Incidental New Yorker (VIII) caught in the swing door of the world

October 4, 2015

What really made us feel part of the UN family was an e-mail a while back from the UN administration informing us that there were bed bugs at HQ here in New York and urging us to be vigilant! Messages like that sort of keep you grounded – which is one thing I haven’t felt recently at the UN, grounded. It has been like being gorgeously caught in the swing door of the world.

I have met, made conversation with, lunched, dined, snacked, eaten breakfast with, shaken hands with, listened to speeches by, run into in the halls or just bumped into kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers, secretary generals, under secretary generals, friends, brilliant leaders, benevolent leaders, nasty dictators, despots, good guys, bad guys – and more. When UNMAS (UN Mine Action Service) goodwill ambassador Daniel Craig asked for my name card, I’d run out! This will never happen again! But we did meet again at a reception the following day.

Front row at the General Assembly © UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz

While I was sitting in my designated seat listening to speeches, Robert Mugabe entered the Assembly Hall; almost stumbling he grabbed my arm hard for support. It felt like eagle claws! Whether by coincidence or plan, hard on his heels was Hun Sen, likeminded prime minister from Cambodia. I watched Belarus leader Lukasjenko as he stared down at the empty desk before him when Secretary General, Mr Ban Ki-moon stressed the need for respecting and implementing human rights. 

My husband took office as President of the General Assembly, PGA, on the 15th of September; well deserved and fit for fight. I watched and listened with considerable pride (and in the process became Mrs PGA 70) – and dashed off to Copenhagen to chair a conference on Mongolia at the Danish parliament and launch my new book on wonderful Mongolia.

Back in NYC the following week, I watched the most magnificent light show on the North side of the tall secretariat building and the Western side of the low, softly rounded Assembly Hall building celebrating the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs that together make up the Universal 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Brilliant light show of the SDGs at the UN HQ. Tell Everyone! © Mette Holm

Friday I was in the Assembly Hall when world leaders adopted the SDGs. Procedure called for Denmark’s prime minister to do the honours and this second time round he got things right when he banged a UN gavel to punctuate the revolutionary decision. This was the first time world leaders have taken a holistic approach to the challenges and threats we face, climate change, poverty, inequality (between countries and within them), conflict – and committed to joint action. Oh, but the irony of this particular Danish prime minister sealing world leaders’ joint commitment, while at the exact same time he and his government are backtracking on Denmark’s pledges and dedication to the world.

Wonderful Pope Francis made the opening speech. He was received like a pop star. He didn’t preach. He gently and most convincingly pointed to injustices of the world and stated that if we don’t break the cycle of poverty the SDGs cannot be fulfilled. He urged the assembled world leaders to combat climate change and bring our world back on track. He stressed the need for the world to care for people in distress; himself the son of poor immigrants, he pointed out that we have all at some point been foreigners, and that we should live by the golden rule of doing unto others as we will have them do unto us. He spoke forcefully against nuclear arms. The Assembly Hall was full, and every single person present listened intently to the Pope. Some staff sat two on each seat. Pope Francis radiates goodness; his brown eyes are alert and warm. Both here at the UN and when visiting the White House a few days earlier Pope Francis arrived in a small Fiat, and turned down a grand dinner invitation in his honour; he preferred to eat a simple meal.

Mrs. PGA 70, Pope Francis, PGA 70 Mogens Lykketoft © UN Photo

Here’s my husband’s take on the SDGs and his vision for his presidency.

Not a few grown men cried when Malala spoke passionately from the gallery on the importance of education for and empowerment of girls and women. And they applauded enthusiastically when Shakira sang John Lennon’s Imagine and Angelique Kidjo Africa.

The highest number of heads of state and government ever were gathered to discuss challenges and opportunities relating to global peace, security, development and human rights.

To show that he means business on climate change, the Secretary General, Mr Ban Ki-moon, arranged a working lunch for 35 top world leaders with a menu of left overs and food that would otherwise have been thrown out: spent grain bread, Landfill Salad, which consisted of vegetable scraps, rejected apples and pears and chick pea water, Burger and Fries, made from vegetables slightly off industrial standard, cucumber scraps left over from the pickle industry and field corn and Cocoa Husk Custard, which tasted like chocolate mousse according to my husband. The SG reminded his guests that the world already produces enough food to feed 10 billion people, only it is distributed highly unequally and an awful lot is simply wasted.

I listened to the wise words of my PGA husband, and those of Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and many, many more. High on Xi’s agenda is improving China’s international image and signalling her good intentions towards the world. He promised well over a billion dollars to global peace, development, peacekeeping police soldiers, education and training. Xi vowed to push for global gender equality and women’s all round development in health and education. Oh, how one wishes he would afford the same attention and energy to domestic Chinese affairs, whether women’s or human rights in general.

