When we first met, you were the Le Monde Chief-Correspondence at the UN, New York. What led to your departure from Le Monde to the UN?
Believe me I did not leave New York willingly! I left kicking and screaming but I was the diplomatic correspondent for 17 years and the paper decided it was time for a change. After New York I was named Le Monde’s correspondent to Geneva and quite honestly the only really interesting subject to cover for a correspondent was the World Trade Organization’s negotiations but Le Monde never gave me enough space to cover them. I was therefore searching for something different to do, and along came a new challenge.
How did your job at Le Monde prepare you for the UN?
Really well since my main job in New York for Le Monde was to cover multilateralism and my office was conveniently located at the UN building on the East river.
You are now the Director UNRIC (UN Regional Information Centre for Western Europe). What does your job title say and doesn’t say about what you actually do on a day-to-day basis?
What bothers me about the title is the word “information” since my job really entails communication rather than information. Although we provide information on the work of the UN, mainly we communicate the work of the organization and engage European citizens. Another oddity in my title is the term “Western Europe” since the European Union is now of 27 countries, the notion of Western Europe is a quaint term, a vestige of the cold war. What it correctly includes is the term “Regional.” UNRIC is really a pilot project. It is the first and the only Regional information and communication arm of the UN. Created after ten offices in European capitals were closed, it reflects the idea of the European Union itself.
How does UNRIC compare and contrast with UN in New York?
We have 23 staff members and 25 interns. The UN is the headquarters and huge in numbers compared to our office here.
Are there plans to have UNRIC equivalents in other continents, besides Europe? What is inexcusable is the level of poverty in the world and the violations of human rights
I doubt it only because of distances. Our desk officers in charge of different European countries can hop on the train most of the time or on a short flight to go to their respective countries, I don’t see them doing the same in Africa or Latin America for example, but then you never know since regionalization is the way of the future. My personal opinion, bien sur!
What is inexcusable is the level of poverty in the world and the violations of human rights
Considering other Western European countries, why was Brussels/Belgium the location of choice for such an important office?
Paris would have been more fun! Two good reasons: Brussels is the “capital” of Europe and the three EU institutions are in Brussels. Also, did you know that Brussels has the largest press corps in the world? It is even larger than that of Washington.
No, I didn’t know that Brussels has the largest press corps in the world. Are their numbers as efficient as they are impressive?
As far as UN global affairs coverage is concerned, not really, but then it is not their job because they are here mainly to cover the EU. I have a bone to pick with the EU coverage too: they are so close to their subject, most of the coverage is too insider and not really understandable for the normal European. Most European citizens don’t even know that there are, for example, three institutions that make up the EU.
Who are some of the world dignitaries that you’ve met and worked with?
I’ve been lucky enough to have seen almost every one, because every one comes through the UN one day or another. But if you really want me to name drop, let’s start way back: Gorbachev, Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Mother Theresa, Francois Mitterrand, Bill Clinton. I also covered the World Economic Forum in Davos for five years running and there you meet absolutely everyone. So more name-dropping: Angelina Jolie, Sharon Stone, Bono…I’ve only named the ones who were quite impressive.
Is the UN as effective as it should be in dealing with our world’s myriad problems that abound?
The UN is an ideal, an idea — its time will come! The founding fathers had big and ambitious dreams. We speak of the UN in terms of the UN and the real UN: The UN is what you see that doesn’t always work, the Security Council, with its ten members and its five veto wielding permanent members; and the General Assembly where 192 countries have votes. It is not difficult to understand why it doesn’t always work. Try to get consensus with 5 people in the room let alone 192! But it is a universal organization that gives it its moral weight and legitimacy. Then you have the “real UN” that is the UN in the field where people are fed, clothed, educated and vaccinated on a daily basis. I always say that the UN’s real communication challenge is that it is only loved and understood by the poor whose needs we meet every day, and the celebrities. What do you give a man or woman who has everything? A cause!
What are the best and worst arguments against the UN?
I might get into trouble for this, but for me the best thing about the UN is the first three words of the charter. “We the peoples …. ” If we all consider this organization as our organization and care for it as such, then we can start really caring about what works and what doesn’t and why. The worst thing: indifference of the people.
Since it’s founding, has the UN fulfilled a considerable measure of its goals?
I would say yes and no. The main reason for the creation of the UN was to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” which by and large it has done. What is inexcusable is the level of poverty in the world and the violations of human rights; on both fronts we have a long way to go. And yet we are the first generation, the richest and the smartest generation in history and the only generation capable of eradicating absolute poverty, so there is no excuse.
Regarding big ideas, if you have a few minutes one day and are in need of inspiration read the preamble of both the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document, unanimously adopted in 1948 is, arguably, the most important document of the 20th century. Its adoption today would be unimaginable . . . totally unimaginable!! Those drafters had guts and vision.
That said I should mention yet another inspired document adopted not, that long ago, in 2000. It is the Millennium Declaration, adopted by all world leaders and governments, that encompasses the Eight Millennium Development goals. The first one is to halve poverty by 2015 . . . well, we are not there yet, but it gives me hope to see that such an idea can still be dreamed. For these goals to be achieved we should stop looking to our government to achieve them and roll up our sleeves and see what we can do to help. We are in the midst of creating our new public information campaign on the MDGs and want to call it NoExcuse: End Poverty. Hope you’ll join. Artists have an extraordinarily important role to play.
“What are MDGs?” And how can artists join? What is expected of them and how would they be compensated for their artistic contributions? Indeed and it is about time that there was a woman at the helm of the UN. I really think it would make a difference
The MDGs are the Millenium Development Goals that I talked about in the last question. These are eight goals that humanity set for itself in the year 2000 and the first goal is to reduce poverty in the world by half by 2015. As for compensation, I’m afraid it is not to the UN that you look on that front.
