15 September 2009


An official note suggesting the splitting of Switzerland and giving its three main linguistic regions to Germany, France and Italy had been printed and translated for immediate distribution to U.N. General Assembly members on Friday 11 September. A last minute alert managed to stop it. As reported by the media earlier this year, relations between Lybia and Switzerland had deteriorated following a fight in a Geneva hotel between Hannibal Qaddafi and some workers he accused of cheating him. The son of the Lybian leader was arrested and investigated by Swiss persecutors; he was released only after strong political pressure. There were recent indications that the crisis was being sorted out, as the rotating Swiss President apologized for the incident despite internal political objections. The recently drafted note claimed that Switzerland was involved in money laundering and abetting terrorism. Lybia itself was until recently accused of the same charges before being rehabilitated and keenly courted for big business. Some who read the note perceived it as an entertaining P.R. gimmick. But its serious implication is that it raised a historic precedent of suggesting the dismemberment of a member state. Switzerland joined on 10 September 2002, having maintained for years that its neutral status may be eroded through active membership. However, it had always hosted a number of substantive U.N. activities like the offices of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, the High Commission for Refugees, the International Labour Office, the World Health Organization, International Telecommunications Union, International Postal Union, World Intellectual Property Organization, the U.N.European Headquarters among several others including a string of international meetings. The number of international visitors to, say, Geneva may be much more than its Swiss residents.


U.S. President Barack Obama will be spending three days at U.N. Headquarters when he visits for the opening of the General Assembly. As officially notified, the Secretariat has him listed on 22 September for the Climate Summit including a working dinner, 23 September when he makes his General Debate statement on behalf of the host country, and 24 September when as Security Council President he would call for a summit meeting on international peace and security. While he will have to join several world leaders who will be going to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for a special gathering on the financial crisis, President Obama's three day stay is an unprecedented record for a U.S. President. Except, perhaps, for former President George Herbert Bush who had served as U.S. Permanent Representative in New York, more recent Presidents like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush left the building immediately after their speech on the first day, came back for a collective official lunch, and gave a reception somewhere between the Metropolitan Museum and the Public Library. By devoting three full days to the U.N., President Obama displays a genuine understanding of the U.N.'s potential in advancing U.S. interest through realistic, patient and effective dialogue with other key member states. It is also a reflection of the positive role by U.S. Permanent Representative, Ambassador Susan Rice.


Opium smugglers rejoice! You have U.N. Speedie Eide to assure you press cover. The same day of elections in Afghanistan, U.N. envoy there Kai Eide was quick to issue a statement rubber-stamping it, and congratulating the "Afghan people" on displaying admirable adherence to the democratic process. In the following days, media reports were full of proven fraud, stories that ballot boxes in several areas were already stuffed before the election process and claims by at least two candidates, current President Hamid Karzai and former Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullah Abdullah that each was the winner. Unable to keep his mouth closed when he spotted a reporter, Eide again mispronounced an overall verdict during a meeting -- in Paris early September of Western envoys to Afghanistan. (He's now a Western envoy, although the U.N. is a universal organization -- but let's move on.) Even the U.N.-designated Election Commission has announced widespread fraud. Eide, speaking (unfortunately) on behalf of the U.N., said: "Our message to Karzai and other candidates is that we've seen over the last 8 to 10 months an improvement in the government with less corruption, especially in the Interior Ministry"! Even the most pro-Karzai Western press has devoted pages to report corruption and drug trafficking, especially by Karzai's own brother and his vice presidential candidate. Eide is either clueless on what's happening around him, or he has a personal interest in playing the local game. What a pity.


