5/1/2003

MOST EXPENSIVE RESIDENCE:

Ambassador Haraguchi of Japan will soon leave his Park Avenue residence to a new mansion closer to Fifth Avenue on 62nd Street. It took about three years to prepare the new residence for which his government reportedly paid $21.5 million, the highest price ever paid for a Manhattan townhouse. That, in addition to renovation costs, will make it the most expensive residence for any U.N. permanent representative in U.N. history.

NO MORE CONCORD:

With increasing costs and decreasing passengers, the Concord will stop flying across the Atlantic as of next October. Despite obvious financial reasons, some saw in that interruption a symbolic sign of the times. The supersonic plane was named as a symbolic reference to closer ties between England and France. It served as the swiftest possible connection between London and Paris with Washington and New York. The only consolation to senior traveling officials is that it will still be available to accommodate them when they come to New York for the General Assembly sessions next September.

WHAT DEMONSTRATION?

New York policemen were puzzled when they found a group of individuals assemble quietly and peacefully on 67th Street carrying placards written in a foreign language. They had no permission to assemble, nor did they seem interested in making any specific demand nor protest against anything in particular. There was no specific occasion. March 25 did not ring any bell to anyone in the neighbourhood, including the missions of Russia and Belarus to the U.N. After shuffling around for about half an hour, the three gentlemen in the forward line consulted in hushed, somewhat puzzled tone after which the group of demonstrators quietly left without uttering a word.

WHOM TO BLAME:

A self-absorbed official who managed to get an invitation as a speaker at a very prestigious American institution apparently prolonged his presentation to the point of boring most of his audience. He must have felt that his goal was not fully achieved. So he approached one of the distinguished members of the audience during the usual cocktails afterwards and said, somewhat testing the waters: "I am actually concerned that I may have wasted your time." The man responded politely: "Don't worry young man. Nobody will blame you. They will blame those that invited you."

A REPRINTED CARTOON:

In an indicative yet silent commentary, pan-Arab "Asharq Al-Awsat" reproduced the same cartoon by its departing lead cartoonist Kahil twice in one month. As illustrated, it depicted the Secretary-General in the current crisis over Iraq.

WOULD THE ARAB LEAGUE SECRETARY-GENERAL BE NEXT?

Two Gulf countries initiated a campaign against Arab League Secretary-General Amre Moussa. Kuwait Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad who met with Egyptian President Muberak on the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh publicly ridiculed Moussa as a pompous clerk who was offended for being called an employee while the fact was he was one; "he gets paid for his work and all of us, regardless of rank, are employees when we get paid by others." Members of Kuwait parliament had accused Moussa of siding with Saddam Hussein. Kuwaiti's contribution to the League's budget is not expected in the near future. Another influential and rich country, United Arab Emirates, announced that it is withholding its payment to the League's budget as a sign of its pique at the Secretary-General's attitude during the crisis over Iraq. Gulf countries accused Moussa of siding with Baghdad during a crucial meeting of Arab Foreign Ministers just before the war. The Emirates in particular accused him of railroading a proposal by its ruler Sheik Zayed that an Arab delegation should visit Baghdad to propose to Saddam Hussein to save the region from war and "show the spirit of sacrifice he was demanding of others" by stepping down. When Moussa tried to visit Abu Dhabi mid-April for an economic conference, he was discouraged to do so by its authorities. A third country, Libya, had already announced it was withdrawing from the League. The new government in Iraq is not likely to side with Mr. Moussa, former Foreign Minister of Egypt who fleetingly threatened to resign, then laid low.

STAFF INCREASINGLY FRUSTRATED:

An extraordinary meeting called by the U.N. Staff Union reflected increasing frustrated with their status. A paper circulated before gathering in Conference Room 1 asked questions like:

  • Are you tired of hearing promises...that are never honoured?

  • Are you tired of working hard only to get a low rating on your personal evaluation?

  • Do you feel betrayed by an organization to which you dedicated yourself all these years?

  • Are you not being given the respect due you because of your category, grade, nationality, gender?
These unprecedented sharp questions seemed to be aimed at mobilizing the staff to try and "turn the work conditions of staff around before it is too late for all of us." This is serious stuff. It raises serious concern about the morale of those expected to carry on crucial tasks at a crucial time. Let's hope that someone is paying attention.

