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When The UN’s Most Powerful Body Enjoyed Its Lighter Moments – OpEd

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By Thalif Deen

As the UN’s most powerful political body, the 15-member Security Council (UNSC) is armed with a mandate to maintain international peace and security.

But regretfully, it has been missing in action (MIA) in recent months, particularly in the ongoing conflicts in Palestine and Myanmar, where it has failed to take action against the perpetrators of violence resulting in hundreds of civilian killings and destruction of homes.  

At the UN, diplomacy is much more than debating and socializing—even as receptions and cocktail parties take place every day—until the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world body to a virtual standstill with video conferencing replacing in-person discussions.

After a nearly 16-month pandemic lockdown going back to March 2020, the UN has been trying to return to near-normal beginning July 7, according to a circular from Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The Security Council, the General Assembly and the myriads of UN committees are expected to be back in business—haltingly but steadily—leading to the 76th session of the General Assembly, come September.

Going down memory lane, however, the seriousness of debates and resolutions in the Security Council have occasionally been tempered with moments of levity and hilarity—raising laughter and relieving the political tension in the chamber.

Ambassador Jamil Baroody, the longstanding Saudi envoy to the UN, described as the dean of the UN diplomatic corps back in the 1970s, was a “colourful maverick” known for his mile-long speeches.

In its obituary, the New York Times described him as a UN “landmark” who was known for his shouting matches—while holding the distinction of making one of the longest speeches in the history of the world body, perhaps ranking behind India’s Krishna Menon and Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

So, whenever Baroody held forth at Council meetings, the then US ambassador was known to slip out of the chamber, in order to avoid sitting through the speech and return at the tail end of the address.

When Baroody once noticed the American envoy returning to his seat, he turned to the President of the Security Council and said: “Mr President, I notice the honourable US representative was not in the chamber when I spoke. So, I am going to read my entire statement all over again for his benefit”.

The US envoy, this time, remained trapped in his seat, amidst loud laughter.

For long now, there have been four strong contenders for permanent seats, with no veto powers—Germany, India, Japan and Brazil—with Africa insisting on two permanent seats with vetoes, which is deemed a virtual non-starter.

But during a discussion on reforms in the Security Council in 2019, one delegate made a strong case for a permanent seat for the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the largest single coalition of Muslim countries at the UN.

Perhaps the OIC was right in seeking a permanent seat on behalf of over 1.9 billion Muslims worldwide—much more than China, a permanent member, with a population of 1.5 billion, and India, aspiring for a permanent seat, with a population of 1.4 billion.

But in an obvious slip of the tongue, the OIC delegate urged member states to ensure permanent membership to the “Islamic State”—which really is one of the extremist organizations operating out of the Middle East.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is officially designated as the Islamic State (IS).

And the very notion of a permanent seat to the Islamic State triggered both smiles and laughter in the Council chamber.

Meanwhile, whenever the General Assembly or the Security Council holds a meeting, the speeches of delegates are routinely distributed no sooner than the speaker begins his address.

These speeches, marked “check against delivery”, are left on the desks of all member states, 15 in the Security Council and 193 in the General Assembly.

So, there was a moment of hilarity when the Indian Foreign Minister picked up, not his speech, but a speech made by an earlier speaker and began reading it.

Iftikhar Ali, the UN correspondent for the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), who covered that meeting, told me it was a monumental faux pas by the Indian External Affairs Minister as he blindly read out the Portuguese delegate’s speech, instead of his own, before his ambassador intervened to help rectify the error.

During the debate on security and development, a subject on which most delegates made identical speeches, the Indian minister mistakenly read the wrong speech for about three minutes before India’s envoy to the UN Hardeep Singh Puri, now holding a portfolio in the new Indian cabinet, pointed to the right speech lying on a stack of papers in front of the minister.

With mikes on, an embarrassed minister whispered to his ambassador: “Should I read it from the beginning”? And the ambassador advised: “Yes, you can start again”.

The Indian minister really read Portuguese foreign minister Luis Amado’s speech, without realizing his mistake, as the first portion was about development and security, the theme of the Council’s debate.

As the minister continued, Ali said, a couple of lines was definitely out of sync: “On a more personal note, allow me to express my profound satisfaction regarding the happy coincidence of having two members of Portuguese Speaking Countries, Brazil and Portugal, together here today,” the minister said, which was incongruous for an Indian minister’s speech.

Meanwhile, during the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and particularly in the 1960s, the United Nations was the ideological battleground where the Americans and the Soviets pummelled each other— metaphorically—on the floor of the cavernous General Assembly Hall or at the horseshoe table of the Security Council.

Perhaps one of the most memorable war of words took place in October 1962 when the politically-feisty US Ambassador Adlai Stevenson challenged Soviet envoy Valerian Zorin over allegations that the USSR, perhaps under cover of darkness, had moved nuclear missiles into Cuba—and within annihilating distance of the United States.

Speaking at a tense Security Council meeting, Stevenson admonished Zorin: “I remind you that you didn’t deny the existence of these weapons. Instead, we heard that they had suddenly become defensive weapons. But today—again, if I heard you correctly—you now say they don’t exist, or that we haven’t proved they exist, with another fine flood of rhetorical scorn.”

“All right sir”, said Stevenson, “let me ask you one simple question. Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the USSR has placed and is placing medium and intermediate-range missiles and sites in Cuba?”

“Yes or no? Don’t wait for the translation: yes or no?”, Stevenson insisted with a tone of implied arrogance.

Speaking in Russian through a UN translator (who faithfully translated the US envoy’s sentiments into English), Zorin shot back: “I am not in an American courtroom, sir, and therefore I do not wish to answer a question that is put to me in the fashion in which a prosecutor does. In due course, sir, you will have your reply. Do not worry.”

Not to be outwitted, Stevenson howled back: “You are in the court of world opinion right now, and you can answer yes or no. You have denied that they exist. I want to know if …I’ve understood you correctly.”

When Zorin said he will provide the answer in “due course”, Stevenson famously declared: “I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over.”

This article has been adapted from a recently-released book on the United Nations titled “No Comment and Don’t Quote Me on That.” Authored by Thalif Deen, a Senior Editor based at the UN, the book is a motley collection of anecdotes, both serious and hilarious, and is available on Amazon.

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