Javier Solana leaves Brussels in November; will Phillipe Gonzales arrive in January? Solana, for years the European Union High Representative for International Affairs, was also Minister of Foreign Affairs in the cabinet of Prime Minister Gonzales, whose name has been floated as a candidate for the newly created post of President for Europe. Tony Blair had wanted that job, supported by French President Sarkozy, who reportedly now supports the Spanish ex-Premier. (In fact, any "ex" except former French ex-President Valerie Giscard d'Estaing, who helped draft the new Constitution.) Anyway, Senor Gonzales is not sure he will get the job, hence his reluctance to declare his availability. It may have to do with internal Spanish politics. You see, in January 2010, when a new President takes over with ceremonial pomp, the rotating Presidency of the Union will be taken over by none other than Spain. That is, former colleagues and Socialist Party comrades Zapatero and Moritanus. Having bade farewell years ago, they may not look forward to anointing him back; and having seen Solana disappear, other Europeans would hardly welcome his former boss. Even if old party rivalries were worked out, other countries would not consent to granting Spain so much visibility, even for six months.


It was normal for the Secretary General's visit to Norway to inspire several quips after a leaked note by a Norwegian diplomat about his poor standing. One of the quips had to do with the visit to the Arctic area, aimed to draw attention to the adverse impact of climate change. As a Secretariat communique, obviously dictated by someone unaware of Anglo-American expressions, described at length how the fearless leader "stood on the ice," a weary diplomat quipped that he sincerely hoped Mr. Ban was not in fact "skating on thin ice."


Libyan leader Qaddafi's visit to New York continued to extract internal speculation amongst curious staff, particularly questions about the proposed tent. Some actually surveyed the garden overlooking the East River to find out that ongoing construction will make it a very difficult venue. New Jersey is out due to neighborhood difficulties. The Libyan Mission on 48th Street has no front space. If there was no tent space, how about a helipad? Doubtful that Brother Muammar would risk a boring drive from JFK to First Avenue, some speculated that he may use his transient authority through the General Assembly to land somewhere within the U.N. compound, which is legally internationally territory. But where? The space in front of the Secretariat building is a sniper's paradise, open to anyone from Tudor City on 42nd Street to 866 U.N. Plaza on 49th Street. The only potential pad would be the terrace of the Delegates Lounge, a few feet away from the G.A. President's office on the second floor. But then a helicopter -- even for eight minutes -- is a slowly moving target. Some other P.R. gimmick has to be found. Having a female team of security guards would not be enough.


Forget about BongBong. Despite prodding by his still ambitious mother Emilda Marcos, Ferdinand junior does not seem to have it in him to snatch the Presidency of the Philippines. He would rather be an actor, a model, or best option -- a singer. But then, every Filipino or Filipina is a potential singer. During her exile days in New York immediately following the fall of her husband, Ferdinand senior, she would give gracious dinners to her neighbours, which would always conclude with her tearful rendering of "Because of You." She would still want BongBong to run for President next May. Yet the one more likely to succeed is the son of the first female President, housewife turned politician, Corazon Aquino. Her passing away in August inspired nostalgic memories among a very patient people yearning for change. From now on, expect more in the media about her eldest son, NoyNoy.


Rumours go in one ear and out many mouths.


The Executive Secretary of UN/ESCWA (Economic & Social Commission for Western Asia), Badr El-Daffa, is not likely to stay in Beirut beyond the end of the year. The former Qatari ambassador to Washington was offered only a one year extension which he turned down. Now the Secretary General's office has asked him to stay until a replacement is identified. Ambassador El-Daffa has performed his tasks impressively and was supported strongly by the host country, in addition to all member states. As the most senior Arab in the region, he tried to offer honest, informed, and experienced advice to the Secretary General, who apparently had his ears elsewhere. Corridor talk indicates that Saudi Arabia may offer a candidate. Perhaps there is no need to search for too long. UNFPA head Thoraya Obeid is a Saudi citizen and a former Deputy Executive Secretary of ESCWA. She had her own tense moments earlier this year when her own contract in the Population Fund was in doubt, particularly that some American civic groups were angling for another candidate. Placing Ms. Obeid in Beirut may solve everyone's problem and give ESCWA a new boost by someone who knows it very well.


