Shashi Tharoor on 'Have Your Say'

BRIDGET KENDALL: Hello and welcome to Have Your Say. I'm Bridget Kendall. And today, we’re in New York where this week world leaders have flocked to the United Nations at the latest opening of the General Assembly to give their verdict on the world we live in. 

There's certainly been some provocative speeches and there’s also been pretty intense criticism at the United Nations. Some complain the UN isn't effective enough. Some say the Security Council is outdated and needs reform. But some also say the UN should be given more credit for its achievements.

So what do you think? Is this world body set up 60 years ago capable of dealing with the problems of today? And who do you think should run it? 

Well, my guest here in New York is the UN Under Secretary-General for public affairs Shashi Tharoor. He’s also one of several candidates to be the next UN Secretary-General. Welcome. Thank you for joining us today.

Before I come with you, let's just look at a couple of e-mails that we’ve received. The vast majority of those most recommended by readers on our website were critical of the United Nations. Colin Swon from the United States said: “Show me a recent time when the UN was ever united. It can’t even enforce its own mandates. It is nothing more than a paper pushing, money-sucking, bureaucratic nightmare. Too much political correctness and niceties have effectively killed it.”

But there is also support for the United Nations. Brian Gonsalvez from Calgary, Canada, for example, says: “The United Nations is exactly what it was intended to be: a centre of diplomacy. It is neutral ground where countries, who hate each other with every fibre of their being, can go to talk to, at, or about each other. Talking is better than killing. The UN is not a world government.”

Well, Shashi Tharoor. As I said, there've been many people on the web site who've been pretty critical. Do you think there are more common complaints from ordinary people around the world about the United Nations than there used to be?

SHASHI THAROOR: Possibly. At the same time, it's also clear that perhaps some of them don't quite understand, as your Canadian does clearly understand, what the United Nations is all about. United is an aspiration, but don't forget during the Cold War Stalin was a member of the United Nations as the Soviet Union was, as was the U.S. It's a place where countries can get together, tend to find common approaches to problems, and work together to solve them. And where they disagree, they probably disagree really under the roof of the United Nations than on the back of it. 

BRIDGET KENDALL: Certainly during the Cold War, there was the rivalry between the United States and the USSR, which was in a way an excuse, wasn’t it, for United Nations in action? 

SHASHI THAROOR: It really did, on my word.

BRIDGET KENDALL: Was there a lot of times in the Security Council when things are stalled because of disagreement between those two, whereas nowadays, do you think there’s more frustration that people feel ‘well, these countries really ought to get their act together; there isn’t a Cold War anymore’?

SHASHI THAROOR: That’s true. Of course during the Cold War, the United Nations brought about the extraordinary miracle of decolonization, and it did help the Cold War from turning hot by actually creating, inventing the whole idea of peacekeeping, which manage to defuse conflicts around the world and prevented from igniting a superpower clash. 

Today, you’re right. There’s no longer a superpower standoff. But there are real problems that divide countries around the world. And the UN is still the place where we can get together and try and discuss them, and where there are disagreements, there are going to be limitations as to how much can be done. But may I make one point really that frames the beginning of this discussion. The UN, you see, is both a stage and an actor. It’s a stage where the member states play their part, and that’s where they might disagree. But it is an actor in the shape of the Secretary-General, his peacekeeping operations, his staff, people like myself who have to go out and fulfill our mandates even while the diplomats of governments maybe disagreeing with each other.

BRIDGET KENDALL: Well, we’ve had plenty of criticisms, too, about that side of the United Nations, but we’ll have a bit more words with you about that in a moment. Before we go to your calls to hear what you want to say, let’s take a look at some of the facts about the United Nations.


The United Nations was established after World War II to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. It has more than 14,000 staff at an annual budget of $7 billion. Representatives of its 192 member countries meet each year in the General Assembly to set the agenda. Each nation has one vote. But in the UN Security Council, the five permanent members – the US, the UK, Russia, France and China – can veto any resolution. Among the many challenges facing the UN are the situation in the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, and how to reach its Millennium Development Goals. The UN is about to elect a new Secretary-General who needs to tackle reform of the organization – a difficult and long-term challenge.


