15 October 2006

A few minutes before three p.m. Friday the 13th of October, 2006, three limousines entered U.N. premises from First Avenue and Forty-Third Street. Security people waiting at the Secretariat entrance had been talking to their jackets for a while. The new boss was coming.

Ban Ki-Moon was the last person to come out from the middle car, welcomed by the Chief of Protocol on his way to the General Assembly Hall -- with a courtesy call for its President Sheikha Haya Al-Khalifah.

While delegates took time hanging around their nameplates, a number of "senior" Secretariat officials appointed by the current Secretary General were already dutifully seated on their side to the right of the podium. A cynic observer noted that those uncertain of their future fate sought a visible location in the front seats. Normally, they would informally sit according to rank seniority. This time only the Deputy Secretary General was in his right spot -- the first seat from the right. Most others looked like anxious job applicants. While the second row contained a blend of sure and unsure, it was noted that the most confident took the third row, back seats. The American USG for Administration, Christopher Burnham, who is supported by the Administration of the host country is most likely to stay, followed by the almost certain Japanese USG Tanaka.

It was the Ambassador of Japan, October's Security Council President, who introduced the resolution proposing Ban Ki-Moon as Secretary General. After the Assembly adopted it by acclamation, he was invited to take a ceremonial seat on the left of the podium. Why the left? Possibly to allow for speakers to come in from the right. Otherwise, the normal protocol seat is on the right. Speakers from various regions welcomed the incoming and thanked the outgoing Secretary General. Gambia spoke for Africa, Bosnia for Eastern Europe, Japan for Asia, Ecuador for Latin America/Caribbean, Lichtenstein for Europe, South Africa for the Group of 77/China, Finland for the European Union, and the U.S. for the Host Country. The Bosnian seemed so keen on the occasion that he had one of his delegation stand nearby to photograph his speech. The experienced Ecuadorian Diego Cordovez, who himself was a potential Secretary General in the past, made an insightful, eloquent speech in Spanish and was the first to shake hands with Mr. Ban as he left the stage. Other speakers followed. A brief statement by Ambassador John Bolton was noted for a reference in conclusion wishing the team working with the Secretary General well "as they will be moving on" -- perhaps his manner of saying that they were on their way out. It was the only remark that drew a soft smile from Deputy Secretary General Mark Malloch-Brown.

While the proceedings were going on, there was another side show of enthusiastic Koreans who milled around the visitors' side, bowing gently and shaking hands while addressing each other as some took photographs with varied equipment -- digital, electric, or video. They seemed entranced -- but very polite -- in a world of their own. Obviously thrilled, they stood up in applause at the mention of Mr. Ban's name. An odd presence was that of an Italian woman, Anna ("Magnana!") Something who apparently was one of those envoys or messengers designated by the current Secretary General. She persistently confused a German visitor seated in front of her for Mrs. Annan and repeatedly called her first and second name until she gave up, got bored, and left.

Mr. Annan, incidentally, seemed at ease, particularly as regional representatives indicated a future occasion for paying special tribute. His own speech was pleasant, almost jovial. Noting that both he and Mr. Ban were elected on Friday the 13th, he referred to the job as equally the most impossible and the best job in the world.

Mr. Ban's speech was substantive and forward-looking. He showed an emotional side, for an Asian and a Korean, as he spoke about his own experience as a child, as a young man, and as a diplomat. It may serve him well if he displays that personal warmth more often when he assumes his functions on 1 January, 2007.

Almost all speakers, including the current and incoming Secretary General, mentioned that it was the first time in U.N. history that a selection is made so early to allow for adequate preparation before actual takeover. It is also the first time that the oath of office was not taken at the same time as the adoption of the name by the General Assembly. It is now agreed that the oath will be administered mid-December. One reason mentioned for the delay was that South Korea would need him to continue as Foreign Minister at this crucial time until a replacement is appointed.

In the meantime, speculations abound about who will be in, who will be out. Good luck to all. Most of all to Ban Ki-Moon.