Gert Rosenthal does not sound like a Spanish name, but the mother of Rosenthal, the Guatemalan ambassador to the United Nations, was born there and his father was German. To complicate matters, “a little accident happened,” he said, as his parents, Florence and Ludwig, left Germany in the 1930s, and Rosenthal was born in Amsterdam. Yet he is a Guatemalan citizen because his mother registered his birth with the consulate at the time, 1935, in the Netherlands.
Guatemala is now in its second-year stretch as an elected member of the UN Security Council, the only Latin American country on the 15-party body besides Argentina. As an ambassador, Rosenthal, 77, is approachable and spry, relishing his work in New York to the point where he does little else. That means not going to the movies or the theater, forgoing novels for “technical stuff,” he said in an interview with PassBlue this winter. On weekends, he mostly works, and though his American-born wife, Margit, may mind his single-mindedness, they love New York. They have four grown daughters, all of whom have been educated and live in the United States with their husbands.
“We’re on the Security Council for two years,” Rosenthal said of Guatemala, so he is trying to make the most of it, even though it is “hard to separate private life from work.” He enjoys the stimulation and diversity of New York, which he glimpses on his walks to the UN three to four times a day from his base at the Guatemalan mission, a Louis XVI-style New York City landmark building on Park Avenue in Murray Hill, where the interview took place.
Before Rosenthal became a UN ambassador for the first time, he worked at the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean from 1975 to 1998 and was its executive secretary from 1989 to 1998. By then he wanted to return home, but soon after, the Guatemalan president asked him if he wanted to try New York again — as ambassador. Rosenthal, trained as an economist, told him he was “crazy” and that he didn’t like diplomacy. But his wife, a pathologist educated in the US and Guatemala, prevailed.
So from 1998 to 2004, Rosenthal returned to the UN with a new hat; during that first stint of diplomacy, he was also president of the UN Economic and Social Council, president of the General Assembly’s Fifth Committee (tasked with budget matters) and a facilitator of the Millennium Summit in 2000, all of which made him feel “relatively useful.” He got the experience of representing a small country, about 14 million people, at the UN as well.
In his first tenure, he said, the UN functioned in a relatively peaceful mode, when countries “reached consensus.” The world was emerging from a serious financial crisis in the 1980s and the American economy was performing well; it was also a good time for the UN, as Kofi Annan was secretary-general. “I have a feeling,” he said, “that I can’t prove it: the UN goes through cycles, cycles of relatively more cooperation, cycles of relatively more confrontation. I’ve lived through those cycles twice.”
Now, he added, “I have the feeling we’re in a period of greater confrontation,” related to the financial crisis of 2008 and more militancy in the UN membership, notably from Latin America (Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela, for example). Rosenthal said, “We’re talking nuances; it’s not black and white.”
These “contestatory” stances are not necessarily bad, he added, “but it takes longer to reach agreements today than it did 10 years ago.”
“The world has changed, it’s a totally different world,” Rosenthal, who has economics degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and University of San Carlos in Guatemala City, said. The global concerns are different, with a “greater sense of urgency now on some topics, especially the Middle East, terrorism, the potential use of atomic energy for nonpeaceful purposes.”
He described the UN as standing on “two legs”: the intergovernmental machinery (the General Assembly, the Security Council and governing bodies) and the Secretariat, or the secretary-general. The concept, he said, “is that governments are the masters of the house and the Secretariat does their bidding. In practice, the master of the house is willing to delegate to some authorities and the Secretariat has some leeway.”
These days, the Security Council is blocked on at least one highly visible matter: the two-year-old civil war in Syria. Russia and China have voted against Western-sponsored resolutions authorizing intervention and other actions as the battle for control of the country endures beyond belief. The UN says that 70,000 people – mostly men — have been killed in the conflict, which started in March 2011.
Nevertheless, agreements have been mustered in the Security Council in the last year, and Rosenthal has no compunction declaring it a smoothly functioning place. Its 15 members (10 nonpermanent and 5 permanent, Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) had little trouble signing off, for example, on a resolution to try to address the extremist threat in Mali.
Rosenthal, who has been accused by some bloggers as being staggeringly pro-American, takes the geopolitics in stride, delving into council processes with a flair for analyzing the prevailing winds. He returned to New York as ambassador a second time, in 2008, because it meant representing Guatemala on the Security Council, as the country knew even then that it could win a seat in 2012.
“I took it not thinking I’d be personally be back to do it but satisfaction for my legacy,” he said, adding that Guatemala had never been on the council. “I thought it was important.”
