- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

Diploburbia scene

The United Nations was a world unto itself last week, with national leaders speaking to one another (and, secondarily, their peoples) at the U.N. summit convened to chart a new course for the 60-year-old organization adrift in the 21st century.

The three-day summit produced a declaration, of course, but aside from acknowledging the moral responsibility to take limited action in the face of a looming genocide, there were few concrete gains toward world peace or lifting the crushing poverty that afflicts half the globe’s population.

By Wednesday night, the United States, it seemed, was talking about Reuters photographer Rick Wilking’s snap of President Bush’s note to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about needing to use the toilet during a Security Council session on terrorism.

But hours later, a more complex, if heavily posed, photograph captured the imagination.

After a luncheon hosted by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the presidents, prime ministers, royalty and dictators filed into the Trusteeship Council for their group photo.

U.N. photographer Eskinder Debebe, who had prepared for that shot for two weeks, had less than 15 minutes to ensure that 153 faces were uniformly spaced, in focus, and smiling. Working with two assistants on walkie-talkies and Ahmad Fawzi, director of the News and Media Division in the U.N. Department of Public Information, they pulled it off in nine exposures.

To keep them smiling during about the third shot, they produced a banner with the exhortation “Smile!” in the United Nations’ six official languages. Mr. Debebe, an Ethiopian who joined the organization as a photo technician in 1988, acknowledged mild nerves beforehand. But he said it wasn’t the most satisfying photo he has taken for the United Nations.

“As an African, to travel in Africa and take a picture of a child or a refugee, and to know that people will see that and be touched,” he said, “that’s thrilling.”

The group photo is also notable because it exposed an odd security lapse in the organization’s seemingly thorough precautions.

Why did the United Nations post on its Web site the exact time and location of the group photo, for which scores of world leaders would be standing in a single frame? To a terrorist or the scriptwriters of Fox thriller “24,” presumably, the only thing better than a daring assassination of a world leader would be to attack all of them.

For what it’s worth, Mr. Wilking’s photo of Mr. Bush’s note briefly became the No. 1 most e-mailed photograph on Yahoo’s Web site.

Every foreign delegation received a copy of the 2005 class photo.

World leaders issued more than 28 hours of grand speeches and snort-worthy sentiments from the podium of the General Assembly chambers last week.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez suggested moving the United Nations to Jerusalem, which would accomplish the twin goals of reducing U.S. “hegemony” as the host country and protecting the Palestinians from aggressors. But it would be difficult to imagine the Palestinians, who say they want nothing more than their own land, giving an area the size of downtown Bethlehem over to the tax-exempt United Nations.

And by the way, the 16-acre U.N. campus grows much larger when most heads of state come, because federal and local law enforcers close nearby streets, throw up checkpoints beside the coffee shops, and run everyone, including midlevel diplomats, through the metal detectors.

The East Side of Manhattan was transformed into “diploburbia,” the largest gated community outside Baghdad’s green zone.

Most of the heads of state and government have gone home, but their foreign ministers and development coordinators remain in New York for the General Assembly general debate, an annual dialogue in which national positions are spelled out in general terms for all the world to flip past on its way to Hurricane Katrina coverage.

Some observers say the general debate could have more traction than the remarks by heads of state.

Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail at bpisik@washingtontimes.com.

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