Well, let’s go to our first caller. And on the line we have Julie Trask who is in Virginia here in the United States. Julie, what would you like to say?

CALLER: First I would like to say that the UN has done some good things. They’ve been remarkably effective in the humanitarian efforts dealing with African and Asian famine, and natural disasters like the recent tsunami. However, I can’t think of anything else that they have done effectively. You know we’ve got Kosovo and Rwanda and Darfur, and huge failures in even being able to use the word genocide, let alone stopping it. You know, Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, Iran, Iraq, Uganda, North Korea, Timor, Tibet. Tons and tons of just failures of inaction. Rouge nation, get appointments on nuclear proliferation, anti-terrorism committees, they get temporary states on the Security Council. It’s tyrants and dictators do not fear paper condemnations and non-binding resolutions; they simply laugh at them. There’s enormous amount of time debating. The UN is a debate club, and they spend so much time debating things but nothing ever really gets done in terms of bringing rogue countries into line. 

BRIDGET KENDALL: Julie, we have Shashi Tharoor here. He’s the United Nations Under Secretary-General for public affairs. If you have one thing you’d like to ask him you think the United Nations ought to do, what is it?

CALLER: The United Nations ought focus its energies on preventing inter-country and intra-country genocide. 

SHASHI THAROOR: Julie, first of all, pretty much every one of those examples you gave those countries, in fact, are countries where the United Nations is active, and has actually made a real difference. We can’t solve every problem. Unfortunately, human beings do tend to be in conflict with each other. 

Where the UN has made a difference, you know Dag Hammarskjöld, the second secretary-general said 50 years ago: “The UN wasn’t created to take mankind into paradise, but rather, to save humanity from hell.” In all those examples you’ve mentioned, the UN has prevented things from getting worse, and sometimes that’s the best we can do. But there are many occasions where, indeed, we have been able to solve problems. 

It’s striking you mentioned East Timor, for example. It was the UN that actually helped bring that country to independence. And the fact is, that sadly, it was our premature departure that allowed that problem to repeat itself. So it’s essential to remember that where we are present, where governments are prepared to see us expend our efforts in those countries we have made a positive difference. Let me also say about various countries serving on committees and so on, the UN is a mirror of the world. We do reflect the wide opinions in these countries or members of the United Nations, and sometimes there will be countries elected to the Council you might not like, just as there will be people, perhaps, in those countries who don’t like some of the countries you like. 

Essentially, universality of the UN is a worthwhile thing in its own self because it means that every country belongs, feels it has a stake, and participates, rather than going away and finding other methods of conducting international relations.

BRIDGET KENDALL: You mentioned that countries where the United Nations is present and doing things do appreciate it, but actually, we have people who‘ve e-mailed us who are critical from some of these countries. For example, Rusna in Kabul, Afghanistan said: “What is the UN? Discussions, meetings, useless reports, no action, huge salaries, lots of benefits to employees – a total waste of time and money.” If you thought someone in Kabul might appreciate the United Nations, but what he sees there is waste.

SHASHI THAROOR: I’m sorry to hear that, because it was the United States in action that actually brokered the peace agreement that created a government in Kabul. They helped organize the Lower Jirga which gave us political legitimacy in that country to help organize two successive elections, presidential and parliamentary.

BRIDGET KENDALL: There’s a large UN bureaucracy that comes in to country, spends a lot of money on itself instead of the poor people who need it.

SHASHI THAROOR: We don’t think that’s entirely fair. Certainly when you’re bringing in expatriate workers because around the world, you have to pay them salaries that enable to sustain them abroad while maintaining their existence in their home countries, and that means they’re paid better than nationals in many countries. But their focus is the well-being of the people they’re deployed amongst. And I can assure you that the development projects of the United Nations in Kabul and elsewhere, I think deserve better than the comment of this selfless critic.

BRIDGET KENDALL: Let’s go to our next caller. It’s Paul Papadoupolos in Athens, Greece. What would you like to say?

CALLER: First of all, my general view of the United Nations is positive. I’m not going into the things that you’ve mentioned because that’s administration and so on, because subsequently, that’s another subject. Whether or not an organization is particularly well-run is quite a [INAUDIBLE] whether one should have the organization. And basically, I think if we didn’t have the United Nations, I think it would have to be reinvented.

