NEW YORK, Sept. 19 (IPS) – The senior section of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) is known for its fiery speeches and the colorful personalities that gathered in the GA hall. But there’s a lot more going on outside the venue itself: the frenzy of the press in the broadcast cars, security personnel on every sidewalk, military assistants in uniforms, and an endless series of receptions and parties of all kinds.
One of the most famous events in this huge theater is the ostentatious motorcade that transports the President of the United States to the UN. New York Police Department motorcycles, fifty or more in all, thunder ahead of the main presidential limousines. The police are blocking the streets. The sirens and the roar of the engines reverberate wherever they go.
The column makes a great impression as it approaches the UN headquarters. No other leader even comes close to such a powerful entry-level scene. The UN itself is facing temporary paralysis as the presidential security system takes over.
Once I was standing on the corner of First Avenue and 45th Street when I saw a senior UN official emerge. A police officer stopped him as he tried to get past the barricade and cross the avenue.
“No one is crossing the street now,” said the officer. “But I’m Undersecretary General Peter Hansen,” the man replied, “and I have a meeting with the Secretary General in ten minutes.”
“Sorry, friend,” said the officer, “I have my orders and no one, not even God Himself, crosses this street until I say so.” Hansen had to wait at least twenty minutes for the American president to arrive and disappear inside. Then the Secretary-General was finally allowed to cross over and continue his business.
The impression a grand entry like this makes is well known in the world of politics. During the colonial era in India, the British viceroy famously entered the city of Delhi on grand occasions, sitting with his wife on a huge elephant with richly decorated ornaments, accompanied by a whole procession of other elephants, carrying maharajas and high British officials.
The largest of these events were reserved for the inauguration of the British sovereign and were known as darbars. Today, motorcycles are awe-inspiring and the president rides smoothly in an armored limousine.
During the high-level period, hundreds of lunches, dinners and grand receptions take place. The most unusual event I ever attended was a reception at the Central Park Zoo, in honor of Denis Sassou Nguesso, the President of the Republic of Congo.
The Wildlife Conservation Society, operator of the zoo, organized the event to “thank” the Congolese strongman for accepting a large sum of money to “protect” part of the Congolese rainforest. The reception took place outside, around the famous sea lion pool. There were African drums, costumed dancers, musicians who whistle, brightly colored spotlights and a very limited guest list.
As I strolled around the pool, chatting with some of the ambassadors present, I saw a man standing some distance from the others, apparently alone. I was walking over to talk to him when suddenly four heavily armed guards leapt from the shadows and confronted me, their automatic weapons pointed menacingly.
I soon realized that I was on my way to meet President Sassou Nguesso himself, in his military uniform. His frown turned into a smile and he waved the guards away, who disappeared back into the trees as I stepped forward. After some pleasantries about protecting rainforests, I said goodbye. From Fifth Avenue, as I drove home, I could still hear the drums and see the orange spotlights.
What were the sea lions thinking, I wondered?
Jim Paul was longtime executive director of Global Policy Forum, located across the street from UN headquarters. He was founder of the NGO Working Group on the Security Council and the Working Group on Food and Hunger. He was editor of the Oxford Companion to Politics of the World and his most recent book entitled Of Foxes and Chickens: Oligarchy and Global Power in the UN Security Council.
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