15 OCTOBER 2015


A public disgrace of 2013 - 2014 General Assembly President should not take away from the distinguished role of so many dignified officials who had occupied the same post. Since the establishment of the U.N. in 1945, that post has been held in such high esteem that the nominating government in rotating regions perceived it as an opportunity to display credible international credentials. When the U.N. was at the mainstream of global decision-making, a highly-regarded General Assembly President was a given requirement. Outstanding representatives from Asia, Africa, Eastern and Western Europe, the Arab World, and the Far East held the gavel at the podium with gracious respect -- and in certain cases, guided member states while attracting popular attention.

A decreasing U.N. role and erosion of national leadership may have resulted in transforming that post's stature. From a podium to mobilize member states in dealing with pressing global issues, it became in certain cases an opportunity to explore available personal gain. To put it more bluntly, instead of helping solve problems, they created more by trying to solve their own.

Perhaps the decline started with some of the "Millennials" -- General Assembly Presidents appearing with the new Millennium. The current President is excluded, as he just took over and deserves the courtesy of time until his full-term expires next year, but other certain "Presidents" were blatantly demanding, both in seeking personnel posts or personal favours.

While most earlier Presidents performed so well that they returned home for senior positions, like Presidents of Finland, Italy and Algeria, and Prime Ministers of Canada and Namibia, more recent ones seemed determined to stay away from home; any assignment elsewhere would do.

Names like Paul-Henri Spaak (Belgium - 1946), Carlos Romulo ("Mr. U.N." of the Philippines - 1949), Lester Pearson (Canada - 1952), Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (India, First Woman President - 1953), Charles Malik (Lebanon, Human Rights Declaration - 1958), Mongi Slim (Tunis - 1961), Zafarullah Khan (Pakistan - 1962), Alex Quaison-Sackey (Ghana - 1964), Amintore Fanfani (Italy - 1965), Corneliu Manescu (Romania - 1967), Edvard Hambro (Norway - 1970), Abdel Aziz Bouteflika (Algeria - 1974), Hamilton Shirley Amerasinghe (Sri Lanka - 1976), Lazar Mojsov (Yugoslavia - 1977), Salim Ahmed Salim (Tanzania - 1979), Ismat Kittani (Iraq - 1981), Jaime de Pinies (Spain - 1985), General Joseph Garba (Nigeria - 1989), Rudolph Insanally (Guyana - 1993), Samir Shihabi (Saudi Arabia - 1991), Hennadly Udovenko (Ukraine - 1997), Theo-Ben Gurirab (Namibia - 1999), and Harri Holkeri (Finland - 2000) still draw admiration and respect for upholding a high standard of performance, particularly in dealing with very complex situations and working for consensus on very controversial ones.

Then, particularly over the last two decades, come embarrassing problematic occupants. One would not leave before pushing his main assistant and compatriot to get a senior U.N. Secretariat job with a much higher rank than he would usually earn; that "sticky-wicket" remains at an even higher post, presumably to handle a crisis in his own region. Another not only arranged for a public relations firm to cover the expenses of his prolonged hotel stay, but pursued member states for travel and related expenses; his demanding attitude drove a European Permanent Member of the Security Council to publicly shun him. One from a cash-rich country never hid his belief that payments were helpful to move matters ahead. Whether he paid his way to the "High Representative" post he pursued remains to be explored; but he remains obviously confident of continued support despite his farcical assignment and his relatively illiterate background. Another maintained his business dealings while keeping both his country's official position and the General Assembly post.

The one named -- and arrested -- by the Host Country's legal system, Mr. John Ashe (2013 - 2014) would not have dared to indulge if he or his aides (repeat, his aides) did not assume he could do so with impunity.

A general impression is that Mr. Ashe was merely a rotating General Assembly President who read what was drafted for him by dutiful staff, did not grasp the meaning of the role, nor, obviously, the U.N. principles for which our colleagues, indeed one of our Secretaries-General, gave the ultimate sacrifice.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rightly requested an investigation. So, rightly too, did current Assembly President, Mr. Mogens Lykketoft. The real issue is not personal but institutional. What measures should be taken? What examples should be given? Which officials, then, should be named and shamed to avert similar embarrassment to the General Assembly and further erosion of the U.N. stature?!