The United Nations' 60th Anniversary Celebration in San Francisco on June 25, 2005
A zombietime exclusive on-site report
On June 26, 1945, The United Nations was founded in San Francisco, when delegates from around the world formally signed the U.N. Charter. Ever since then, the city of San Francisco has hosted 10-year U.N. anniversary celebrations in years that end in "5." I decided to attend this year's shindig, celebrating the U.N.'s 60th birthday.
In most decades, the U.N. birthdays have been major events, with presidents and world leaders showing up to mark the day. Truman was there in 1945; Eisenhower made an appearance in '55; Johnson showed up in '65; and Clinton in '95. (In 1985 Reagan sent Secretary of State George Shultz. 1975 was the exception, when the event was intentionally low-key and President Ford skipped the party entirely.)
So, this year, the event's organizers (the United Nations Association, or UNA) invited President Bush, Secretary of State Rice and many other leading national and international public figures, hoping to create a blockbuster celebration.
Only this time around, something went wrong. The White House seemed to ignore the invitation, and the head of the UNA started to gripe to the press. A weekend of celebrations and speeches was scheduled for June 25th and 26th, and soon it become quite clear that no one of significance was going to show up.
Much to the dismay of the organizers, the nonattendance of any real political celebrities became itself the one newsworthy aspect of the event:
The absence of the world's key players from the recent United Nations 60th anniversary in San Fransisco surprised even the U.N. members themselves. The disinterest came as a stark reminder that the world body is facing a crisis and is in desperate need of reform.
There was no Blair, Bush, Chirac or Putin and not even the top UN official, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, bothered to front up. Such indifference has to be an indication of the current lack of enthusiasm of the world's major players for the organization that is theoretically supposed to monitor and guide the course of world affairs.
Instead, the various events were attended by a crew of political "has-beens" and second-rank officials.
Considering President Bush's well-known distrust of the U.N., it could be expected that he'd give the anniversary a pass. More painful was the snub from Kofi Annan, who also stayed away and sent an underling in his stead.
But the press missed the biggest insult of them all. Both California Senators -- Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer -- as well as Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader, had all been invited, and were all in San Francisco on June 25th (the opening day of the celebration), but they all skipped the U.N. festivities and instead spent the day at a private party held by filmmaker George Lucas just two miles away at the Presidio. (The SF Chronicle's coverage of the Lucas event mentions them by title only, but the Chronicle did provide a photo of Boxer laughing it up with Lucas.)
That's gotta hurt. Especially since these three leading Democrats have been strong pro-U.N. voices in Congress. I guess partying with George Lucas is more important than world peace.
But the show must go on. The first event of the weekend was a program at the Stanford Court, a ritzy hotel at the top of the city's exclusive Nob Hill.
I was amazed to find only about 80 people in the audience. I was expecting a huge crowd.
The first speaker was announced as David O'Reilly, Chairman and CEO of Chevron. He didn't have much to say, but I got to thinking: why would a corporate CEO be the lead speaker at a U.N. conference?
After he finished, I got my answer, projected on the conference-room screen: Chevron was the main sponsor of the event. Even the U.N. is not above selling speech-making opportunites to the highest bidder.
Next up was UNA honcho Nancy Peterson -- the very person who had failed to attract any top politicos -- and though she tried to act cheery and excited, no one was fooled.
The UNA is a private nonprofit organization that acts as unapologetic cheerleaders for the U.N. The realities of the modern world are brushed aside and ignored -- the UNA promotes a utopian version of the U.N. that exists only in its members' distant memories, when the U.N. was perceived by wishful thinkers as the solution to world conflict.
This was revealed rather abruptly when another UNA member later grabbed the mike and...
...made a plea to the audience (QuickTime movie, 1.1mb):
(Clicking on this link -- and all the similar links below -- will open a QuickTime video file in a new window. Below each link is an exact transcription of the speaker's words.)
"So I really think we have to outlaw wars forever. And please, join your United Nations Association. You can make a difference."
Her words exemplified the naivete that marked the entire event. Despite everything that has happened since 1945, all the speakers and most of the attendees clung to the almost childish belief that wars could somehow be "outlawed" by the U.N. How exactly could such laws be enforced -- except militarily? And wouldn't a military intervention to prevent violence itself be classified as a "war" -- which is exactly what is happening now in Iraq?
