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Diplomatic blunders

By Raffique Shah

TRINIDAD and Tobago's Ambassador to the United Nations, Rodney Charles, took two rather curious positions over the past week. On October 31, the UNESCO's General Conference voted on a motion to admit Palestine to that organisation. Mr Charles abstained. Then last Thursday, Mr Charles was one of only three ambassadors who accepted invitations to have lunch with Marine Le Pen, French presidential candidate and leader of the extreme right-wing party, the National Front.

I imagine after that opening paragraph, many readers yawned, and after reading what my fellow-columnists wrote, dismissed this intervention as being inconsequential. We have always relegated foreign affairs to the lowest rung of the issues-ladder. We have so many matters of national importance, why bother with a few million Palestinians in some hellhole a million miles away? And who the hell is Le Pen? Why waste valuable media space on her, on why Mr Charles chose to have lunch with her?

This country's approach to foreign relations has been limited to our trade interests, with but a few exceptions. For example, we have always voted with most of the world when the issue of the United States' 50-year economic blockade of Cuba comes up before the General Assembly: remove it, our ambassadors have said, echoing what 90 per cent of UN member states say. Veto, shouts the US representatives—and Cuba suffers for another year.

I make one observation on this matter. The US has the right to decide what countries it has relations with, so excluding Cuba as a trade or investment partner is not the issue. What is criminal is for the US to use its might to deny other countries, as well as all corporations, their right to have relations with Cuba. Of course, most nations ignore the US. Canada and European countries have maintained healthy relations with Cuba, as have Caribbean countries.

Indeed, Cuba's thriving tourism sector benefits from large numbers of visitors originating from Canada and Europe. But the US turns the screws on corporations that seek to do business in Cuba, as is currently the case with oil companies wanting to drill offshore the island.

But back to our man at the UN, Rodney Charles. Why did he abstain when the vote on admitting Palestine to UNESCO came before the Conference? Was he acting on instructions from Foreign Affairs Minister Suruj Rambachan? Did he abstain by "vaps"? For the record, 107 countries voted in favour of the motion, 14 against, and 52 abstained.

Rambachan needs to inform the people of this country if his Government's policy is that Palestine has no place among nations of the world. According to the UN's website, "UNESCO's mission is to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information."

Are we consciously denying millions of Palestinians from enjoying the benefits of this non-political agency? Did Mr Charles, in our name (well, he does represent us all), decide it was in our best interests to scuttle Palestinians' efforts to "build peace" or "eradicate poverty"?

We need to know what's in Mr Charles's mind because later this week an even more critical vote comes before the Security Council—whether or not to admit Palestine as a full member of the UN. There was speculation last week that the UK, Germany and Colombia would abstain, which is a step short of opposing it. The USA will exercise its veto, so while the issue is an important one, Palestine will remain a prison-state, courtesy the USA, Israel and a recalcitrant few.

How the big powers play their geopolitical games is of mainly academic interest to us in tiny T&T. At the very least, though, we need to adopt principled positions on critical issues. Apartheid-like conditions in Palestine is something we ought never to condone. We must speak out against the atrocious conditions the Palestinian people are forced to live under, virtual slaves in their homeland.

Palestine aside, what went through Mr Charles's head when he agreed to have lunch with Marine Le Pen? This woman represents the ugly face of racism in France, and worse, the resurgence of Nazism in Europe. In ordinary circumstances, she would spit on Mr Charles's face and hurl the N-word at him. But there he was, one of only three ambassadors to the UN, sharing a meal, and, I suppose, polite conversation, with her.

Le Pen's father, when he was leader of the National Front, had made negative remarks about the extermination of Jews in Nazi concentration camps, for which he was jailed. Interestingly, among the handful of persons who met with Le Pen was Israel's ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor.

He reportedly left after 30 minutes (before lunch), saying his attendance was because of a "misunderstanding".

That left Mr Charles and ambassadors from Uruguay and Armenia as the only persons of note in attendance. It's not as if Le Pen looks like she would be the next president of France so our man needed to court her. The woman was on tour of the USA, seeking to enhance her profile.

What these two episodes tell us is that our foreign affairs are rudderless and in shambles, left to the whims and fancies of political appointees posted to head diplomatic missions. Line Minister Rambachan must shoulder some blame for Mr Charles's twin-faux-pas.

Or, as the man charged with shaping our new foreign relations policies, he must let citizens know what is Government's position on politically-charged issues like the recognition of Palestine and fraternising with neo-Nazis.

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