Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:
German Teacher Provides Much-Needed Guide To The U.N.
(September 15, 2003)
"[For] years, scholars, journalists and interested citizens of all kinds have had to scrounge for an easy-to-understand, jargon-free compendium of information on an organization that seems to revel in making itself hard to penetrate."
Human Rights at U.N. Obscured by the Shadow of Politics
(September 8, 2003)
"Human Rights Watch lists only a handful of countries (among them Canada and Mexico, leaving a big hole in between) that act out of principle and not political expediency."
UNICEF in the Crosshairs (September 2, 2003)
"The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, noting the appearance of frank educational materials about sex in UNICEF-supported programs and a greater emphasis on the education of girls ... worries that 'UNICEF has moved beyond simple, and universally acceptable, programs.'"
The Wrong Kind of American Exceptionalism (August 18, 2003)
"The Europeans are powerful enough to stand down the United States, but many other countries are not. They are left to fight lonely battles against a punitive American government that has already suspended military aid to several dozen countries."
Bush Close to Backing $1 Billion Loan to U.N. (August 11, 2003)
"U.N. headquarters was built for an organization of about 50 members. It now has 191 member nations. In some offices, there is barely room to push back a desk chair without hitting the next desk."
More from U.N. Notebook.
U.N. Notebook | September 23, 2003
For Countries Big And Small, A Diplomatic Marathon
by Barbara Crossette
UNITED NATIONS—When the annual speech-making season in the General Assembly gets under way this week, the Iraq crisis and President Bush's pleas for help will be the focus of most of the attention, and for good reason. How the United States handles its relations with the other 190 countries in the organization—particularly the other members of the Security Council—in these critical weeks will be crucial to the future effectiveness of the United Nations, and to the opinions others hold of Americans.
But what is still called, euphemistically, the annual general debate is always much more than a podium with a procession of talking heads. Over the years, autumn at the United Nations has evolved into a huge hive of diplomatic activity, making New York the capital of the world, as Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor, used to say.
Jeno Staehelin, ambassador of Switzerland, which just celebrated its first year of membership in the organization, says he made a tally a couple of years ago, when his country had only observer status at the United Nations, and found that a few thousand high-level, government-to-government meetings were taking place all over—in the cubicles erected for the purpose at the U.N., in country missions, at diplomatic dinner parties, in restaurants, almost anywhere.
"I think it was about 1,400 bilateral contacts in these small cubicles in the United Nations, and in a very informal way, which is very important," he said. "Fourteen hundred! And this is only the meetings that take place organized by the United Nations Secretariat. My estimate would be that there are also probably [another] 2,000 to 3,000 bilateral contacts, which is another aspect of the importance of this place."
Rumors run wild. Will Pakistan and India meet behind the scenes? Is it true that Sri Lanka's president and prime minister squabbled over which one would speak in the General Assembly? Can Bhutan and Nepal, two Himalayan countries that don't always find it easy to talk closer to home, get nearer to agreement here, if no one is watching, on a vexing refugee issue that has cooled relations between them?
In a conversation in his office, Staehelin said that his fascination with Manhattan led him to resist suggestions that he move to Washington as his country's ambassador to the United States. Small embassies don't stand much of a chance there, he said. In the New York mix, the personality and skills of an envoy can propel him or her into the center of activity, and judgments are not made based on the size or power of a country.
Women do well here. Marjatta Rasi, Finland's ambassador, and Claudia Fritsche of Liechtenstein (now ambassador in Washington) are two good examples.
"In Washington," Staehelin said, "to members of Congress, you say you are from Liechtenstein or Switzerland—well, OK. But that's not the same as if you say Pakistan or Israel."
"The U.N. is the organization which is important for small states, but it is also an organization which great and powerful nations cannot ignore," Staehelin said. "When it comes to fight terrorism, you probably need the support of weakest of the weakest even more, because failed states are those states where there is the greatest risk for terrorists to become active."
Two years ago, the General Assembly created an office to look after the interests of the weakest nations. A new undersecretary general was appointed, Anwarul Chowdhury, a former ambassador from Bangladesh, a geographically small but very poor, crowded country, with nearly 147 million people. Chowdhury's title is anything but small: undersecretary general and high representative for the least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing states. The designations cover 49 countries, soon to be 50 when East Timor joins.
"My responsibilities cover the most vulnerable countries of the world," he said in an interview in his office. "These are the weakest segment of humanity, and these countries need special attention, special support. Yes, all developing countries are in need of support, but these countries are vulnerable in many ways. Out of 49 least developed countries, 16 are also landlocked and 11 are small island states. These countries do not need much in terms of resources—official development support or foreign investment or technical assistance. A little bit extra will mean a lot for these countries."
To be classified a least developed country, the per capita GDP must be below $900, social development indicators such as education levels are low and there is extreme vulnerability to external economic shocks—for example, a collapse in the price of a commodity like cotton or coffee.
Chowdhury, a good example himself of a talented diplomat from a relatively powerless country who has shone brightly in New York, now defines his new role in the U.N. system in four broad ways.
He wants to promote the cause of the poorest and weakest nations, which he likens to the chronically ill who are ignored while someone with a sudden bad cold gets all the hot soup and comforting blankets. He tries to steer leaders of the poorest countries into the paths of potential investors, and vice versa. He promotes more involvement by small countries in U.N. issues such as organization reform. He opens his offices to representatives of small states who need simple practical help—a good telephone and Internet connection, photocopying, fax machines, a conference room and other tools needed to prepare for the General Assembly session that larger U.N. missions can take for granted.
Developing nations are in a great majority at the U.N., but they are not often in agreement. In fact, there are concerns that if the larger developing powers such as Brazil, India, South Africa and Nigeria begin to be recognized, perhaps with places at the Security Council table, they will be no more help to the smallest nations than the big powers are now. Chowdhury is advising small countries to think regionally and build strength in numbers. He also wants to increase cyber connectivity among and between isolated mini-states, especially islands, as well as more effective links to the world at large, and he has begun to lobby communications giants to tap into excess capacity.
Developing nations, Chowdhury says, "have a natural majority, but they have to articulate their issues." He comes back to the roles small countries can play in New York if they take advantage of the stage open to them. He said the truth is that most envoys of small states don't really have enough to do to fill up their time, so there is ample opportunity to become involved in bigger international issues.
"Don't be daunted by the fact that you are developing or don't have the resources, your office is small and your country is very poor," he said. "If you really take up the challenge, you can make a difference."
For a start, he says, keep an eye on the new president of the General Assembly. He's Julian Robert Hunte, from St. Lucia—population 149,000.
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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic
Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and
related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and
appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National
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