Diplomatic gaffe at the UN

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Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: Diplomats read and deliver a lot of speeches as part of their job. Timing is key. A good diplomat delivers the right speech at the right time. Well, that's precisely what India's foreign minister, S.M. Krishna failed to do at the United Nations last week. Krishna was appearing for the very first time in front of the Security Council. He began reading what sounded like a heartfelt speech. The thing is it wasn't his personal speech.

{Excerpt] 'On a more personal note allow me to express my profound satisfaction regarding the happy coincidence of having two members of the community of Portuguese speaking countries, Brazil and Portugal, together here today.'

Mullins: It turns out that the Foreign Minister Krishna was reading a statement actually prepared for the Portuguese foreign minister who had been at the podium just prior to him. Colin Lynch covers the United Nations for the Washington Post and Foreign Policy. I understand in the 'world gaffes department' this went on for an eternity. Tell us more about what happened.

Colin Lynch: This was an extraordinary gaffe. I mean, for the Indian foreign minister, for his first appearance before the Security Council India wants to have a permanent seat on the Security Council, they want to show that they deserve the same place as the other big powers and for them to sort of mess this up it really kind of dealt a setback to that effort.

Mullins: Not the auspicious introduction to the Security Council that India wanted. Remind us then what happened. This lasted like three minutes?

Lynch: This was well into an hour and a half long debate about security and development and most of the speeches pretty much sound alike and essentially what happens is that the...

Mullins: That's not a good sign.

Lynch: ...That's not a good sign but that's the way that most of these debates play out and kind of explains perhaps why it took him so long to realize what had happened. But he begins the speech and he makes these remarks honoring the fact that there are two Portuguese speaking nations at the Council. It's kind of typical for dignitaries to say nice things about the President of the Security Council and this year it's Brazil, so not quite so extraordinary. But it isn't really about three minutes into it he starts talking about the importance of coordinating action between the UN and the European Union and at that point the ambassador steps up and takes the Portuguese statement and he kind of slides it off the table and the foreign minister is somewhat puzzled, turns around and say, 'You mean, I have to start from the beginning?'

Mullins: We actually have the tape of that. Let's listen.

{Excerpt} 'The European Union is also responding in this manner in coordination with the United Nations...start all over again?'

'Yes, you can start again, yes.'

'Mr. President, Mahatma Gandhi, the father of our nation...'

Mullins: Now that sounds a lot more like the foreign minister of India talking about Mahatma Gandhi.

Lynch: Clearly shows that he hasn't read the speech before he delivered it.

Mullins: It's embarrassing, you feel kind of bad for the guy. I wonder what his response was to this and what the Indian government's response was and anybody else who was listening.

Lynch: The Indian foreign minister spoke to reporter afterwards and his answer was essentially, 'Stuff happens. Could have happened to anybody.' But it set off a kind of political wildfire in India and the opposition has been calling for his resignation, saying that his gaffe essentially shamed the Indian nation before the world and will undermine their efforts to gain a permanent seat on the Security Council. There is one kind of ironic twist to all this. Some observers in India were suspicious that this was actually some sort of way of apologizing to the Portuguese who fought viciously with the Indians back in 1961 when India invaded the Portuguese controlled island of Goa and forced the Portuguese out, ending hundreds of years of colonial rule. So there's some sensitivity between the two sides and I think people were reading more into this than was actually there.

Mullins: That again is Colin Lynch who covers the United Nations for the Washington Post and Foreign Policy. In fact, he writes the Turtle Bay blog for Foreign Policy.