By Thalif Deen
The following are excerpts from a just-published book “No Comment – and Don’t Quote me on That”, a collection of political anecdotes reflecting over 40 years of reporting from the United Nations*.
NEW YORK (IDN) – When UN member states compete for the presidency of the General Assembly or membership in the Security Council or in various UN bodies, the voting was largely tainted by bribery, cheque-book diplomacy and offers of luxury cruises in Europe – while promises of increased aid to the world’s poorer nations came mostly with heavy strings attached.
In a bygone era, voting was by a show of hands, particularly in committee rooms. But in later years, a more sophisticated electronic board, high up in the General Assembly Hall, tallied the votes or in the case of elections to the Security Council or the International Court of Justice, the voting was by secret ballot.
In one of the hard-fought elections many moons ago, there were rumours that an oil-soaked Middle Eastern country was doling out high-end, Swiss-made wristwatches and stocks in the former Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO), one of the world’s largest oil companies, to UN diplomats as a trade-off for their votes.
So, when hands, both from right-handed and left-handed delegates, went up at voting time in the Committee Room, the largest number of hands raised in favour of the oil-blessed candidate sported Swiss watches.
As anecdotes go, it symbolized the corruption that prevails in voting in inter-governmental organizations, including the United Nations – perhaps much like most national elections the world over.
Just ahead of an election for membership in the Security Council, one Western European country offered free Mediterranean luxury cruises in return for votes while another country dished out – openly in the General Assembly hall – boxes of gift-wrapped expensive Swiss chocolates.
So, it wasn’t surprising that the Ambassador of a middle-income developing country, who kept losing successive elections, jokingly told his Foreign Ministry officials: “Let’s stop running for elections until we can practice the fine art of stuffing ballot boxes – as we do back home.”
An age-old anecdote doing the rounds at the UN in the 1980s was a characteristically male chauvinist. When a lady says no, she means maybe, when she says maybe, she means yes – and when she says yes, she is no lady.
But election time at the UN is no better – simply because diplomatic double talk is a way of life in an institution where hopes are shattered by false promises.
When diplomats say maybe, they probably mean no, when they say yes, they mean maybe – and when they eventually say no, the message is transmitted via secret ballot.
If you don’t read the right signals way ahead of the polls, and if your numbers don’t add up, the best strategy is an exit strategy.
During the voting time, ambassadors routinely stick to the advice or instructions from their foreign ministries back home. But when the voting is by secret ballot it is difficult to enforce this rule.
When Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative Ambassador Daya Perera’s relationship with the Foreign Ministry soured, he told me: “My government can give me instructions on how to vote. But my vote will depend on the relationships I build with other ambassadors here.” The secret ballot ensured the voting was between him and the ballot box – and no one else was privy to it.
Fathulla Jameel, a former UN Ambassador and later Foreign Minister of the Maldives, recounted a story of how his resource-poor island nation, categorized by the UN as a Small Island Developing State (SID), would appeal to some of the richer nations to help fund some of the country’s infrastructure projects.
At least one rich Asian country, a traditional donor, was the first to respond – and magnanimously too, he said. The project would be fully funded – free, gratis and for nothing. But there was a catch: “If there is a vote at the UN, and it is not of any national interest to your country”, said the donor country’s foreign ministry, “we would like to get your vote.”
Perhaps for life – either the life of the Foreign Minister or the life of the island nation itself which was threatened with sea-level rise and in danger of being wiped off the face of the earth. The offer was a clever political payback. Development aid with no visible strings attached.
There was at least once instance when the president of the General Assembly, the highest policy-making body at the United Nations, was elected, on the luck of a draw – following a dead heat.
With the Asian group failing to field a single candidate, the politically-memorable battle took place ahead of the 36th session of the General Assembly back in 1981 when three Asian candidates contested the presidency: Ismat Kittani of Iraq, Tommy Koh of Singapore and Kwaja Mohammed Kaiser of Bangladesh (described as the “battle of three Ks” – Kittani, Koh and Kaiser).
On the first ballot, Kittani got 64 votes; Kaiser, 46; and Koh, 40. Still, Kittani was short of a required majority – of the total number of members voting. On a second ballot, Kittani and Kaiser tied with 73 votes each (with 146 members present, and voting).
In order to break the tie, the outgoing General Assembly President – Rudiger von Wechmar of Germany– drew lots, as specified in Article 21 relating to the procedures in the election of the president (and as recorded in the Repertory of Practice of the General Assembly).
And the luck of the draw, based purely on chance, favoured Kittani, in that unprecedented General Assembly election. But according to a joke circulating at that time, it was rumoured that the winner was decided by the flip of a coin – but the tossed coin apparently had two heads and no tail.
In more recent years, however, the regional groups, including the Asian, African, Latin American and Caribbean and the Western and Other Groups (WEOG) have called for a virtual ceasefire as they took turns according to the geographical rotation. The Groups would name their candidates who get elected without any opposition. [IDN-InDepthNews – 12 February 2021]
The book is available on Amazon. The link follows: https://www.rodericgrigson.com/no-comment-by-thalif-deen/
Photo: Voting by secret ballot. Credit: United Nations
IDN is flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.