BRIDGET KENDALL: So better a flawed organization than nothing at all.

CALLER: Exactly. I do think that the Security Council should be expanded. People in mentioned countries like Brazil, India, you know largest countries that’s from the Third World, perhaps a country as important as Japan should be there. But it shouldn’t get too out-of-hand, you know, because of too many members. It really depends what people expect of the United Nations. 

I think sometimes people expect too much. It’s not a world police force. It’s not world government. As the gentleman said, it’s a world forum. I think Winston Churchill once said, ‘it’s better to jaw, jaw, jaw than war, war, war.’ It’s a case of what you have the other week. You have the president of the United States bringing forward his point of view, how he sees the problems of the world, and in the same forum, you have the country which is very much at odds with the United States at the moment, Iran. You have its leader, his view, and then you have some light entertainment, somebody like the president of Venezuela who’s a bit of a clown. But it makes it interesting to have all these different views expressed.

BRIDGET KENDALL: So you were watching quite closely the leaders who were speaking from the podium of the General Assembly this year.

CALLER: Well, not selectively, whatever I see on the television; there are other things that I watch. You have a little country like Bahrain, for example. One of the leading women of Bahrain is now the president of the Assembly and I happen to know her personally. This gives every country a chance to have its say in a world forum. Bahrain is an example of a very small country. The United States, of course, is a big powerful country. Venezuela and Iran are very powerful…the energy equation and so on. 

What is important with the United Nations is it can deal all these small countries – I think there are 200 countries represented – and each country has a chance to participate, listen to what’s going on, and it focuses world opinion expressed by the leaders. The gentleman’s point that he might not like the governments, what’s the point of having a small club that excludes membership of people you don’t like.

BRIDGET KENDALL: Paul, I just want to pick up on what you said. You were talking about reform of the UN Security Council. We had another e-mail on that, from Hashalim Mumbai, India. He said, “Let’s remove the veto powers. Let’s discard the Security Council because the seats on it are actually bought by the powerful countries for their supporters. I think these are the core issues which have alienated most of the countries because they feel helpless and frustrated, and having no voice at the UN.” Shashi Tharoor, what do you think about this? It seems there’s a lot of frustration on this issue.

SHASHI THAROOR: It’s widely expressed, and I see the e-mailer is from India, which is a country which has long felt that its voice needs to be better heard in the Council. The fact is, it’s not easy to get there. The threshold in the Charter for amending it – and you need to amend the Charter – to change the composition of the Council requires a 2/3 majority of the General Assembly and by ratification by 2/3 of the parliaments of the world, including those the five permanent members. So to be blunt about it, removing the veto is not going to happen because you’re going to have the veto-wielding countries having to agree into not using their own power.

BRIDGET KENDALL: That’s what makes people frustrated, that the United Nations is so stern and you can’t change it.

SHASHI THAROOR: Those are very well-informed comments. Mr. Papadoupolos earlier made that remark about the term the UN needs to be re-invented. My worry is if we could actually reinvent it. Because it took the cataclysms at the end of 1945 for the world leaders at that time to create the United Nations.

BRIDGET KENDALL: I’d like to read to you our next e-mail, which I would say is the e-mail that’s top recommended by those people who went to our website. 89 people thought this was the best e-mail on the site. 

Euroskeptic is the name of the person who wrote it, from Avondale Estates, USA. It said, “The UN needs to be tossed into the dust bin of history’s failed institutions. The world no longer respects it, gives it credibility, or believes that the UN itself supports its own Charter. UN resolutions are a joke. The member states are corrupt, as seen in the widely unreported case of the ‘oil-for-food’.” Yet another trenchant criticism on our website, but let’s go to our next caller who is John Sauter in the United States, New Jersey. John, what would you like to say?

CALLER: First of all, thanks for having me on the show. But first, I would like to say I totally disagree with that last statement, but I have a very high level of respect for the UN. I think my biggest frustration is the fact that I think there was a statement made recently by the Under Secretary that the UN was formed out of chaos and a way to save the world from itself. 

