Shashi Tharoor : Reflections on a changing United Nations

SHASHI ON SUNDAY (1 April 2007)
April Fool’s Day 2007 is actually a rather serious day for your columnist. Yesterday I ended my career as an international civil servant, just one month shy of what would have been 29 years at the United Nations. Today is the first day of the rest of my life, and yet I can’t help looking back a bit at the Organization I’ve just left behind.
I joined the UN in 1978 as an idealistic young man of 22, hoping to serve refugees and discover the world. I did a bit of both. But how much the institution I joined has changed! If I had suggested to my seniors at that time that the UN would one day observe and even run elections in sovereign states, conduct intrusive inspections for weapons of mass destruction, impose comprehensive sanctions on the entire import-export trade of a Member State, or set up international criminal tribunals and coerce governments into handing over their citizens to be tried by foreigners under international law, I am sure they would have told me that I did not understand what the United Nations was all about. Indeed, since those were the late 1970s, they might well have asked me, “Young man, what are you smoking?”
And yet the UN has done every one of those things during the last three decades, and more: it has administered territory, conducted huge multi-dimensional peace-keeping operations with nearly 80,000 soldiers in the field, deployed human rights monitors to report on the behaviour of sovereign governments. The United Nations, in short, has been a highly adaptable institution that has evolved in response to changing times.
There’s little acknowledgement of that in the perennial calls for “reform” of the UN. “Reform” is a term that means different things to different people – nowadays any change a country wants at the UN is labeled “reform”, which conveniently garbs self-interest in the cloak of institutional progress.
Today’s reform imperatives can be traced back to the divisions over the Iraq war. In the summer of 2003, a poll conducted by the Pew Organization in 20 countries around the world revealed that the UN’s standing had gone down in all 20. It had gone down in the US because the UN did not agree to support the US Administration on the war, but it had also gone down in the 19 other countries, because the UN was unable to prevent the war. So we got hit from both sides of the debate. We disappointed both sets of expectations. Some famous and rather powerful voices began to speak of the UN’s irrelevance.
It was at the peak of this intense scrutiny of the UN, at a time when its potential and its deficiencies had never been more in the public eye, that talk of reform reached a crescendo. But as former Secretary-General Kofi Annan never tired of pointing out, reform is a process, not an event. There is a case for reviewing – and reviving — the entire architecture of the international system that had been built up since 1945, in order to construct a more effective house of global governance for the twenty-first century. But change comes as adaptation, rarely as legislative fiat. The perennial saga of Security Council reform (the “Open-Ended Working Group” of the General Assembly set up in 1992 to resolve the problem is now widely disparaged as the “Never-Ending Talking Group”) demonstrates the point. No one disputes that the Council’s composition reflects the geopolitical realities of 1945 rather than those of 2007, but change will benefit only a few, so the rest resist it even at the price of perpetuating an anomaly. But one day what merely seems anachronistic today will begin to look absurd. At that point change will have to come.
So the UN reflects the realities of world politics, even while seeking to transcend them. The UN, at its best and its worst, is a mirror of the world: it reflects our differences and our convergences, our hopes and aspirations — as well as our limitations and failures.
The UN is a forum where sovereign states can work out common strategies for tackling global problems, and an instrument for putting those strategies into effect. But it can be a much more effective instrument. As Mahatma Gandhi put it, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” The UN is no exception.
When I joined the UN, it was almost unthinkable for the UN to take sides between democracy and dictatorship, or seek to intervene in the internal affairs of its members. Even human rights were by no means universally agreed, with some states seeing them as a tool of Western neo-imperialism.
Today, by contrast, the UN itself does more than any other single organization to promote and strengthen democratic institutions and practices around the world. India is a leading donor to the UN’s Democracy Fund, which provides assistance for building democracy, and we have established a Peacebuilding Commission to help countries transition from war to durable peace. The UN is more focused on combating terrorism than ever before.
As we face these new challenges of our time, let us not forget the old ones, especially the persistent terror of underdevelopment. The combination of poverty, drought, famine and HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa threatens more human lives than terrorism or the tsunami ever did. The Millennium Development Goals have become better known, but we are not on course to achieving these targets by 2015. All governments must be held accountable for fulfilling their part of the bargain, both to their own peoples and to each other. There is no longer any excuse for leaving well over a billion of our fellow human beings in abject misery.
It’s a worthwhile battle the UN is waging, and it deserves our support, if we are to sustain our hopes for a fairer and safer world.
Shashi Tharoor Former UN Secretary-General
Published in the Times of India, (1 April 2007). Reproduced with the authorization of the author