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The Rediff Interview/Shashi Tharoor
April 24, 2003
Shashi Tharoor, United Nations under secretary general for communications and public information, says the UN role in Iraq would be on the basis of a mandate by the Security Council.
India's best-known face at the UN, Tharoor has worked at the United Nations since 1978. He shot into prominence when he headed the UN High Commission for Refugees in Singapore at the peak of the Vietnamese boat people crisis, caused by refugees fleeing Vietnam in rickety boats.
As special assistant to the under secretary general for peacekeeping operations (1989 to 1996), he also assisted in peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia from 1991 to 1996.
The author of six books, both fiction and non-fiction, Tharoor, has often said that he is proud of his Indian identity and carries his Indianness everywhere.
At the UN building in New York, Tharoor recently spoke to Deputy Managing Editor Amberish K Diwanji.
There are some voices in the US saying the UN should have a role in Iraq after the war since it had no role in the war.
From our point of view, whatever role we play from a strictly humanitarian point of view will have to be played on the basis of a mandate by the Security Council. For us, humanitarian work is something we do through our various agencies -- the UN High Commission for Refugees, etc -- wherever the need is. But, if it is anything beyond humanitarian -- civil administration, policing, reconstruction, governance -- let me say it very clearly, that any country that wants us to do this will have to persuade the other members and give us a mandate for it.
How do you see the UN being bypassed by the US, probably the first time such a thing has happened?
Not the first time certainly. The history of the UN is replete with instances where governments have gone to war without any Security Council consultation or approval. The difference here I think is that there was a discussion, about how to implement existing council resolutions, and it was on that they failed to agree.
But let me make two points clear. First, let me stress that even if the Council failed to agree on Iraq, it was the same countries in the same period which agreed to a host of other things: on Congo, Cyprus, Afghanistan, East Timor... so it is important to realise that one division does not typify the entire experience of the Council.
Second and equally important, peace and security is not the only issue on the UN's agenda. The UN is far bigger than any one issue, even Iraq. Because for us, for example, the tragic confluence of AIDS, drought, and famine in southern Africa, which actually take away and threatens more lives than the war in Iraq is also important. The problems that hold no passport, to use Kofi Annan's phrase, the problems that cross countries no one country can solve on its own, such as human rights, refugees, drug abuse, terrorism. People forget that the entire framework for counter-terrorism was laid down in two Security Council resolutions after 9/11.
All of this requires international cooperation and requires something that the US also values a great deal. So I am not quickly prepared to write the UN off because in all these areas, international cooperation is continuing and will continue.
There are divisions in the Security Council on so many issues, such as terrorism...
In the case of Iraq, there are divisions, but let me point out that on March 28, on the Oil for Food resolution, after eight days of argument, the Security Council adopted the resolution unanimously. So I would not rule out the possibility of a future resolution on Iraq after the war. Some countries say they'll do it only in a way that does not legitimise a war they oppose, they can find the right formula. But on the case of terrorism, there has been no division. The tough resolutions of the Council have been adopted unanimously.
The complaint is even countries that back the resolution on terrorism actually support terrorism. For example, India has a grouse against Pakistan in this regard.
I take your point. When I spoke of no division on terrorism, I did not mean it on a case-by-case basis, I meant it on the basis of the basic principles of an international framework. But when you come to specific cases, let me say very frankly... if you look back on whatever wars India has fought since 1947, you find they didn't come to the council first. Bilateral issues and self-defence issues are often taken care of by countries on their own. Where the UN has gotten involved is to stop a war that has started.
Where the Security Council plays a role when actions have been on the council agenda and the council has required members to do certain things. In the case of Iraq, to disarm itself, and the failure of Iraq to comply with such resolutions.
The other complaint is that some resolutions are adopted for adoption while some are not. For instance, the feeling that resolutions on Palestine are not adopted or Pakistan's grouse about the resolution on Kashmir not being adopted.
