Queen Elizabeth addresses U.N. for first time since 1957

On her first trip to New York since 1976, Queen Elizabeth II addressed the U.N. General Assembly and visited Ground Zero.
By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

NEW YORK -- When Queen Elizabeth II first visited New York City, in 1957, the glamorous young monarch was welcomed with a ticker-tape parade befitting war heroes or World Series champs. On Tuesday, as the 84-year-old royal addressed the U.N. General Assembly for the first time since then, there was hardly a well-wisher to be found outside U.N. headquarters.

The low-key welcome was largely by design, reflective of the rest of the queen's somber New York agenda: a visit to Ground Zero, and to a memorial garden honoring the 67 British victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. But the quiet reception also pointed to a monarchy whose popular appeal has perhaps crested.

"I suppose the British monarchy was a bigger deal in 1957 than now," said Sir Brian Urquhart, a former high-ranking U.N. official from Britain who met the queen during her visit five decades ago.

Inside the United Nations, there was plenty of pomp Tuesday. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and others warmly welcomed the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, as they entered the U.N. compound.

"In a changing and churning world, you are an anchor for our age," Ban said of the queen in his remarks before the General Assembly. "Your reign spans the decades. From the challenges of the Cold War to the threat of global warming. From the Beatles to Beckham."

Other senior diplomats were similarly effusive. Japan's U.N. ambassador, Yukio Takasu, wistfully recalled his days as a young man arranging for a visit of the former Japanese emperor to England to meet the queen.

But lower-ranking U.N. officials, particularly younger officials with little if any memory of the monarchy's glory days, were more blase. One British U.N. worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, seemed puzzled as to why the queen had come to the United Nations at all, although she allowed that her "mum thought it was cool."

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, who had not been born when the queen last visited the General Assembly, had to miss the address so that she could attend President's Obama's long-awaited luncheon with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. (She did make it back for a later Security Council meeting with the queen.)

In many ways, the queen's address was as much about reminiscing about the history of the United Nations as it was about foreign policy or politics, although she did call on diplomats to take "careful account" of the "risks facing smaller, more vulnerable nations" from global warming.

At one point in her address, the queen recalled the dramatic changes since her last visit, when the United Nations had 82 members (it has 192 members now). She cited the massive expansion of U.N. peacekeeping, the rise of international terrorism and the burden of global poverty and climate change.

"It has perhaps always been the case that the waging of peace is the hardest form of leadership of all," she said. "I know of no single formula for success, but over the years I have observed that some attributes of leadership are universal and are often about finding ways of encouraging people to combine their efforts, their talents, their insights, their enthusiasm and their inspiration, to work together."

She praised the United Nations for its capacity to adapt to changing times.

"I have . . . witnessed great change, much of it for the better, particularly in science and technology, and in social attitudes," she said. "Remarkably, many of these sweeping advances have come about not because of governments, committee resolutions or central directives -- although all these have played a part -- but instead because millions of people around the world have wanted them. For the United Nations, these subtle yet significant changes in people's approach to leadership and power might have foreshadowed failure and demise."

The queen spoke as the titular head of state of 16 countries, including Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and the nominal representative of 54 governments in the British Commonwealth. But in reality, she holds virtually no political authority and played no significant role in the United Nations' history, according to Stephen Schlesinger, a historian who wrote a book on the founding of the United Nations.

Still, Schlesinger said he was "a little surprised it's taken this long to come back to the United Nations, considering she does come to this country with some frequency, at least to go to a horse race" -- a reference to the queen's visits to the Kentucky Derby.

After her address, the queen visited Ground Zero, where she spoke with relatives of 9/11 victims and first responders, before heading off to the British Garden of Remembrance at Hanover Square in Lower Manhattan.

It was hovering around 100 degrees outside, and she was in a blue and brown floral dress and a summer hat.

"Her lipstick was just so," Debbie Palmer, whose husband, Fire Chief Orio Palmer was killed on Sept. 11, told the Associated Press. "She's beautiful. She looks like she could be anybody's grandmother."

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