15 January 2004


The story goes that Nero was fiddling while Rome was burning. That could have been an exaggeration -- or a historical misunderstanding. There was no fiddle at that time; only harps and the like. Maybe he just wanted to sing. Singing was the equivalent of today's photo opportunity; that's how you reached out and acquired admirers. The problem was in his believing that he could really sing. Those around him assured him he could. After all, they wanted to dance to his tune. But he himself was dancing to every predominant tune of the time. So they got confused, confusing him in the process. Adversaries sensed weakness and attacked him. To placate them he offered a song -- and a dance by his funny horse. By that time everyone found out that there was no fiddle -- only a fiddler.


Word around certain lower-rank staff is that the normally reclusive Chef de Cabab has been enjoying a secret Latin dish of the Victoria family, which apparently could be consumed from time to time as it does not always taste good. A sous chef tucked away in the Department of Public Information sometimes shares that Victoria Secret but not at the same time. That throws a totally different light on the banal tastes of the chef who until recently was thought to have preference for Indian chicken tikka.


A friend was driving so fast in the middle of nowhere through the depths of West Texas when she spotted a large billboard that said: "Stop terrorism! Get out of the UN". She could not take the picture, but we could as least see the writing on the wall.


While all international organizations have their hands full trying to deal with conflicts and urgent humanitarian relief, the head of the Environmental Programs, Klaus Toepfer, wanted to stop the world in order to advise that the "great apes" are in danger of extinction. Gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans could vanish in 50 years if we are not careful. In making an appeal from Paris for $25 million, Toepfer explained that these great apes are the "closest living relatives to humanity". If we lose any of them, "we will be destroying a bridge to our origins". He may be right. At least the great apes are less cruel to one another than their human relatives.


The following is a translation of a recent poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish:

He is calm. So am I
He sips lemon tea. I sip coffee.
That's the only difference between us.
He, like me, wears a striped wide shirt.
I, like him, read the evening papers.
He doesn't see me stealing a glance at him.
Neither do I when he does.
He is quiet and so am I.
He, like me, asks the waiter a question.
A black cat passes between us. I touch its nightly fur and so does he.
I do not tell him that the sky is clear and more blue; he does not tell me that the sky is clear.
He sees and feels being seen.
I am seeing and feel being seen.
I move my right leg; he moves his left leg.
I hear my tune, he hears his-
I think: is he the mirror of my real soul?
Then I look but he is nowhere. I think: he may be my killer or perhaps a person by who thought I was his killer. He is afraid. And so am I.


A series of articles on the U.N appeared in the influential Wall Street Journal over the year; one of the initial stories on the Food for Oil Programme received a U.N correspondent's award. The articles written by Bill Spindle, Alix Freedman, Steve Stecklow and Jess Bravin dealt with the proposed reform and structural handicaps. The thrust was that the main pre-occupation of the Organization was to save itself from becoming irrelevant in a changing world. That view happens to coincide with most supporters of the U.N who believe in its objectives but are frustrated by its current performance. Quotations from senior incumbents maintained the old Secretariat line that most problems could be traced to delegations, not to civil servants. The Spokesman's office was particularly pleased. Fred Eckart, who circulated the articles for those who missed them felt they were "balanced and insightful". Congratulations Fred (and David?)!


The tragic crash of a chartered airplane in Benin airport, which caused hundreds of deaths, raised questions not only about overloaded luggage but overloaded passengers. Most of the civilians were Lebanese expatriates traveling to Beirut to the holidays with their families. There were also some U.N peacekeepers from Bangladesh. The first indication was that the Libyan pilot could not take off properly because of excess luggage. Then it transpired that the old Boeing 727 was official carrying 140 passengers while it had only 132 seats. However, the investigating team indicated there were 161 passengers. The registered excess luggage was officially nine tons over the accepted limit. That would have been a minimum as many passengers often negotiate their excess luggage payment, carrying much more than their paid excess. The last time the plane was in Beirut, it was refused clearance for failing technical tests.

Its owners failed to register it in Lebanon; so they found registration in Swaziland. When Beirut continued to refuse its clearance, the owners persuaded some officials in Guinea, which has a civil aviation agreement with Lebanon. It is not yet clear where the owners of the airplanes reside. Nor does anyone know what happened to several million dollars in cash, which according to "Al-Hayat", were carried by a courier on behalf of expatriates sending money over the holidays.


A breakthrough with Libya over weapons of mass destruction may provide a backdoor for reviving UNMOVIC, which officially dealt with weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It is unlikely for Hans Blix to chair the renewed team. Revival of UNMOVIC could be one way of involving the Security Council on Libya. The main purpose may be not only to discover these lethal weapons but where they come from. Interesting.


