- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2003

It’s deductible

Last week was a busy one here at the House of Peace, what with the General Assembly debating U.N. organizational reform, the drug-control office warning that Afghan farmers are producing more opium, and nearly everyone worrying about the remnants of the U.N. mission in Iraq.

But it’s Monday. There is enough bad news on Page 1. What you really want to read about are Diplomats Behaving Badly.

From a distance, the United Nations appears to be inhabited by envoys in two-button suits who deliver endless speeches and toil quietly for world peace. But look closely, with a sympathetic heart, and you’ll see the diplomat’s world is changing.

Budgets are being cut. Privileges are under attack. Diplomacy isn’t as much fun as it used to be. The U.N. basement conference rooms are tense these days, as ambassadors scramble to protect their right to park without penalty and smoke without constraint.

Cookie-pushing scofflaws are being ambushed by a move to deduct their unpaid parking fines from U.S. foreign-aid packages. The Senate last week approved the measure, which is designed to make up some $21 million in unpaid fines and penalties.

“If a diplomat ignores a parking ticket, we send him foreign aid. That makes no sense,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, who sponsored the amendment to a foreign-aid spending bill with the state’s junior senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mr. Schumer’s office says the biggest offenders are Egypt (nearly $2 million owed on 17,825 tickets), Kuwait ($1.2 million on 11,122 tickets) and Nigeria, (nearly $1 million for 8,520 violations). Indonesia, Morocco, Brazil, Pakistan, Senegal, Angola and Sudan are also guilty of parking in fire lanes, letting their meters expire, and failing to respect restrictions for handicapped spaces and hydrants.

One delegate mourned the absence of U.S. diplomat Patrick Kennedy, the management and budget expert who has been relocated temporarily to Baghdad. “When he was here, we were not victimized like this,” he said.

U.N. diplomats last week also reacted angrily to Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s summer decree that the United Nations would join the rest of New York City as a no-smoking zone. Judging from the number of cigarette butts in the stairwells and the blue cloud over the coffee shop, it appears a small but fierce resistance movement has been formed.

A senior U.N. official was dispatched to a meeting of the General Assembly’s management and budget committee to quell the fracas, which burst into the open in late September. Envoys then linked smoking to human rights and fretted that the “smoking police” would be too busy to protect the headquarters from terrorists.

Andrew Toh, undersecretary-general for central support, tried last week to reassure delegates from Russia, Syria and other concerned nations that U.N. security guards — who have in fact been noting the names and departments of scofflaw smokers — are still at their posts and not, as suggested by Costa Rica, ignoring their other policing responsibilities.

“They have all been instructed to avoid any confrontation with individuals on the issue of smoking,” Mr. Toh added, “unless they present a clear and present danger to property or personnel.”

Egyptian envoy Yasser Elnaggar promptly sought a definition of “clear and present danger.”

U.S. envoy Thomas Repasch retorted that anyone smoking in his vicinity presents such a danger to his health. He also said the fire department might not be willing to protect a structure that does not comply with local building codes. (The U.N. headquarters has no sprinklers, although the fire alarms were found last year to work.)

Syrian diplomat Mohamad Najib Eljy came out firmly against smoking in the workplace, but noted that as secretary-general, Mr. Annan’s edicts apply only to employees. It is “not acceptable” for him to impose his will on diplomats.

Norma Goicochea Estenoz, the formidable budget expert from Cuba — famed for its cigars — questioned the cost to member states of removing wall-mounted ashtrays and repainting.

Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail at UNear@aol.com.

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