Historian Christopher O'Sullivan then sketched out some of the historical origins of the United Nations. Things started to get interesting after his lecture during the question-and-answer session, when representatives from various ethnic groups stood up to point out how the impotent U.N. has failed to protect human rights around the world. A good example was this questioner who asked why the U.N. can do nothing about the repression in China (QuickTime movie, 6.5mb):
"U.S. has been, uh, trying really hard to pass a resolution in the U.N. about the human rights in China. Because, uh, there's persecution of the Christians, persecution of the, recently of the Falun Gong. But it has always failed. So I was wondering if you could comment on how, how useful really it is to press down on some of this issues in the U.N."
"There has been some comment in American newspapers in recent years about the displeasure of the Chinese either using the veto or threatening to use the veto, and my feeling is: you live by the veto, you also die by the veto. Uh, if you look at a roster of all of the vetoes that have been used since 1945, there are very few cases where any of them that have been issued were within the realm of what the founders considered would be legitimate use of the Security Council veto. ... This is a serious problem that you have when you're talking about doing anything that is perceived as impinging upon the interests of great powers, because they do have veto power, and they will veto actions that they perceive as being intended [against them]."
Exactly -- which is another reason why the U.N. will never succeed in passing a motion to outlaw war, since one or another country will see it as impinging on their sovereignty, and veto the motion.
During a break for "High Tea," audience members mingled with actors hired for the occasion to dress as if it was 1945. Which was quite telling, actually; just as the modern-day anti-war protesters wish it was 1968 all over again and want to recreate the ambience of that year, U.N.-boosters wish it was 1945 all over again and want to recreate the feeling of that year. This was their one opportunity to turn back the clock, not just fashion-wise but philosophically as well.
After the break came the heavy hitters -- or what passed for the heavy hitters in the feeble lineup of presenters.
Headliner Richard Sklar -- a "Friend of Bill" from the Clinton administration who's had a varied career in politics including a position in the 1972 McGovern campaign and (more significantly) a short stint as Clinton's Ambassador to the U.N. -- came out swinging. He immediately lashed into Bush, defended the U.N., and presented us with the now-familiar neo-Democratic narrative of recent events (QuickTime movie, 4.5mb):
"I now head to, to controversy-land. The U.N. came through for the U.S. again in the period 1991 to 2003, but the U.S. didn't pay attention and recognize it. The U.N. sanctions, the U.N. inspections, the IAEA, the inspections by Richard Butler and Hans Blix' crew had denied Saddam Hussein weapons of mass destruction. Our administration, sadly, didn't pick up on that, through either faulty intelligence or a desire not to know what the intelligence was telling us. And so, 1,700 American troops have been killed, 13,000 wounded, untold Iraqis damaged, and our relations with a large part of the world seriously damaged."
Next, Sklar put himself into the shoes of an Iranian Islamic revolutionary, and presented us with the mullahs' point of view regarding nuclear weapons, patiently explaining why the West has no real valid argument to prevent Iran from obtaining nukes (QuickTime movie, 2.6mb):
"Because his neighbors to the east Pakistan and India have 'em, his neighbor to the north Russia has the weapon, his antagonist to the southwest Israel has them. He's surrounded by occupiers in Afghanistan and Iraq on his borders -- the United States -- that have these weapons. So it's a tough, tough deal to deal with it, but it's one the U.N. is infinitely equipped to deal with, and we ought to use it. I don't know the answer, but the U.N. has gotta be there of course."
The U.N. is "infinitely equipped" to deal with the Iranian nuclear crisis? R-i-i-i-i-i-ght.
Of course, no political speech is complete without a gratuitous but de rigueur mention of -- you guessed it -- Guantanamo! Abu Ghraib! And let's toss a new one in the mix: Bagram! (QuickTime movie, 1.2mb):
"It scares me a little, um, that Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram may call in question the membership of the leading light that followed under Roosevelt on this."
After Sklar's speech, an astounding thing happened: a very brave audience member stood up and asked the question no one else dared to ask, shattering the conspiracy of silence in this nexus of U.N. boosterism; Sklar tripped all over himself trying to exculpate Annan, pointing fingers at the U.S. and Britain as the real culprits: (QuickTime movie, 14.1mb; note the large file size):
"The Senate report -- The Volcker Report -- are not finished yet, concerning the possible corruption in the U.N. Oil-for-Peace [i.e. Oil-for-Food], but it looks very clear, it seems to me, that there's a smell about Kofi Annan. Now most recently about his assistant who has a sweetheart deal up in Katonah from George Soros. So, the corruption issue is going to be, uh, burst forth, it looks like, uh, within a few months. Uh, do you believe Kofi Annan's going to go? What effect is this going to have on the United Nations? And what happens if you're a pro-U.N. person like yourself to save the reek of corruption, uh, and push the United Nations back onto an honest track?"
