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Ambassadors discuss war, politics at U.

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If you want to know how the U.N. ambassadors for Nigeria, Bulgaria, Russia and Tonga personally feel about how to define terrorism, how to stop terrorists, how to reform the United Nations, etc., etc. — well, you'll just have to ask them.

True, they took part in a panel discussion Tuesday at the publicly funded University of Utah. But they didn't want their personal feelings to be openly reflective of their governments.

The meeting was open to the public — several among the 100 or so took notes, but only for "educational" purposes, according to Monica Cummings, public affairs adviser for the United States Mission to the United Nations.

And TV and radio reporters weren't invited for the purpose of having a more "candid" discussion among panel members.

"No one said, 'Don't invite newspaper reporters,' " said Laura Snow, an assistant to U. President Michael Young.

But an announcement was made at the start of the discussion that everything everyone was about to say for the next hour would be off the record.

"We do this every single day," said Richard Grenell, a panel member and director of communications for the U.S. Mission to the U.N. When reporters in New York and Washington are told that conversations about U.N. matters are off the record, they don't "push back," he added.

So, why all the secrecy?

Well, there was talk of how to stop the spread of terrorist ideologies without infringing upon a person's right to free speech.

There was disagreement about how effective the U.N. has been in helping an "arrogant" U.S. solve the world's problems.

There was some tension in the room when the issue came up of how Russia handled the war in Chechnya.

Everyone on the panel seemed concerned about, if not afraid of, how Iran and Hamas want to wipe Israel off the map.

There was even anger or frustration from at least two people in the audience about the war in Iraq and a lack of unilateral support for U.S. involvement.

"It was a very candid discussion," Cummings said afterward.

Panel member Pierre-Richard Prosper said after the meeting that everything he said during the discussion could be used on the record — then again, he is the former (not current) ambassador at large for war crimes issues, as noted by U.N. senior adviser Robert C. O'Brien

While ambassadors talked about the need for consensus among the U.N.'s 191 members before taking action, Prosper said the U.N. didn't act fast enough in places like Rwanda and Sudan.

"At some point, somebody needs to stand up and act," he added.

Ambassadors commented on the International Criminal Court, which is achieving very little relative to the nature of crimes being committed, according to Prosper. Hundreds of thousands in African nations have become victims of genocide, but only a handful of people have been indicted by the ICC.

"Is that administering justice?" he asked.

And Prosper said a common definition of terrorism among U.N. members isn't likely and that countries should focus on reacting to acts of terror.

"Everyone can agree bombing a hotel is a bad thing," he said.

Prosper said countries need to possess the political will to enforce existing U.N. resolutions that are supposed to function as legal instruction or mandates on how to deal with terrorism.

After the discussion, Grenell agreed the U.N. needs to "call out" countries that allow their citizens to commit terrorist acts, which he said need to be publicly condemned.

And Bulgarian ambassador Stefan Tafrov had just enough time to say — for the record — that the U.N. needs to be a "strong body" and that the U.N.'s human rights initiative needs improvement.

But the time to corner other panel members on specific issues was brief.

An apologetic former Utah Gov. Olene Walker whisked the ambassadors away to a meeting with leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com