UNITED NATIONS – An African diplomat, who had been threatened by rebel forces in his home country, was posted by his government to its UN mission (read: embassy) in New York — primarily as a safe haven. The onetime infamous “asphalt jungle”, that goes by the name New York, was presumably beyond the reach of [...]

Sunday Times 2

Are UN diplomats shadowed by exterminators in Asphalt Jungle?


UNITED NATIONS – An African diplomat, who had been threatened by rebel forces in his home country, was posted by his government to its UN mission (read: embassy) in New York — primarily as a safe haven. The onetime infamous “asphalt jungle”, that goes by the name New York, was presumably beyond the reach of gun-toting, machete-wielding rebels thousands of miles away.

After a couple of months holed up in an apartment in the UN neighbourhood, the diplomat was in for an unpleasant surprise. Or so he thought. When he woke up one morning, he found a note slipped under his door with an ominous message: “The exterminator will be here tomorrow.”

The African diplomat’s instant reaction was that a hit team from his home country was apparently closing in on him for the kill. Before he could call the cops, the first thing he did, wisely so, was to check with the reception desk whether there were any visitors or strangers who tried to access his apartment.

Asked why, he told the receptionist about the threatening note. “Oh”, said the receptionist with a laugh, “that’s the exterminator who comes once a month to sweep the apartment for bugs and cockroaches.” A taste of culture shock? Perhaps.
One of the initial barriers that foreign diplomats face in the US is the language barrier. What the Americans call an “exterminator,” the rest of the world calls a pest control inspector.

Exterminators apart, the reality is that most foreign diplomats assigned to the UN are despised by average Americans because they think diplomats are a privileged community enjoying duty-free and tax-free perks (true), covered by immunity from prosecution (partially true) and not penalised for refusing to pay their parking fines (true).

But what they fail to realise is that, under the concept of reciprocity, American diplomats are entitled to the same privileges when they are posted in US embassies overseas. As one Asian diplomat put it, in rather undiplomatic language with an updated idiom, “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch your arse.”

The ignorant include immigration officers at the JFK airport in New York. When one of our interns from Germany encountered one of these officers on arrival at the airport, he was casually asked where he was planning to intern. Told it was the United Nations, the officer, before stamping the passport, barked: “The UN sucks” — a euphemistically derogatory American slang.
When the United Nations decided to locate its secretariat in the city of New York, the US signed a “headquarters agreement” in 1947 not only ensuring diplomatic immunity to foreign diplomats but also pledging to facilitate the day-to-day activities of member states without any hindrance.

Still, the US has never been enthusiastic at accommodating itself to international law, as was proven when the General Assembly temporarily relocated to Geneva because Washington refused a visa for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to visit New York in December 1988.

In his address to a rare General Assembly session in Geneva — perhaps the only one of its kind — Arafat took a swipe at Washington when he prefaced his statement by saying “it never occurred to me that my second meeting with this honourable Assembly, since (his first address in) 1974, would take place in the hospitable city of Geneva”.

So, Geneva gets described as “hospitable” while New York has more often than once been labelled as “hostile.” Despite the Headquarters Agreement, the US restricts the movement of UN diplomats from countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Washington, including North Korea, Iran, and at one time, Cuba.

The travels of these diplomats are confined to a 25 mile radius from New York City. But US diplomats argue they are barred only from non-official travel and the restrictions are for national security reasons.

At a meeting of the Group of 77, the largest single coalition of developing countries, a Latin American diplomat once said that in some residential buildings there were covert signs conveying an unfriendly message: “Pets and diplomats not welcome.”
He was complaining about a decision by one of the New York City banks to terminate accounts of about 75 countries. “It is bad enough for U.N. diplomats to be lumped together in the company of dogs and cats in the city’s high-rise buildings”, he said, but now “the banking sector is treating us as criminals.”

When the dispute first erupted in 2011, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations sent a letter to all member states in which it said that the bank was a private sector bank and its decisions are made for ‘business reasons alone’ “The government of the United States has no authority to force banks to continue to serve their customers or to open or close any accounts,” it said.
At least 75 countries, including Sri Lanka, had their banking privileges cut off. The US Treasury Department which was monitoring money laundering and terrorism-financing had demanded that every single transaction by diplomats and UN missions be duly reported.

But the bank, refusing to hire new staff to take on these added responsibilities, decided to terminate their services forcing diplomats to go on a hunting spree looking for more friendly banks in the city. As one diplomat warned, if this situation continues, “we may have to request cash in diplomatic pouches from our home countries, and bank our money under mattresses.
At the G77 meeting, the most vocal country was China, a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council. It complained that its bank accounts were closed back in 2011.

The problem was not the closed accounts per se, said a Chinese delegate, “but more serious was the issue that some countries were targeted, mostly developing countries.”An Asian diplomat told IPS that to the best of his knowledge, the bank accounts of most, or all, Western missions were left untouched.

“Why this double standard?” he asked.
The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.