State funerals offer moments for diplomacy

Mon Dec 9, 2013 3:58pm EST
 
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By Alastair Macdonald

LONDON (Reuters) - As world leaders bury hatchets for the day and unite in paying respects to Nelson Mandela, the late South African leader may have a chance to promote peace, in death as he did in life.

Funerals of the great and the good, demanding attendance at short notice by busy and powerful leaders who rarely meet, have long been occasions for quiet diplomacy and Tuesday may be no exception - though not everyone will want to shake hands.

"It does cut through their scheduling so they can do things off the cuff," said David Owen, who as British foreign secretary in the 1970s saw several historic figures interred. "Everybody is putting in bids," he said of negotiations among diplomats for meetings on the sidelines of such global events.

U.S. President Barack Obama may top many wish lists for a brief chat in Johannesburg, though it is unclear whom he will meet. Cuba's Raul Castro, at daggers drawn with Washington for over half a century, will be there. But the initially announced attendance of Iran's new president Hassan Rouhani is in doubt - leaving a dramatic moment of U.S.-Iran rapprochement unlikely.

If Obama is in demand, others are more used to cold shoulders - notably President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, for whom such events offer a respite from international sanctions.

Aides to Prince Charles, representing Queen Elizabeth, will be determined to avoid a repeat of the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005, when the heir to the British throne had to blame "surprise" after he shook Mugabe's hand at the service.

"There are all these people who want their photograph taken with somebody who doesn't particularly want their photograph taken with them," Owen said, recalling how, at the 1978 funeral of Kenyan independence leader Jomo Kenyatta, he physically prevented Uganda's Idi Amin from shaking hands with the prince.

"He did try. And I did intercept it," Owen told Reuters, saying British officials had been in an "absolute panic" about the Ugandan dictator seizing an unwelcome photo opportunity.   Continued...