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United Nations of Jaw-Jaw

Bizarre points - It’s long-winded speech time as the United Nations holds yet another of its large international conferences. But it hasn’t always been dry as dust in the UN’s hallowed halls, reports Aniruddh Bhattacharya.
None | By Aniruddh Bhattacharya
UPDATED ON MAY 01, 2010 11:10 PM IST

The United Nations lies a couple of blocks east of New York’s commuter hub, Grand Central Station. Somewhat fittingly, New Yorkers some call the venerable international institution Rant Central Station. It may be the premiere multilateral organisation, but the United Nations in its years of existence has seen more than its share of rhetoric and bombast.

The speeches get that much more strident when the platform provides the speakers a global audience. Or if they are in trouble at home and want to use the credibility of the highest international podium to play to the domestic galleries. A popular time for all this, of course, is during the General Assembly sessions in September.

Or now, as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference is set to begin on Monday and the representatives of over 100 governments congregate. This time attention will be on Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who, in his recent appearances in the Big Apple, hasn’t disappointed when it comes to talking the talk.

Of course, Ahmadinejad, the only head of state to be attending the NPT conference, will find it difficult to match up to Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gadaffi, who may have set a new standard for the bizarre at last year’s UNGA. Gadaffi’s rambling lecture lasted for 94 minutes. His personal translator lasted for 90 minutes, collapsing towards the end, reportedly saying, “I can’t take this any more.”

Gadaffi, who tried unsuccessfully to literally pitch his tent in Manhattan and then in a New York suburb, did so, figuratively, at the UNGA podium. Though he would rather have been elsewhere, as he focused on how the UN should be shifted to the Eastern Hemisphere. He lectured world leaders on the importance of being able to take on the challenge of jet lag: “You are all tired and sleepy and your timing has changed and you are physically exhausted. Some of you travelled for 20 hours. How can you deliver speeches and tackle the future of the world? You are all sleepy and it is clear you are all tired.”

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will lead the US delegation to the conference, the highest ranking person the US has sent in decades. Bush, reflecting a general Republican disdain for the UN, sent a lowly assistant secretary to the last NPT review conference.

Joshua Keating, associate editor Foreign Policy, said that the UN had become a place for “memorable, colourful speeches.” Keating, who created a slideshow for the magazine’s website on a selection of such speeches, explained why he thought the UN was a forum for hyperbole: “It’s a platform where, for at least one day, the whole world is watching what you have to say.”

But Gadaffi brought new life to a UN tradition that saw plenty of action during the Cold War.

In 1960, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, unhappy with a critical speech by a Filipino representative, described that gentleman as a “toady” of America and to add emphasis banged his shoe on the lectern before him.

He later explained his motive: “I decided to add a little more heat. I took off my shoe and pounded it on desk so that our protest would be louder.”

But recent years have been particularly productive when it comes to outbursts. This was especially true when George W Bush was the US President.

In 2006, a day after Bush had spoken at the UNGA, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, made the sign of the cross and told the General Assembly: “And the devil came here yesterday. Yesterday the devil came here. Right here. And it smells of sulphur still today.”

Bush’s other detractors at the UNGA included Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Mugabe also included the two last British Prime Ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, in his diatribe, as he said, “Mr Bush, Mr Blair and now Mr Brown’s sense of human rights precludes our people’s right to their God-given resources, which in their view must be controlled by their kith and kin. I am termed dictator because I have rejected this supremacist view and frustrated the neo-colonialists.”

That was in 2007, the same year Ahmadinejad made his maiden appearance at the UNGA and delivered a speech, that other than the expected outrage over ‘Zionism’, was heavy on theology. He, however, left his best for a speech at Columbia University, where he denied the existence of homosexuals in Iran.

Obviously, for decades, US presidents have been the preferred target not least because UN speeches are effectively being made on American territory.

During a four-and-a-half hour speech in 1960, the longest ever made in the General Assembly, then Cuban President FidelCastro took off on John F Kennedy describing him as a “millionaire, illiterate and ignorant.”

In 1987, then Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega had some advice for Ronald Reagan: “Before consulting the hotheads who present various military options such as a military invasion: remember, President Reagan, Rambo only exists in the movies.”

Castro lost points, however, by keeping live chickens in his New York hotel room.

Chavez also went cinematic 20 years later as he argued that if the Bush Administration’s policy were an Alfred Hitchcock film, it could be called The Devil’s Recipe.

Obviously, those who criticize the United Nations as a dull place populated by bureaucrats, haven’t been listening to the right people.

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