The United Nations in a Changing World (Speech delivered by Ambassador H.E. T.P. Sreenivasan of India, at the Management Centre, Innsbruck, Austria) .- March 22, 2003


Several months ago, when I accepted the invitation of the Management Center, Innsbruck, to speak to you today on the United Nations in a Changing World, I had not realized that in a short period, the United Nations would change so dramatically as to make two Permanent Members defy the Security Council to wage a war. The very foundations of the United Nations has been shaken as it is founded on the expectation that the Permanent Members, essentially the winners of the second world war, will be able to work together to safeguard international peace and security. Such unity was broken during the cold war, but the balance between the Super Powers somehow kept an uneasy peace and confined regional conflicts to their respective theatres. Ironically, it was the first Gulf war that united the Permanent Members and it was the second Gulf war that destroyed it. The UN Secretary General said this week that the unity of the Council that was destroyed on account of the war should be restored when it engages in the reconstruction of Iraq. It may well happen, but the result of that will be simply that the UN may still have an economic role, but not a political or security role.

A distinguished US former Senator, who has a long-term relationship with India, once said to prove that he is an old hand on India that when he first went to India, the present Chief Minister of one of our states was still slim and attractive. I have similar thoughts about the UN, because, when I went there first in 1979, Kofi Annan was a little known UN bureaucrat, whom I would run into on his daily commute by cable car to Roosevelt Island. Kurt Waldheim held sway on the 38th floor of the UN building. Most of today's senior bureaucrats of the UN were unknown. For instance, the Indian whiz kid, Shashi Tharoor, who is now the youngest Under Secretary General, was still a kid and had not yet reached New York. This makes me a bit of a fossil, but it also gives me a long-term perspective of the UN as I remained associated with it in some capacity or the other ever since, whether in New York, New Delhi, Nairobi or Vienna.

Perhaps, the best way to approach the subject is to see what has not changed about the United Nations. Interestingly, the Charter of the UN has not changed to any significant extent since 1945.There have been three sets of amendments to the Charter, but they dealt only with numbers and not with concepts. Many of the phrases associated with the UN today, peacekeeping, peacemaking, the veto, sustainable development, the environment and terrorism do not figure in the Charter. Russian Federation is a Permanent Member of the Security Council, but the Charter still speaks of the USSR! In other words, the Charter has proved to be flexible enough to permit imaginative interpretation of its articles to accommodate the needs of the changing times. There is much in the Charter, which is outdated, but the perils of amendment are such that the international community has found it prudent to let sleeping dogs lie. Another aspect that has not changed is the less spectacular side of the UN, international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, largely carried out by the Specialised Agencies. The work done for the children by UNICEF, for labour by ILO, for sustainable development by UNDP, for environment by UNEP, for atomic energy by IAEA and for industrial development by UNIDO and for human health by WHO, among others, remain success stories, particularly in the developing countries. It is the wide network of the UN system that may eventually provide the reason for the existence of the UN if its avowed purpose of saving the succeeding generations from the scourge of war does not sustain it.

There is criticism also of the way the UN operates in the economic and social areas. The resources available for these areas keep dwindling even as the needs increase. It is not very cost effective because much is spent on unproductive staff costs. Most specialists advise rather than execute. According to a story, the UN dispatched a bull to a country to improve the breed of the cattle there. Many months passed and there was no improvement. When the bull was asked why his performance was unsatisfactory, he replied that, being a UN bull, he was purely in an advisory capacity! Another story goes that a Government requested the Secretary general to send a "one-armed" expert to it next time. An astonished Secretary General asked for clarification and the answer was: "We are sick of your experts submitting reports suggesting that we could do one thing on the one hand and another thing on the other. We would like to have a clearer idea as to what to do."

The UN is one of the most conservative institutions in the world when it comes to form and style. Except for a few, who may sport their national costumes occasionally, the sartorial discipline requires that most delegates wear western suits. In addressing each other, the delegates are the picture of politeness. Everyone is a "distinguished delegate" regardless of the relationship between them. Congratulations and compliments are liberally given for documents before they are amended beyond recognition. New agenda items are added, but the old ones are rarely removed even if they are not actively considered. Names of agenda items are rarely changed even after the situation has changed. For instance, the Security Council discusses Iraq under the agenda item, 'Situation between Iraq and Kuwait' even though Kuwait has long ceased to be a party to the debate. There are set phrases that delegates use with specific meaning. When a delegate is thanked for his comprehensive presentation, it is clear that the listener was bored to death. When a delegate says that he will be brief, some go out for a walk, as it is a sure sign that he will go on forever. If another says that the previous speaker has already said what he had intended to say, it is certain that he will repeat the whole argument again.

