At Annual U.N. General Assembly, a Stage for All the World
By Neil MacFarquhar, NY Times, September 28, 2012
UNITED NATIONS—The annual United Nations General Assembly debate, which comes to a close on Monday with a final flurry of speeches, might be called a convention of knotty causes, some of them distinct long shots.
With dignitaries flocking here from every corner of the globe, the diplomatic jamboree offers a rare opportunity for people like Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, the caretaker prime minister of Somalia, who spent his time promoting his country this week as an investment opportunity rather than a byword for catastrophe.
Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who is running from the law, lobbied for his release via a satellite video, crowing that he was the true global defender of free speech and calling President Obama a false one.
Have an idea about ending world poverty? That can pack a huge room this time of year, and attract a glamorous princess.
Critics dismiss the entire extravaganza, with its 120-plus world leaders and their motorcades, as the Olympics for bloviators. But there is no gathering quite like it for anyone with a global issue to press, no matter how tough the sell might be.
All week, Mr. Ali told the leaders that he could buttonhole that they had his country all wrong. Sure, suicide bombers have tried to kill him a couple times, but what country these days does not have woes?
After more than 20 years of civil war, Somalia boasts a new Constitution and a new internationally sanctioned government. The local Qaeda affiliate, the Shabab, which suffered a major assault on Friday, is on the decline. The country has the longest coastline in Africa, and one of the highest counts of livestock per capita on the continent.
“All they know about is piracy and lawlessness and chaos and the Shabab and famine,” said Mr. Ali, 47, a former economics professor at Niagara University in New York. “We are much more than that! We have more resources than Singapore!”
All countries hoping to reverse decades of ill fortune invariably market themselves as “the next Singapore.” Those feared headed toward the abyss are usually described as, well, “the next Somalia.”
For the most part, Mr. Ali avoided the hectic reception circuit, focusing instead on meeting the roughly 40 officials who attended the “Friends of Somalia” meeting. He made an exception for the Australia party, however.
Australia is running for a two-year seat on the Security Council. Mr. Ali would not say it, but rich countries vying for that post tend to dole out new aid with zealous abandon. (Anyplace else, this might be labeled buying votes, a practice condemned by the election arm of the United Nations. In Security Council elections, though, that is called “showing your commitment to development.”)
The Security Council contest was perhaps not the most important vote looming. Many leaders were asked to pronounce on the American election. Most demurred, although President François Hollande of France slipped in a sly endorsement even while proclaiming that he would not.
“I’m careful to say nothing because you can imagine that if a Socialist were to support one of the two candidates that could be to his detriment,” he said. But wasn’t Mr. Hollande offended that the American leader begged off meeting him or any other leader alone?
“No, I think everybody fully understood that Barack Obama is carrying out his campaign,” Mr. Hollande responded. “What’s important is being able to see him after November, I suppose.”
One person certainly less enthusiastic about Mr. Obama was Mr. Assange.
Since June, Mr. Assange has been holed up in the cramped apartment that passes for the Embassy of Ecuador in London, avoiding extradition to Sweden for questioning on sex crimes allegations.
He maintains that is just a smoke screen for prosecution by the United States. The Ecuadorean foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, chaired a special meeting to allow Mr. Assange to make his case for asylum in South America on a scratchy satellite video, just a day after Mr. Obama made a resounding defense of free expression.
Knotty international issues rarely, if ever, find solutions during the marathon meetings. Mr. Ali, for example, did not attract any new aid commitments for Somalia. But the temptation of capturing even fleeting attention from so many leaders proved irresistible.
Denmark organized an event to allow Mette Hoffmann Meyer and Nick Fraser to show excerpts from a documentary series called “Why Poverty?” that they produced. Princess Mary of Denmark and the actor Danny Glover provided the celebrity glamour required of any such event.
Ms. Meyer, the guiding force behind a previous series called “Why Democracy?” has persuaded 70 broadcasters worldwide to broadcast the films in November, a potential audience of 500 million people. “That’s a billion eyeballs!” she exclaimed.
Given the thin veneer of suits in the front rows versus the shaggy haircuts, hats and other hipster wear filling much of the sprawling room, it was not clear that the event attracted many leaders. But Ms. Meyer was not discouraged. She just wanted to inaugurate a global discussion on a topic politicians often prefer to overlook.
Some participants revel in the week; some deplore it. But given the hectic pace, most United Nations-based diplomats, like most New Yorkers, are happy to bid the leaders adieu.
Asked to summarize the entire event, one veteran diplomat riffed: “It is running from one meeting to another meeting; it is checking that the cars are there at the right moment; it is finding a restaurant when suddenly a minister says, ‘I want to eat a hamburger.’ It is sending a security guard to Abercrombie to buy a T-shirt for a teenager.”
“It is really an exciting thing,” he went on. “It is trying to find the minister of Uzbekistan without confusing him with the minister of Tajikistan. It is finding that North Lawn Building, Room 17 doesn’t exist. You discover that the interpreter only knows Italian when you needed Spanish and the minister only knows Russian.
“It is diplomacy at its worst,” he said.