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An UNhappy Birthday
December 20, 2005
'Of what use is the UN? Is it not irrelevant today, if it could not even stop the war in Iraq?'
The questioner seemed really angry.
The six of us, diplomats from different countries on the podium at whom the question was directed looked at each other. We were a mixed bunch: diplomats from America, Brazil, Luxembourg, Korea, Egypt and myself. We had been brought together in the auditorium at Berkeley University, on the outskirts of San Francisco, for a seminar on a cold December evening.
This was to be another birthday or rather birth-year event. The UN charter was negotiated and signed in San Francisco in 1945 and UN at sixty has been 'celebrated' this year, in a manner of speaking. The UN is in New York, of course and the main event was a summit in that city in September which was attended by the highest number of world leaders ever.
Those who know history recall that it was San Francisco, however, as a glittering and glamorous city, that had hosted the world leaders in 1945 when the UN was born. There were fifty countries represented then including India. Most of the countries in Asia and Africa had not even reached a stage of aspiring for independence, let alone achieving it, as India was about to.
Today, there are 192 countries in the UN and the sixtieth birthday marks a long passage and manifold growth in the UN's membership.
This city too hosted several events throughout the year, somewhat half heartedly, with the NGOs and the people driving the process and not the government. The event in which I was participating was one last hurrah as the year comes to an end. And with all that we were being asked whether the UN had any relevance at all!
I took another look at the audience. We had been told by the organisers to expect an eclectic crowd, to be ready to answer unpredictable questions and not to be too evasive as diplomats tend to be. How right they were.
Berkeley University has been home for decades for all that is liberal, tolerant and esoteric in academia, just as the city of San Francisco is among the most non-conformist, some would even say deviant of American cities.
It is in Berkeley that the student protests against the Vietnam War reached a crescendo in the sixties. It has been the scene of flower power and represents in every way 'let a hundred flowers bloom' approach.
Today the verdant, hilly campus is vibrant and ethnic-diverse with students from every part of the world seen hurrying to their classes in the globalised uniform of jeans, T-shirts and back packs. The students all look different though they are all dressed the same. The area abounds in Indian, Chinese, Korean restaurants jostling with pizza joints, Subways and Starbucks Coffee cafes.
But our audience was just not the students from a dozen countries. We also had Berkeley loyalists, a number of elderly people who are eternal students. I had spotted a lady with a trident-like structure on her head, a bearded erudite who looked slightly wild, some balding professors in tweeds and several longhaired peaceniks from the Woodstock generation. An interesting and intimidating audience, not the kind you would expect for a discussion on the UN.
The moderator tossed the question to me. I have done a fair amount of UN related work over the years and it had been agreed by us earlier that some of us with that kind of background would try to field the more UN-centric questions. Our American, Egyptian and Korean colleagues would have their hands full with Unilateralism, the Middle-East and the Korean questions respectively. Such was the plan.
'Is the UN relevant at all, after Iraq?' the moderator repeated the question. I glanced at my American friend. He seemed eager and tense. To say that the UN was indeed irrelevant or that it had failed in Iraq? I did not know.
'To judge the entire UN system from the standpoint of one of the most intractable issues -- of war and peace -- is this the approach that we want to take today?' I started.
The UN is a large family with a vast agenda, I explained. There are issues of war and peace, no doubt but there are so many other issues which are global and which require nations to come together to address them, I continued gathering speed.
Today, for instance, whether it is HIV/AIDs or bird flu, global environment or terrorism, movement of capital or international migration: many of the challenges cannot be addressed, let alone resolved by national governments.
These problems are international, in fact global, and hence require multilateral efforts rather than unilateral approaches. This is the relevance of the UN family, I explained, bringing out examples from other parts of the UN system, UNESCO, UNICEF, WHO etc which work in areas of culture, children or health. They too are a part of the UN and are they irrelevant, was the line of my reasoning.
I had some traction, as they say in the UN, meaning that some people listened to me. The moderator passed the question to others. My Korean colleague recalled it was the collective decision at the UN which had saved South Korea and which had enabled an internationally mandated force to come and help them. The Egyptian said there were countries, which owed their existence to UN resolutions, Israel for example, and others that were waiting for resolutions to be implemented one day, Palestinians for instance.
My friend from Luxembourg gave another insight. For a mini country like his, he said, to have an equal seat and a vote at the UN means everything. It is the international body, which affirms their identity and allows them to participate as equals in the affairs of the world.
The lady with the trident hairdo brought up the issue of UN reforms. Like eager school children, both me and my Brazilian colleague wanted to take this question; we had invested so much effort and hope on meaningful reform of the UN and the expansion of the Security Council to make it more democratic and transparent. The American got the question first. He said reform was important and then went on to dilate on cost-cutting and making the UN leaner and meaner. The Korean and the Egyptian too agreed that reforms were necessary but said it had to be brought about with consensus among all.
India and Brazil have worked together in the Group of Four on a meaningful proposal for expansion of the Security Council and we explained the rationale of expansion. The structure of the Security Council represents the realities of 1945 at the end of the Second World War rather than contemporary realities, we explained. Not to reform it, after sixty long years and with a four-fold expansion in the membership is to freeze the UN in a time warp and to make it inherently skewed and undemocratic. Hence the imperative of reform, we said, one after the other.
'These six diplomats don't seem to agree on anything!' said a student with the irreverence and nonchalance typical of an American undergraduate. Even we had to laugh. The moderator said if it was so, imagine how difficult it would be with 192 sovereign countries to make progress. But is it not a lesson in itself that there seemed to be so many legitimate and yet slightly divergent perspectives, he asked.
A good point, I thought. It has not been such a happy birthday for the UN after all, I reflected. Not much in terms of bold decisions, several scandals and at the end of the year, a crisis affecting its budget. 'A roller coaster year' as Kofi Annan, himself admitted at the end of 2005.
Sixty is a time for aches and pains, for arthritis, for retirement, I reflected. Is this true of the UN? But sixty can also be a time for maturity, for new beginnings, for enlightened views about larger interests than mere self-interest, I thought. Is there any hope that the UN will go in that direction?
The long haired wild looking man had again stood up.
"What is the use of the UN?' he was demanding once again. We looked at each other and the moderator mercifully said that the time was up.
B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
B S Prakash