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Saturday, April 1, 2023
UNITED NATIONS, Dec 13 2021 (IPS) - Created in 1945 following the devastation caused by World War II, the United Nations was mandated with the task of maintaining international peace and security as one of its primary political missions.
But the seriousness of its far-reaching mandate has been tempered by occasional moments of levity which have rocked the “glass house by the east river” with laughter — as recounted in a newly-released book on the United Nations titled “No Comment –and Don’t Quote me on That”.
Over the years, the UN has remained a rich source of anecdotes originating in the General Assembly, the Security Council, and the UN’s watering hole, the delegate’s lounge.
One of the memorable anecdotes, recounted in the book, is a confrontation that took place in the General Assembly Hall in October 1960 during the height of the Cold War, when Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev removed his shoe and kept banging on his desk on a point of order.
As the shoe-banging continued, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, whose speech was being rudely interrupted, turned to the President of the General Assembly and remarked: “Mr. President, I am waiting for a translation”, as the entire Assembly erupted in laughter.
The two working languages of the United Nations have been primarily English and French, although there are four other official languages recognized by the world body: Chinese, Arabic, Spanish and Russian—with translations available in all six languages to delegates on their earphones.
A former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, was fluent in three of the six languages: English, Arabic and French. Asked at a briefing with reporters about his fluency in languages, he jokingly said his primary language was Arabic “because when I fight with my wife, I fight in Arabic.”
A former US ambassador to the United Nations once provided an amusingly light-hearted definition of diplomacy: 97 percent alcohol, 2 percent protocol and one percent Geritol, a multi-vitamin drink probably meant to energize negotiations.
But diplomacy at the UN is much more than socializing– even as receptions and cocktail parties take place every day – until the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world body to a virtual standstill temporarily suspending the routinely heavy drinking, mostly duty-free liquor (and according to some diplomats,” the best things in life are mostly duty-free.”)
When the annual election of the President of General Assembly resulted in an unprecedented 73:73 tie in the 1970s, the outgoing President decided to break the deadlock with the flip of a coin, as agreed to by the two candidates. But according to a joke circulating in the delegate’s lounge, the tossed coin apparently had two heads and no tail. Rigged elections at the UN?
When the right-wing, hardline conservative John Bolton was US Ambassador to the UN (2005-2006), he notoriously remarked: “There’s no such thing as the United Nations. If the U.N. secretariat building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” The punchline, however, came from a New York Times columnist who said Bolton would do better as an urban planner than a US diplomat.
Meanwhile, when Ambassadors and other lower-ranking diplomats arrive in New York, most of them experience “culture shock” being forced to adjust to New York city living– including food, language and apartment living.
In the 1970s, the New York Daily News recounted a story, widely circulated in the UN delegate’s lounge, of a newly-arrived diplomat from a conflict-ridden country who was posted to New York– considered a safe-haven– following death threats against him by a rebel group in his home country. A few weeks after his arrival, he found a note slipped under his Manhattan apartment door with an ominous message: “The exterminator will be here tomorrow.”
Panicked at the thought the rebel group had extended its reach, he was about to rush to the nearest police precinct when he accosted the clerk at the reception desk in the lobby, who told him: “Sir, the exterminator will be here not to kill diplomats, but to exterminate roaches, bed bugs and mice.” That was one of the first diplomatic lessons in Manhattan apartment living.
Meanwhile, Thalif Deen, author of the book, “No Comment – and Don’t Quote me on That”, who was recently interviewed by Thanos Dimadis, executive director of The Association of Foreign Press Correspondents in the USA (AFPC-USA), recounts some of the even more unforgettable moments both inside and outside the UN.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: You are a veteran journalist who has covered UN affairs for decades. Could you share a few of the lessons you have learned over the years as a UN correspondent? And when it comes to following and covering UN news, what has been the most difficult part of your job?
A: The United Nations has long been described as “the glass house by the east river.” But regrettably, the glass house is more opaque than transparent—particularly for news reporters.
