Cold War Politics At The Security Council, And Its Lighter Side – OpEd

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The devastating battle between Israel and Hamas has proved once again the ineffectiveness of the 15-member Security Council which is mandated to ensure international peace and security.

But that mandate has not helped either in resolving some of the longstanding civil wars and military conflicts worldwide, including in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Haiti, Kashmir, Western Sahara and Myanmar, among others.

Meanwhile, over the years, the US has faithfully protected Israel, its strongest ally, by exercising its veto—and twice during the current war in Gaza, undermining the call for an immediate cease-fire.

At the same time, both China and Russia, have exercised their vetoes to protect North Korea which continues to fire its ballistic missiles in violation of Security Council resolutions. As a result, the Security Council has remained paralyzed—and neither Israel nor North Korea have heeded any of its warnings.

But the politics of the most powerful body at the United Nations also has both its serious and its lighter side.  

During the height of the Cold War (1947-1991) between the United States and the Soviet Union, and particularly in the 1960s and ‘70s, the United Nations was the ideological battle ground where the Americans and the Soviets pummeled each other—metaphorically speaking—either on the floor of the cavernous General Assembly Hall or at the horse-shoe 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.”

Meanwhile, at the UN, virtually all the big powers are engaged in the spying game, including the US, the Russians (and the Soviets during the Cold War era), the French, the Brits, and the Chinese—and none of them can afford to take a “holier than thou” attitude.

The UN was a veritable battle ground for the United States and the now-defunct Soviet Union to spy on each other. The American and Soviet spooks were known to be crawling all over the building—in committee rooms, in the Security Council chamber, in the press gallery, in the Secretariat and, most importantly, in the UN library which was a drop-off point for sensitive political documents.

The extent of Cold War espionage in the United Nations was also laid bare by a 1975 US Congressional Committee, named after Senator Frank Church (Democrat-Idaho) who chaired it while investigating abuses by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

The evidence given before the Church Committee included a revelation that the CIA had planted one of its lip-reading experts—a Russian lip-reading expert—in a press booth overlooking the Security Council chamber so that he could monitor the lip movements of Russian delegates, as they consulted each other in low whispers.

Obviously, there was nothing sacred in the corridors of power at the United Nations.

The debates and resolutions in the Security Council are mostly on peace and security. But it also had its moments of levity.

Ambassador Jamil Baroody, the longstanding Saudi envoy to the UN (1945-79) and described as the one-time dean of the UN diplomatic corps, was a “colorful 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.

So, whenever he held forth at Council meetings, the US ambassador was known to slip out of the chamber and return at the tail end of his speeches. 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 noticed the honorable US representative was not in the chamber when I spoke. So, I am going to read my statement all over again for his benefit.”

The US envoy remained uncomfortably trapped in his seat.

For long now, there have been four strong contenders for permanent seats in the UN Security Council (UNSC) —Germany, India, Japan and Brazil—with Africa insisting on two permanent seats with vetoes.

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, in a slip of the tongue, he urged member states to ensure permanent membership to the “Islamic State”—which is really 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 known as the Islamic State (IS).

And ISIS as a permanent member of the UNSC?

Meanwhile whenever the General Assembly or the Security Council holds a meeting, the speeches of the delegates are routinely distributed no sooner 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 when he read out the Portuguese delegate’s speech, instead of India’s, before an aide intervened and he turned to his own text.

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

Thalif Deen

Thalif Deen, author of the book “No Comment – and Don’t Quote Me on That,” is Editor-at-Large at the Berlin-based IDN, an ex-UN staffer and a former member of the Sri Lanka delegation to the UN General Assembly sessions. A Fulbright scholar with a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Columbia University, New York, he shared the gold medal twice (2012-2013) for excellence in UN reporting awarded by the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA).

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