The UN’s Shashi Tharoor eloquently defends the world body


Above, left to right: David Dewitt, director of the York Centre for International & Security Studies; Shashi Tharoor; and political science Professor Ananya Murkherjee-Reed, who introduced him

Founded during a period of war and strife, book-ended by two world wars and threatened by one superpower reaching across its borders to create war in Iraq, the United Nations has endured a tumultuous history and will survive and continue to be highly relevant on the world stage.

That was the central theme of a lecture delivered in York’s Senate chamber by Shashi Tharoor, UN under-secretary-general and an award-winning author. Tharoor spoke at York on March 22, during the centennial commemoration of the birth of diplomat and Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche. York honoured Bunche with an honorary doctorate in 1970 and was asked to contribute to worldwide celebrations of the 100th anniversary of his birth.

In an eloquent speech, Tharoor, who heads the Department of Communications & Public Information at the UN, put aside his notes and spoke from the heart. He prefaced his lecture with this candid observation: “Imagine how I felt when in 2003, during the debates leading up to the war in Iraq, a BBC reporter asked me, ‘How does the UN feel about being the i-word?’ – the i-word meaning ‘irrelevant’. I shot back at him that he had it wrong and the i-word was in fact ‘indispensable’.”

                        Right: Shashi Tharoor

Tharoor said the UN faces a paradox. “The world’s only superpower, the United States and its influential sectors of political opinion, are all ready to write the United Nations off. Ironically, this is independent of public opinion in the US, which has given the UN a high approval rating.”

Tharoor talked of speaking to legislators in Washington during the prelude to the Iraq war, where he asked one distinguished Washingtonian why there was such disregard for the role of the UN. “He responded with ‘I don’t know and I don’t care’, and that I think explains the current situation,” said Tharoor.

Most states act both unilaterally and multilaterally at times, he said. “The larger a country’s backyard, however, the greater the temptation to act unilaterally across it – a problem most acute in the case of the United States. But the more far-reaching the issue and the greater the number of countries affected, the less sufficient unilateralism proves, and the less viable it becomes. Hence the ongoing need for multilateralism.” The UN, he said is “the preeminent institution of multilateralism.” 

Tharoor noted that the UN, founded in 1945, came on the scene during a period of war and strife, when horror upon horror was laid on the world with genocide, nuclear bombing, fascism and war. The world during the first half of the 20th century was a bleak and self-limiting entity. And yet, he said, the second half of the 20th century has demonstrated tremendous advances.

“Yes, the terrible atrocities continue,” said Tharoor. “Millions still live in extreme and degrading poverty.” But the world economy, devastated by two world wars, has not only recovered but has grown and flourished. Astonishing technological advances have propelled the industrialized world into prosperity, and third world countries have seen an increase in literacy and a decrease in child mortality, and many have thrown off the chattels of colonial rule. Communism in Russia has been dismantled. Democracy and human rights, while not yet universal, are becoming the norm.

“Did these advances happen by accident?” questioned Tharoor. “No, they happened because in 1945, a group of far-sighted leaders saw that we had only one world to live in and that if the current path continued, that world would be destroyed. So they were determined to make the second half of the 20th century better than the first half.”

 But, “that was then, and this, 59 years later, is now,” said Tharoor. “In the US, especially after 9/11, the UN has suffered. It has been described as a group of Lilliputians tying down the larger Gulliver.”

In the wake of the Iraq war, he said, the UN has taken a further battering in its public image. Many Americans are angry that the UN did not back the invasion of Iraq, and many citizens of other countries are dismayed the UN was unable to stop it, he said. “Our supporters are fewer than any time during our history…. Next year is our 60th anniversary; 60 for many is a time to retire – but not for the UN.

“This is not the first time the UN has been written off during a war, only to be found to be essential. Washington is discovering in Iraq that the US is better able to win wars of their own than construct peace of their own,” said Tharoor.

The UN is not perfect, and has acted unwisely at times and failed to act at other times, he said, citing Rwanda and Kosovo. “It is at its best, a mirror of the world, it reflects our divisions and disagreements as well as our hopes.”

Left: Flags outside UN headquarters in New York

But the UN’s relevance does not stand or fall on its conduct on any one issue, he said. “When the [Iraq] crisis has passed, the world will still be left with, to use Kofi Annan’s phrase, innumerable ‘problems without passports’; threats, such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; the degradation of our common environment; contagious disease and chronic starvation; human rights and human wrongs; mass illiteracy; and massive displacement.

 “These are problems that no one country, however powerful, can solve alone,” said Tharoor. “The problems are the shared responsibility of humankind and cry out for solutions that, like the problems themselves, also cross frontiers. The UN exists to find these solutions through the common endeavor of all states. It is the indispensable global organization for a globalizing world.”