Late arrivals for UN chief's lunch at start of General Assembly

Late arrivals for UN chief's lunch at start of General Assembly

US President Barack Obama glided into the secretary-general's lunch for world leaders more than 20 minutes late, glad-handing presidents and potentates as he made his way to the head table. President Vladimir Putin arrived even later, while the UN chief Ban Ki-moon was speaking before making a toast, so the Russian leader walked quickly to his seat -- a chair away from Mr Obama.

As he sat down, Mr Putin reached across an empty chair, where Mr Ban would sit, to shake Mr Obama's hand.

The lunch that Mr Ban throws on the first day of the annual ministerial meeting of the General Assembly is the only social event that VIPs from all 193 UN member states usually attend, though there were more than a dozen empty seats after the first course.

Some leaders had good excuses. They were delayed because of very long addresses to the assembly by the early speakers on Monday. Mr Obama was the worst offender, speaking for 43 minutes -- nearly three times the 15 minutes allotted to every country. The carefully timed UN schedule was pushed so badly out of shape that Qatar's Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani came racing in late to take his seat at the head table because his speech was badly delayed.

The secretary-general was late, too. His one-on-one meetings were delayed. Some leaders, however, arrived early and many wandered around chatting. Some sat eating their salad -- a smoked trout and cucumber timbale with pickled celery and "hearts of fire". Early arrivals got to watch UN chefs in white hats walk around with plastic bottles squeezing a mango mustard emulsion on top.

The lunch took place in the newly renovated Delegates Lounge, where floor-to-ceiling blue curtains blocked the view of the East River, a security measure. The room was decorated with the flags of all member states and for the first time at a ministerial meeting of the General Assembly, the flags of the two non-member observer states, the Holy See and Palestine, were at the end of the line in front of the windows.

When the secretary-general finally spoke, the leaders burst into laughter when he said: "Only at the United Nations can Pope Francis and Shakira appear on the same stage within minutes of each other! I didn't know whether I should pray or dance."

And there was applause after he said football great David Beckham and Hollywood star Michael Douglas were also at the UN and "could make a blockbuster movie with a brilliant soundtrack. But they were here to make peace".

The leaders also applauded when Mr Ban said "only at the United Nations can so many world leaders, from so many different traditions, with so many different views, break bread together like this today".

Mr Ban toasted the United Nations "which in its 70th year is as vital and necessary as ever".

Mr Obama, representing the UN's host nation, then took the microphone, explaining with a broad smile that he thinks Mr Ban arranged to have Mr Obama's toast come after his speech to the General Assembly "to keep me brief".

On a serious note, he said the challenges today are threatening "our ability to come together as United Nations". But he said he felt optimistic that the world's nations can work together.

"There is no problem that man has caused that man cannot solve if we are bold enough, deploy our imagination, have the political will, and recognise our common humanity," the president said.

Mr Obama then toasted to the United Nations, clinking his glass with the secretary-general's and and several other leaders at the head table while standing -- and with Mr Putin when he sat down.

With toasts over, well after 2pm, waiters were finally able to serve the main course -- caramelised beef short ribs with baby beets, Swiss chard and butternut squash puree, morel mushrooms and sauce bordelaise. A spiced wild berry compote followed for dessert, accompanied by a chocolate-covered strawberry. AP

Edith Lederer

Chief correspondent at UN for the AP

Chief correspondent at the United Nations for the AP.

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