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Indispensable, not irrelevant?


The United Nations ... global organisation in a globalising world.

A FEW days ago, a BBC interviewer rather glibly asked me, "So how does the United Nations feel about being seen as the `i' word — irrelevant?" He was about to go on when I interrupted him. "As far as we're concerned," I retorted, "the `i' word is `indispensable'." It wasn't just a debating point. Those of us who toil every day at the Headquarters of the United Nations have become a little exasperated at seeing our institutional obituaries in the press. The current contretemps over Iraq has led some to evoke comparisons to the League of Nations, a body created with great hopes at the end of the First World War, which was reduced to debating the standardisation of European railway gauges the day the Germans marched into Poland. Some have suggested that the U.N.'s irrelevance is beyond dispute, and that all that remains is the mode of its demonstration: whether we will confirm our irrelevance by obliging the U.S. or ensure our irrelevance by failing to oblige the U.S.

Such concerns are, to say the least, grossly overstated. As Mark Twain put it when he saw his own obituary in the newspaper, reports of the U.N.'s demise are premature.

First, reducing the Iraq issue to a question of whether the world organisation is obliging the U.S. or not overlooks the key message of President Bush's appearance before the U.N. General Assembly in September last year. In calling on the Security Council to take action against Iraq, he framed the problem not as one of unilateral U.S. wishes but as an issue of the implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The U.N. and the earlier decisions of its Security Council remain at the heart of the case against Iraq.

Second, the League of Nations analogy simply does not apply. By the late 1930s, two of the three most powerful countries at the time — the United States and Germany (the third being Great Britain) — did not belong to the League, which, therefore, had no influence on their actions. The League died because it had become truly irrelevant to the global geopolitics of the era. By contrast, every country on earth belongs to the U.N., including the world's only superpower, the U.S. Every newly-independent state seeks entry almost as its first order of governmental business; its seat at the U.N. is the most fundamental confirmation of its membership in the comity of nations. The U.N. is now seen as so essential to the future of the world that Switzerland, long a holdout because of its fierce neutrality, decided by referendum in 2002 to end its isolation and join. No club that attracts every eligible member can easily be described as irrelevant.

Third, the authorisation (or not) of war in Iraq is not the only gauge of the Security Council's relevance to that situation. Just four years ago, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) alliance bombed Yugoslavia over its Government's conduct in Kosovo, without the approval of, or even reference to, the Security Council. My interviewer's "i" word was heard widely in those days — Kosovo, it was said, had demonstrated the U.N.'s irrelevance. But the issue of Kosovo returned to the Security Council, not just when an unsuccessful attempt to condemn that bombing failed, but when arrangements had to be found to administer Kosovo after the war. Only the Security Council could approve those arrangements in a way that conferred international legitimacy upon them and encouraged all nations to extend support and resources to the enterprise. And only one body could be entrusted with the responsibility to run the civilian administration of Kosovo: the U.N.

I am not suggesting that the U.N. will be offered, or wish to take on, such a task in a post-war Iraq. But it is important to remember that this would not be the first time it was written off during a war, only to be found essential to the ensuing peace.

In penning the premature epitaphs for the U.N., let us not forget that the relevance of the U.N. does not stand or fall on its conduct on one issue alone. No doubt what happens in the Security Council on Iraq is of vital importance to the U.N.'s role in maintaining international peace and security. But when this crisis has passed, the world will still be facing (to use Secretary-General Kofi Annan's phrase) innumerable "problems without passports" — problems of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, of the degradation of our common environment, of contagious disease and chronic starvation, of human rights and human wrongs, of mass illiteracy and massive displacement. These are problems that no one country, however powerful, can solve on its own, and which are yet the shared responsibility of humankind. They cry out for solutions that, like the problems themselves, also cross frontiers. The U.N. exists to find these solutions through the common endeavour of all States. It is the one indispensable global organisation in our globalising world.

And no, it is not perfect. It has acted unwisely at times, and failed to act at others: one need only think of the "safe areas" in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda for instances of each. It has sometimes been too divided to succeed, as appears to be the case in the Security Council today. But the U.N., at its best, is a mirror of the world: it reflects our divisions and disagreements as well as our hopes and convictions. Sometimes it only muddles through. As Dag Hammarskjold, the U.N.'s great second Secretary-General, put it, the U.N. was not created to take mankind to paradise, but merely to save humanity from hell.

As it attempts to do so, the U.N. provides an indispensable forum to bring states together to tackle the great problems of our time. Some say the Security Council is too much in thrall to its most powerful member. The debates over Iraq have proved that that is not always the case; but even if it were, it is far better to have a world organisation that is anchored in geopolitical reality than one that is too detached from the verities of global power to be effective. A U.N. that provides the vital political and diplomatic framework for the actions of its most powerful member, while casting them in the context of international law and legitimacy (and bringing to bear upon them the perspectives and concerns of its universal membership) is a U.N. that cannot be anything but relevant to the world in which we live.

This is why I am proud to use the other "i" word — and to affirm the U.N.'s indispensability, as the only effective instrument the world has available to confront the challenges that will remain when Iraq has passed from the headlines.

Shashi Tharoor is the award-winning author of seven books, including The Great Indian Novel and India: From Midnight to the Millennium. Since 1978 he has served the U.N., where he is Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information.

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