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Musical Chairs Can Be Name of the Game at World Forum


UNITED NATIONS — He insists on being addressed as "Your Excellency," but Abdur Rahman Zahid is an unrecognized ambassador. Even though his government, the Taliban, has ruled Afghanistan for four years, the country's U.N. seat is still occupied by the exiled former regime. Zahid has come to New York to try to wrest it away.

"On what ground can they justify a seat to a government that does not exist?" he demands in a dinky U.N. meeting room while the official Afghan ambassador stands among world leaders in the grand General Assembly hall.

"Their president does not have an address, he does not have a country," he fumes. "But they have the U.N. seat, they have the embassies, and they have the recognition. They sit across the table from us, and they say, 'We do not care about you.' "

Afghanistan is only one of the anomalies at the U.N., where a world in flux means that there are ambassadors without countries and countries without ambassadors.

A U.N. seat means international recognition, allows a country a voice in global policymaking and can hasten economic dividends. The General Assembly is one place in the world where the vote of Palau's ambassador has as much weight as that of China's. Or it would if he ever showed up.

The tiny South Pacific island nations of Palau, Kiribati and Tuvalu all finally earned seats at the U.N. within the past six years, but they don't have anyone to sit in them. It just costs too much to maintain a mission in New York, though they do fly in delegations for big events. With a combined population of only a few hundred thousand, though, they are not too badly missed.

"The organization can function with only the sporadic involvement of some nations," said Igor Novichenko of Ukraine, the U.N.'s deputy chief of protocol. "Their presence remains mostly on paper."

Others would happily participate--if they could. Yugoslavia's status has been in limbo since 1992, when the federation fractured and the U.N. asked the government in Belgrade to reapply for a seat. Four republics that were formerly part of Yugoslavia--Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia--have been admitted as separate states. But Yugoslavia refuses to reapply, saying that it might have lost a few pieces but that it is still the same nation. The stalemate has lasted eight years.

"Yugoslavia is a member of the U.N., we have a mission, we pay our dues," said a diplomat at the country's Fifth Avenue mission who asked not to be identified. "But the saddest thing is that we are not allowed to sit behind the plate of the country and are not allowed to vote in the General Assembly. So we are a member, but we can't participate."

Somalia had an envoy but no government for a decade.

"I've been staying here for 10 years hoping a new government would come," said charge d'affaires Fatun Mohamed Hassan, who alone answered the phones, did the paperwork and kept the flag up while ragtag factions fought for power in the Somalian capital, Mogadishu. "Finally it came."

An August election meant the first president for the country since 1990 and the first high-level delegation to visit New York in years.

"Now we have more than a flag," she said. "But we still don't have an ambassador."

Vanuatu hasn't had an ambassador since last year, but diplomat-by-default Alfred Carlot has high hopes.

"I'm just keeping the seat warm," said Carlot, a young civil servant who runs the mission from the office of the Vanuatu Maritime Service near the South Street Seaport. He's thinking of applying for the top post--by now, he figures, he's had as much experience as anyone. "The United Nations is a big giant, but it is a very slow and gentle giant. It's a good thing to be amongst all the big ones, eh?"

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