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Home > News > Columnists > B S Prakash

The UN at its cradle: then and now

October 16, 2007

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There were about 50 flags on the stage, looking old, a little faded too, and some in unfamiliar colours. The small auditorium itself was august, all gleaming wood panels, cream leather seats, and radiating an aura of history.

"I have come here to pay homage at its place of birth," intoned the small and suave person at the podium. "Some forget that the UN was an American idea, but we need to remember that," he added.

Where better to be reminded of that fact than in this hall and in this city, we thought. At the podium was Ban Ki-Moon, on his first visit as the Secretary General of the UN to San Francisco, the city where the United Nations was born.

As resident diplomats, we were gathered at the Veterans Memorial Hall to meet the visiting dignitary. In a nice touch, the Secretary General was meeting us in the very room where the UN Charter had been signed in June 1945, with the same 50 flags which had adorned the room then. India, not yet independent, but with the dawn of freedom foreseen, was one of the original 50 and Sir Ramaswamy Mudaliar, member of the then British Governor General's Executive Council and the leader of the Indian delegation had signed the charter for India.

Many of us were recalling history; some of us were also ruminating over the irony of the prevailing US-UN relations and wondering a little about the uncertainties of the future too.

The concept, why, the very words 'United Nations' was conceived by President Franklin Roosevelt as the Second World War was ending. Preventing another carnage was very much on the mind of the US President, who had entered the war reluctantly. He had also learnt the lessons from the collapse of the League of Nations, a product of Woodrow Wilson's vision at the end of the First World War. After many consultations with the close allies, Roosevelt and his team had planned the conference for negotiating and concluding the UN charter, a conference to be attended by 50 countries.

San Francisco, unaffected by the war, glittering in its look and cosmopolitan in its outlook had suggested itself as the venue, where representatives from around the world would come and forge a new organisation. Its buoyant and vibrant atmosphere, location on the Pacific coast -- where the war was still raging with Japan [Images] -- and above all its ability to showcase the wealth and potency of America had made the leaders plump for it in preference to any other American city. Alas, Roosevelt had died -- shortly before the convening of the conference -- and it was left to President Harry Truman to complete the mission.

The story of the San Francisco Conference to craft the UN charter has been told recently in a gripping book The Act of Creation by Stephen C Schlesinger. It is a fascinating narrative of how the configuration of power and influence in 1945, in other words, the reality of international politics of that period, impacted on the ideals and objectives underlying the new entity -- the United Nations. As in all politics, why, as in life itself, compromises had to be made to reach consensus.

UN Charter being signed in 1945

Many critical issues which bedevil the UN to this day: the selection of the five permanent members; the power of the 'veto' conferred to them defying the norm of democratic decision making; the result that a decision on what constitutes 'a threat to international peace and security', a key determination to be made by the Security Council is to depend only on the agreement or otherwise between these five members (irrespective of the views of the majority of others), -- all these are a product of the complex give and take in San Francisco in 1945 in the negotiations on the key provisions of the Charter.

If the Security Council is ineffective today it is because of the fact that it represents the power equations of 1945 rather than that of today. There were other paradoxes. For instance: the notion that all countries are equal and have one vote in the General Assembly, notwithstanding the fundamental anomaly of the Permanent Five with unique veto powers; the acceptance of the idea that the UN cannot deal with the 'internal affairs' of a nation, and yet its concern about the human rights of the people -- all these were also a product of the historical and political circumstances of that time.

Some scholars have shown that the UN Charter of 1945 has at least seven major internal contradictions in terms of principles. It is a man made instrument and a product of its time.

But that was then and this was now with a new UNSG reflecting on the challenges for his organisation in 2007 and before a sympathetic audience. For this was the most sympathetic public in America that a representative of the UN could expect. The birth of the UN may have been mid-wifed by Roosevelt; the HQ of the UN may be in New York; the largest amount of funds may come from the American tax payer; but as everyone knows the US-UN relations lack warmth today and are not easy by any means. Why this is so and what lies ahead is a matter for deeper analysis, but I was narrating my own experience with UNSG's visit to the city of the UN's birth.

We moved along the line at the reception and it was my turn to greet the Secretary General. As soon as I was introduced he said with great warmth and a big smile: Namaste, kya hal chal hai? to the surprise of other diplomats around us.

In the Indian media, the election of Ban Ki- Moon, the Korean foreign minister and erstwhile professional diplomat has been seen in terms of our own candidate Shashi Tharoor, not getting the post. This is understandable, since we had never contested this prestigious election and had a candidate, a consummate UN insider, with very impressive credentials.

But anyone who knows the UN system a little, knew that these elections are unpredictable, depend on a combination of complex calculations mainly by the Permanent Five members and take twists and turns which are difficult to foresee. And in the end it was for the Korean candidate to win, with Tharoor also having shown impressive support, but not enough.

Here was the Secretary General greeting me now in Hindi. I knew about his Indian connection. He had started his foreign service career in the Korean embassy in New Delhi and had retained a love of India. The head of the division in our foreign ministry then was Vijay Nambiar, my boss at one time and now his Chief of Cabinet in the UN.

In a big world, old and personal connections still matter in diplomacy and SG's greetings in Hindi was demonstrative of this.

After a while, all of us moved to a much larger hall where he was to speak at a public function. In this larger gathering, the Secretary General was enthusiastically received in a city that still feels good about the organisation. He in turn spoke nostalgically about how as a young student from a war ravaged Korea, he had first set foot in America, in this very city and had been inspired by its international character.

Coming from a war torn country, the young student had resolved to become a diplomat. Eventually he had realised the ultimate dream for a diplomat, by first becoming his country's foreign minister and then the top diplomat for the world as a whole! So far so good!

As the evening progressed, it soon became evident that love for peace and brotherhood notwithstanding, the types of issues that agitate the younger Americans were different. Ten minutes into the UNSG's speech, there was a commotion and banners were unfurled in the ornate assembly hall. Was this about Iraq, Iran, Darfur, Tibet? The UNSG is used to such demonstrators and looked around to see what the cause was all about. So did we all. With some difficulty we could make out that this was about 'gay rights' in Korea, a subject so distant and esoteric that the unflappable Ban could not say any soothing words.

Subsequently, there were questions. For every question about Iraq or Afghanistan or the Palestinian issue -- all perennials -- there were two on global warming, climate change, sustainable development and such like. We came out of the hotel into the cold night. Outside were fringe groups with placards: 'Save the whales', 'Ban fur', 'Hug the trees' and such other pet passions, eagerly embraced by young Americans. Poor UN, I thought. Peace and Security are not enough on its agenda: the whole earth with all its constituents, not only human, but the entire bio-diversity, is now on its table. Good Luck, Mr Ban, I said silently, as I trudged my way home.

B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at

B S Prakash