impression on you.”Leslie witnessed riots, crowds of people stomping on other people and it was all ethnic strife.”I remember clearly being in the railroad station in Calcutta surrounded by thousands of Indians and hearing the news that Ghandi had just been assassinated. Luckily, my father had reserved a first-class compartment and we rushed into it, locked the door and pulled down the blinds.”Leslie was six years old when his family returned to England, but those memories would shape Leslie’s future endeavors and lead him to try to make the world a better place.During Leslie’s childhood there were often times an extra child living with his family. Sometimes the child spoke German, sometimes French or Spanish or Swedish, but the effect was always the same: Leslie’s eyes were opened to other cultures, to the world beyond his own neighborhood.”My parents were convinced that inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife could only be prevented by people having a closer understanding of other cultures and so our home in England was always hosting a child or children from other countriesand each summer my brother, sister and I went to stay with families in different European countries,” Leslie said.Impetus for RotaryAnd so it’s no surprise that Leslie has continued that tradition by being an active participant in the Rotary Club.It didn’t take long after his arrival in Vail to become involved. Although Leslie and his wife, Helena, have been coming to Vail since 1983 with their two children, they didn’t decide to move here until 2003. But within that short amount of time he has already become a fixture in the community especially in Rotary and the Vail Symposium.”We arrived on a weekend and on Monday morning I went into the vet to get our dogs vaccinated because they’d been living in Switzerland. The vet and I got to chatting and next thing he said, ‘OK, Rotary meeting, Wednesday morning at 7:30 a.m. You’re my guest for breakfast.’ And this was a Monday and we’d only just arrived, so Wednesday morning I go in to Rotary and I started talking and they said, ‘Oh, well you’d be great for our international committee,'” Leslie said.At the rotary meeting Leslie met Ebby Pinson, community service director for the Rotary Club and also head of the Vail Symposium. As soon as Ebby heard him speak at that meeting and knew about Leslie’s diverse past and the 13-years he spent working for the United Nations, she asked him to speak to the Vail Symposium.Leslie had plenty of experience to share with the Symposium. He had attended Oxford University in England (where he was a punting racer, by the way) and graduated with a law degree. At 21-years-old he was put in charge of all the Shell Oil gas stations in Morocco, where he found time to ski in the country’s high mountains.”I bet no one here has heard of the Moroccan Giant Slalom nor of the Casablanca ski club, but I actually raced for Casablanca in the Giant Slalom, a 1.5 mile course starting at 10,600 feet in the Atlas Mountains and dropping 2,200 vertical feet,” Leslie said.After Leslie’s time in Morocco he gained an MBA at Harvard, where he met Helena who was attending nearby Wellesley College. The two of them spent their first year out of school working for an American company which acted as a consultant for Libya’s new ruler, Moammar Quaddafi.Beyond Libya and Morocco, Leslie has worked all over Southeast Asia, in Thailand Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Philippines, and Japan. At last count Leslie has been in 98 different countries. His work was extremely varied: he worked in Saudi Arabia on air conditioning the royal palaces, in the Philippines on tourism development, and in Scotland marketing the world’s first electronic gold ball and developing North Sea oil platforms.The view from VailOf all the places in the world Leslie has visited, lived in and seen, Vail topped his list when the time came to retire.But retirement does not mean idleness. Beside Vail Symposium and Rotary Club, Leslie is an active skier and bike rider. He loves the activity in the town, which he says is more lively than so many other small towns that he has seen.But he also loves the intellectual atmosphere here. He is able to engage in intelligent conversations with competent people, and he’s established strong friendships with some of the valley’s active thinkers.And he offers an interesting political stance on American foreign policy. After watching the French and Germans negotiate in many United Nations meetings, he believes there is very little that the U.S. and Britain can do to call those nations to action.”(Presidential candidate) John Kerry is misleading us if he reckons that any diplomatic approach will work to get French and Germans (into battle in Iraq),” he says. “They don’t want to fight. They will not go in and get shot at.”Leslie points out that many French officials have been exposed in the “Oil for Food” scandal, and that their interactions with Iraq during the 1990s were less than ethical.As much as he believes in the mission of the U.N., he also believes that the U.S. was, “wasting time” in their dealings with the U.N. before the second Gulf War.Appealing to the U.N. to try and effect regime change in Iraq was, “absolutely,” a fruitless process, he said.”In fact, what (the U.S.) did was strategically a big mistake,” he said. “We gave Saddam extra months to prepare, to hide his arms. On the other hand, I think Bush had to go through the motions.”And that begs the question if U.S. dealings with the U.N. are simply, “going through the motions,” then what real power does the U.N. actually have?Leslie said that the organization can still effect regime change in smaller countries. He also believes it can step in and keep another Rwandan genocide from happening in Africa, and that it can and should do more in Darfur to end the ethnic cleansing going on there. In comparison to the U.S., the U.N. may seem debilitated by bureaucracy and over-inflated diplomacy but it does have a critical role. And Leslie seems content to know that he has played his part in making it a better organizationNow, fortunately for us, he can focus on helping his new community be aware, active, and informed about the many stories of the international world. VTTom Boyd and Caramie Schnell can be reached at tboyd@vailtrail.com or (970) 748-0049. By Tom Boyd and Caramie Schnell


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