15 November 2009


"Never bring a knife to a gunfight."
-- Andre Agassi to Vanity Fair


Politically appointed UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman continues unabashed links with commercial enterprises in the fashion industry. Using U.N. premises to announce Gucci's 5th Avenue store was followed by other similar ventures where the international community's most highly regarded operation was turned into a publicity stunt for specific commercial ventures. The latest was an announcement by Gucci that items sold in its stores worldwide or online for a month and a half between November and December will partially help support UNICEF programs that benefit orphans and vulnerable children in sub-Sahara Africa. How much will UNICEF actually get? Only 25% of the retail price! How much does Gucci make? In addition to 75% plus advertisement? What about taxes?


  • Which would you prefer in your backyard: an olive tree or an oil well?
  • What would you prefer your life partner to do: speak Latin or cook a delicious meal?
  • Would you rather be a hammer or a nail?!


Two Permanent members of the Security Council have just changed their ambassadors in New York. France's ambassador Rupert, a Quai d'Orsay pillar who had his problems with the new team of President Sarkozy, has found a spot at the U.N. Secretariat, advising (we hope) on questions relating to Pakistan. He is replaced by Ambassador Gerard Araud. Across the Channel, Ambassador Sawers, who shall be mysteriously known henceforth as "C" is replaced by Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant.


Former U.N. Press Officer in Sudan, Lubna Hussein, who was arrested and taken to court last September for wearing jeans -- "a shameful outfit" according to the police -- managed to get out wearing a robe usually used by women in Afghanistan, known as Niqab. Sudanese authorities have prevented her from travel. She arrived in Sanaa, Yemen, to participate in a media conference, saying she had not violated any established law and exercised her constitutional right. She requested the Government in Khautoum to abide by the Constitution and stop blocking its citizens' freedom of movement.

Labna denied that she will seek political asylum, stressing that she intended to go back after a visit to a number of Arab countries to which she had been invited. She is loyal to her country, she announced and the "public police" are accountable to protect its citizens, not harass them. She will announce a date of her return well in advance so there will be no room for claimed confusion and a clear case of accountability if anything goes wrong.


Fire trucks encircled Second Avenue for two consecutive days between 47th and 48th streets. Three diplomatic missions had received each day envelopes of white powder suspected to contain poisonous stuff. While it turned out to be a hoax, missions -- and the police, took it seriously -- as they should. The sight of delegates, senior and junior, standing on the pavement anxiously waiting to return to work or go home was a novelty for neighbourhood residents. There was no specific indication of why the missions had been selected. Most, if not all of them, have no adversarial political positions. It may have been just a foolish -- and criminal -- ploy to disrupt work and scare innocent people.


Bhaichand Patel, who retired a decade ago as Director, UNIC, New Delhi, has published a book entitled "Happy Hours and the Penguin Book of Cocktails." A review in India's Tribune described it as "a man or woman's drinking dictionary." Patel, a Fijian national of Indian ancestry, stayed in Delhi where he seems to enjoy an active social life. It is not clear whether he personally explored or invented the varied cocktails, but he lists a number with names like Kiss in the Dark, Kiss & Tell, Seventh Heaven, and Sex on the Beach. Cheers!


An international conference on Climate Change to be held in Copenhagen will be having its opening ceremony on 7 December at Bella Centre. It just happens that 7 December is the eve of the 4th anniversary birthday of a beautiful young girl named Belle. A good omen of future international service -- on the footsteps of her proud father Ahmad Fawzi!


We received several messages applauding the statement made by Ambassador Feodor Starcivic on the crippling closure of key U.N. offices in Europe. Those who know him from his Secretariat service days approached him during the meeting of the Special Political Committee to cheer him on. Others called us to ask whether other former colleagues had taken similar bold positions when they occupied positions of influence.


We had thought that experience is an enlightening molder of character. But then we could be wrong. We also believed that anyone with U.N. background would be helpful if appointed in a national capacity to handle international issues. But then again, we could be wrong. We were told that a former U.N. staffer, who was once described as "Ruder than Finn," took a minor, yet prestigious job as Minister of State in India. When told about a government decision that all officials should fly coach instead of first class, he reportedly huffed that he wouldn't fly "cow class." Now, even non-Indians know that cows are sacred to a wide number of compatriots. A public apology was swiftly made.


"24 December 2009 will be the last day of service as we know it at the Main Cafeteria, the Delegates Dining Room, the Staff Cafe and the Delegates Lounge, though it is currently under consideration to keep the Delegates Dining Room open for special events until the end of February 2010. While the Main Cafeteria will undergo remodeling in order to function as a scaled down cafeteria as well as the temporary Delegates Dining Room, the Staff Cafe and the Delegates Lounge will remain closed until the completion of the renovation of the Conference Building, which is projected for early 2012. Information on food service options during the remodeling of the main cafeteria and the date of opening will follow."