To charge batteries before coming to the U.N. General debate, Jordan's King Abdullah II made a discreet visit to the French Cote d'Azure with his wife Queen Rana. They made a point of visiting the "African Queen" restaurant in Beaulieu, where the late King Hussein was a regular, yet equally discreet customer. The owner, Armenian French couple Gilbert and Annie Vissian, have known the current King since his much younger days. The King's sister, Princess Haya, who is married to Dubai's Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashed Maktoum, also visited this summer. While other royals and heads of state prefer Monte Carlo, Saint-Tropez or Cannes, the Jordanian Royals seem to maintain their royalty in a discreet quiet town away from the paparazzi.


Key members of the Arab group asked for a meeting with new General Assembly designated President Ali Triki before everyone left on holiday early August. They wanted to stress the fact that he was representing all Arab countries, not just Libya. Triki is one of the most well-known Libyans outside his country, having served as Foreign Minister, Special Envoy, Ambassador to the U.N., Special Representative to the African Unity, and generally performed several delicate tasks for his country's leadership. He has formidable experience to know what goes and what doesn't. He is one of the very few who would tell the facts to his leadership, sometimes at his own risk. While he assured Arab delegates that he fully understood their concerns, especially in light of the free-wheeling attitude of the current President from Nicaragua, it is obvious that the problem is not with Triki. They might as well wait, watch and enjoy the show.


When you start to die -- don't.
-- Frank Buckles, the 108 year old only remaining survivor of World War One


Several French weeklies devoted some time this summer to analyzing the reasons behind the re-emerging popularity of outgoing President Jacques Chirac. Some attributed it to what they concluded was a disappointing performance by his successor, Nicholas Sarkozy, who as reported by France-Dimanche is 42nd in popularity after soccer player Zidane, tennis player Yanique Noah, and singer Charles Aznavour. Some thought that he now had enough free time to go around making friends and meeting people. Others indicated that his attention to women helped. Incidentally, a most amusing video circulating among young French showed Mr. Chirac chatting up a beautiful blonde at a civic meeting while his wife Bernadette was giving a speech on the social condition. Mrs. Chirac stops her "discour" and stared at her husband, who immediately devotes his full attention to her, only briefly; for as soon as she resumed her speech, he resumed his chat. Anyway, the clearest explanation about his popularity was disarmingly given by the man himself. When you do nothing, Frere Jacques advised, you become very popular.


An impressive gathering of all the ambassadors of France, former and current, was held in Paris on Wednesday 26 August with the President giving an opening address while Foreign Minister Kouchner nodded in full agreement. Lots of small talk; lots of gossip. One whisper was that former French Ambassador to the U.N. Jean-David Levitte who is currently advising President Sarkozy on international issues may have another assignment by the end of the year. It has nothing to do with any shortcomings by the outstanding diplomat who has received high marks performing every difficult delicate assignment. The problem reportedly is that First Lady Carla is not very happy because the workaholic diplomat keeps arranging too many trips abroad which in some cases she could not join or that he is proposing too many initiatives which she -- that is Donna Carla -- does not think are very useful. Briefly, the man keeps her husband too preoccupied to get a healthy suntan. A change will make Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner very happy; he suspects that Levitte was behind several initiatives that outmaneuvered him, particularly in the Middle East.


While Syrian policy is generally perceived as a puzzle within a puzzle, French diplomats in the Middle East who met recently in Damascus, discovered that the Syrian capital has one Straight Street. Straight and direct as Bernard Kouchner found out. It has a modern built ancient style hotel, Zaman, with a classic look, a fountain and jasmin garden inside, plus a Hammam to die for. When President Hafez Assad was in power, it was often said that no visiting official left Damascus unhappy. There was always something found to appeal to anyone's taste. The French Foreign Minister is like an open book; he gets easily pleased and easily angry. He likes antique cultural surroundings and Damascus is the oldest continuous capital in today's world. Finding a charming antique hotel and a straight street must have been a double pleasure.


