World leaders enjoy their 15 minutes of fame (and gossip) at the UN talk show

Click to follow
Indy Politics

Even kings have to queue sometimes. Under the glittering chandeliers of the Waldorf Astoria ballroom they stood patiently in line, presidents, prime ministers and potentates.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco was among the 191 world leaders waiting to have their "grip and grin" photo taken with President George Bush and his wife, Laura.

Some had to wait an hour to shake hands with the world's most powerful man, who probably had quite a few of them in mind when he denounced "corruption, tyranny, bigotry, terrorism and all violence against the innocent" from the podium of the UN General Assembly. But those who glowered inwardly as President Bush proclaimed his version of the war on terror and Iraq made sure they were smiling in the family photo on Tuesday evening.

This week, the champagne has been flowing in and around the United Nations as the assembly opened its 59th session. The assembled world leaders have adopted no resolutions (they couldn't possibly agree on anything meaningful) - and it has no formal conclusion at the end of next week, after which the assembly settles down to its routine agenda in committees. World leaders - 62 heads of state, 21 heads of government, two vice-presidents, one crown prince, 12 deputy prime ministers, and 91 foreign ministers this year - come to deliver seemingly endless speeches on matters of international security and UN reform. From the US President to the head of state of Kiribati, each leader is allocated a 15-minute slot.

They were all in the General Assembly hall for Mr Bush's speech on Tuesday. By the next day, many had vanished. By next week, speakers will be delivering their address to a virtually empty room. The foreign ministers of Kenya, Niger, the Comoros and Suriname will be lucky to have an audience at all when they stand at the podium next Wednesday and Thursday.

That is because the General Assembly serves a multitude of purposes for the heads of state and government. As well as delivering speeches, they are here to shop, to sightsee, to have medical treatment, to catch up on sleep, and - last, but not least - to gossip.

But, above all, there is the diplomat's love of chatter. "They love gossip. They are thrilled to meet anyone willing to gossip," says David Malone, outgoing president of the International Peace Academy, a New York think-tank linked to the United Nations.

Of course, the government leaders and diplomats would argue that attending the daily receptions is an important part of their workload.

Five hundred people stood cheek by jowl at Monday's reception at the Millennium Plaza hotel hosted by the German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, at the beginning of a crucial week for Germany's bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

The Finnish and Italian foreign ministers helped themselves to shrimp and sushi. Algeria's Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN secretary general's former representative in Afghanistan and Iraq, chatted with the representative of a Jewish organisation.

Mr Fischer, accompanied by a delegation of 40 people, is staying until tomorrow to lead the German charm offensive. But others have kept their trip to New York to a functional minimum. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, flew here for just two hectic days of bilateral meetings, culminating with his address to the General Assembly on Thursday.

The French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier also made a lightning visit to New York. On Thursday evening he hosted his country's annual Francophone dinner, at which guests are encouraged to poke fun at les Anglo-Saxons.

The African delegates head to 116th street in Harlem, which has been taken over by Senegalese, Malian and Ethiopian restaurants and bars. The Namibian President, Sam Nujoma, making his farewell visit to a UN General Assembly before he retires, was seen in Harlem at the end of last week.

The Latin American delegations go to the Copacabana club, while the Russians go to the Russian Samovar restaurant with its grand piano and singer who pulls Slavic heartstrings. It is a favourite spot of the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, UN ambassador for the past 10 years.

So, what is the point of the General Assembly debate?

Mr Malone explains that even leaders of the smallest nation, who have sometimes spent two days flying to New York, get time before a domestic audience on television. "Even if there is not a UN audience, there is one at home," he said.

To overcome the absence of real delegates, some governments have resorted to hiring students to fill their seats. The Rwandan Foreign Minister, Charles Murigande, spoke for many when he was asked about the usefulness of the general debate. "Is there somebody ... who goes through these speeches when we have left and tries to find guidance for action tomorrow? I don't know what we do with these speeches. I'm not sure if someone can give an answer to that question."


Origins: Fifty countries met in San Francisco to draw up charter. Came into being 24 October 1945, ratified by China, France, the Soviet Union, the UK, the US and most other signatories.

Function: To maintain international peace and security; develop relations among nations; co-operate to solve international economic, social, cultural and humanitarian problems and promote human rights.

Structure: Principal organs:

* General Assembly (191 members)

* Security Council, with five permanent members with veto power - Britain, China, France, United States and Russia - and 10 non-permanent members.

* Economic and Social Council.

* Trusteeship Council

* International Court of Justice

* Secretariat.

* Family of organisations: UN Secretariat, the UN Programmes and funds, such as UN Children's Fund and Development Programme.

Budget: Member states' contributions come to $1.3bn, of which America pays 21 per cent. Separate peace-keeping budget also paid for by members, with US also paying a quarter.