Voting in the UN has built a tradition of its own. Although the increasing tendency is to adopt decisions by consensus, nuances in voting are still important. You can vote for a resolution, against it, or abstain. Being absent is different from abstention and not participating in the vote, even when present, is entirely another matter. According to one story, a delegate happened to be out of the room when a vote was taken. When he realised that he had missed the opportunity to carry out his instructions, he took the floor and said, "Mr. Chairman, I happened to be unintentionally out of the room when the vote took place. I deeply regret it. I would request you to reflect my position correctly in the records, namely, if I were present, I would not have participated in the vote."

One structure that has resisted change stubbornly is the Security Council. The composition of the Security Council and the entrenched position of the five Permanent Members remain an anachronism. The change in the structure of world power, the four fold increase in the size of the General Assembly, the global movement towards democratisation and the absence from the Council of representation of large civilisations have made it imperative to reform the Security Council. The latest issue of 'the Economist' questions the position of Britain, France and Russian Federation as Permanent Members. It says that these countries are less important today than they were in 1945. If Spain, Japan and Australia were Permanent Members, instead of France, China and Russia, there would have been unanimity among the Permanent Members. In other words, the present Membership is no more than an accident of history. "The voting system, vetoing powers and membership (of the Security Council) would need to change before it could become effective", ‘the Economist’ asserts. India initiated a proposal in 1979 to expand the Council, which was opposed tooth and nail by the Permanent Members. Greater receptivity to the idea after the end of the cold war generated many new ideas, but no decisions. Expansion of the Permanent Membership holds no attraction to the vast majority of member states, as there is nothing in it for them. The P-5 is in no hurry to share their privileged position with others. There is some tentative understanding that Japan and Germany as major economic powers and three major developing countries from Asia, Africa and Latin America should be inducted as Permanent Members, but there is no chance of agreement in the near future. An expansion of the non-permanent membership is a possibility, but even that is bogged down in the current debate on reform. Attempts have been made to tinker with the procedures of the Council to make its processes more transparent. Greater rotation in the election of non-permanent members has become a reality, but this has been of dubious value. Unless the composition of the Council reflects the realities of the world, it cannot be an effective instrument to safeguard international peace and security.

For the rest, the UN changes rapidly to keep pace with the changing world. It is like a computer, the hardware of which is heavily guarded, while its software keeps changing. Soon after its establishment, disarmament and decolonisation were the most fashionable things in the UN. General and complete disarmament was the mantra of the times. Some seminal resolutions on disarmament were adopted, although the arsenals of the world kept getting more and more sophisticated and lethal. The Declaration on Granting of independence to Colonial Countries and peoples contained in resolution 1541 actually led to the freedom of many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The invention of peacekeeping is another innovation, which has had some successes. The number of peacekeeping operations increased dramatically soon after the end of the cold war, but the enthusiasm for them waned over the years on account of some dramatic failures and the expenses involved. Human rights and the environment came to the forefront in more recent years and since 9/11, terrorism is a preoccupation. The UN may not have resolved these issues, but there is no doubt that it has identified common ground on these issues and provided incentives to member states to take initiatives.

The principle of sovereignty, or what the Charter calls "sovereign equality of all its members", which has been a fundamental principle of the Charter, has been the most affected over the years. The Charter itself violated the equality principle by making five members more equal than the others. As for the dictum that "matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state" being out of bounds for the UN, it is ought to be eroded at every stage. India was one of the first countries, which sought an exception to this rule in the case of South Africa, where apartheid resulted in massive violation of human rights. Many countries found this unacceptable at that time. But today, right to humanitarian intervention is becoming fashionable. Even peace enforcement is considered acceptable in certain circumstances. One argument is that membership of any international organisation means a surrender of certain amount of sovereignty, but it is generally accepted that sovereignty will continue to be a cornerstone of the UN. The danger arises only when the sovereignty of the mighty prevails while the sovereignty of the weak gets trampled upon.

To return to the present crisis that has gripped the UN, it is a blessing in disguise that the P-5 countries are not unanimous. The most powerful nation was not able to swing the others to the side of military action, as there was an alternative to the use of force. The challenge to the UN has come from the decision of some states to disregard the lack of agreement and to proceed to act, seemingly to enforce the decisions of the Council. According to the spirit of the Charter, a compromise among the members of the Council should have been the answer in the circumstances. The Council cannot be the same again after the current crisis.

One gets the feeling that the UN operates in an unreal world. Even as the war is raging in the real world, you will find well- dressed diplomats spending long hours in the conference rooms of the UN, negotiating a Convention against Corruption or laws relating to outer space. This disconnect, in a way, enables life to go on even in the most extraordinary circumstances. But a disconnect exists also between the decisions of the UN and the behaviour of member states. An ideal UN is the one that identifies common interests, convert them into common views and shape them into programs of co-operation. That is the direction that the UN should take in changing itself to suit the changing world. 


Thank You.