Those interested in acronyms will be interested in a new one, though not yet part of U.N. literature. UNROB, as a procurement mission in Bangladesh was once called, or UNFUCCC as Framework for Universal Climate Change is abbreviated could be mild references compared to WTF. During a meeting to discuss developments in Afghanistan, the formidable General James Jones, National Security Advisor to U.S. President Obama quipped that overblown requests for too many more soldiers without a strategic plan or proven progress will be met by "WTF." Ostensibly, the letters refer to code words: "Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot." The actual interpretation is "What the F..."! Coming soon to an office near you!


Abdallah Baali, who was a key player during his country's membership in the Security Council, has just been appointed Algeria's Ambassador to Washington, D.C. Baali, who had served in various capacities at the mission as he rose up the diplomatic ladder has accumulated a number of very influential friends within the diplomatic community and at the U.N. Secretariat. He made a special effort to approach effective media reporters opening for them formerly closed venues. He will certainly gain new friends, personally and for his country, while operating in the U.S. capital.


Anxious Under-Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries General went to a meeting called by their boss beginning August anticipating certain announcements of change. The Secretary General was about to go on leave and, some of them guessed that they will be told to anticipate specific changes in their assignments. At least three suspected that they will be taken aside for a gentle word of adieu. There are no secrets in such big meetings and if there were any major changes, we would have heard about them by now. There is, however, anticipation of several changes in January, when most contracts will expire. Lotto results will most likely be made by December holiday season. You've got to buy a ticket from a certain influential store to win.


A spokeswoman's work is never done, even if she's soon leaving. While most New Yorkers were enjoying a long Labour Day weekend, Michelle Montas was hanging in her office on the second floor trying to tie up loose ends and follow up on latest arrangements. As if on any other working day, she was spotted outside U.N. headquarters on Monday, waiting for transportation. An admirer of the gracious lady who spotted her tried to make a turn to offer a lift but she had already found a cab. Better luck next time.


The most popular French politician on summer holiday turned out to be former President Jacques Chirac. While President Sarkozy avoided jogging again in the heat while staying at the villa owned by his Italian (now French) wife's very rich family in the area of Saint Tropez, Freres Jacques was moving about in the same neighbourhood while staying with another very rich industrialist whose yacht was anchored near Nikki Beach. The presence of his wife Bernadette did not stop young women from dashing to embrace him and request a photo. While just out of church, with a Monsignor nearby, a lady asked if she could kiss him. As he enthusiastically consented, he posed for the paparazzi while suggesting to her jovially: "A on na rien sans rien." (There is nothing for nothing.) But that was it. A kiss was just a kiss.


Iyad Allawi, the first Iraqi Prime Minister after the fall of Saddam Hussein, has issued an explanation during the month of August for describing those who had collaborated with the former dictator as "Jackasses." In a note to Al-Hayat, Allawi explained that he meant no offense in using the term. It was mainly a description. Like, it's an animal; and man is, indeed, a political animal. Or perhaps the Iraqi politician, who reportedly worked closely with British, U.S. and French security services, realized that he himself was once a henchman for Saddam Hussein.


In a particularly friendly gesture, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon gave a farewell lunch in early August for departing Irish Permanent Representative Paul Kavanagh. He also invited U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice to join. Ambassador Kavanagh, who had served on the 38th floor in younger days as Special Assistant to the Secretary General, naturally understood -- and appreciated -- the thoughtfulness of the invitation. He moved to Paris early September in time for the arrival of the new Irish representative, a distinguished female diplomat.


* "Allow me to introduce myself, I'm the invisible man."
-- Vincent Price to Abbott & Costello

* "I am afraid, Sir, you have a rather weak grasp of reality."
-- The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

* "What a pity, your manners don't match your looks, Your Highness."
-- Adventures of Robin Hood


Media diplomacy has obviously increased showmanship tendencies among government officials worldwide. It also multiplied the number of reported scandals. Public insults have become more frequent. South Korean officials have issued a monitoring report showing that the President H.F. Lee Myung Bak was insulted by his neighbours in the North 1,705 times during the first half of this year. That is an increase over last year where open insults have been limited to 7.9 a day. The average this year is 9.9 times a day.


