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At the UN, Questions of Iran Texts, Eels and Laws in Pakistan and Georgia

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, March 13 -- When is a text not a text? In the hallway outside the Security Council on Tuesday morning, referring to their negotiations to impose another round of sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program, diplomats from the Permanent Five members used different definitions of the T word. At 11 a.m., Ambassador Wang of China said that "there is a text, but there are some areas that need to be clarified."

            Thereafter, a French diplomat insisted that "we don't have agreement, so there is no text." One observer cast about for insight from French author Roland Barthes' 1973 tome, "The Pleasures of the Text," without satisfaction.

            Soon it was announced by this month's Council president, South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo, that the non-Permanent Ten have requested consultations on Iran on Wednesday afternoon, whether there is a P-5 agreed text then or not.

            Inner City Press asked Ambassador Kumalo about Georgia. "What?" he asked, saying he wondered if this involved the American South. He said, "I was thinking about Atlanta." No, Abkhazia, the recent vote and allegations that Russia strafed and bombed the upper Kodori gorge. Amb. Kumalo laughed, then said the Georgian Ambassador had met with him, but before these events. A staffer had told Inner City Press that Georgia had submitted a letter to the Council President's office about the vote. Amb. Kumalo said that might be, but he wasn't aware of it. Ah, Abkhazia...

Amb. Kumalo: Atlanta, not Abkhazia, Georgia

            There were other laughs on Wednesday, including just outside the Security Council. After her briefing on population trends, Hania Zlotnik was sitting to the side of the Council entrance, in what she called a drab area. Inner City Press asked about the admittedly grassroots but still-developing story of rodents and eels in the UN. Note to those who man the water-screening machines in the third sub-basement: Ms. Zlotnick said that she is a culinary fan of eels.

            Her briefing involved population growth and loss trends and projections to 2050. Inner City Press asked about the Russian Federation, where a one-quarter decline in population is projected. Ms. Zlotnick responded that while there is immigration into Russia from the former Russian republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States, these CIS States no longer have fast-growing populations. But perhaps no every place need more people, Ms. Zlotnick opined. To demonstrate two modes of population growth, Ms. Zlotnick brought differently-shaped pottery. Those who use Power Point as a crutch could have learned from this old school show-and-tell.

            At Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson's noon briefing, Inner City Press asked about two breakdowns of law and order, and got referred to Louise Arbour. From the transcript:

Question:  Two rule of law questions.  In the news, there are protests in Pakistan of the President arresting or of taking the Chief Judge and putting him out.  I'm wondering if the Secretariat or anyone in the UN system is monitoring it or has anything to say about it?

Spokesperson:  I'm sure the High Commissioner for Human Rights is following these issues.  I don't have any statements on that.

Question:  Also, there seems to be a trend.  In Uganda, yesterday you said you praised the LRA talks.  There's quite an uproar about suspects in court being [re-arrested] by the military after having been found not guilty.  So I'm wondering is there a Special Rapporteur who covers breakdowns and rule of law in court systems?  

Spokesperson:  We have a High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Her office follows all those issues.

Question:  Yesterday, you spoke about Zimbabwe, which is all to your credit, and so did she.  So who decides when you speak and when only she speaks?

Spokesperson:  I think she's a very powerful voice.

            Agreed. Still, the mystery of speaking on one situation and not another, next door, remains to be explained. Inner City Press re-posed the questions to the spokeswoman for Ms. Arbour last time she was in New York, and will report any comment on this site. Inner City Press also re-posed questions previously sent to the UN Political Office on Somalia and has been told that Francois Lonseny Fall will be asked. Watch this site.

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At the UN, Iran Process Speeds Up Amid Secret Meetings, Uganda, Citigroup and the Global Compact

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN

UNITED NATIONS, March 12 -- At the UN on Monday, while the Security Council's Permanent Five members, and Germany, at least briefed the press after their closed-down meeting about Iran sanctions, elsewhere the UN was more untransparent than ever. In the basement, outside nearly every conference room was the notation "Closed Meeting." Most often this was on the flat screen TVs that cryptically say what is going on inside. For example, G77 on internal justice, or, meeting on restructuring of DPKO (peacekeeping). But on Conference Room 4, where the flat screen didn't say anything about the Sixth (Legal) Committee's meeting on internal justice being closed, a handwritten sign was on the door: closed meeting. Why?

            After the P5 Plus One (or EU 3 Plus Three -- six of one, half a dozen of the other) about Iran, carried out this time inside the UN, French Ambassador de la Sabliere said:

"I will not go into specifics, since the best we can do is to keep the negotiations confidential. But I can say that we are now very close. It is the best meeting we had since the beginning of the negotiations. I hope that tomorrow morning we will be able to inform other members of the Council that we have a good text. It is important to have a good text, which shows a progressive approach.  We want the Iranian government to understand that it has a choice to make and that it has to come back to negotiations."

            The process went "back to capital" overnight. U.S. Ambassador Wolff, whose capital is closest, was the least optimistic. Meanwhile, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he would address the Security Council in opposition of the proposed sanctions. As one wag put it, he better hurry.