They are not just neighbours, they are cousins, relatives and close friends. Whatever politics separates, blood links and human bonds join together. Those watching the New York marathon were thrilled to see an Ethiopian woman, Derector Tulu make her way to the forefront after trying to encourage another female runner, a competitor, to keep trying. The U.S. champion of the men's race, Meb Keglizighi, was proud of having U.S.A. printed on his chest. And rightly so. He was pointing to it as he drew closer to the finish line. Those familiar with his background and his name recognized an Eritrean. Both Eritrea and Ethiopia are winners when they run together along the same path.


Over the weekend beginning November, New York witnessed a unique Halloween rally and 42,000 participants in its internationally acclaimed marathon. Some U.N. staffers participated in the run and others helped on the sidelines. The highest percentage of the participants were Italians, French, British and Dutch -- in that order. The only Africans present were those up front. New Yorkers embraced their visitors, cheering anyone wearing a silver coating; even after the real race was long completed, there were still some who continued soldiering through the streets of New York. They knew that if they can make it there, they'll make it anywhere.


"Red wine with fish! That should have told me something."
-- Sean Connery as James Bond in "From Russia with Love"


Slippery eel can sink ship.


First, some Greek chefs claimed the Parmigiano. Then some Albanians claimed the Feta cheese. An Indian chef in London threatened to go on hunger strike because some Europeans were faking the Biryani. Israeli chefs takeover of the Hummus led the Lebanese to produce the biggest dish in the world, plus some Kibbeh and Tabbouleh to go around. Now a French chef is trying to enter a Guinness Book of World Records by showing off the world's largest Tiramisu dish. What's going on? Can't we have our dessert in peace?!


Even when you visibly hang your pass around your neck for all to see at any of the three main entrances to the U.N. Headquarters in New York, some security officers often make a point of stopping you to double check the photo or date of expiry. Yet a man impersonating Colonel Saunders of Kentucky Fried Chicken was recently allowed inside U.N. premises -- after at least three checkpoints. After an outcry, two officers were suspended. Question: As it is very unlikely for these two officers to have allowed the impersonator through without a plausible reason, did they receive (verbal) instructions from someone above? If so, who was it? Would they fall on their swords, grin and bear the suspension or spill the beans? We hear they are discussing their next step with their colleagues.


The new Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the U.N. is an old timer at the U.N. Secretariat. Ambassador Palitha Kohona was for a decade the head of Treaty Section at the Office of Legal Affairs. He was a visible figure during the opening debates of the General Assembly as he set up a corner inside the Delegates -- just before the escalators -- for senior visiting officials to sign pending treaties. With a courteous smile and admirable determination, he managed to persuade member states to do what's right. Now he represents the government of Sri Lanka after a prolonged violent conflict, and following an internationally visible humanitarian problem. Judging from his past experience, and intelligent approach, many of his former colleagues hope that, as he had made special efforts to persuade others he now in turn will try to do what's right, not only for the government of Sri Lanka, but for its human cultural standing at the U.N.


Helene-Marie Gosselin, Director of UNESCO office in New York, has just retired. Beginning November, she'll be spreading her wings into sunnier climates before returning to her Canadian home next spring. An efficient internationalist with an instinctive communication talent; Helene had served the U.N. community, not just UNESCO, wherever she operated. One of her starring roles was as Commission-General for the Lisbon International Expo, which substantively improved on the harbour area of the Portuguese capital. The site was now transformed into a jovial breathing space of Cafes, restaurants, and artistic exhibits only minutes away from the town center. It will be up to the new Director General of UNESCO to appoint a replacement for her at U.N. Headquarters. But whomever it may be, the formidable Helene Gosselin is a very sophisticated act to follow!


The post to be vacated by the outstanding Michelle Montros is about to be filled by the time she is expected to leave end November. Interviews for short-listed candidates have been conducted. Among the most impressive candidates is a prominent TV reporter from the Third World with first class credentials. Another frontrunner is an experienced insider. As to the number two post occupied by Marie Okabe, it seems the tendency is to replace her with a woman from within who knows the U.N. machinery well enough to effectively support the selected Spokesman.