The political reporting at the UN is largely focused on military conflicts, civil wars, genocide, human rights, peacekeeping, nuclear disarmament and war crimes—mostly underlying its primary mandate, namely, maintaining international peace and security.
But at IPS, our coverage was primarily on the UN’s socio-economic agenda, long neglected by the main stream media and international wire services. We aimed to fill that gap.
Perhaps the most difficult part of the job was that journalists, rarely if ever, were able to get any on-the-record comments or reactions from ambassadors, diplomats and senior UN officials because most of them follow the advice given to Brits during war time censorship in the UK: “Be like Dad, Keep Mum”.
As Winston Churchill once remarked: “Diplomacy Is the art of telling people “to go to hell’ in such a way they ask for directions.” But as a general rule, most ambassadors and diplomats avoided all comments, particularly on politically sensitive issues, with the standard non-excuse: ”Sorry, we have to get clearance from our capital”. But that “clearance” never came.
Still, it was hard to beat a response from a tight-lipped Asian diplomat who once told me: “No Comment” – “And Don’t Quote Me on That.”
And most senior UN officials, on the other hand, never had even the basic courtesy or etiquette to respond to phone calls or email messages—or even an acknowledgment. The lines of communications were mostly dead.
When I complained to the media-savvy Shashi Tharoor, a former Under-Secretary-General for Public Information and a one-time journalist and prolific author, he was explicit in his response when he said that every UN official – “from an Under-Secretary-General to a window-washer”—has the right to express an opinion in his or her area of expertise. But that rarely or ever happened.
A Brazilian diplomat once gave me an exclusive inside story, but warned it was “not for attribution and strictly off the record”. But being familiar with the New York City’s cultural scene, he added: “Off, Off, Off the record. Like Off, Off Broadway.”
Still, there have been rare instances of UN officials, mostly former UN officials, who have no qualms about providing on-the-record comments. As I was doing a wrap-up of the historic, two-week long Earth Summit in Rio in June 1992, I approached Dr Gamani Corea, a former Secretary-General of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and a member of the Sri Lanka delegation, for a final comment on the disappointing results of the much-ballyhooed conference.
“We negotiated the size of the zero”, he said, with a tinge of sarcasm, as he held out his fingers to indicate zero. But that comment would come only from an ex-UN official.
Q: What were some of the historic moments during your journalistic career at the UN?
A: When the politically-charismatic Ernesto Che Guevara, once second-in-command to Cuban leader Fidel Castro, was at the United Nations to address the General Assembly sessions back in 1964, the U.N. headquarters came under attack – literally. The speech by the Argentine-born Marxist revolutionary was momentarily drowned by the sound of an explosion.
The anti-Castro forces in the United States, backed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), had mounted an insidious campaign to stop Che Guevara from speaking. A 3.5-inch bazooka was fired at the 39-storeyed Secretariat building by the East River while a vociferous CIA-inspired anti-Castro, anti-Che Guevara demonstration was taking place outside the U.N. building on New York’s First Avenue and 42nd street.
But the rocket launcher – which was apparently not as sophisticated as today’s shoulder-fired missiles and rocket-propelled grenades – missed its target, rattled windows, and fell into the river about 200 yards from the building. One newspaper report described it as “one of the wildest episodes since the United Nations moved into its East River headquarters in 1952.”
After his Assembly speech, Che Guevara was asked about the attack aimed at him. “The explosion has given the whole thing more flavor,” he joked, as he chomped on his Cuban cigar.
When he was told by a reporter that the New York City police had nabbed a woman, described as an anti-Castro Cuban exile, who had pulled out a hunting knife and jumped over the UN wall, intending to kill him, Che Guevara said: “It is better to be killed by a woman with a knife than by a man with a gun.”
A second historic moment was the visit of Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). On his 1974 visit, he avoided the hundreds of pro and anti-Arafat demonstrators outside the UN building by arriving in a helicopter which landed in the dead of night on the North Lawn of the UN campus adjoining the East River.
