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On Foreign Soil: British U.N. Ambassador Talks NYC's 'Vibrancy' And More

by Evan Bindelglass, CBSNewYork

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) - He's been posted to Pretoria, Islamabad, and Paris. But now, Sir Mark Lyall Grant is an Englishman in New York.

Since 2009, he has been the Permanent Representative and Ambassador of the United Kingdom to the United Nations.

In a wide-ranging interview earlier this week at the U.K. Mission to the United Nations, Lyall Grant spoke about the crisis in Syria, Libya, life in and around New York City, and more.

Tragedy in Libya and the Arab Spring

On Tuesday night, Chris Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, along with three members of his staff, were killed at the consulate in the city of Benghazi.

"We're living in a very uncertain world. The last 18 months at United Nations has been dominated by the Arab Spring. In a strategic sense, I think developments have gone in a positive direction where a lot of despotic regimes have been overthrown, new democratic governments have come in, and good progress has been made in transition in countries like Tunisia, in Egypt, in Somalia, etc," he said on Wednesday.

"Now of course, there are massive problems still, and we saw that overnight with the tragic killing of the American Ambassador in Libya and other diplomats and also the ongoing violence in Syria, where more than 20,000 people have been killed and the Security Council is very divided," he added. "But I think overall, I would say that the strategic direction in the Middle East has been positive and we have to be patient. It will take 15, 20 years before it settles down in areas where democracy is an unknown quantity for many countries. So, an uncertain world, the Arab Spring very much the dominant theme and, unfortunately, the sort of tragic events we saw overnight will happen again."


"It's a horrific situation," he said. "The vast majority [of those killed have been] by the Syrian regime killing its own population and we should not lose sight of the fact that even though now there are some terrorist elements, there are Al-Qaida elements, that have got involved in this struggle, the basic origin of the crisis and the underlying theme of the crisis is a government which is suppressing its own people and not allowing its people to express their legitimate aspirations."

What do we do about it?

"Well, there's a number of things that we can do. Some of them are diplomatic. Some of them are humanitarian. Some of them are political. Some of them are economic," he said. "We, the British government, have imposed sanctions against the Syrian regime along with our European partners. We are supporting the opposition with non-lethal support. We're not giving them weapons, but we are giving them other assistance and encouraging them to come together in a united platform."

He said Britain is giving humanitarian aid to the refugees.

He said his government is pushing, where they can, for collective multilateral action.

"Unfortunately, the ability to do that has been hampered by the Russians and the Chinese, who have vetoed three draft resolutions in the Security Council, which would have had the effect of putting more pressure on the Syrian regime," he said. "It is greatly to the shame, I think, of those countries and the Security Council more generally that since the first veto in October 2011, over 15,000 people have been killed in Syria."

The Upcoming General Assembly

The new session of the United Nations General Assembly will convene next week and Grant said there will be three big priority areas for the U.K.

He said the first will be Syria and the Arab Spring.

"They'll be a lot of meetings which are connected to or discussing Syria, but not just Syria, the wider Arab Spring as well," he said.

Next will be the first meeting of the high level panel on the post-2015 development agenda. He noted that British Prime Minister David Cameron will be co-chairing that panel with the presidents of Indonesia and Liberia.

"That panel will meet for the first time in New York. So that will be a big feature for us because the ambition of that panel is very great. What we're looking for the panel to do is set the agenda for eliminating poverty across the world for the next generation," he said. "I mean, it's a big ambitious goal that we're looking for in that development agenda for the future."

The third will be Somalia.

"There's going to be a high-level event which again the Prime Minister will be heavily involved in on Somalia to follow up the conference that was held in London at the beginning of the year because we're going through a very important transitional period in Somalia with the real chance of hope for that for the first time in 25 years and we've put a lot of time, effort, resources, diplomatic muscle into helping that transitional process in Somalia," he said.

View from British Mission
The view out an east-facing window at the British mission to the United Nations - Sep 12, 2012 (credit: Evan Bindelglass / CBSNewYork)

His First Visit to NYC

He first visited New York back in the 1970s while he was a student traveling around the United States.

"New York is a very different place from then. New York was really quite a dangerous place then, particularly after dark, and that's been completely transformed. It's a much safer city than it was," he said

Now, at 56-years-old, he and his wife live in Manhattan, not far from his office and the United Nations complex on the East Side.

Vibrancy of New York City

I asked Ambassador Grant to compare New York City to other places he's lived.

"Well, I've been lucky enough to have lived in three of the great cities in the world - Paris, London, and New York - and they all have a slightly different characteristic and you can't really say one is better than the other. They're just different," he said. "But what stands out about New York, apart from the bad roads, is the sort of energy and vibrancy of the city."

LISTEN: Lyall Grant On NYC


"I don't think, myself, it's a particularly pretty city. It's an ugly city in many ways, compared to Paris, compared to London," he said. "But it has a vibrancy and an energy about it which is very striking compared to those other two cities even."

A Love of Sports

What he loves doing for fun is going to sporting events. He is a fan of the Mets, Knicks, and Giants and has been to see all of them play at their home venues. He said he found them very accessible.

He also loves tennis and got to see Andy Murray, who went on to win the US Open, win his fourth round match.

"It is a fantastic achievement," he said of Murray's championship. "It's the first time a British man has won a grand slam title in 76 years and we'd been waiting a long time for this."

What he really loves to do for relaxation is play golf and he does have a favorite NYC area course.

"I think Deepdale, probably, on Long Island is one of our most favorite golf courses," he said. "But we're playing at the National course in Southampton this weekend, which I've never played before and is a very special course in the United States. So, we've been lucky that we've played at a lot of wonderful courses around New York."

Harry Potter

He is a Harry Potter fan and has seen all of the movies and read some of the books, in part because his children were growing up on the series.

I wondered, if he were a student at Hogwarts, which house he would like to be in.

LISTEN: Lyall Grant On Potter


He chose Ravenclaw.

"That was a sort of less-fashionable of the four, but it wasn't the really bad guys," he said.

Downton Abbey

Like so many, he's quite enthusiastic about "Downton Abbey," the British television series that has garnered quite a fan base here in the United States as, like "Sherlock," it airs on PBS.

He's very much looking forward to American actress Shirley MacLaine joining the cast for the next season. She'll be playing Cora's mother Martha.

He's interested in seeing how MacLaine's character will get on with Violet, portrayed by Maggie Smith.

You can follow Evan Bindelglass on Twitter @evabin.

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