UNITED NATIONS. U.N. MEETING. EXPECT DELAYS.

 

15 SEPTEMBER 2012

U.N. MEETING. EXPECT DELAYS.

An electric sign pops up at highways leading to Manhattan just as the U.N. General Assembly convenes for its General Debate the third week of September: "U.N. Meeting. Expect Delays." It does not help the U.N. image. The fact that over 140 heads of state and governments -- with full-fledged delegations -- spend hundreds of millions, even a couple of billion on some occasions, in filling hotels, restaurants, cars and other employment services does not occur to any passer-by. What matters to urban media is traffic and parking. They focus on unpaid parking tickets -- a few thousand dollars -- when the mere presence of diplomatic missions from 193 countries feeds the Big Apple over $2.5 billion!

Years ago the Department of Public Information issued a series entitled "Setting the Record Straight" with brief highlights of who spends what, how much governments pay -- if and when they did -- and the benefits that New York gets out of hosting the U.N. Could that be updated? "Forgeddaboutit" as they would say in downtown New Yawk. Very few high levels seem to know the facts and fewer seem ready, willing or capable of handling such a down-to-earth issue.

This year's session, to be presided over by Vuk Jeremic of Serbia, will open on 18 September with a speech and a minute of silence; the General Debate by heads of state and senior government officials will begin 25 September. Political rock stars from all nations compete to speak during the first couple of days. The President of the U.S. -- the host country -- habitually arrives with an array of media reporters, let alone security details. Whoever speaks that day gets some splash. The main interest is not just to make a statement from the podium but TO BE SEEN doing so by a worldwide audience, particularly at home. With a looming tight U.S. Presidential race, President Obama will certainly seize the opportunity to project a credible presidential image. The new French President, Francois Hollande, will try to get out of his "homme normale" cover to make a wider impact in his first U.N. appearance. So would relatively new U.K. leader David Cameron, who has not yet made any remarkable U.N.-related move since he took over as Prime Minister. Qaddafi, who attempted to tear the U.N. Charter (but failed) will no longer be there, nor will El-Comandante Fidel Castro, with his revolutionary fatigues, emotional rhetoric, and welcome Cuban lobster and cigar gifts. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez may be too sick this year to make a taunting appearance. Iran's Ahmadinejad will certainly show up after the recent non-aligned meeting in Teheran. Although mainstream media would report main statements, reporters accompanying their leaders obligingly cover their every move which always includes an official meeting with the Assembly President at a side office behind the podium. That's why Vuc Jeremic's name, without much effort of his own, will be splashed in headlines in almost every U.N. member state.

Over the years, most General Assembly Presidents carried out their task graciously, then resumed their lives elsewhere. Few, very few, took too seriously the usual courtesy rhetoric about their exceptional quotation, which comes at the opening of every leader's statement.

Though the transient President's position has limited executive power, it carries diplomatic prestige and worldwide visibility. A determined President could have much more influence than generally assumed. For example, the outgoing President from Qatar milked every angle to promote his country's policy supporting the Syrian opposition. The incoming Serbian, a dynamic politician and sharp intellectual, may not get similarly involved, but he has the capacity to edge towards a different angle. He will also be making his own media contacts through an official U.N. Spokesman, giving daily briefings about his role. A more effective area where he could operate flexibly will be his ready access to various leaders, particularly in areas of conflict. An active, creative diplomat could seize an opportunity to discreetly explore mediation options and possible backchannels.

Anyway, it will be delightful to see eager heads of state and governments return, or newly visit their home at U.N. Headquarters. We wish our Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and General Assembly President Vuc Jeremic the best in working together towards a successful session.