Arafat was escorted by security men into the UN building and to the Secretary-General’s 38th floor where he spent the night in a temporary bedroom. But that bedroom had not been used for years, and the color of water was brown when the bathroom’s faucet was opened. Mercifully, it was not an attempt by Israeli intelligence to poison the PLO leader.
There was also a legendary story of how Arafat, who was on an Israeli hit-list, never slept on the same bed on two consecutive nights. So, the chances are he never took that risk even inside the UN building.
Incidentally, when anti-Arafat New York protesters on First Avenue shouted: “Arafat Go Home”, his supporters responded that was precisely what he wanted—a home for the Palestinians to go to.
When Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi visited the UN in September 2009, the London Guardian said he “grabbed his 15 minutes of fame at the UN building in New York and ran with it. He ran with it so hard he stretched it to an hour and 40 minutes, six times longer than his allotted slot, to the dismay of UN organizers”.
Incidentally, according to one news report, there were 112 different spellings of the Libyan leader’s name, both in English and Arabic, including Muammar el-Qaddafi, Muammar Gaddafi, Muammar al-Gathafi, Muammar El Kadhafi, Moammar el Kazzafi, Moamer, El Qathafi, Mu’Ammar, Gadafi, and Moamar Gaddafi, amongst others.
The Wall Street Journal ran a cartoon making fun of the multiple spellings, with a visiting reporter, on a one-on-one interview in Tripoli, telling the Libyan leader: ”My editor sent me to find out whether you are really Qaddafi, Khaddafi, Gadafi, Qathafi or Kadhafi?”
Q: As a UN correspondent, how has covering UN affairs changed your view of the UN and its role on a global scale?
A: The UN’s biggest shortcoming is its failure to resolve some of the longstanding political issues, including Palestine, and more recently the military conflicts and civil wars in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Ethiopia and Myanmar, amongst others.
In most of these conflicts, the five veto-wielding permanent members (P-5) of the Security Council, namely the US, UK, France, China and Russia, are sharply divided and protect their allies– and their million-dollar arms markets because the P-5 are the primary arms suppliers to the warring parties in several of these conflicts.
Meanwhile, a new Cold War -– this time, between the US and China —is threatening to paralyze the UN’s most powerful body, even as military conflicts and civil wars are sweeping across the world. The growing criticism against the Security Council is directed largely at its collective failures to resolve ongoing conflicts and political crises in several hot spots.
The sharp divisions between China and Russia, on one side, and the Western powers on the other, are expected to continue, triggering the question: Has the Security Council outlived its usefulness or has it lost its political credibility: a question which also changed my views on the UN and its political effectiveness?
The five big powers are increasingly throwing their protective arms around their allies, despite growing charges of war crimes, genocide and human rights violations against some of these warring nations.
At the same time, the Security Council has come under heavy fire for the misuse of its veto powers, held by the Big Five, while discussions on the reform of the Council have dragged on for over 20 years.
The bottom line is that the P-5 want to hold onto the monopoly of the veto power. A proposal for the expansion of the permanent members, from five to maybe ten, comes with a catch: if new permanent members are appointed, they should have no veto powers.
The countries knocking at the Security Council door for permanent memberships include India, Brazil, Japan and Germany. But the opposition to these candidacies have come from Italy, Argentina, Mexico, Pakistan and South Korea. So, the reform of the Security Council remains deadlocked.
Meanwhile, the UN’s successes are largely in the field of humanitarian assistance, plus in development funding and environmental protection. During September through November 2021, the UN and its NGO (non-governmental organization) partners provided 7.2 million people in war-ravaged Afghanistan with food assistance; reached more than 880,000 people with primary and secondary healthcare consultations; assisted almost 199,000 drought-affected people through water trucking; and treated more than 178,000 children under five for acute malnutrition, according to the latest figures.
Thalif Deen, Senior Editor & Director, UN Bureau, Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency, served twice with the Sri Lanka delegation to the UN General Assembly sessions and is a Fulbright scholar with a Master’s Degree (MSc) in Journalism from Columbia University.
The link to Amazon via the author’s website follows: https://www.rodericgrigson.com/no-comment-by-thalif-deen/
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