"The-- there is unquestionably corruption on the Oil-for-Food program: no question about it. Carried out at mid-, low and maybe high levels, if you include Sevan
who appears to be there, though I don't declare people guilty based upon newspaper articles. High up. But there's another piece of it. I don't -- I don't in any way condone it. A disgrace, OK? The Oil-for-Food program had another underlying layer to it, where the United States and Britain condoned and accepted corruption, smuggling and the getting money to, uh, Saddam Hussein. Separate from this. We were determined that Jordan and Turkey not be damaged by the Oil-for-Food ban. So we winked. We didn't wink, we just said -- and our instructions were -- ignore it, let it happen. 90% of the money that Saddam got outside the legitimate program was gotten through the smuggling through Jordan and Turkey, accepted by Britain and the U.S., so that we could keep those countries viable. That does not excuse the personal corruption. It's my understanding -- I'm not an expert on this -- that the system devised was so weak, so poor, and so driven by Saddam and some French bankers, that it was almost an invitation to steal. A disgrace. With respect to Kofi Annan's thing: I have strong feelings about my children, and my work, and my family, and nepotism. I will personally say I think it was wrong for his son to be involved at all. More than that, I don't know."
(Sklar makes it a habit of explaining away corruption by saying the system was "an invitation to steal"; he made the same argument in 2001 about the California energy crisis [search for "Sklar" on the linked page].)
Next up was the U.N.
Minister of Propaganda Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Shashi Tharoor, who put the toppled statue of Kofi Annan back on its pedestal, and sang the praises of the U.N.'s impotent declarations (QuickTime movie, 2.8mb):
"He [Annan] has made the point that the U.N. must have moral clarity, it must speak loudly and clearly in denouncing terrorism. And serve as an effective international forum of combatting it. And he has advanced a case for a comprehensive convention, as well as a clear strategy for doing so. Um.... Calling for a simple unambiguous definition, for instance, that states that regardless of the justice of any cause, it is not acceptable to kill or maim innocent civilians."
Ooooh, the dreaded "not acceptable" gambit! The terrorists might as well just give up now.
Wrapping up the proceedings was Sichan Siv, the person sent by the White House as the fill-in for President Bush. Siv had been appointed by Bush as the "U.S. Representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council," and was sent to this U.N. event specifically because no one had ever heard of him -- an indicator of the administration's disdain for the proceedings.
Siv put on a brave face and gave a nice speech promoting the U.S. as the only hope to save the U.N. and ensure global stability. People clapped politely.
As soon as the speeches were over, a select number of VIPs headed across the street to the highlight of the day's celebrations, a "Welcome reception for visiting dignitaries and distinguished members of the San Francisco and Los Angeles consular corps" at the University Club, one of the most exclusive private clubs in the city.
The University Club occupies an elegant brick building also on Nob Hill, right next to the cable car line. A pair of policemen guarded the door to keep out the riff-raff. Being either a visiting dignitary or a member of the consular corps, I was ushered right in.
Awaiting the VIPs was an array of gourmet delicacies; there were no less than five different buffet areas and hosted bars throughout the building.
The ambassadors and under-secretaries had a jolly good time. I suspect that world poverty was the last thing on their minds.
Then the real celebrity showed up: San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. The lesser VIPs gathered around in awe.
Newsom gave a stirring speech, though in this picture he resembled a Satanic orator at a Fascist rally.
Afterwards, Shashi Tharoor, Gavin Newsom and Nancy Peterson had a powwow. Significance emanated from their personages.
The socializing continued all afternoon.
The purported reason for holding the party at the University Club was its unique display of rare vintage photographs taken in San Francisco at the U.N. founding in 1945. In this photo, President Truman shows up at the Fairmont Hotel, which just happens to be right across the street from the University Club itself.
Truman seemed to be in a good mood. I guess ending a world war can do that to you.
The photo exhibit started to become unnerving halfway through. In this picture, Alger Hiss -- who was Secretary General of the founding charter conference -- presides over the founding of the United Nations. Why unnerving? Because we now know that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy before and during the founding of the U.N., and that he was working to promote the global Communist movement. Hmmmm.
Nearby was a photo of Amir Faisal, then the Prince (and later to be the King) of Saudi Arabia. Faisal attended the U.N. Conference as the Arab representative. Later, as King, he called an Islamic summit to combat encroaching democracy and to promote fundamentalist Islamic government.
Strangely, right below the photo of Faisal was a magazine with Chairman Mao on the cover.
And on that disorienting note, I bid farewell to my fellow guests.
(The following day -- the 26th, the actual anniversary of the U.N. charter signing -- was to feature classical music performances and a speech from former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, none of which seemed particularly newsworthy, so I decided to skip the festivities.)
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