The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Purging the UN old guard has become an end in itself

Shashi Tharoor, anyone with more than a casual association with the United Nations knew, would be missed in the world body. What many people did not realize was that his absence at the gathering of nations in New York would be felt within days of his departure from the UN. Or that it would be felt so severely as to cast a shadow on mankind’s efforts to atone for its sins through simple, but loud and profound, public gestures by the global organization which was created six decades ago to prevent such sins.

This April marks the 13th anniversary of the genocide of 800,000 Rwandans while the world stood by helplessly. The UN had appropriately decided to mark the anniversary of that tragedy with an exhibition on the 1994 genocide to be opened on April 10 by its secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, coinciding with Rwanda’s official week of mourning. The Aegis Trust, a British organization established seven years ago to prevent genocide in the aftermath of the Rwanda tragedy, was asked by the UN to help out with the exhibition, which was to be set up in the visitors’ lobby of the UN headquarters in New York. The visitors’ lobby is one of the most coveted exhibition spaces in the Big Apple: the serpentine summer-time queues of people that line up on 1st Avenue for guided tours of the historic UN building in 20 different languages pass through this lobby once they clear security. Between 1952 and now, about 38 million people have taken those guided tours. Other visitors to the UN also pass through this lobby. Twenty-nine exhibitions similar to the one that was planned about the Rwanda genocide were held in the lobby last year alone, most of them of at least one month’s duration.

The UN’s department of public information approved the contents of the show on Rwanda and the exhibits were put up behind a veil on April 5, pending the formal opening by Ban. Tharoor headed the highly sensitive and often volatile — as the Rwanda story reveals — department of public information as an under-secretary-general from January 2001 until the end of last month. He has since been succeeded by Kiyotaka Akasaka of Japan, whom Ban appointed to the post on February 9 this year.

Once the exhibits were assembled, but were not yet open to the public, a smart Turkish diplomat sneaked in and spotted something that outraged him. The word “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer, with reference to what historians estimate was the mass murder of up to 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks at the time of the World War I. In a part of the Rwanda exhibition entitled “What is genocide'”, a small panel on Lemkin had the following words: “Following World War I, during which one million Armenians were murdered in Turkey”. The panel went on to note that Lemkin “urged the League of Nations to recognize crimes of barbarity as international crimes.”

Turkey, which has always challenged accounts of Armenian deaths, immediately kicked up a fuss and its permanent representative to the UN said comparisons could not be made between the Armenian issue and the genocide in Rwanda. Tharoor’s successor as under-secretary-general and Armenia’s permanent representative to the UN met and agreed to remove the words “in Turkey” from the offending sentence, but that was not enough. In the end, the opening of the exhibition, which had great emotional resonance with the oppressed peoples of the world, those fighting for civil liberty and campaigners for freedom from fear, had to be postponed.

When the Americans vetoed India’s nomination of Tharoor as the UN secretary-general, the case that Washington made for supporting Ban was that the world body needed to be cleaned up and that the candidate of India’s choice, who had been with the UN for 29 years could not break from his past and be an effective messenger of reform. That was also Ban’s argument when he demanded the resignations of all assistant secretaries-general and above within days after taking charge.

The unfortunate foul-up over the Rwanda exhibition is an example of how the idea of reform in the UN can be a self-defeating exercise unless it is balanced against continuity. It is not a reflection on Akasaka, a Japanese diplomat who also has excellent credentials as an international civil servant, that things went wrong with the Rwanda effort.

In the effort to promote reform, the UN has today lost sight of what constitutes reform. The word has become a euphemism for what each country is seeking within the world body in abject self-interest. Call it reform, and the idea — howsoever base and selfish — becomes respectable. In the process, purging the old guard at the UN has become an end in itself and is hailed as part of the reform process.

When Tharoor joined the UN as a 22-year-old, young man straight out of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, images of East Pakistani refugees streaming into West Bengal were still fresh in his mind. In 1971, he was a student at St. Xavier’s School in Calcutta and volunteered at a camp for refugees flooding in to escape Pakistani brutality. Appropriately, he joined the UN high commissioner for refugees in Geneva and was posted as head of the UNHCR office in Singapore three years later to tackle the huge Vietnamese “boat people” crisis. His impressionable experience in West Bengal and the initiation in Geneva helped him to go beyond merely pushing the pen, and actually change people’s lives. It is moving to listen to tales from former Vietnamese refugees, who are now successful American and Canadian citizens only because of what the UNHCR office in Singapore did in the Eighties to help them start a new life.

Tharoor’s departure is a loss for the UN because his experience and the circumstances under which he worked for the world body have been somewhat unique. Most international civil servants join the UN and float along causing no more than the tiniest ripples or swim with a tide, in the creation of which they play no part. When Tharoor joined the UNHCR, on an average, five out of six top international stories everyday were about refugees because of the global refugee crisis then.

By the time he moved to UN peacekeeping and became special assistant to the under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations in 1989, the core organizational structure in the UN for such operations was made up of no more than six civilians and three military personnel. But today, peacekeeping is the fastest growing area in the UN. Where there were six civilians and three military officers, there are now 800 specialized personnel. It is not that the UN bureaucracy has grown. Where there was just about one active operation then — although there were several passive ones, such as the long redundant UN Military Observer Group in Kashmir — today there are 60. And UN peacekeeping won the Nobel Prize for what it did in the intervening period.

Few people have their careers shaped by experiences in their early life. Tharoor was lucky to be an exception to the general rule in the 29 years that he served the UN. The only other Indian to have served the UN at such a senior level for anywhere near that length of time was C.V. Narasimhan, who joined the UN as executive secretary to the Economic Commission for Asia and Far East in 1956 and rose to be chef de cabinet to the secretary-general, U. Thant. Narasimhan served Kurt Waldheim as well for a while. If the UN does not want to value Tharoor’s extensive experience, India should. Especially, as the country tries to claim its place in the world body because New Delhi has been particularly lacking in expertise and personal clout at the UN.

There was a time when India had four under-secretaries-general and one assistant secretary-general in the UN. Today it has just two under-secretaries-general in the entire UN system and no Indian is heading any UN agency. That should be some food for thought for South Block as it revives its bid for a permanent seat in the Security Council and stakes its claim for a non-permanent seat, just in case.

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