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UN Diplomats Missing in Niger

From the UN News Centre:
A United Nations envoy dealing with Niger, Canadian Robert Fowler, has gone missing while driving near the West African country's capital Niamey, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today. "We are doing all our best efforts about his whereabouts," he told reporters when asked about it at a news conference. "We are now mobilizing all necessary information networks on this." Earlier a spokesman said the UN had no indication Mr. Fowler, whose car was found on Sunday evening without its three passengers, had been taken hostage. Spokesman Farhan Haq added that the Niger authorities were looking into the matter. "We appreciate their efforts and are working with them," he said.
The BBC reports that (at least some) Tuareg rebels have claimed that they have in fact abducted Mr. Fowler, who is also a former Canadian ambassador to the UN. The disappearance occurred far from the rebels' usual base of operations, though, and UN and Niger officials do not even agree whether Mr. Fowler was in the country in his official capacity or on private business. We'll keep you updated. (For more on the Tuareg rebels, check out yesterday's interesting NYT article by Lydia Polgreen. And you can check out their "slick Web site" here.) UPDATE: It appears that Fowler -- "no stranger to conflict zones" -- was kidnapped when returning from a major Nigerien gold mine that is largely owned by a Canadian corporation. I've heard speculation from the ground that, as the mine is widely believed to rely on a shady system of bribing both government officials and rebels, it was no accident that Canadians were targeted. Another possible explanation is that the kidnapping was meant to embarrass Niger's regime just days before national holiday celebrations.
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The Case for Celebrity Diplomats

Nick Kristoff pushes back against this bit of snarky commentary regarding Angelina Jolie's role as a celebrity spokesperson for refugee issues.
Frankly, if a celebrity isn't genuinely interested in poverty and is simply trying to get good press, there are better ways to do it. Traveling to Darfur or Congo is dangerous, expensive and uncomfortable, and the outhouses have bats, scorpions and camel spiders. But if a celebrity is willing to put up with such challenges, he or she can get public attention in a way that no one else can. I once was on a panel where Angelina's eyes filled up as she spoke of Iraqi refugees she had met in Syria; for anybody who was there, that scene was worth 100 of my columns. And ditto for her speech on Friday at the Council on Foreign Relations.
I, too, witnessed this aforementioned moment when Jolie broke done while discussing an Iraqi child she met. It was at last year's Clinton Global Initiative.
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Cold Comfort in Iceland?

This has been a rough week for Iceland. First, Iceland loses to Turkey and Austria for a seat on the UN Security Council. And yesterday, the International Monetary Fund along with Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Russia pledged to loan Iceland $6 billion necessary to keep its economy afloat. Still, there could be a silver lining to this from Icelanders who seek integration into the European Union.
Some Icelandic authorities have suggested that once matters stabilize, the country should give up having an independent currency, and instead either adopt the euro outright or peg the value of the krona firmly to that of the euro. Another possibility, rejected in the past, is to join the European Union as a member nation, a proposal that Icelandic conservatives have opposed. Still, Olli Rehn, the union's commissioner for enlargement, told Agence France-Presse on Monday that Iceland would not find it difficult to be admitted to the union.
What is interesting here is that of the countries committing to bail out Iceland, only Denmark and Sweden belong to the European Union--but even Denmark and Sweden do not use the euro as currency. Nevertheless, Iceland's march toward integration seems to be taking one step forward. It is already a Schengen country, meaning that there is no border control between Iceland and the rest of Europe. The next step, seemingly, is to hoist the EU flag in Reykjavik.
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Election Day Tomorrow…

