15 NOVEMBER 2012


Officials around U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon must have discovered during Hurricane Sandy that the Vienna convention on privileges and immunities did not stop Mother Nature. No diplomatic immunity prevented the wind from whistling its way through Turtle Bay nor stopped the water flooding to submerge its basement. While some bewildered U.N. officials were debating whether to turn on or off electric engines, the storm couldn't read their minds. U.N. Headquarters suffered like the rest of New York.

Besides the obvious teardown of the dome on top of the General Assembly Building, the flooding, the electric shortage, and the disabled computers, there were angry delegations that felt no serious prevention had been taken, despite days of warnings. A Capital Master Plan, many strongly felt, was expected to guard against inclement weather. Little did they know, or bothered to find out, about the Capital Master Plan. All activities were cancelled, like the 60th anniversary of guided tours (postponed to 15 November), which was a joyous historic event at these sad U.N. times.

Meetings slowly picked up in the aftermath, only to have questions raised not only by delegates, but by some staff and -- to a degree -- by some supportive New Yorkers.

Why didn't the U.N. Secretary General reach out to New Yorkers -- publicly through the media and through visits with Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo -- to the most distressed areas?

No, he would not be injecting himself in an internal national issue. The U.N. is involved in Emergency Relief all over the world. The Secretary General visited stricken areas in several countries -- more than twice to Haiti for example.

What about his host town?

Particularly after the General Debate of September, when New Yorkers mainly witness traffic jams, blocked streets, and tripled parking lanes, New Yorkers would have felt better if senior U.N. officials rushed out publicly to identify with the human suffering and metropolitan hardships.

There was a statement issued on 1 November "attributable to the Spokesman of the Secretary General offering condolences to millions who suffered across a wide arc of destruction." He reportedly "intended to speak" with the Mayor and Governors of New York and New Jersey. He rightly pointed out that U.N. staff had been affected in minor ways.

The Staff Union, supported by the Secretariat, also took the initiative of establishing a Relief Fund and encouraged voluntary work by the staff with relief organizations.

Those were very positive steps. But they should have been known OUTSIDE U.N. circles and beyond overlooked press releases.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been most effective when he spoke from the heart. He would have made a much-needed impact had he found his way through the media to a distraught home public. Naturally, he is too busy with so many issues to have thought about it. That is why he has a Media Communications Advisor (at a D-2 level) who happens to be a NEW YORKER! Where was Michael Meyer? It is widely known that Meyer sought to have certain prominent New Yorkers to intervene on his behalf to save his job. Couldn't he have intervened on behalf of New York to help both his immediate boss and his own city of residence?!

Others could have helped -- several others around the Secretary General, in relevant senior posts like Communications, Disaster Relief, and the Secretary's General own office. They all have pressing duties, of course. But how come none of them proposed going very public to identify the U.N. with its host city when each and every is habitually pulling for more visible appearances almost everywhere else? It may reflect on the collective attitude of the leadership surrounding the U.N. that none of them saw the valuable importance of standing up for New York.

A forceful appearance was missed -- one more erosion to the U.N. image among the ordinary people of its host city.

Actually Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was in New York on Friday 2 November, having returned from a four day visit to Korea. He visited damaged parts of the building and encouraged staff who managed to report to work. He was scheduled to hold a retreat in Long Island with Executive heads of U.N. agencies. We are not clear whether he did retreat. But we are almost certain that he would have welcomed a feasible proposal to clearly identify with New Yorkers in the immediate aftermath of the storm and for New Yorkers to visibly note a supportive U.N. identity. Pity that such an appearance was missed.