The UN Headquarters

Not the World Trade Center

It’s odd how famous places cease to be landmarks and end up places you navigate via as transit points. The World Trade Center is a case in point. Famous even before the tragedy of 9/11 but fixed in our generation’s imagination as our “where were you when you heard Kennedy had been shot?” , yesterday it wasn’t an iconic symbol that you deliberately visit but rather where I had to go to get somewhere else.

Today has been a day of phone calls (twenty two in total) contacting the Permanent Missions of the various states I’m looking to meet with during my trip. It’s an odd experience in that it is deceptively simple but the success of the trip lives or dies by who I speak too. All in all this is where you need the elevator pitch of academic lore. However, rather than trying to succinctly explain your thesis in less than three minutes, you’re trying to get the operator to connect you to the *right* person through a combination of clarity, kindness, seriousness and buzzwords.

The UN operates a directory called The Blue Book, it’s a phone book 394 pages in length produced by the heroic “protocol and liaison service” with all the contact information of accredited Permanent Mission staff. Whilst it tells you whether they work in the political or social section, and whether they are a¬†Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary,¬†Counsellor, Secretary or attache, it doesn’t tell you their brief. I’m looking for whoever deals with Protection of Civilians, Responsibility to Protect and/or humanitarian issues.

The idea of coming to New York came about after discussions with colleagues revealed the drawbacks of visiting embassies in London. The simple truth being that if your research is about discussions among states at the UN, and your documentary source material is the records of resolutions, statements and debates at the UN, then well you go and visit the UN.

I began emailing the Missions in September and yes you may well be surprised at how many use gmail (I remain a hotmail man myself). Delicate chase up emails followed, as did some communication with the London embassies asking for their assistance. Between all this and some academic colleagues I have a number of interviews penciled in already with the hope being that “snowballing” (getting recommended and vouched for by those you meet and interview in a chain reaction minus the explosion) and my phone calls today will get me more.

The countries I’m targetting selecting were picked for the following reasons

  • Have been, are currently or have just been elected to the Council 2010 – 2014
  • The Permanent Members – “five to rule them all” in the words of David Bosco
  • States bordering my notional case studies; Cote d’ivoire, Libya, Syria, for the regional perspective
  • Hmm maybe my case studies, why didn’t I think of that before?
  • States who have been vocal in open thematic debates or participate in informal working groups on relevant topics
  • South Sudan as the UN’s newest member (2011) and given their diplomatic input to RtoP as a concept in the mid 90s.

So between twenty odd phone calls (made from a discreet corner of the UN canteen) and dozens of emails sent over three months what have a I learned?

  1. These people are *busy*
  2. These people are *really busy*
  3. They all seem to be based in a tight radius of The UN Plaza, so I will probably be doing laps.
  4. Some of them have been seconded to The Ebola Task force – “who ya gonna call?”
  5. “Violent extremism, foreign fighters and international terrorism” have somewhat muddled my trip by changing the topic of the open Security Council debate I was organizing things around when back in my “ivory tower”
  6. Some missions are very small, like two or three people only
  7. Staff turnover is a challenging reality – “I’d love to talk but I will be gone by then”
  8. It’s alarmingly easy to be confused for someone from the British/Scottish government
  9. A poppy is a good conversation opener
  10. When calling someone because you haven’t had a reply to an email, 80% of the time you will be told to send another email
  11. It’s probably not a good sign when their voice mail inbox is full.
  12. When attempting to phone the five newly elected non permanent members of the Security Council it is probably not a good idea to call them whilst they’re all away attending a handover workshop together. Whilst this may work wonders for global governance and represents a welcome improvement in Council working methods it was *not ideal* from my perspective.
  13. In the process of writing up this blog I’ve realised I was using the March Blue Book and there’s a November one out now..