UNITING AGAINST INTERNET NEWS RESTRICTIONS:

Concerned at proposals surfacing in "preparatory" meetings leading up to the U.N.'s planned World Summit on the Information Society, groups comprising the Coordinating Committee of Press Freedom Organizations meeting recently in Vienna adopted a statement of fundamental principles essential to incorporate and uphold throughout Summit process.

Press freedom advocates monitoring preparatory meetings have been disappointed at the almost total absence, in discussions and proposed resolutions, of reference to freedom of the press as an essential element of any "information society."

They see the need for NGOs and governmental representatives from free-press countries to be assertive in reminding delegates, journalists, observers and the public that unless press freedom on the Internet is specifically protected, it is likely to be subject to restrictions along with the wide range of other non-news content on the Internet.

MESSAGE TO KOFI:

Saudi Arabian daily "Okaq," not usually known for its international scoops, reported that former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel is a "strong candidate" to succeed Kofi Annan as Secretary-General, adding that he is backed by a "big part" of the Bush Administration, particularly Defense Secretary Rumsfield who is a close friend. Incidentally, Gemayel had worked closely with the Reagan Administration while president in the eighties, around the same time as Saddam Hussein's U.S. honeymoon, particularly during the war with Iran. Current Defense Secretary Rumsfield was at the time President Reagan's envoy to the then upcoming, now deposed Iraqi President. Very few media noted that in the weeks preceding the war in Iraq, the former Lebanese president made two visits to Baghdad to see Mr. Hussein, one to Washington (to see Mr. Rumsfield), and another to Paris. One story goes that during his final visit, days before the war, he crossed from Kuwait with an American officer who knew the Iraqi dictator well from days of joint collaboration. Details of the ensuing encounter in Baghdad would make an interesting fiction novel and fuel one more conspiracy theory.

FROM PARODY TO JOKE:

According to "Le Monde," the Human Rights Commission's drift away from its founding principles has become more and more noticeable to the point that the Commission has become "a parody of itself," giving ammunition to those who want to discredit the whole U.N. system. That is why Kofi Annan is concerned that the voice of human rights was not being adequately heard. The remedy? He asked none other than High Commissioner Sergio Vieira de Mello to look into this matter and put forward "reform proposals."

UNPREPARED INTERVIEW:

In a possible attempt to respond to criticism in the Arab media, Secretary-General Kofi Annan offered an interview to Al Jezeera TV. Good move. However, perhaps it was the wrong time of the day or lack of adequate preparation. Media savvy Annan at times appeared atypically perplexed and hesitant. "Le Monde" thought the Secretary-General appeared a "tired man," a polite reference to an unimpressive performance by the usually complimentary Parisian main daily.

EXHIBITS LOSE A PILLAR:

Valerie Hampton-Mason is fed up and she will not take it any more. The articulate and elegant British lady who -- despite her officially modest rank -- ran the exhibits shown at the U.N. over the last ten years has taken an agreed termination. Successive heads of the Department of Public Information recognized her talent and although they could not do much to help her, gave her almost a free hand to do what she does best: draft invitations, arrange for logistics, receive guests, contact missions and generally do whatever it takes to turn any event under her care into a success. Now that she is leaving, immediately following another capable colleague, Graciela Hall who ran the special events, substantive pillars used to dealing with public events by cutting through red tape will be sorely missed. Let's hope they are replaced by equally competent staff.

DIANE SAWYER OR BUST:

The media grapevine has it that former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz attempted from his hideaway to have an exclusive interview with ABC diva Diane Sawyer during which he would give himself up. With time -- and cigars -- running out, and his home ransacked by looters, the media savvy Iraqi must have decided to forgo the limelight and approached the forces of General Tommy Franks who found his new friend "cooperative and talkative." Aziz, who for decades was Saddam Hussein's image-builder in the West, sounded more important to outsiders than he really was within the inner circle of power. He was more an advocate than a policy maker, entrusted with special tasks due to his limited prospects -- he was born under the name of Tobias Yuhanna Michael.