By Thalif Deen*
This article contains excerpts from a recently-released book* on the United Nations titled “No Comment–and Don’t Quote Me on that” available on Amazon: https://www.rodericgrigson.com/no-comment-by-thalif-deen/
UNITED NATIONS (IDN) — During the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and particularly in the 1960s, the United Nations was the ideological battleground where the Americans and the Soviets pummeled each other—metaphorically speaking—either on the floor of the cavernous General Assembly Hall or at the horse-shoe table of the Security Council.
Perhaps one of the most memorable war of words took place in October 1962 when the politically-feisty US Ambassador Adlai Stevenson challenged Soviet envoy Valerian Zorin over allegations that the USSR, perhaps under cover of darkness, had moved nuclear missiles into Cuba—and within annihilating distance of the United States.
Speaking at a tense Security Council meeting, Stevenson admonished Zorin: “I remind you that you didn’t deny the existence of these weapons. Instead, we heard that they had suddenly become defensive weapons. But today—again, if I heard you correctly—you now say they don’t exist, or that we haven’t proved they exist, with another fine flood of rhetorical scorn.”
“All right sir”, said Stevenson, “let me ask you one simple question. Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the USSR has placed and is placing medium and intermediate range missiles and sites in Cuba?” “Yes or no? Don’t wait for the translation: Yes or No?”, Stevenson insisted with a tone of implied arrogance.
Speaking in Russian through a UN translator (who faithfully translated the US envoy’s sentiments into English), Zorin shot back: “I am not in an American courtroom, sir, and therefore I do not wish to answer a question that is put to me in the fashion in which a prosecutor does. In due course, sir, you will have your reply. Do not worry.”
Not to be outwitted, Stevenson howled back: “You are in the court of world opinion right now, and you can answer yes or no. You have denied that they exist. I want to know if …I’ve understood you correctly.”
When Zorin said he will provide the answer in “due course”, Stevenson famously declared: “I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over.”
And now, more than four decades later, there is a new Cold War which has kept the Security Council deadlocked on several ongoing civil wars and political and military conflicts, including in Yemen, Libya, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Syria, and most recently, Ukraine, whose Russian invasion will mark its first anniversary on February 24.
But this time, the confrontation is with China and Russia, on one side and the US, UK and France on the other—and all of them veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council.
When he addressed the Security Council in April 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy rightfully asked: “Where is the peace that the United Nations was created to guarantee? And “where is the security that the Security Council was supposed to guarantee?”
The UN has also remained helpless—with a divided Security Council in virtual paralysis — in another long-running political issue: the nuclear threat from North Korea, where a Security Council resolution for additional sanctions against DPRK was vetoed last May by Russia and China (even though it garnered 13 out of 15 votes).
Dr. Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, told IDN: “As it has been since the earliest days of the Cold War, the permanent members of the Security Council (P5) have placed support for their allies and their own narrowly-defined geopolitical objectives over the Council’s mandate to maintain international peace and security”.
During the UN’s first 25 years, he pointed out, it was the Soviets who primarily abused their veto power. For the next forty years, it was the United States. More recently, Russia has emerged as the single biggest obstacle for the passage of what would otherwise be unanimous Security Council resolutions.
“Despite being based on the foundation of collective security against aggression, the Security Council remains deadlocked over enforcement of even such foundational principles as the illegality of any country expanding its territory by force,” he argued.
“The United States has blocked any substantive action against Israel’s conquests of neighboring Arab territories, France has led the way in preventing the Security Council from pressing Morocco to end its illegal occupation of Western Sahara, and Russia has made it impossible for the Council to respond to their invasion of Ukraine,” said Zunes, a specialist on the politics of the Security Council.
Though the inability of the Security Council to effectively respond to recent Russian aggression has captured international attention, the fact that France and the United States have also blocked the Security Council from taking action in response to aggression by their allies gives them little credibility in protesting the UN’s failures to uphold its charter in regard to Ukraine, he noted.
For example, Washington’s insistence that the questions of Palestine and Western Sahara be resolved only through bilateral negotiations not only ignores the gross asymmetry in power between the occupying power and those under occupation but assumes that the Security Council should not fulfill its mandated role to restore international peace and security in the face of territorial conquest, declared Zunes.
In a report on January 30, PassBlue pointed out that Brazil, Germany, India and Japan, (the G-4), have been vying for permanent seats for decades. Italy objects to Germany, Pakistan objects to India, Argentina objects to Brazil and African nations have yet to decide on their candidates, although they want two permanent seats.
Arab nations also want a representative on the Council and Benelux countries, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, have their own position to name only a few competing interests.
Meanwhile, the United Nations, along with the 193 diplomatic missions located in New York, have long been a veritable battleground for spying, wire-tapping and electronic surveillance.
In December 2013, the New York Times ran a story about the widespread electronic surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain’s spy agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which had targeted over 1,000 political leaders, diplomats, and international institutions. These included the UN children’s agency UNICEF and the Geneva-based United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).
At the UN, virtually all the big powers play the spying game, including the US, the Russians (and the Soviets during the Cold War era), the French, the Brits, and the Chinese—and none of them can afford to take a “holier than thou” attitude.
During the height of the Cold War in the 1960s and 1970s, the UN was a veritable battle ground for the United States and the now-defunct Soviet Union to spy on each other.
The American and Soviet spooks were known to be crawling all over the building—in committee rooms, in the press gallery, in the Secretariat and, most importantly, in the UN library which was a drop-off point for sensitive political documents.
The extent of Cold War espionage in the United Nations was also laid bare by a 1975 US Congressional Committee, named after Senator Frank Church (Democrat-Idaho) who chaired it while investigating abuses by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
The evidence given before the Church Committee included a revelation that the CIA had planted one of its lip-reading experts— specifically a Russian lip-reading expert—in a press booth overlooking the Security Council chamber so that he could monitor the lip movements of Russian delegates, as they consulted each other in low whispers.
Obviously, there was nothing sacred in the corridors of power at the United Nations.
In his 1978 book, “A Dangerous Place,” Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former US envoy to the United Nations, described the cat-and-mouse espionage game that went on inside the bowels of the world body, and particularly the UN library.
Back in October 2013, When Clare Short, Britain’s former minister for international development, revealed that British intelligence agents had spied on former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan by bugging his office just before the disastrous US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the UN chief was furious that his discussions with world leaders had been compromised.
And as she talked to Annan on the 38th floor of the UN Secretariat building, Short told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), she was thinking, “Oh dear, there will be a transcript of this, and people will see what he and I are saying.” Nearly 10 years later, the accusing finger was pointed towards the United States, not Britain.
* Thalif Deen, author of the book “No Comment – and Don’t Quote Me on That,” is Editor-at-Large at the Berlin-based In-Depth News Service (IDN), an ex-UN staffer and a former member of the Sri Lanka delegation to the UN General Assembly sessions. A Fulbright scholar with a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Columbia University, New York, he shared the gold medal twice (2012-2013) for excellence in UN reporting awarded by the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA). [IDN-InDepthNews — 05 February 2023]
Image credit: United Nations
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