It started with a double C: Climate Change. Then our Dutch environmentalist leading negotiations in Kyoto threatened to close the exit door in Kyoto unless an F was added: Framework. Then we had FCC, to which one of our agitated colleagues insisted on putting our Organization's name before it. So it became U.N./F.C.C. As the U.N. was going downhill in other areas like Food for Oil, some thought that showing some advance somewhere may hold. Hence, a third C, for Convention. Now with a major December Conference in Copenhagen, there are those yearning for a more elaborate U.N./F.C.C.C.C., a Copenhagen declaration added, which would be the pride and joy for our Danish friends, particularly as they welcome the initiative by outgoing Prime Minister, current NATO Chief -- Anders "Fogh" Rasmussen. We're assured it'll be O.K. -- as long as it remains within the U.N. family.


Lynn Pescoe, Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, generally sounds like a reasonable cautious man, as well he should. Among those around the Secretary General, he mainly kept to the reasonable logical side. We are puzzled, therefore, by a recent statement he made upon return from a trip to Africa. He had been unable to visit Somalia because of a gun battle as he was approaching its airspace. When asked about Africa Union troops firing into a Mogadishu marketplace killing mostly civilians, he said that armed opposition forces known as Al Shebab (the Youth) were actually the culprits. They hit the area they controlled, he thought, in order to blame the African Union troops and agitate the locals against them. How clever.


Our distinguished Secretary General seems to have been unwisely drawn to a discussion about his own view of his own charisma. People look at it from a cultural perspective, he thoughtfully explained to an amused group of reporters. "We all have different leadership styles," Ban Ki-moon informed before going on: "I have my own leadership style, my own charisma." Once you see it; once you don't.


Lebanese politicians may not be able to form a government during five months, but Lebanese chefs have recently accomplished three records in the Guinness book. First they displayed in early October the largest dish of hummus in the world. One enthusiast in central Beirut exclaimed that such a feat should teach Israel a lesson -- that is, hummus above all is a Lebanese invention. Then, days later came the Kibbeh, which -- to the uninitiated -- is a beaten blend of cracked wheat and meat, with pine nuts in between. A group of proud young cooks again sought to demonstrate that when you mentioned Kibbeh you immediately thought of Cederland. Then on Sunday, 25 October, came the "piece de resistance." Tabbouleh is ours, pronounced Chef Ramzy, a TV star cook as he led his colleagues in presenting the largest salad presentation in the world. Bon appetit.


A new UNDP/Lebanon project was brought to the attention of all Lebanon's missions abroad. "Lebanon Live," reportedly a dynamic web site that is supposed to reflect and highlight the lively action by civic society groups, collaboration between the Lebanese government and U.N. offices, particularly that of UNDP. The office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs urged all his staff abroad to utilize, highlight and promote that project. However, dutiful expatriates found out when turning to that site that it is still under construction. Don't hold your breath.


Those who remember Danelo Turk from his days as Slovenia's U.N. ambassador and Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs were glad to see him back in New York during the General Assembly debate. Turk was very unhappy about being passed over for the post of Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, which apparently he had been "promised" by someone other than the Secretary General. At the time, the post went to Nigerian diplomat Ibrahim Gambari who ably ran the Department. Mr. Turk left the U.N. in a huff indicating he will return to a University professorship. However he ran for President instead and won. Pity he was not duly noticed as he strolled around the (well-guarded) Delegates Lounge. Nor did he seem joyful at being back. Perhaps it is the pressure of the job or lingering memories of an unaccomplished ambition.


An ant and an elephant stood in line waiting for a bus. When the vehicle arrived, the Elephant remembered that he had no ticket. The ant suggested not to worry; just hide behind me.


When do you feel most free?
-- Laughing


Lou Albano, a professional wrestler who became a U.N. landlord, passed away in October. He played the role of the father in a video of a song "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" by Cindy Lauper. In return, she showed up in some of his wrestling theatrics at Madison Square Garden matches where Lou would push his way with a rubberband around his beard, to show who's in charge. He didn't actually wrestle. By then, Lou could merely act -- very well. He had a number of admirers. Also, he must have had some good business associates who got his building on 46th Street a great deal as a "temporary" staff space. Though most U.N. staff would not recognize him, he was a joyous and fun figure in the neighbourhood. Bye Lou.


Which Strauss and what field? The great philosopher of anthropology in the twentieth century, Claude Levi-Strauss, died early November after reaching 100 years of age. He had visited a restaurant shop with his wife in Berkeley, California, while we was a visiting professor at its university. When he mentioned his name in response to the receptionist's query for a reservation, a waiter explained: "Strauss -- the Jeans or the Philosopher?" That reflected not only the reputation of the French writer but the education of the waiter. A diplomat who heard that anecdote remarked that when he served in "West" Germany, at the Defense Ministry was a Strauss; so was the man whose name was often associated with waltz music. At the time, an editorial criticized the minister by saying that at a certain time when a Strauss was making music the army was in full battle readiness but when a Strauss is Defense Minister, the army is merely capable of dancing the waltz.