1995: The year the future began
Twenty years ago this week, world leaders gathered in New York City to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations in a three-day commemorative meeting of the UN’s General Assembly. The occasion was marked by 201 speeches delivered by the likes of Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin, Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, Jerry J. Rawlings, and Jiang Zemin.
Palaver mixed with pomposity at what was called the largest-ever gathering of international leaders, and the considerable pretense of it all was pierced by the incomparable Henry Allen in what I consider the best newspaper lead (or opening paragraph) of 1995. Allen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Washington Post, wrote of the anniversary gathering:
“The United Nations’ 50th anniversary feels like the funeral of Edward VII in 1910 — the last great meeting of royalty before the 20th century devoured most of them.”
Inspired. No one at the Post writes with such verve and imagination any more, with the possible exception of Dan Zak.
Allen’s whimsical commentary poked sly fun at the UN mindset and suggested the world body abandon its practice of grouping member states by geographic proximity.
“Now, if only the United Nations would move into the computer age,” he wrote, “it could come up with infinite combinations of nationhood, such as:
“Countries where any of the following can be used in lieu of currency: chewing gum, Levi’s, surface-to-air missiles.
“Countries whose leaders appear in bulky armchairs that seem made for no other use but photo opportunities: Syria and China, for instance.
“Countries where the trains run on time. Countries where the trains never run on time. Countries where there used to be trains. Countries where there never will be trains. Countries where nobody knows what time it is. Countries where nobody knows what a train is.”
Beyond the speech-making and the self-congratulations, the 50th anniversary jubilee was a hollow occasion; the celebration was staged just a few months after one of the UN’s great debacles — the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, a UN-declared “safe area” in war-torn Bosnia.
Srebrenica was the worst atrocity of the grisly war in Bosnia, itself the deadliest and most vicious conflict in Europe since the time of the Nazis.
At Srebrenica in July 1995, Bosnia Serb forces overwhelmed a small contingent of Dutch peacekeepers operating under UN authority and systematically hunted down their victims.
The UN Security Council had authorized too few troops to protect the enclave, and a UN report in 1999 about the massacre pointed out what long had been obvious:
”The cardinal lesson of Srebrenica is that a deliberate and systematic attempt to terrorize, expel or murder an entire people must be met decisively with all necessary means.”
Not surprisingly, neither Srebrenica nor Bosnia was mentioned in the General Assembly’s 50th anniversary declaration. It was a rather a self-congratulatory statement, which read in part:
“The United Nations has been tested by conflict, humanitarian crisis and turbulent change, yet it has survived and played an important role in preventing another global conflict and has achieved much for people all over the world. The United Nations has helped to shape the very structure of relations between nations in the modern age. Through the process of decolonization and the elimination of apartheid, hundreds of millions of human beings have been and are assured the exercise of the fundamental right of self-determination.”
The celebration 20 years ago produced another amusing observation of note, one published in the New York Times.
“If the General Assembly holds to the philosophy that all nations are equal,” the Times article said, “it is also true that some countries have an easier time getting choice hotel rooms than others.” It pointed out that Clinton was booked at the $6,000-a-night, four-bedroom presidential suite at the Waldorf Towers, while “the senior diplomat of the United Nations’ newest member, Palau,” was staying at a $55-a-night room at the Super 8 Motel on Governors Island.
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