There is a technical reason. There are those resolutions adopted by the Security Council which essentially require parties involved in the dispute to comply, and which require the political will of those parties to comply; and then there are those resolutions as per Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, the Enforcement Provisions, where if a country is willing to enforce them, certain actions can be authorised.
For the first Gulf War, Iraq was ordered by a Chapter 7 resolution to get out of Kuwait and the states were authorised to take whatever necessary means to achieve this; and with that language America was able to assemble a coalition. So that was a different case.
There is no comparable resolution on the Israel-Palestine or the India-Pakistan disputes.
But ultimately, it becomes a case of the political force of being able to get a resolution adopted...
It would depend on the political will of the parties in the first place, and if the parties are not willing to comply, then on the willingness of any other power to make it their problem.
We are much more a peacekeeping organisation than a peace-enforcement organisation. That is our strength in many ways because we do not have an army that goes out to win battles. Our job is to end wars, not start wars.
You had expressed concerns about the war against terrorism. What are these concerns?
I can't recall my exact formulation. It was a concern about principles that in the war against terror, one should not forget the basic principles of human rights and human values; that you should not cast away the liberties and rights of people to promote security. Of course it is important to counteract terror; terrorists take the lives of innocent people and should be stopped, but to do so in a way -- which, to put it bluntly -- deprives others of their hard-won rights is not the right way to go about it.
I think there is an old line from Benjamin Franklin that goes: 'He who gives up liberty for security will end up with neither liberty nor security.' That is broadly my concern. We at the UN feel strongly about human rights instruments, and we would like to ensure that any action on the terrorist front takes place with full respect for these principles.
Let me take a short break from politics. You are a known cricket buff. Did you watch the World Cup matches?
Unfortunately, I didn't have the time to watch too many of them, but I watched some of them. I watched the India-Pakistan match; I saw a part of the India-Kenya match until I had to come away for a morning meeting, and I saw the India-Australia final.
The last bit was most disappointing. I remember saying to a friend at dinner before the match began at 2.30 am (local time) that I hope we win the toss, because if we bat first, it will be a really exciting match; and I watched in utter disbelief that we had put them in to bat first! I just couldn't believe it.
In fact, I got a condolence message from a friend, an Englishman who is a correspondent in Washington, saying 'Too bad you guys lost the toss' and when I said we didn't lose the toss but put them in to bat, he just couldn't believe me. Such folly! But anyway, I think the games were great and for India supporters, worth our money right till the very end.
How do you view the fact that India is unwilling to play matches with Pakistan?
I think that is very disappointing; of course we have our differences, but personally I am all in favour of as much human contact as possible in the sporting fields, socially, culturally, whatever... For a long time it was India that was pushing for more such contacts and Pakistan that was resisting it; it is a pity that the shoe is now in the other foot. Certainly the good spirit in which that (India-Pakistan) match was played is a reflection of the background.
Penguin has repackaged your book Riot with a cover picture of the Gujarat riots? Why was that done?
They said the book was doing so well they wanted to bring out a second edition with a new cover to differentiate it from the first edition. The cover of the first edition was also a scene from an earlier riot and a photograph, unlike the cover of the American edition which was much more imagery. The second edition cover was a photograph of a bloodstained stairway with a sandal. I did not see it before it was published, but I did not object. I found it a powerful picture, as part of the visible sign of the poignant human loss that occurs in riots.
You have so often in the past warned about the various troubles in India, and they continue unabated. Does that leave you worried about India's future?
I hope not. I have always been someone who had hope for India. I consider myself an optimist, and define optimism as regarding the future with uncertainty. The pessimist always believes things are about to go wrong; the optimist says things might go right. And from my point of view, I think there is always enough encouragement that things might go right. But it is a constant struggle and I know that voices have to be raised against some of the negative tendencies, in particular against communalism.
Why do you believe that?
The only answer I can give to that at least we have a system that is pluralistic and democratic, there is a chance to remedy these ills, through the power of the press and public opinion and finally, the ultimate sanction of the ballot box. And these options are available. If in a democracy, certain tendencies are allowed to prevail, then ultimately it is our own fault.
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