The chamber of the Security Council spreads out, airless and dimly lit, at the heart of the United Nations complex in New York. This is the inner sanctum of world diplomacy: Council members are responsible for maintaining peace and security across the globe, no less. A huge oil canvas mural, painted by the Norwegian artist Per Krogh, decorates one wall: A phoenix rises from its ashes, symbolizing the world's rebirth after World War II; and a group of farmers weigh out grain for all to share, showing how the international community values equality. This sense of bounty and fairness fills the big room with its large U-shaped table surrounded by welcoming blue chairs.
But the appearance of inclusivity is deceptive. The blue seats, center-stage, are reserved exclusively for the 15 Security Council member states. Other U.N. members must sit farther away from the decision-makers' table, on an incline. Even farther from the diplomatic action hangs the "public gallery," for mere onlookers.
The Council decor captures the real-life divisions of the world order. Only a handful of nations truly control the international agenda; others must make do with a spectator's role. This hierarchy is as fixed in the U.N. protocol as the blue chairs are fixed to the chamber floor. No diplomat, minister, or head of state would dare challenge it.
When Carne Ross, a former U.N. diplomat, begged passes from a "friendly" government in order to sneak his client, a delegation from South Sudan, into the public gallery, he knew this was a brazen breach of convention. It was 2010, and South Sudan had yet to be recognized as a state. Its right to a referendum on independence, won at the end of Sudan's brutal and prolonged civil war in 2005, was in doubt. Council members were set to discuss the referendum but South Sudan, whose future was at stake, was not invited to take part in the discussion.
Thanks to Carne Ross's subterfuge, the delegation, led by former guerrilla leader Pagan Amum, listened in on the Council discussion. Later, by door-stopping former colleagues at the United Nations, Ross managed to secure his client a seat at the table at the Security Council. Amum spoke eloquently about South Sudan's desire for peace and self-determination before an audience that included Hillary Clinton, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague. His speech made an impact: the United Nations approved the referendum, which was held a few months later. South Sudan became independent in July 2011.