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Verbosity at the UN: Keep talking

November 13, 2012

My blog for The Economist

FEWER dictators means better timekeeping at the UN General Assembly. In past years delegates braced themselves for the rambling rants of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi (record: 90 minutes in 2009). This year’s meeting of the UN’s big representative body featured only a handful of long-winded speakers. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad managed just under 40 minutes, bemusing some delegates and amusing others with his calls for restructuring the UN, which he says is heavily skewed towards a few countries. He also gave his thoughts about the coming of the 12th imam and Jesus of Nazareth.

UN protocol since 2003 stipulates that heads of state addressing the General Assembly must keep within a 15-minute limit. Barack Obama has breached that every year of his presidency with orations of at least 30 minutes. But modern efforts pall against the giants of the past. Cuba’s Fidel Castro in 1960 gave the longest ever continuous speech to the General Assembly, a fatiguing four hours and 29 minutes.

But the lengthiest speech ever at the UN (to the Security Council, not the General Assembly) was in 1957, when India’s representative, VK Krishna Menon, outlined in some detail India’s stand on Kashmir. It took eight hours, spread over three sessions, after which he collapsed.

This year’s delegates may not lack opportunity to exercise concentration. Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, is due to address the General Assembly via video-link from his refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Concision is not his watchword. If a record is to be broken this year, the odds are on him.

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