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UN Under-Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor on reforming the United Nations

By Glen Covert
May 2006

On March 15, before a World Affairs Council audience at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, UN Under-Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor spoke about the challenges and possibilities of reforming the United Nations.  Earlier in the day, he had addressed that same issue at a sold-out WAC luncheon at the Rainier Club.  And incidentally, both audiences experienced reform history unfold before their eyes; in the few hours between his luncheon address, in which he mentioned the hopeful possibility of a new UN Human Rights Council, and his speech, an historic reform resolution creating that very Council was passed by the UN General Assembly.

A major milestone for the nearly sixty-year old United Nations, the Human Rights Council can be considered a symbol of the, as Tharoor described it, “highly adaptable (UN) that has evolved in response to changing times.”  Being “smaller and more focused” than the “cumbersome and hugely politicized” Human Rights Commission, the Council should be more effective in ensuring human rights standards are maintained worldwide.  Should it be, it would be the sought-after solution for one of the many “problems without passports,” which Tharoor explained is the UN’s term for “problems that cross all frontiers uninvited … whose solutions no one country or one group of countries, however powerful, can fight on their own.”

Does the Human Rights Council really prove the “adaptability” of the UN?  Well, Mr. Tharoor, a UN official since 1978, describes himself as being “conscious of how much the United Nations has in fact already changed since [he] joined the organization.”  His career experiences include being Head of the UN High Commission for Refugees in Singapore (1981-1984) during the peak of the Vietnamese "boat people" crisis.  Now, as Under-Secretary-General for Communication and Public Information (since 2001), Shashi Tharoor can be considered an authority on UN reform and thereby offered his insight as the first featured speaker of the “Community Discussion Series” of the World Affairs Council’s Community Programs arm.

The Community Discussion Series is geared toward providing the local community with a forum where global issues that concern the US can be discussed.  Co-facilitating the post-speech roundtable discussion was former WAC intern, European Weekly’s Glen Covert.

A solution to one of the world’s many “problems without passports,” the creation of the Human Rights Council is Tharoor’s reassurance to the world that not only are “we [the UN] not resting on our loins,” but the UN is currently engaged in “major reforms, far from the first, [that] are perhaps the most far reaching since the institution’s founding.”  And this, he insists, means something, considering where the UN was twenty years ago, implementation wise i.e. field activity.  He explained hypothetically, “If I had suggested to my seniors at that time [1978] … that the UN I was joining would one day observe and even run elections in sovereign states, that it would conduct intrusive investigations of weapons of mass destruction, that it would impose comprehensive sanctions on the entire import-export trade of a medium-sized member state, or that it would set up international criminal tribunals, and coerce governments into handing over their citizens to be tried by foreigners under international law for crimes against their own people and their neighbors, I’m sure my seniors would have told me that I simply did not understand what the United Nations was all about.”  Well, as it turns out, the UN has done each one of those things plus some in the ensuing twenty years.  In fact, Tharoor pointed out, today, since the Nepalese king’s assumption of absolute power, the UN has a “huge human rights monitoring mission, looking into the well being of normal people.”

The creation of the Human Rights Council is hardly an isolated event.  It follows the other “major” and “most far reaching reforms” that Tharoor would classify as “the activities that make the big headlines.”  In this case, they all stem from the World Summit.

The World Summit, Tharoor emphasized, was “the summit of world leaders,” where “months of intense and rather difficult negotiations” for reforming the UN were “culminated.”  The result of “the largest ever gathering of heads of state and government in human history” was the Outcome Document.  Even though, Tharoor admitted, this document did fail “to address the international community stalemate on disarmament and proliferation issues, [and] the absence still of a clear universally agreed definition of terrorism,” Tharoor stressed that it did “take some very important strides in [the] direction” of “reforming the international system, of which the UN is a lynchpin.”

Development of poor countries was another point of concern in the Outcome Document.   Tharoor clarified that the “General Assembly reinforced the commitment that both rich and developing states [will] work together to promote development” and achieve the Millennium Goal, fighting poverty, by 2015.

Another development from the World Summit was a sweeping agreement to combat terrorism.  Although a legal definition is still wanting, Shashi Tharoor defends the political definition he quoted: “An unqualified condemnation of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations committed by whomever, where ever, and for whatever the purpose.”  Of equal importance is the newly created Peace building Commission (December 2005), charged with enforcing “the acceptance for the first time” by the General Assembly “of a collective international responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.”

Many other reforms are being proposed.  However Shashi Tharoor did not elaborate because, half jokingly, “I think I’ve already taxed your patience enough this evening and … I suspect that even the most committed multilateralist would not want to hear a detailed account of the Secretary-General’s proposed changes to management, administration, finance, and budget.”

But, as for reforming the Security Council, Mr. Tharoor confessed that the world is “certainly unlikely to see the creation of new permanent seats for the immediately foreseeable future.”  The problem is the tendency of the members of the General Assembly to be self-serving i.e. nationalistic.  For case in point, Tharoor mentioned the Italian foreign minister’s response when Germany and Japan sought seats in the Security Council: “What’s all this talk about Germany and Japan?  We lost the war too.”  But it is more likely the “very high threshold” of consenters needed in the General Assembly to change the UN charter, in which the Security Council is “enshrined,” that will prevent any sort of reform to the Council.  Basically, “you need two-thirds of the General Assembly to vote for a change and then you need that change to be ratified, which means by parliaments, of two-thirds of the members states including all five permanent members (China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States).  So, to put it bluntly, one American senator, by pocketing a charter amendment, can delay a ratification of such a process for a very long time indeed.”

But why so much bureaucracy?  Why can’t the UN be more nimble and quick about reforming itself?  Well, “we are an organization,” Tharoor kindly reminded, “of 191 Member States, and that is something that shouldn’t be forgotten.  … No company would run with an active board of directors of 191, each trying to tell the executives how to do things.  Well, we have to suffer that on a day-to-day basis.”



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