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Last Updated: Saturday, 9 December 2006, 12:08 GMT
All change at the UN
By Laura Trevelyan
BBC, New York

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is preparing to leave office after 10 years and his successor, Ban Ki-moon, is in New York getting ready for his new post.

Kofi Annan and his wife Nane
Kofi Annan officially steps down on 31 December 2006

The December party season at the United Nations has a particular poignancy this year.

All over Turtle Bay, where the diplomats live, farewells are being said to Kofi Annan.

Mr Annan and his elegant wife Nane are the United Nations equivalent of royalty.

No matter what diplomats may really think of Mr Annan's time in office, he is personally very popular, seen as gracious and dignified.

Watching Mr and Mrs Annan work a room is like observing a diplomatic master class in action.

No guest is ignored, no spouse neglected, inquiries are made after all known children.

If you think it's going to be boring with Ban, remember you thought it would be anodyne with Annan
UN senior official

Sensitive subjects - Iraq, Darfur - are tactfully broached.

No-one is made to feel they are boring the first couple of the United Nations, or that there is a more interesting guest they would rather be talking to.

The Annans arrive at the very minute they are expected and depart just as punctually.

"We shall miss them," sighed one rather reverential diplomat. "They're the closest to Hollywood glamour we'll ever get."

Feted

Just as the couple say their farewells at drinks and dinner parties across town, so Ban Ki-moon of South Korea - the incoming secretary general - is equally feted.

Ban Ki-moon
Mr Ban is the first Asian secretary general in more than 30 years

Ban Ki-moon is in town with his transition team and everybody wants to meet him.

So far he is not giving much away about his intentions, other than to reiterate his desire to reform the ageing institution.

"The South Koreans want to make the place hum like an electronics factory in Seoul," one diplomat told me, adding: "There are worse fates for the place than to be like Daewoo, I suppose."

Leadership qualities

Rumours of a platoon of efficient South Koreans installed in the secretary general's suite of offices on the 38th floor turned out to be greatly exaggerated.

The platoon had only four members.

But there is a palpable air of anxiety as the staff here wait for one era to end and another to begin.

And there is a real sense that Kofi Annan's emphasis on human rights and fighting poverty may be replaced by a more prosaic, less ambitious UN agenda in which efficiency is the priority.

But then, as one senior official cautioned: "If you think it's going to be boring with Ban, remember you thought it would be anodyne with Annan."

Much speculation

Over cocktails and canapes, there is much gossip about what are known as the holy trinity of UN posts: head of peacekeeping, boss of political affairs and director of humanitarian assistance.

Mr Annan's appointees are due to leave their posts early next year.

UN building in New York
Ban Ki-moon has talked of UN reform but not in much detail

So who will Mr Ban choose?

The Americans have let it be known that they want peacekeeping, a post which the French regard as theirs.

"We are the only developed country that puts actual peacekeepers on the ground," pointed out a senior French diplomat.

"The Yanks can't have peacekeeping," said a developing world ambassador. "It would turn peacekeeping into a minor branch of the US army."

Meanwhile the British are insisting that they are not lobbying for political affairs, a powerful position which has traditionally been held by the UK.

The poorer nations at the UN have told Mr Ban in no uncertain terms that he cannot carry on giving the plum posts to the organisation's paymasters.

"It is time for us to get something more than just protocol," one African ambassador told me.

"We are watching Ban very closely and he had better not disappoint us - the status quo is not an option."

Farewell serenade

As diplomats trade gossip, and journalists brave the whistling December wind to trudge from one mission building to the next in search of insights, there is one event which reporters do not have to travel to.

The action comes to us.

Yours truly has been roped in to sing a farewell ditty to Kofi Annan

That is the UN correspondents' association annual dinner and dance.

It will have happened by the time you read this piece and I shall no doubt be feeling somewhat the worse for wear.

Kofi Annan is due to bid us farewell while Ban Ki-moon will say hello.

Awards will be given out and the BBC's Mark Doyle and Karen Allen will be honoured for their reporting from Africa.

Then after all the speeches, there is due to be a little entertainment.

Yours truly has been roped in to sing a farewell ditty to Kofi Annan, to the tune of Arrivederci Roma.

It goes something like this:

Arrivederci Kofi, goodbye goodbye New York, city of a million resolutions, city of a thousand competing solutions, where I found a world of many faces, far from home.

Let us hope he likes it.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 9 December, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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