Ahmadinejad: (past) time to call the travel agent

            While Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson's noon briefing was full of questions about Sudanese president al Bashir (and Inner City Press asking first the spokesperson then UNDP about the just-begun audit of North Korea operations), Ban Ki-moon himself was meeting at noon with the permanent representative of Uganda. Did Ban bring up the Ugandan army's incursion into the court system? The unresolved killings by the army? This is not known.

            Nor is the purpose of Ban's 4 p.m. meeting with  the chairman of the international advisory board of Citigroup, identified as such on Ban's schedule. The connection, while not noted on his schedule, is presumably the Middle East Quartet. But did Ban bring up -- has he or should he -- the Global Compact? Most the Global Compact did a selective media briefing, only "for the wires," some said. Other said, only for non-critical media. We'll see

In Iran Talks, China Offers Quotes and Hope to Shivering Reporters

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, March 9 -- As a next round of sanctions on Iran for its nuclear programs are discussed by the five permanent member nations of the Security Council and Germany, Thomas Matussek, the German envoy, predicted that the penalties agreed to will be "swift and modest." To this process, the UN press corps adds another adjective through chattering teeth: cold.

            Talks have so far been held outside of the UN, in the United Kingdom's mission in 1 Dag Hammarskjold Plaza on 47th Street and Second Avenue in New York, where the temperature has been below freezing. Ambassadors emerge from the talks to inform or spin reporters about the negotiations. Thursday evening, U.S. Ambassador Alejandro Wolff came out spoke to a dozen journalists waiting on the sidewalk in the cold. His comments were a model of bland diplomacy:

Amb. Wolff: The devil is in the details on these things as you know... We're doing a lot of explaining in different terms of what peoples' concerns are, and what is the best way to get our ultimate objective, and the ultimate objective is a shared one, to signal to the Iranian government that there is a cost for not adhering to resolutions, for not complying with their obligations, and the cost increases each time they don't comply.

            These comments were, reporters noted, less than useful.  The talks resumed at 10 a.m. on Friday, an even colder day in New York. Reporters were shivering when the meeting broke up at 1 p.m.. But this time, Chinese Ambassador Guangya Wang provided more specifics:

Q. Do you see this going on for a few more weeks?

Amb. Wang: I hope if it goes well, then at least I don't think we will be ready by next week.

Q. Not by next week?

Amb. Wang: No. My feeling is, not.

Q. Ambassador, one more thing. Yesterday, the State Dept. spokesman indicated that this time Chinese are more resisting than Russians. How do you respond?

Amb. Wang:  I think... the difficulty for China is different from the difficulty that Russians have.

Q. Can you elaborate on that?

Amb. Wang: I think the Chinese main difficulty is with the financial and trade sanctions against Iran, because we feel that we are not punishing Iranian people. We should punish the Iranians for their activities in the nuclear field. And the difficulty for Russia is, Russia has difficulty with the name of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, because they feel it's an institution in Iran and you don't have to penalize an institution.

            Reporters were grateful for the quotes, which appeared in Reuters and in much of the Japanese press. But the stock of Ambassador Wang and perhaps of China rose even higher with the press corps when he expressed chagrin or at least some doubts about holding the meetings outside of the UN, where reporters have to wait outside in the cold. You have no place to sit, and now water, Amb. Wang remarked, mentioning that he will try to move the forthcoming meetings back into the UN building. 

   Other Ambassadors at the talks did not express this concern; one press spokesperson remarked that no one obliged reporters to come and wait for quotes in the cold. Provoking the most ire, after French Ambassador Jean Marc de la Sabliere did not come outside for even a moment to speak, since his office is inside the building, his spokesman sent reporters a short bilingual (and unusable) quote by e-mail: "The meeting was constructive. We are making progress / Nous avancons."

            Merci for nothing, muttered one reporter. The ink-stained sources cited in this piece are granted anonymity due to their need for continued access to thin-skinned diplomats.

Amb. Wang speaks to Amb. de la Sabliere (Froid? Moi? )

            There is a saying in courthouses, that the law is what the judge had for breakfast.  Likewise, some of journalism is impacted by how the journalists are treated. If the personal is political, one can expect more understanding coverage of China's positions, at least during these Iran sanctions negotiations.

            One reporter marveled that China was so humane in New York, while taking a different approach back home (for example, shooting some of those trying to flee Tibet, click here for that story.) Another wag -- this one -- quipped that if the North Koreans sent blankets, hot coffee and construction heaters to the press corps on 47th Street, their line that the United States and the UN are "gangster-like" might gain a bit more traction.

In full disclosure, while the account of Thursday evening's stakeout is first-hand, on Friday while the above-described took place, Inner City Press was posing questions to the UN's envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa and to Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson about North Korea, in the too-warm UN briefing room. Click here for Inner City Press' most recent (and, one hopes, more substantive) story on the UN's dealings with North Korea. The spokesperson referred the question to the South Korean mission. But that's west of First Avenue, and as more than one reporter signed, it's coooold outside. To be continued.

Other, earlier Inner City Press are listed here, and some are available in the ProQuest service.

            Copyright 2006 Inner City Press, Inc. To request reprint or other permission, e-contact Editorial [at] -

UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540