A World Body Rich in Anecdotes: the Good, the Bad & the Not-so-Ugly
By Roberto Savio*
robustly entertaining – and thoroughly informative – book on the lighter side
of the United Nations, Thalif Deen, a former UN Bureau Chief and Regional
Director for Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency, has just published a book
titled “No Comment – and Don’t Quote me on That” reflecting over 40 years of
reporting from the United Nations.
published by Amazon, is filled with scores of anecdotes– from the serious to
award-winning journalist, Deen shared the first prize, two prestigious gold
medals for excellence in development reporting in 2012 and 2013, at the annual
award presentations of the UN Correspondents’ Association (UNCA) in New York.
A Fulbright scholar with a Master’s Degree (MSc) in
Journalism from Columbia University, he was twice a member of the Sri Lanka
delegation to the UN General sessions. The 220-page book is enriched both from the perspective of a full-time
journalist and a some-time diplomat.
anecdotes in the book, he says, were picked up during General Assembly and
Security Council sessions – and also in the corridors, committee rooms and in
the UN’s gossipy watering hole, the delegate’s lounge.
When the UN celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1995, he
points out, virtually every single head of state visiting New York for the
General Assembly sessions decided to stay behind to participate in celebrations
later that week.
But Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was known
to relentlessly accuse the big powers of manipulating the organization to their
advantage, decided to skip the high-level event where world leaders were
allocated five minutes to speak about the political virtues and the inglorious
successes of the UN – even as the world body at that time was mired in failures
in three military hotspots at that time: Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda.
Asked why he was missing the much-ballyhooed event, Mahathir
told reporters rather sarcastically: “In five minutes, you only have time to
say how good things are. I am
not good at saying how good things are, when things are bad.”
Mahathir, who called for the resignation of
then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan for failing to assert himself during the
crisis that led to the US invasion of Iraq, told the General Assembly that the
UN’s organs have been “cut out, dissected and reshaped so they may perform the
way the puppet masters want.”
august institution in which we had pinned so much hope, despite the safeguards
supposed to be provided by the permanent five (UK, US, France, China and Russia),
this organization is today collapsing on its clay feet, helpless to protect the
weak and the poor,” he said back in 1995.
chapter focuses on Tarzie Vittachi, a renowned Sri Lankan newspaper editor and
one-time deputy executive director of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, who
recounts the story of an African diplomat who sought his help to get coverage
in the U.S. media for his prime minister’s address to the General Assembly.
The diplomat, a friend of Vittachi’s, said the visiting African
leader was planning to tell the world body his success stories in battling
poverty, hunger and HIV/AIDS. “How can I get this story into the front pages of
U.S. newspapers?” he asked rather naively.
Vittachi, then a columnist and contributing editor to
Newsweek magazine, jokingly retorted: “Shoot him – and you will get the front
page of every newspaper in the U.S.”
As the old
tabloid journalistic axiom goes: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Egypt’s onetime Foreign Minister Boutros Boutros-Ghali was running for the post
of U.N. Secretary-General in late 1991, he had to contend with the candidature
of Bernard Chidzero, then foreign minister of Zimbabwe, according to another
anecdote in the book.
As the campaign began to intensify, Boutros-Ghali recounted
a brief encounter with Chidzero, a longstanding friend, at a conference in
Africa, a continent which at that time claimed the job of U.N. chief on the
basis of geographical rotation.
Chidzero, who hailed from an English-speaking country and
was backed by the UK and the 54-member Commonwealth of mostly ex-British
colonies, was in conversation with Boutros-Ghali when he suddenly switched from
English to French.
Having picked up the subtle message, Boutros-Ghali said he
put his arms around Chidzero and jokingly remarked, “Bernard, if you want the
approval of France, you must not only speak French, but also speak English with
a French accent.”
France, a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security
Council, has been so passionately protective of its language that it may well
have exercised its veto on any candidate who did not speak French.
Fathulla Jameel, the former Foreign Minister of the tiny
island nation of Maldives, was exceptionally fluent in Arabic, and as part of
his country’s ongoing diplomacy, strengthened his relationships with Middle
Eastern nations. Jameel, who was frequently seen in the company of Arab
diplomats in the UN delegate’s lounge, was known to regale his friends with anecdotes
he had picked up during his visits to Arab capitals.
Perhaps one of his most enduring jokes related to the
eccentric Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi who made several unsuccessful
attempts to form a single Federation of Arab Republics (FAR) seeking to merge
his country with Egypt and Syria in order to create a unified Arab republic,
with the possibility of some of the North African countries like Morocco and
Algeria joining the federation later. But the plans never got off the ground.
So, when Qaddafi visited China, he met with Chinese leader
Deng Xiaoping and offered a proposal to merge Libya with China in a sprawling
Asian-Arab Federation. The Chinese leader, who was presiding over a country
with over 1.0 billion people, apparently pondered for a while, so the joke
goes, and asked Qaddafi how big his country’s population was. Told it was a
paltry 3.4 million, Deng told Qaddafi: “Why don’t you bring them along when you
next visit China?”
In the 1960s and 70s, the then 116-member Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), founded
in Belgrade in 1961, was one of the largest and most powerful political
coalitions at the UN led by countries such as Yugoslavia, India, Egypt, Ghana,
Indonesia, Zambia, Cuba and Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene (JRJ) inherited the chairmanship in
February 1978, he was skeptical of NAM which was known to be politically
independent, with no strong links to either of the world’s two superpowers at
that time, namely the US and the Soviet Union, who were engaged in a
longstanding and bitter Cold War.
In an interview with an American news reporter, JRJ
downgraded the political myth about “non-alignment” when he infamously declared
there were only two “non-aligned countries” in the world: the US and the Soviet
Union. All other countries, he
argued, were politically aligned either with the US or the Soviets.
was apparently off- the-record and not-for attribution, but the reporter couldn’t
resist the temptation of running with it, says Deen, a Sri Lankan-American.
the IPS office on the UN’s fourth floor was an occasional meeting place for
representatives of liberation movements accredited to the UN, including the PLO
and FRETILIN, recounts Deen.
regular visitor was Jose Ramos-Horta, designated as foreign minister in
the government-in-exile set up by the liberation movement FRETILIN
(Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor).
the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize and later president of East Timor (2007-2012),
Ramos-Horta, according to a widely circulated anecdote, was at a dinner in a
restaurant frequented by delegates, in the UN neighborhood, where waiters
politely asked guests what country they were from.
When asked, he proudly claimed he was from East Timor, (a
former Portuguese possession that was under Indonesian control from 1975 to
1999). “So, you are an Eskimo?”, said the waiter displaying his geographical
ignorance. “’No, no, no,”
replied Ramos-Horta: “I am not an Eskimo, I am from country called East
Meanwhile, a security officer once recalled an incident
where the prime minister from an African country, addressing the General
Assembly, was heckled by a group of African students studying in the US and
visiting New York. As is usual with hecklers, the boisterous group was
taken off the visitor’s gallery, grilled, photographed and banned from entering
the UN premises.
five years later, one of the hecklers returned to the UN —this time, as
foreign minister of his country, and addressed the world body, proving that in
politics and diplomacy, the wheel of fortune keeps on turning. 19.02.2021
The book is available on Amazon. The link follows:
The link to the author:
*Publisher of OtherNews, Italian-Argentine
Roberto Savio is an economist, journalist, communication expert, political
commentator, activist for social and climate justice and advocate of an
anti-neoliberal global governance. Director for international relations of the
European Center for Peace and Development. Adviser to INPS-IDN and to the Global Cooperation Council. He is co-founder of
Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and its President Emeritus.