Legislative Staff Group Takes Trip to United Nations

Posted May 20, 2003 at 3:36pm

As United Nations Security Council members seek to hammer out a resolution on post-war Iraq, a group of Congressional staffers took a small step toward repairing the U.S.-U.N. relationship over the weekend, traveling to the organization’s New York headquarters for “intense” discussions on issues ranging from the HIV/AIDS pandemic to peacekeeping and terrorism.

About 40 Capitol Hill aides attended the three-day trip sponsored for the second year in a row by the Congressional Legislative Staff Association, a bipartisan group of past and present staffers that often hosts events with an international focus.

For many of this year’s attendees, the chance to be physically present at the epicenter of world deliberations — especially given the recent diplomatic drama that took place over the Iraq war at the United Nations — was particularly significant, said CLSA Vice President Mike Oscar, a legislative aide for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

During their time at the United Nations, the staffers heard from U.N. officials, including Assistant Secretary-General for External Relations Gillian Sorensen, Salman Ahmed of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, and Danilo Turk, assistant secretary-general of the Department of Political Affairs.

“For us it was a great opportunity to inform and to educate and to inspire … to give a wide ranging view of the many activities the U.N. is involved in,” said Sorensen.

“We see them with great respect. We know they are smart. They are politically minded. They follow the events of the world closely,” Sorensen observed of the staffers.

However, “many of them simply had no idea of the range of the U.N.’s work,” she added, pointing to the manifold issues — from refugee assistance to reproductive rights — that the United Nations is involved in.

In light of the ongoing tete-á-tete between the United States and the United Nations, some aides said the exchange offered a rare chance to pose probing questions to officials about U.N. actions.

“I don’t think everyone was for the U.N. I don’t think everyone was for the U.S. I think it was a matter of having a dialogue,” Oscar noted.

“It’s important for them to meet with us because they want to continue the dialogue,” said CLSA President Josh Stull, a legislative assistant to Pennsylvania Rep. Don Sherwood (R). “We talk to our boss and our boss trusts our judgment.”

After the discussions, the staffers headed across the street to the U.S. mission, where they met with U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Negroponte.

“I found Ambassador Negroponte to be open and unguarded, really,” said Marsha Shasteen, assistant counsel for the minority on the House Science Committee, noting that Negroponte’s talk touched on the U.S.-Franco alliance and peacekeeping in Iraq, among other issues.

In fact, the discussions proved so productive that the CLSA has already invited Sorensen and Negroponte to a subsequent event on U.S.-U.N. relations June 6 at the Capitol. “It’s a good-faith effort from our organization,” asserted trip organizer Oscar, a Model United Nations alumnus.

While staffers had to foot the bill for food and lodging for the weekend, which also included a tour of the New York Stock Exchange and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the CLSA’s transportation tab — $129.60 per staffer — was picked up by the Better World Campaign, a nonprofit organization that works to promote the U.N.-U.S. relationship. “We feel that a dialogue between Members of Congress [and the U.N.] and, of course, their staff, is a critical part of keeping that [relationship] strong,” explained Susan Myers, the organization’s legislative director.

CLSA, which last year hosted 28 embassy events, is open to all Congressional aides. This year, the organization plans to undertake more charitable efforts, including sponsoring staffers in the Race for the Cure. Yearly membership is $15 per individual. For more information, go online to www.congressionalstaffers.org or call Josh Stull at (202) 225-3731.