The plight of refugees, the internally displaced and migrants was raised consistently throughout the general debate; this unprecedented global crisis calls for unprecedented global response rooted in international law and international solidarity. While Putin took the side of Bashar al-Assad most major countries did not, and in relation to the wars in Syria, many urged global and regional powers to renew efforts to find a necessary and peaceful political solution. Also a major source of concern was the situation in other parts of the Middle East, including the now stalled Middle East Peace process. But happiness briefly reigned when Palestine’s flag was raised for the first time at the UN, watched and applauded by many leaders. Another focal point was the need to address the particular obstacles to peace in Africa, in part of Europe and beyond, stemming from instability, violent conflict, and the spread of extremism and terrorism.

The King of Jordan made a deeply touching and relevant speech in the spirit of peace. A devout Muslim, he forcefully pointed out that nowhere in Islam you find the slightest encouragement or excuse for the terror and outrageous crimes that extremists claim to do in the name of the Prophet. He quietly pointed out that 10% of his country’s inhabitants at the moment are refugees from war and terror in Syria, and that with very little help from the international community, Jordan tries to cope. He didn’t mention that refugees and their descendants from Palestine and Iraq make up the majority of his country’s population.

On a positive note, the nuclear agreement between Iran, the Permanent 5, Germany and the EU was hailed by most as a significant diplomatic achievement.

And many welcomed the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, in which Pope Francis played an important part. Much as we love the Fidel Castro quote circulating on social media on how in the 1970es he said that only when we have a Latin American Pope and an African American president in the US, would America and Cuba reconcile, we can’t be sure its correct. When my husband met with Cuba’s foreign minister (one of 90 bilateral meetings during 10 days), he asked whether Fidel actually said that. The FM answered: “I asked him. He says he doesn’t remember.” At least he didn’t kill the story!

Many people have difficulty in pronouncing my husbands name, Mogens Lykketoft. Even though she is from Tasmania Denmark’s Crown Princess Mary does not, her Danish is brilliant. So when she heard a slight mispronunciation at one of her events during GA-week, she coined her own to rhyme: Mogens Like-a-Lot.

It is also high season for endless imaginary breezy kisses on the cheek. People I have never met so many people who brush my cheeks with great familiarity, much to my surprise – and all part of being Mrs PGA 70. Needless to say there are also lots of wonderful people, old and new friends, with whom this gesture of friendship is most welcome.

Others take less to each other; e.g. the Chinese president’s security guards who very nearly got into a fight with one of the UN security guards. Rumour has it that last year a scuffle between a Turkish and a UN guard resulted in a broken arm. And when we watched the raising of the Palestinian flag with president Mahmoud Abbas and a string of prominent leaders and foreign ministers, sort of a Dis-United Nations scuffle broke out between all the security guards present from Palestine, Russia, Turkey, France, Belgium, the UN and more. The atmosphere was extremely tense. Luckily nothing came of it. Those guys would all have killed each other.

The PGA has wonderful and incredibly strong security guards that will protect him – and Mrs PGA 70 when she happens to be around – with their lives. It is lucky that none of us are easily impressed or prone to think highly of ourselves, because the way things work at the UN, one could easily make the mistake of thinking that it is oneself and not the PGA’s position that is being pampered and ushered through the halls of the UN or the streets of NYC with police escort. The PGA-mobile is a huge 4×4, so tall I have to literally crawl into it and jump down when alighting. When doing so in high heels it is wonderful to know that there is a rock iron strong guard there to catch you if you tumble from your stilettos.

Chaining my bike outside New Whitney safely where the armed guard can watch over it
© UN Photo

The guards prefer us not to use swing doors so as not to get caught in one. And we are not allowed to ride our bicycles on official duty. But the other day, when I joined the First Ladies’ special visit to the New Whitney Museum down in Meat Packing District I rode my UN coloured bike there. I parked and chained it with my enormous kryptonite lock at a regular bicycle rack, but the museum people urged me to chain it to a pole right in front of the museum so that an armed guard from the entourage could look after it. My bicycling was much admired by the other women. But bikes are safe from neither thieves nor police these days. Riding down 2nd Ave the other day, I saw NYPD using cutting blowpipes to remove two bikes that were chained to a lamppost. Normally it wouldn’t have been considered illegal, I guess. But the city has been on very high alert with all the VIPs around. I am glad to say that now things are returning to normal. The invasion of our lives from dawn to midnight by journalists, staff and whomever else wanted a bite of the PGA is over. Gone are the sharp shooters on the roof of the General Assembly, endless motorcades, the police vessels on East River, all the barricades surrounding our building and nearby streets, the unapproachable NYPD men and women who were told so little about their assignment that they could – or would – not answer the simplest questions like when a lock-down might be lifted, or which way to walk now that they had closed the one they were denying you. Hopefully, they did know that history was in the making by the institution they were there to protect.