U.N. staff moving out of the reconstructed Headquarters are taking their dispersal philosophically. Though assured that their time in Manhattan's mid-town will be temporary, many are beginning to suspect that nothing could endure more than the temporary. Some of the Arab staff, particularly Palestinians, started a semi-political black joke by demanding their "right to return"!


Question: What do you consider the most over-rated virtue?
Actor Tony Curtis: Saying Hello
-- From Vanity Fair


If you thought the International Year of Rice is out, you should reconsider. It is very much in, only you don't always notice. The Official Year was celebrated when Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice was on her way out. But then the fresh and pleasant face of Dr. Susan Rice appeared as Permanent Representative of the U.S. under the new administration of President Barack Obama. She seems to accumulate friendly support and admiration as she smilingly makes her rounds. Regardless of who goes or comes, however, there is Rice, the food not just the name. Celebrations were held throughout the summer in many countries which count on it for its survival. One impressive exhibit in London announced: "From now on, you are a grain of rice, but you are not alone." We're with you!


A local official in the South of France, where Socialist Presidential candidate Segolene Royal spent her summer holiday, told friends that Ms. Royal has been approached to take a senior assignment in U.N. Development Programmes, now under the new management of former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who reportedly is trying to raise the number of women decision makers in a male-oriented operation. Apparently, talks are in the negotiating stage. The President's office at the Elysee is by now aware of that option and is evaluating its impact on internal politics. Incidentally, a photo of Ms. Royal in a bathing suit displayed a gorgeously developed figure.


It was somewhat depressing to watch the way in which a going away member of the Security Council is being treated at social functions now that it is well known he will be leaving the post upon his president's instructions. For two years he was surrounded by enthusiastic and welcoming diplomats, anxious to have his approval of their varied initiatives. But now he walks around receptions with his loving wife looking around for very few approaches. It may be the summer season where fewer officials show up for gatherings; or may be the tough life for diplomats whose tide has turned. Or perhaps it's just human nature, everyone around on the way up, no one nearby while going downhill.


"Just give me the facts; I'll mix them up when I quote you."
-- Inscription on ashtray owned by the late media legend Walter Cronkite


Deogracias is a young Tutsi from Burundi who miraculously escaped death in his country to come to New York, then returns home to rebuild his future. A medical student in Bujumbura, he knew very little of the differences between Hutu and Tutsi in October 1993 when the President, a Hutu, was assassinated. When the killing started, he hid under his hospital bed but forgot to close the door. His potential murderers concluded he had fled -- and left. In his search for safety he only saw a "landscape of horrors -- shallow streets seemed all but dammed with bodies and the valley was littered with them, the corpses thickening as he approached Kibimbe." Mass murders in Burundi and neighbouring Rwanda became headlines. So was the shameful lack of action by certain U.N. officials. But there were so many human interest stories. That of Deogracias, meaning "thanks to God" in Latin, was thoughtfully and brilliantly projected by Tracy Kidder in his new book "Strength in What Remains."

While seeking an exit, Deo, as he is called by the author, realized that survival meant a constant move. When he found a "Medecins sans Frontiers" team, he avoided staying too long in their camp. Assembly spots only tempted killers with machetes on the prowl. He was finally saved by a Hutu woman who claimed he was her son. That is where a human bond overcomes tribal vengeance. She carried him to where he managed to find his way out and take a plane to New York City. Homeless and penniless, he found refuge in Central Park until he was noted by a caring nun, Sharon McKenna, who tried to guide him spiritually and found him a place to live in downtown Manhattan with an older couple, a sociologist and his wife. They enrolled him in Columbia University School of General Studies. Deo excels. Within three years his life seems to be on the right track. His confidence is restored. So is his belief in human nature and in genuine American kindness. One of the most interesting parts of the bank is Kidder's perceptions of the young man's contemplation of whether to stay in New York or return home to Burundi. He makes you feel that whatever Deo decides, you wished him the best.


It's a holiday month. We thought editors and readers alike should take time out and enjoy it. Thanks to those who missed us.