I think we are blind if we don’t see that we’re actually heading in that direction. There are so many crises, so many problems in the world that I think we’re actually going down that road, and I wonder if there’s anything or any group in the UN or maybe a movement within the UN to reform it to reflect the fact that I think the UN needs to be strengthened. 

I think we need an international permanent police force. I think we need to change the veto so that it can be overruled. It means the U.S. and some of the bigger powers giving up more authority for the greater good. That’s how the United States was formed, for example. I think it’s necessary. I have a high level of respect for the UN; I certainly support it very much. 

SHASHI THAROOR: I respect very much the kind comments of John, and I might say that earlier on expressing a view so extreme that it’s difficult to respond meaningfully. He doesn’t indicate that he thinks there is an alternative, your e-mailer. He simply wants to toss the one international institution that we have that brings very country together into the garbage can. Well, that to me is not particularly a solution to the problems of the world order. 

John approaches the problem differently, and he’s saying essentially can’t we be more idealistic; can’t we, for example, create more of the trappings of a global system. And the short answer, John, you’re in the US. Your own government – I don’t think – and indeed, your own Congress is never going to allow that to happen. We have to accept that the UN has been created to be an organization of sovereign states, not an organization that has anything of the trappings of world government. 

You speak of an international UN police force. What we have is police, and indeed, soldiers who are loaned to us by their governments when we need them. The purpose is authorized by the Security Council. We have no standing capacity of our own nor do I believe governments are prepared to give us that. 

There is very little traction for the sort of ideas you’ve expressed, and I know your ideas are coming out of idealism, and that idealism is healthy. We have to live in the real world. I must say that, for me, in response to an earlier question, I’d rather make the best of the UN we have because I see its enormous potential for good. It has limitations. It has cause for frustration. It has, indeed, some inequalities built into the veto system. It has certainly no standing capacity of the kind that you have in mind, but it’s still the one mechanism that allows every country to pull together its political will, its soldiers, its resources, and its goodwill in order to pursue the dreams of all of humanity. And I think that’s a good deal better than the alternative from a previous e-mailer. 

BRIDGET KENDALL: John, does that answer your question?

CALLER: It does, and I really appreciate it. I guess the only comment is that I do believe that people are in the UN have something, some vision for that fact that yes, we have what we have now, which I think is wonderful and it’s a forum, and it does allow people to express their views, and it has done much good in the world. My only concern is that, and I agree that the UN has it now, although I have to make the statement that I believe that at least the undercurrent in the U.S. is the frustration with our own, for example, our healthcare costs that are escalating, and the other problem with terrorism, fears for the future, and oil prices. 

I think that there’s an underlying feeling that things have to change. And I’m just wondering if the UN is starting, or even if there are groups or people in the UN are saying that ‘Things are fine now, we are doing much good; if we’re going to change it, how would we do it and how would get there.’ I’m just wondering if ever anybody’s thinking of that.

SHASHI THAROOR: Lots of people are indeed.

BRIDGET KENDALL: I just want to interrupt. This is another e-mail we had, another negative one I must say, but it reflects that sort of gloomy outlook that you’ve been talking about, John. 

Mark also here in the United States, and he has a list of what he calls “high-profile UN failures – Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Cambodia, Burma, Kashmir, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, Uganda, North Korea, East Timor, Tibet, Darfur, and there’s plenty more. Can anyone think of one success?” he says. “It’s time for the U.S. to quit,” that’s what he says. “It’s worthless.”

It does seem, perhaps as John was saying, people feel they live in a very complex and worrying world; there’s a lot of threats in it.

SHASHI THAROOR: That’s a travesty, Bridget. Iran-Iraq, it was the UN that help end that war after an 8-year savage conflict in which kids were being blown up across mine fields.

BRIDGET KENDALL: Well, the United States led in an invasion after the failure to get a UN resolution which split the organization. Iran, we’re now with the dispute which is proving very difficult to resolve. 

SHASHI THAROOR: We’re not going to create paradise overnight. There are going to be conflicts in the world. The point is the UN exists as a mechanism to deal with them when they arise. The Iran-Iraq war, frankly, as I said we ended. East Timor, most East Timorese would consider our record to have been an extremely positive one; the government wishes we stayed on in full strength when they’ve asked us to continue. 

