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THE SHASHI THAROOR COLUMN

Reality at 59

The U.N. is beginning to recover its ground, but the soul-searching continues.

AFP

For this U.N. Food Programme convoy in Haiti, it's a mission that has to be accomplished.

TODAY is United Nations Day. The Organisation founded 59 years ago on October 24, 1945, has had a rough time recently, particularly in the wake of the Iraq crisis. Last summer, a Pew Poll taken in 20 countries showed that the United Nations had suffered a great deal of collateral damage over Iraq. The U.N.'s credibility was down in the United States because it did not support the Administration on the war, and in 19 other countries because it did not prevent the war. The institution is beginning to recover its ground, but the soul-searching continues.

Nowhere is the crisis more acute, perhaps, than in the U.N.'s host country, the U.S. I asked a distinguished Washingtonian the other day what lay behind the negative attitude towards the U.N. that we kept hearing in some quarters in the U.S. "What's the problem?" I asked. "Is it ignorance or is it apathy?" His response was blunt: "I don't know and I don't care." Which rather explains the problem.

I know that sometimes the U.N can seem very remote. Our activities take place in conflict zones you will rarely if ever visit; in impoverished areas far from major tourist sites; or behind-the-scenes, in clinics and classrooms where progress occurs without bells and whistles and is measured steadily but slowly.

Media reports about the U.N.'s work can sometimes bring you closer. But they can also do the opposite, accentuating all those negative stereotypes, about the U.N. as a talking shop, a bloated bureaucracy, a paper-factory — not as a place that matters to ordinary Indians. So this U.N Day, let me try and dispel some of those facile critiques.

Talking shop? Yes, there are a lot of speeches and meetings at the U.N., especially during the annual sessions of the General Assembly. But as Churchill put it, jaw-jaw is better than war-war. Isn't it better to have one place where all 191 countries in the world can get together, bore each other sometimes with their words rather than bore holes into each other on the battlefield?

Bloated bureaucracy? Though we have staff from over 180 countries, five times as many people work for McDonald's. U.N. staff size has been cut by 25 per cent in the past 15 years, and all our agencies put together employ fewer people than at Disneyworld (and we'd like to think we're not a Mickey Mouse operation). Last year's annual budget for our worldwide operations was less than that of the New York City Police and Fire Departments — and we've put out a few fires around the globe.

Paper factory? The amount of paper we use to produce every single U.N. document, in all six official languages, in a year is equivalent to what the New York Times consumes to print a single Sunday edition. So let's look at it in proportion. And our documents do represent the state of the world's thinking on the urgent problems of our time — whether on the Middle East, the environment, the challenges of poverty or of terrorism. It is true that the U.N.'s record is mixed. The Security Council has acted unwisely at times, and failed to act at others: one need only think of the "safe areas" in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda for instances of each.

It has sometimes been too divided to succeed, as was the case in early 2003 over Iraq. And all too often Member States have passed resolutions they had no intention of implementing themselves. But the U.N., at its best, is a mirror of the world: it reflects divisions and disagreements as well as hopes and convictions. Sometimes it only muddles through. As Dag Hammarskjold, the U.N.'s great second Secretary-General, put it, the United Nations was not created to take humanity to heaven, but to save it from hell.

Dysfunctional?

And this it has done, innumerable times, notably during the Cold War when it prevented regional or local conflicts from igniting a superpower conflagration. To suggest, on the basis of the disagreements over Iraq, that the U.N. has become dysfunctional or irrelevant is to greatly distort the record by seeing it through the prism of just one issue. While they were disagreeing on Iraq, the members of the Security Council were agreeing, at the very same time, on a host of other vital issues, from Congo to Cτte d'Ivoire, from Cyprus to Afghanistan. Indeed, on the whole the Security Council is a remarkably harmonious body; but authorising wars has never been amongst its principal responsibilities. Only twice in the 58 years of its existence has the Council explicitly done so, and it seems unduly harsh to condemn it solely over its handling of so rare a challenge. In any case it is folly to discredit an entire institution for the disagreements of its members. One would not close down the Lok Sabha because its members failed to agree on one bill. The U.N.'s record of success and failure is no worse than that of most representative national institutions; yet somehow, to listen to its critics, it would seem that it is only the U.N. that is apparently expected to "succeed" all the time, and to be castigated roundly for not managing to do so.

The problems of the new millennium are likely to be what Secretary-General Annan calls "problems without passports" — problems that cross all frontiers — problems of the environment, drug trafficking, international crime and terrorism, diseases like HIV/AIDS, global trade and the perennial problems of poverty and underdevelopment: problems that no one country, however powerful, can solve on its own. These problems without passports will need solutions that also cross frontiers.

The U.N. is the place to draw up blueprints without borders. It is the one indispensable global organisation in our globalising world.

There is an old story about Adam and Eve at the Garden of Eden. Adam finds that Eve is becoming a bit indifferent to him; so he says to Eve, "is there someone else?" You could ask the same question about the U.N. Is there anyone or anything else that could bring all the countries of the world to work together in an affirmation of our common humanity? This is the only U.N. we've got, and today of all days, the U.N. needs the support and understanding of informed people everywhere.

Shashi Tharoor is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information.

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