Fanfare for the Common Man
Geneva ticks!by Errol Alphonso

Next year it will be sixty years since Carol Reed's film masterpiece 'The Third Man' first appeared. It will also be sixty years since the mighty Orson Welles, filling the role of Harry Lime, that dreadful character who destroyed frightening numbers of men, women and children with his diluted, dated penicillin during World War II, first spoke the memorable words which he self-composed away from Graham Greene's script. Three hundred years of democracy, says Lime, and what did the Swiss come up with ? The cuckoo clock !

Let's leave his suspect political science aside, and pause on his snide citation. Lime did get it right. The Swiss have been masters of time from perhaps the time timepieces began. You have heard it already: Time is the art of the Swiss. And Geneva is home to that art. Geneva ticks.

Geneva, the city known for its fabled lake, timeless in its whispered witchery, is the city of peace. Geneva ticks with the tock of peace, because it is home to the Palais des Nations (Palace of Nations), the case that houses the intricate secrets of the mechanism of conference diplomacy. And that is what the United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG) is all about. You may have wondered what the United Nations was doing there in the first place. Being a common man, so did I; and nobody really seemed to want to stop and explain. Rather, there has been much speaking to the purpose of finding grievous fault with the people, whose exertions on behalf of our national dignity, have been recompensed with pitiless assault.

For the moment, let us lavish ourselves in the lush surroundings of Ariana Park, spreading in magnificence covering an extent of 45 hecatres, with wise old trees that have witnessed the passing of over a hundred years. The Palais stands here overlooking Geneva lake. Some 8,000 meetings pour into this crucible of diplomacy each year, and something like 164 permanent missions engage with each other. High skills will not do, nor superannuated thinking suffice. The best minds, the very best, will survive and surpass. This calls for diplomacy that ticks; it calls for Geneva diplomacy. And Geneva diplomacy is not about dainty teacups and primly trimmed cucumber somethings. The day of Earl Grey has given way to Tottenham.

If you happened to be at the Hong Kong Theatre, at Clement House, of an April evening in London last year, you would have had the privilege of listening to Lord David Triesman of Tottenham. He spoke under invitation from the LSE (London School of Economics - I take no chances, specially with myself). He spoke brilliantly on a brilliant subject, Public Diplomacy: steps to the future. Triesman is no Lord-come-lately. When he spoke, he was Chair of the Public Diplomacy Board and parliamentary under-secretary of state with responsibility for public diplomacy at the British Foreign Office. His concern as he said at the very beginning, accorded with the great motto of the LSE, which translated from the Latin means to know the causes of things. Public diplomacy, as he made clear, was to engage the public in a continuing discourse about the government's international objectives. To tell the people, both its own as well as others, what a government had to do in its relations with the world for the good of the sovereign state, and to be clear about that position with other governments.

There you are then, Geneva diplomacy. So to all the shouters and screamers, I say go throw those tattered old text books at him. But, of course, you won't, will you now ? 'Mother' knows best. I have to come in here for a moment in my own cause. If anything I have said so far, and there's more to come, occasions the customary preachment of partisan concern, you will not be hearing from me in return. Like one of my great masters, George Steiner, I humbly follow in being a Voltairean. I shall defend to the death your right to say it. I have sought to say things simply to the common man. I wish my everyday hero to decide.

We go back to Geneva. There are over 25 UN Constituent Agencies also located there. I mention this to bring to completion the understanding of the United Nations in Geneva. Some of the more familiar ones are UNHCHR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights), UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), ILO (International Labour Organization); these are taken at random and indicate no precedence. Then you have WHO (World Health Organization), WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization), WMO (World Meteorological Organization), ITU (International Telecommunication Union), ICC (International Computing Centre), ITC (International Trade Centre), UNHCR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS), among others.

There are 2 important Constituent Agencies having a Presence at Geneva. They are IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency; its headquarters are in Vienna), and UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization; with headquarters in Paris).

The present Director-General of the United Nations Office in Geneva is Sergei Ordzhonikidze, a senior Russian diplomat, appointed by Kofi Annan in 2002, who has held the position since that time.

It is time we came back to the Permanent Missions to the United Nations Office in Geneva. There are perhaps 164 of them. The heads of mission are accredited as Ambassadors and Permanent Representatives to the United Nations in Geneva. Our head is Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, in my opinion one the best minds this country has produced in a long time. He grew up in a hothouse of intellectual challenge as a partner to his father, Mervyn de Silva, a superman of political analysis and world affairs. He graduated with great honours, cum laude, in Political Science (you have only to listen to George Steiner saying 'great honours' to experience the height of the peak scaled) from the University of Peradeniya, a level of achievement yet to be equalled or overcome. His doctoral thesis on the political thought of Fidel Castro is a work of outstanding originality and penetrating insight. But what he really brings to the Geneva table is a lived experience far removed from these august achievements. He has known the torment of torture and the horror of the hunted. This is where I hear the voice of Steiner saying 'greatest honours', magna cum laude. This last then, is what entitles a man to speak of human rights.

Ambassador Jayatilleka anticipated Lord Triesman, well before the masterly treatment was voiced that earlier April day. His understanding of Public Diplomacy was made palpable from the time he first gazed on Geneva lake. Look at our website in Geneva, and you will see at once what it is to be engaged. Here is the address: www.lankamission.org; a single visit will order your reading habits differently. If you write, you will be answered with a speed that private enterprise will want to have for its own. And you will be answered with courtesy.

This man is waging what always had to be waged: the global information war. And he is winning, against all the wicked voices and small intrigue that seek to unseat him. There are also countless counterfeit dollars in confederacy. These are gladly collected and sins committed that boldly speak in grand names.

I am a common man, and the only heroic thing I have to my own is that I refuse the blindfold. The everyday heroes will not be fooled. If you want to know and feel more about his public diplomacy, witness his writings almost by the day that go to the heart of the issues that he presents on behalf of every citizen of this country. Read specially what he wrote in the Midweek Review of 9 July: 'July 1983: Resident Evil'. No room there for the ethnocentric mob mentality on either side of the divide. And if you want to go to heaven, search the web and read his review of Leonard Cohen singing at the 42nd Montreux Jazz Festival on the other side of Geneva lake, written at about the same time.

The urgencies of diplomacy have moved from teacups to terrorism. And it is that urgency that informs Geneva diplomacy. It is in the practice of that diplomacy, that for us, Geneva ticks!

Let us now praise famous men. If only this once.

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