Indeed and it is about time that there was a woman at the helm of the UN. I really think it would make a difference
For a long while, there’ve been only five permanent member seats at the UN. Isn’t it about time to consider the inclusion of a few more to this five?
It is indeed. But it ain’t easy. Everyone thinks that the P5, as we call them in UN jargon, do not reflect the political reality of the world. Who should we add to the mix? Germany and Japan seemed the right two then it was thought that, given their status, Brazil, India and a great African nation should also join. But which one? South Africa? Egypt? About 15 years ago they created a working group to study the matter, that we jokingly call the “Never ending working group.” Than came the Coffee Club, a group of mid-sized countries that, knowing that they would never have a permanent seat, didn’t want their neighbors to have one either. It was actually created by Italy. Members include Italy (“Why Germany and not us?”), Pakistan, (Unimaginable to have India with a veto power), Mexico (“Why Brazil rather than Mexico?”) and so on and so forth . . . so not so easy. Everyone is aware that, yes indeed, the P5 don’t cut it any more, and that is one of the reasons that you now have the G20 created outside of the UN. You know as long as they talk and don’t fight, its fine!
What are the average education qualifications for a job at the UN?
You need a bachelor degree and ideally a master’s degree or 15 years of relevant work experience.
I see that there are a lot of parties and special events at the UN. How do your social events differ, from say, other secular events?
When I was based at the UN we had an average of five social events to go every single evening. It makes sense: 192 countries, 192 National days plus kings’ and queens’ birthdays! Most of them are boring, to be quite honest, but I tried to at least show my face at most because it is a fantastic opportunity for networking and parties are a really good place to get diplomats to talk. There’s nothing like a few glasses of champagne to get information out of people. But some of these parties were really fun too.
What role does fashion play at the UN?
Not as much as it should. Since a lot of people wear their national costumes to the UN, it is a very colorful place to be. But for fashion as such, not much. As you know, I love fashion. Therefore at UNRIC we have an umbrella initiative called “Fashion with a Cause” and within that we have different initiatives: some already done, such as the F.U.N (Friend of the UN) bracelets, made by Jean-Paul Knott, the Belgian designer, who has also done NoExcuse t-shirts for us in 2010. And we are now asking other European designers to choose one of the 8 MDGs and create a t-shirt or an accessory for it. These will be produced and distributed by other partners of Fashion with a Cause called 3Suisses. I have also approached Karl Lagerfeld to design a new UN guide’s uniform for the UN. He said that he really liked the idea but has not gotten back to us with concrete ideas, so I’ll probably be looking for some other designer to do that. Any ideas? In the 1950s it was so glamorous to be a UN guide. The uniforms were made by Christian Dior, amongst others, but in the almost 20 years or so now, they look dowdy so it’s time for a new look for the UN guides.
Regarding the uniform, I totally agree and shall think of some recommendations. Such a twenty-year old uniform needs to be retired, for a smarter, newer one—not necessarily fashionable but timeless and classic, because, anything fashionable invariably becomes unfashionable. Okay, assuming a designer comes and gets the new uniform right. What effect would it have on members of the UN?
Effect? I suppose the same effect that a smart stylish person has on you as opposed to a dowdy badly-dressed person.
Are they any implicit or explicit dress codes for both the men and women at the UN? For example can a woman wear revealing skirts or a top that reveals more cleavage than is necessary; or, say, a man wears muscle t-shirts and jeans to work there?
There are no codes really except codes that are respected in all work places. There are some cleavage-showing women, as there are everywhere, no more no less.
Given the amazing cultural diversity at the UN, do you not think that it would make an ideal place for an annual world costume extravaganza that is also tailored to educate as much as entertain?
The world indigenous peoples’ conference that takes place every year at the UN comes pretty close to this extravaganza.
Who are some of the stylish personages at the UN?
Again, I can’t say that I have been struck by style although I must say I was always and still am impressed with Kofi Annan’s style. There was an Italian Marquis at the UN named Simone di Bagno, a film maker; he came to work with leather pants (he rode a bike) and a navy blue blazer with no shirt. He looked very stylish though a bit chilly, I thought!
What is the best-kept-secret about the UN that we should know and would pleasantly surprise us?
Best kept secret? The Marilyn Room. There is a little room and a shower adjacent to the Secretary-General’s office on the 38th floor of the UN building. The rumour is that it was used by President J.F. Kennedy to rest his weary back during his visits to the General Assembly meetings every September. Journalists called it “the Marilyn room.” Now whether there is any truth to the origin of the room or not, who knows . . . but it’s a good story!
You mean, Marilyn as in Marilyn Monroe?
Yes! As I said this is pure gossip; what is true is that there is a little room and shower close to the Secretary-General’s room and that it is supposed to have been created for JFK to rest his back. As for the rest . . . pure speculation!
There is thus, an implicit implication that President J.F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe were some sort of item, hence Marilyn Room, is that a fair reading of it?
So far, there hasn’t been a woman secretary-of-state at the UN. What, in your estimate, accounts for this? And does it really matter as long as the job gets done excellently?
Indeed and it is about time that there was a woman at the helm of the UN. I really think it would make a difference, since women project more soft power and a woman would probably concentrate on social issues and human rights. And the good thing is that at this point (because there has never been a woman secretary) if a woman were to be a candidate we could dispense with the regional rotation rule (albeit unwritten but de rigueur rule). So all those women out there who want to change the world, here’s your opportunity.
What is your ideal and realistic definition of a perfect world?
A world in which we all work to make poverty history.