A man for all seasons, Lakhdar Brahimi concluded his assignment in Afghanistan where he performed an incredibly delicate task on behalf of the international community. The former Foreign Minister of Algeria has distinguished himself in every assignment he undertook, from mediation in Lebanon to ensuring a peaceful transfer of government in South Africa, to setting new standards in peacekeeping. Many people may have forgotten that only two years ago, Afghanistan was in shambles and the UN's role was totally irrelevant. With skillful political efforts, Brahimi oversaw the Bonn conference then moved to Kabul where he stayed despite obvious hardships, challenges and frustration. He just returned to New York headquarters where his stature, experience, and proven effectiveness will certainly be of real value to the Secretary General who is in dire need for enlightened, honest advice.


Immediately following the capture of Saddam Hussein, President George W. Bush telephoned over twenty heads of state and world statesmen to inform them. In addition to Tony Blair of course, they included Egyptian President Mubarak, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and Jordan's King Abdullah. Intentional or not, it was noted that UN Secretary General was not among those called. When asked the following morning, Mr. Annan said something to the effect that there will be a phone conversation "in the not to distant future", like maybe next year. Annan had issued a broad statement describing the capture as "an important event."


Last August a decision was made to appoint Ambassador Nabila El-Mullah as Kuwaiti permanent representative to the UN. She was expected to show up in time to participate at least partially in the General Assembly session. Instead, the outgoing Ambassador who was appointed Information Minister showed up, with the usual parties honoring his visit as those that honored his departure. Curious diplomats, particularly those hoping to increase the number of women ambassadors of the UN were told that the delay was a matter of courtesy. Having served over two decades in New York, Mr. Abulhassan had laid several eggs in the neighborhood. There were pending issues, including family arrangements, which had to be handled. Briefly, he and his family kept the residence. Also, Mr. Abulhassan reportedly claims a special personal relationship with current Sec. General Kofi Annan through years of investments; he would like to maintain that supposedly delicate connection. Anyway, Ms. El-Mullah has already arrived in New York. As the official residence on Beekman Place seems otherwise occupied, she will stay in a hotel.


As the holiday season approached, Gutsy (Carol) McAusckie, who is practically in charge of humanitarian relief assistance, took off again to the field so that she will be closer to the people she cared for. By contrast, some dealing with field issues found appropriate meetings closer to where they would enjoy a relaxed holiday. The Special Representative of the Secretary General for Displaced Persons Francis Deng, (whose main recent activity was reiterating a statement by the Secretary General) apparently spent some time in Washington and New York stressing his importance to the world community, but staying far away from the real problems he is officially expected to handle.


There are signals that the situation between Ethiopia and Eritrea may be erupting into a renewed conflict. Maneuvers about the disputed areas are leading to rhetorical exchanges, which in turn could escalate. UN officials on the ground must have noted what was going on but it is not clear whether anyone higher up at headquarters has the time or the interest to seriously intervene. With so many Special Envoys for Africa (18 at last count), at least one person should be able to make a Special Effort.


The mission of Chile seemed to be caught in a slight embarrassment when its chief Military attache Pedro Bustos Velderrama was revealed to have belonged to the secret service of former General Pinochet dictatorship. Consultations between Santiago and New York are expected to find a face-saving way out. As a Security Council member, the Chilean delegation passing judgements on a new Iraq free from dictatorship of Saddam Hussein would wish to avert any dig at its credibility.


As UN Middle East Envoy Larsen will relinquish his post next March to take over David Malone's job as head of International Peace Academy, questions are floating about a possible UN assignment for Professor Malone. Some are even speculating about a direct switch of posts. Malone, a former Canadian diplomat is familiar with the Middle East where his parents worked. It was noted that he had repeated that connection in many recent interventions. A further point in his favor is that he has a good working relationship with the Secretary General and with Under Secretary General Kieran Prendersgast, who had often invited him to participate in internal debates.


Following a complaint by the staff of London UN office about the mishandling of their termination allowance, the U.K. mission sent an official note to the UN Legal Counsel. Someone who read the d document said that it was drafted in a way that reflected doubt about the legality of the action or inaction of the Secretariat. As DPI current leadership had two years to prepare for the closing of the European office, it could have at least taken care to follow appropriate steps and pay attention to other people's livelihood.


Those professionals in the spokesman's office have their witty light moments. Despite their dutiful reproduction of what they receive from various departments or their patient response to queries from persistent reporters, their sense of humor sometimes breaks through. One such example appeared mid-December in feedback of an item on Rolling Stone Mick: (I can get no satisfaction) Jagger, who made a lifetime career of rebelling against the establishment. When the aging rocker finally knelt before Crown Prince Charles to be anointed as Sir Mick, the item was reported under the title: Satisfaction. A welcome light touch, Stephane.