...for open seats on the United Nations Security Council. The key race to watch is for the two open seats reserved for the Western Europe and Others Group (in UN-speak, WEOG). Three countries: Austria, Iceland and Turkey are vying for these two slots, making this the only competitive race for open, non-permanent seats on the council. (Yes, Iran is technically running against Japan. But that race won't exactly be tight.) To win a seat on the council a country must receive the votes of two thirds of the General Assembly. Voting is done by secret ballot and Iceland, Austria and Turkey have been politicking hard. (Read this post on what happens if no clear winners emerge from the first round of voting.) Iceland is touting it's clean energy infrastructure as reason why it deserves a seat. (Iceland's president, though, admitted that its current financial crisis might hurt its chances). Turkey may have received a boost this week by reportedly gaining the support of Latin America. Austria, for its part, is throwing a party at the Metropolitan Club on the eve of the vote. So far, there is not much action on Intrade. Predictions, anyone?
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Diplomacy and North Korea

James Lamond offers a good rundown of the recent diplomatic back-and-forth between Washington and Pyongyang. The moral of the story: diplomacy may produce imperfect results, but even these can be preferable to a stubborn refusal to negotiate with one's adversaries.
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Russian UN Ambassador Rails Against the French at the Security Council

As you can see from the video below, Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly I. Churkin is none too pleased with his French counterparts. Here's the backstory: The presidents of France and Russia negotiated a ceasefire agreement last week which is known as the the "six point plan." The French prepared to circulate a draft resolution at the Security Council to formalize the plan, but scraped the idea amid concerns that Russia was not making good on promises to pull back its troops from Georgia. Then on Tuesday, a draft written by France and backed by the United States and United Kingdom ratcheted up the pressure and called for "an immediate Russian withdrawal to pre-conflict lines, the return of Georgian forces to their bases and full compliance with an already agreed cease-fire." According to Reuters, "Western diplomats said the French draft had been submitted to the council in full knowledge that Russia was likely to reject it. The aim was 'to put the spotlight on the fact that the Russians have not withdrawn,' one Western envoy said." Well, with the spotlight on him, Churkin lays into the French.
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On the lighter side…

The NY Times has published a cool graphic displaying the history of the Olympic torch. What struck me immediately is the clear delineation between the torches made after 1990 and those made before. Have we just gotten more design conscious, or are the photos of the new torches just better?

Check out this description:

Montreal - Summer 1976: The torch designers began to consider the torch as part of the television coverage of the Games: The top of the torch is black to make the flame more visible in photographs and the logo is prominent on the handle.

The logo is prominent on the handle!

In comparison, according to the accompanying audio, narrated by reporter Phil Patton, the Beijing torch is "a long, red thin item that resembles a rolled scroll and is decorated by swirling graphics, known as 'happy clouds,' said to reflect 'vivid distance' -- a very good description of how China is presenting itself to the world with this Olympics." was is designed by Lenovo.

The design process for the Vancouver torch has already begun. It's to be the "cleanest and greenest torch ever."

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The Mediterranean Union

Yesterday was Le Quatorze Juillet, or Bastille Day as it is more commonly known here. That is the French national holiday, and what better way to ring in the Revolution's 219th birthday than the creation of a new international institution. Yesterday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy celebrated the creation of the Mediterranean Union--an international group comprised of states surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. From the New York Times:
Leaders of 43 nations with nearly 800 million inhabitants inaugurated a "Union for the Mediterranean" on Sunday, meant to bring the northern and southern countries that ring the sea closer together through practical projects dealing with the environment, climate, transportation, immigration and policing. But the meeting was also an opportunity for President Nicolas Sarkozy of France to exercise some highly public Middle East diplomacy by bringing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria out of isolation for an Élysée Palace meeting and by playing host to a session between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
Somehow this whole project has managed to be off of my radar up until now, but it should prove an interesting study in whether or not the defined priorities can bring together unlikely allies. The ability of Europeans to use soft power through practically-based international unions to slowly end conflict and spread democracy is exemplified by the success of the European Union, and I hope that this new Mediterranean Union will create the same turn-around in Middle Eastern diplomacy that the European Coal and Steel Community (which later became the EU, of course) created for European diplomacy.