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T P Sreenivasan on past UN mistakes

Last updated on: February 14, 2011 14:12 IST

UN gaffes are not rare

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T P Sreenivasan
Gaffes in the UN create some red faces and send a few chuckles around, but do not harm anyone as each country's position is known and the situation can easily be retrieved, says T P Sreenivasan.

No wonder only the Indian ambassador realised that our minister of external affairs was reading the wrong speech at the UN Security Council. The others were not listening, not even the Portuguese delegate who authored the text.

In the UN, delegates develop selective hearing, because no one can listen to the millions of words spoken every day. Everyone knows that the first few minutes of the speeches in the Security Council will be devoted to congratulating the present President on his assumption of the position even though it is by rotation and thanking the previous President for his accomplishments, even if he did not achieve anything during his month- long presidency.

The members of the Council were waiting for our minister to come to the substance of the debate to give him some attention. If he had said anything new or original, it would not have gone unnoticed.

But what happened to the practice in our Permanent Mission in New York of one officer being assigned to every politician to keep a copy of the speech and to make sure that every word is delivered correctly?

In the case of the minister of external affairs, this used to be done at the level of the Deputy Permanent Representative himself. How could the officers occupying the four chairs behind the minister not know he was reading the wrong speech for full three minutes?

Has the good custom of having a heading and even a separate cover sheet for the speeches of the ministers been abandoned? Did the Portuguese mission also circulate the speech without a heading or a cover? We need to have answers to these questions if we have to understand where the system went wrong.

Such things are too important to be left to the minister himself. After all, ministers have too many things on their mind to check whether the text placed before them is the right one. The topic of the debate was also a motherhood issue, development, not any controversial matter.

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna. For more articles by Ambassador Sreenivasan, please click here


Image: Foreign Minister S M Krishna read the wrong speech at the UN on Friday before being corrected by Ambassador Hardeep Puri, seen standing behind.
Photographs: Jay Mandal/ On Assignment
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One minister read 'Namibia' as 'Nambiar' repeatedly!

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I have had some experience of gaffes by our political delegates misreading or mispronouncing words. One distinguished minister of state read 'Namibia' as 'Nambiar' repeatedly from the podium of the General Assembly. Unlike in the Security Council, no one sits or stands behind the speaker when he speaks and there is no way to communicate with him quickly to correct any mistake.

Another delegate -- this time a lady -- accustomed as she was during the decolonisation days to condemnations of various policies of imperial powers, decided to 'condemn' UNESCO for helping a non-self governing territory to preserve its cultural heritage. The text, of course, meant to commend the UN agency!

Speaking of pronunciation, my Indonesian colleague, sitting next to me in the General Assembly hall asked me once what language our delegate was speaking in. Normally if a delegate does not speak in any of the six languages of the UN, someone would read the English text from the booth. My Indonesian friend could not catch the English version as our delegate was actually speaking in his version of English.

On one occasion, we had a truly sick external affairs minister, who should have stayed at home without taking the strain of travelling to New York. In fact, the minister of state was also sent to New York at the same time in case the minister needed any help.

But our minister insisted on doing everything that the ministers were expected to do, like making speeches and holding bilateral meetings. He resented any suggestion that he might want to rest after a few meetings.

That was one occasion when I had smuggled myself behind the podium with the permission of the chair when the minister spoke to help him, if necessary.

In replying to the minister's comments on Jammu & Kashmir, a particularly vicious Pakistani delegate referred to India as 'the sick man of Asia', hitting somewhat below the belt.

The same minister left us in a quandary when he called on the Secretary General. The minister described all the problems we were having with Pakistan and repeatedly asked the Secretary General to intervene in some way. The Secretary General, who was very keen to intervene, knew the Indian policy too well to take the request seriously.

Still, we did not feel comfortable till we wrote a letter to the Secretary General, on our return to the mission, that the minister did not really mean to request for mediation.


Image: The United Nations in New York.
Photographs: Mike Segar/Reuters
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India is not the only country that generates such gaffes at the UN

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We also had political delegates, who wanted to change policy when they were at the UN. A very senior delegate was convinced that our policy on Afghanistan was wrong. He was inclined to support the resolutions, which criticised the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but our policy was to abstain on them.

We had abstained on the main resolution already, but in one of the committees, a similar resolution was introduced.

Knowing his views, I tried to send him for coffee to the delegates' lounge when the vote came up. He was not interested in shopping or sightseeing. He was also very conscientious and did not leave the chair in the committee.

When a roll call vote was announced and India's name was called, he said 'yes', but I shouted loudly 'abstention' from behind him. The secretariat official, who knew the Indian position well, recorded our vote as abstention and our delegate was not any wiser. He was hard of hearing.

We had another delegate, who was convinced that our policy on East Timor was faulty. He was seen hobnobbing with the Portuguese delegation in the lounge occasionally. He tried to persuade me to change our position on East Timor and denounce Indonesian colonialism.

I explained to him the rationale of our policy and said that he could take the matter up with Delhi, which he was not inclined to do. He watered down the language of the speech I gave him, but as long as the speech conformed to the established policy of the government, I had no problem.

I kept a close watch on him as he read the speech and, sure enough, he deliberately changed a phrase to dilute it further. The statement that the people of East Timor had already exercised their right to self-determination was changed to suggest that we were not convinced that it was so.

I was astonished by his dishonesty, but without saying a word, I went to the secretariat and handed over a copy of the speech and said that it should be reflected faithfully and the electronic recording should be ignored.

The secretariat normally obliges in such cases, but it does insist occasionally on showing the original and the correction. If a delegation votes wrongly on a particular resolution, the original vote will be recorded together with the amendment submitted subsequently.

In the case of the Security Council, I do not know whether the secretariat will insist on recording the pleasure of our minister in seeing two countries of the Portuguese-speaking community in the Security Council.


Image: The United Nations secretariat building in New York
Photographs: Mike Segar/Reuters
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UN archives have plenty of faux pas recorded for posterity

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India is not the only country that generates such gaffes in the UN. Uganda had a big problem once when no Ugandan delegate was present in the General Assembly hall. When Uganda's name was called, someone walked to the podium and made a speech denouncing the reigning President of Uganda, Idi Amin.

By the time the official delegates heard about it and rushed to the hall to challenge him, the damage was done and the news was already in the air. The whole Ugandan team was recalled and a new team was sent with instructions that the Ugandan chairs should never be left vacant.

Pakistan had to contend with a politician, a member of the official delegation, who denounced the regime in Islamabad. Knowing his views, the mission had refused to print out his speech, but he managed to type it on the teleprinter.

Once when the Iraqi delegate referred to the Kuwaitis as small people, the interpreter referred to them as 'pygmies'. The Zaire delegate protested and the Iraqi did not know why. 'Pygmies' is not a politically correct word in Zaire! A delegate was asked to repeat his vote four times till the secretariat was convinced that he was acting as instructed.

Gaffes in the UN create some red faces and send a few chuckles around, but do not harm anyone as each country's position is known and the situation can easily be retrieved. These add some entertainment to the rest of the dull proceedings and go down to the archives, which have plenty of faux pas recorded for posterity.


Image: Foreign Minister S M Krishna with Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado at the UN.
Photographs: Jay Mandal/On Assignment
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