It was as president of the council in October 2012 where Rosenthal felt he could leave his country’s mark, given that elected members have just a few prerogatives: namely, they can choose a topic for open debate during their presidency. Since Guatemala has joined the International Criminal Court, the permanent judicial body charged with prosecuting atrocities, Rosenthal and his delegation chose the topic of justice and peace to explore links between the court and the Security Council. The subject had never been broached before so publicly.
“I consider it the single-most important thing we did,” he said, adding, “We put it on the table.”
Small countries, Rosenthal said, have little influence on the Security Council, so his delegation “thought long and hard” on which topic to choose. “We considered women and peace,” but decided that “little added value” could be made to what had been said in previous annual debates on the subject.
The debate decision also reflected his country’s steps to reconcile its own sordid past – a 30-year civil war ending in 1996 – with today’s goal for justice and equality. These aims have been reinforced by Efraín Rios Montt, the country’s former dictator, being ordered to stand trial in Guatemala on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity committed during massacres early in the war.
Rosenthal said the October debate “clarified the areas of agreement and disagreement” on the relationship between the court and the council and how to improve cooperation between the two. The topic also resulted in three seminars in New York, held at institutions like the International Peace Institute, a think tank specializing in the UN.
So what can a country like Guatemala, poor but striving, with a civil war behind it, do besides hold a high-profile debate at the council? Although small countries can be “almost as influential as large elected members,” Rosenthal said, the real problem at the council lies elsewhere.
“The real cleavage is between permanent and elected,” he said, noting a “big distance between the two.” When the council is holding closed-door meetings, the permanent members, called the P5, gather behind their own doors, where they talk, come out and introduce to the 10 others what they have agreed on, giving elected members little to do but “buy it.”
That is what happens when the P5 are unified, and any mystery about council machinery is dispelled nowadays by Twitter feeds and cellphone texts relaying information from permanent members to others outside the closed doors. Yet it takes some sleuthing for elected members to stay abreast of what the P5 discuss privately – because they’re also known to meet, say, for breakfast.
It’s a search that diplomats may actually savor. “There is an air of mystery,” Rosenthal said. “Sometimes, they tell you what they talk about” behind the closed doors “and sometimes they don’t.” Most members are more open than they were a few years ago, and Guatemala’s experts, Rosenthal said, have “ways of finding out.”
Where things grow more intriguing is when the P5 don’t agree, as in Syria.
The P5 will put their positions “on the table,” before the elected members, even though the P5’s stances are usually clear, since “everything leaks out anyway.” But in disagreements among the P5, elected members can make a difference by taking “party with one or the other.”
If Russia, for example, can persuade 8 or the 10 elected members to go on their side, they could call for a vote – enabling a resolution to be adopted with 9 yes votes and no vetoes. “They compete; Russia will explain their position,” and Susan Rice, the US ambassador, “tells us where she’s coming from.” Guatemala and others will check the information among themselves “to make sure we’re all hearing the same things.”
Usually the differences among the P5, beyond Syria, Rosenthal said, are subtle, as with the case of Sudan. Ultimately, “they know they need each other so they make an effort to build a consensus among themselves.”
At the end of the day – which for the council appears to be dinnertime — a willingness to concede the fine points and agree supersedes.
For Rosenthal, working on the council requires staying on top of the agenda, replete with meetings and reading Secretariat reports. He relies on journalism for background material, including newspapers of a country being discussed, like Mali. The International Crisis Group and the Security Council Report are additional resources, he added, as well as his colleagues’ expertise.
The pace of the Security Council is “very fast” by UN standards, though “that doesn’t mean it is fast,” he said. It’s possible to convene a meeting and get a draft press declaration, a nonbinding agreement, approved the same day. Resolutions? “You’re looking at least two weeks.” Most resolution writing is confined to Britain, France and the US, with exceptions, like Germany during its council stay in 2011-2012. Even if a country writes a draft in its own language, it must finally be written – and negotiated — in English.
“It’s the tool of the trade or you can’t communicate with your colleagues,” Rosenthal said of English.
It is in the council’s subsidiary organs – sanctions committees, for example – where elected members can possibly write draft resolutions and inject their opinions freely. Although Rosenthal found the working bodies highly relevant, a pecking order presides, “a little like the army,” with the hierarchy a “little undemocratic.” Ambassadors speak to their counterparts, deputies stick with their ranks and down the line. The topic of gender, Rosenthal said, is substantive in these forums, and women delegates in the meetings operate with “no obvious difference” in their approach to a situation.
At that, the 25 minutes Rosenthal promised for the interview was done, and he bounded up the curving marble staircase to his office. It was late afternoon on a Friday and paperwork was looming.
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.