Documents found in the files of the former Iraqi regime raised questions about some internationally known individuals who were dealing with the Iraq situation. Preliminary reports indicated some names, which will not be mentioned until evidence is confirmed.


Passengers from New York on Jordan airway flight 2262 to Amman were overwhelmed when they noticed that King Abdullah was seated amongst them in economy class. He was accompanied by the minister of the Royal Palace and Planning and escorted by his security details. After they triple-checked and confirmed that it was actually the King himself, they burst into applause. The king is an experienced pilot, like his late father, and usually flies his own plane, "Hawk of Qureish". Apparently he decided to give a Jordanian airline a boost on its 40th anniversary.


The Washington Post in December confirmed an item reported three months earlier about the future prospects of Secretary of State Colin Powell as Executive Director of the World Bank. It reported that soundings are being made within the power structure of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) in Washington D.C to prepare the ground to replace James Wolfensohn in 2005. Habitually, a U.S nominee gets that post while a European heads the International Monetary Fund.


While the leaderless UN team to the "Summit of Information Society" was pointificating generalities, media groups advocating freedom of expression were being given a hard time. One prominent group -- a partner in several previous U.N free and varied press gatherings when DPI was active in that field -- was forcefully thrown out of the conference. "Reporters Sons Frontiers" then resorted to broadcasting from a "pirate" radio from nearby French territory, highlighting repressive violations taken by countries whose leaders were in the forefront of the participants. Incidentally, problems awaiting the "Summit" had been anticipated a year earlier; but frequent travelers of New York had other priorities on their agenda.


Names being reviewed for a High Commissioner for Human Rights include French activist Bernard Kushner and former Croatia Ambassador Danelo Turk who is currently Assistant Secretary General in the Department of Special Political Affairs. A third name floating around is that of Razali Ismael, former General Assembly President and Special Representative to Myanmar. However, Razali may be too outspoken for the current crowd and possibly too much of a potential candidate for the Secretary General post. Also running is the forever running Shashi Tharoor.


A diplomat returning from home to work one December afternoon spotted former British Prime Minister John Major strolling down on 72nd Street. He tried to catch up and say hello, but the former Fordham soccer team fan was sprinting eastward accompanied by a cheerful lady and a younger man shadowed discreetly by a bodyguard. The diplomat who lost track on Third Avenue prodded his weary way towards his mission, not realizing that Mr. Major had slipped into a theater to see "Love Actually". The movie is about a British Prime Minister who fell in love, while in office. Incidentally, the main actor Hugh Grant indicated while preparing for the movie that he spent a day in 10 Downing Street to observe none other than then Prime Minister John Major.


A year has passed without having any indication on the fruits of labor by Italian fashion designer Georgio Armani of the world's destitute refugees. Senior Armani was appointed "Goodwill Ambassador" for the UN High Commission for Refugees "to raise public awareness and funds" to help 20 million refugees. Ruud Lubbers, the High Commissioner for refugees, explained at the time senior that Armani was chosen "because of his contribution and efforts to ease the refugee crisis in Afghanistan". That should be news to the Afghan people, very few of whom can afford to buy even his t-shirts.


Those who regularly entered the U.N through the 46 Street gates had to pass by a security officer who normally stood by the door where the guided tours started. A polite, pleasant and efficient young man from Long Island, New York, Michael Patrick Halton handled his work with confident professionalism. He recognized regular staff who passed by his door while going to work, and called most of them by name -- always preceded respectfully by "Mr." Or "Mrs.". On Monday, December 1, Officer Halton was found dead. A colleague discovered his body around 11:00a.m on the third floor. Half an hour earlier his wife had phoned to pass a message to him that all was fine at home. Mike Halton was a fine officer and a decent gentleman. He will be missed. May his soul rest in peace.


UN old timers in particular were saddened by the death of Oscar Schachter, one of the first officials to join the United Nations and a pioneer in the development of international law. Professor Schachter joined the United Nations in 1946 and held a succession of key legal posts for two decades, before serving as Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research from 1966 until 1975. Professor Schachter did more than any other official in the United Nations to help shape the rule of law, and was the architect of the legal framework, which has guided United Nations peacekeeping for more than 50 years. A statement issued by the Secretary General gave thanks for the life of this eminent jurist, scholar and international civil servant, whose contributions will continue to benefit the Organization for many years to come.


One of the longest serving ambassadors, Spain's Jaime de Pinies has died this month. The elegant and gracious diplomat had an impressive presence at the UN during 28 General Assembly sessions. He presided over the 40th anniversary celebrations and played an effective role as a Security Council member (1981) in electing Javier Perez de Cuellar, the first Latin speaker to become Secretary General. After his retirement he continued his contributions to international diplomacy through seminars and personal contacts. The Secretary General on behalf of the whole international community issued a fitting statement of condolences.