Afghanistan we’ve already talked about in response to an earlier caller. The list is long, but it’s simply a grab bag of things most of which many objective observers would not consider to be failures. Kosovo, for example. The UN has actually been running the civil administration in that country, has been able very effectively to manage a transition towards democratic institutions, towards self-governing elected institutions in Kosovo. In what consists the failure?

BRIDGET KENDALL: Can I just come to the end of that e-mail which says ‘It’s time for the U.S. to quit.’ Do you think that this feeling that has been for many years in the United States that this is an organization they’re giving a lot of money to but they don’t get as much from it as they want?

SHASHI THAROOR: That’s simply not accurate. In fact, if you study public opinion polls in the United States, a 10-20 percent minority that has talked about the U.S. quitting the United Nations with any degree of approval. In fact, I can assure you that for the most part the American public understands and supports the value of the United Nations around the world, not least because many Americans realize that if there wasn’t a UN, the U.S. is the world’s largest and only superpower will end up carrying the can or burden on any number of problems. Now they can share the burden with the rest of the UN.

BRIDGET KENDALL: We have on the line someone from Sudan. Kumuko Stephen Bangi who’s Arua, Uganda, who wants to talk about that. What would you like to say?

CALLER: The government of Sudan must allow the UN peacekeeping force to move to Darfur immediately. AU must leave. Al-Bashir, he’s a leader for himself. The government of Sudan is a government for all. When innocent civilians are scattered all over the world.

BRIDGET KENDALL: I think I understood that. You were saying you don’t have too much confidence in the peacekeepers from the African Union that are currently in Darfur, and you’d like to see UN peacekeepers go in. Well, that’s what being discussed this week. There’s still no agreement on it. For those people who are very worried about Darfur, yet another frustration that the United Nations hasn’t yet manage to solve a very urgent problem.

SHASHI THAROOR: It is, indeed. The fact is, there is in fact a three-pronged strategy of the international community has been trying. The first is, indeed, humanitarian relief. When people say what has the UN done? The UN has saved lives; it has run camps. Second, there was an attempt to create a peace agreement. The AU led the talks. The peace agreement was concluded this spring, but sadly it is unraveling and it does not include all the rebel factions. The third element was the boots on the ground. And since the Sudanese government was not prepared to allow the UN to do this, there have been African Union troops on the ground, but they’re hamstrung by their own limited resources and by their rather modest mandate. 

Now there is a Security Council resolution that authorizes the UN to send in up to 17,000 soldiers. But the Sudanese government says no. And the UN is not able to go in against the wishes of the Sudanese government for two practical reasons: the first is countries would have to provide troops to the UN; we have no standing army as we’ve talked about earlier. No one is going to provide troops for an operation which is not authorized by Sudan’s government. Secondly, to go in against the wishes of the host government is tantamount to going in to war. They are essentially saying ‘Go to war with Sudan to impose peace on Darfur.’ And that again – I’m afraid – is a practical problem. There is no country prepared to do that. So the only way we can actually bring about peace through our deployment of peacekeepers would be if the government agrees to us going in. Now the government is clearly not willing to do that. 

We are essentially hoping that other governments, very powerful ones, will put some pressure on the government of Sudan. I’m talking about the members of the Security Council, in particular, because they, indeed, have the means to press the government of Sudan to see the error of its position. 

It’s extremely important that people should not be dying day after day in Darfur – dying, being displaced, being raped, being violated in all sorts of ways. This is a problem the UN has been drawing attention to for two years. And as I said we can provide humanitarian relief, but that isn’t enough. We have to stop the killing. The best way to do that is to get UN soldiers in there.

BRIDGET KENDALL: Shashi Tharoor, thank you. I’m afraid that this is where we have to end the programme because we’ve run out of time. And that’s it for this week. Thank you, Shashi Tharoor from the United Nations for joining us. And thanks to all of you who took part, whether by phone, e-mail or text message. My apologies if you didn’t make it on to the show. But you can still join in on our website: But for now, for me Bridget Kendall and the rest of the team, it’s goodbye from here in New York, and do join us again next time.