It was chaired by Lord Hannay of Chiswick - Former British Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1990 – 1995), who, uncannily, looks more like Sir Humphrey than Nigel Hawthorne himself.
The speakers were His Excellency Sir Mark Lyall Grant KCMG* - British Permanent Representative to the United Nations (2009 - present) and Sir Jeremy Greenstock GCMG** - Former British Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1998 – 2003) and Chairman of UNA-UK .
So this was all stuff from the horse's mouth. We were listening to polished voices that speak (or have spoken) in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
I am going to touch a few highlights of what they said.
Sir Mark reviewed the Arab Spring - or, as he would prefer, Arab Awakening. The UNDP was one of the few bodies that predicted the Arab Spring, in a 2009 report. The UN had been involved in helping to bring about democracy, by suspending Libya from the Human Rights Council, referring Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court, and offering accreditation to the Libyan opposition, the TNC, in the General Assembly. The Libyan action is still contentious in some quarters.
Some also are still critical of the policy of Responsibility to Protect. Although R2P is mainly supported by Western conscience, non-Western nations like Qatar and Turkey also support it.
He sketched out Ban Ki Moon's agenda for his second term of office, especially his desire to push through reforms. The UN is pushing on to its 70th year, its bureaucracy has become sclerotic and badly needs reform, but there is much resistance from some states to reform. He drew an analogy between the democratic impulse of the Arab Spring and the need of the UN to listen to ideas coming up from the grass roots.
He looked at the future of UNSC action. There are about 100k UN peacekeepers deployed at present, and he sees this number dropping, being converted to more specialised and more police-like, intra-state activities, rather than the traditional blue-helmet peacekeeping ops between states.
Regional organisations - such as the Arab League - are going to become bigger players. He pointed out the disagreement between the Arab League and the African Union over Libya.
Jeremy Greenstock - current chair of the UNA-UK board - took over, with a view of the structure of UN action. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Charter remain the linchpin of UN activities, and those principles must always be upheld.
The legitimacy of Governments is always determined by the people. The Arab Spring will not be limited to the Middle East, but will inspire similar movements worldwide. The Israel/Palestine issue must be resolved, and - remarkably - he said that the Quartet (run by one T Blair) initiative is running out of steam.
Questions followed. I asked whether UNA-UK should look at the idea of setting a framework for the UN to work to, rather than the present ad hoc arrangements, in order to speed up reaction to events like Syria, where a year and 10,000 deaths have passed before action begins to be brought to bear.
Mark Lyall Grant said we must take the world as it is. The UNSC veto would put paid to any attempts to speed things up. However, the idea of discouraging the move towards dictatorship does find some resonance with the USA's "Horizon Scanning" process. I did a search, but was unable to find a link to this as a general process, though I did find this on Rwanda.
Jeremy Greenstock said that responses to humanitarian crises such as Syria and Bahrain tend to be initiated by Western conscience and NGOs. He stressed that democratic governments are not good at committing money for long term plans.
All three on the platform assumed that I was trying to bring forward the point at which the UN authorises military action against a violent dictator - which is of course the very opposite of what I was proposing. This shows the difficulty of trying to compress a comprehensive idea into a question.
However, I did get some support from other attendees at the meeting, and an opportunity to write to Jeremy Greenstock.
So it was all worth a trip to London, which remains a funny kinda place.
* KCMG = Kindly Call Me God
** GCMG = God Calls Me God
** GCMG = God Calls Me God