Insider at the UN

28 Jun 2006


Prem Shankar JhaUnlike the solid, sometimes jingoistic, support it gave to Lakshmi Mittal in his bid for Arcelor, the media has greeted Shashi Tharoor's nomination for the post of UN secretary general with mixed feelings. Some commentators have accused the government of having 'rushed' into announcing a candidate for the post without realising that this implies a surrender of its claim to a permanent seat on the Security Council.

Others have criticised it as yet another example of the opacity of decision-making in this government, because it was taken by the prime minister's office and left the ministry of external affairs out of the loop.

Still others, including this writer, feared that the announcement might have been premature. India is not the most liked or trusted member of the United Nations. It is too big; too imperious with its neighbours and has too many border and other conflicts with them. It is a nuclear weapons state with regional hegemonic ambitions, but not legally recognised as one.

Traditionally secretaries-general have come from smaller, and more uncontroversial countries. For reasons I go into below, I have never doubted that Tharoor would be the best man for the job, but his chances are brightest if he not seen as an Indian candidate, but as a supremely capable UN insider who, having worked closely with outgoing secretary-general Kofi Annan, is in the best position to ensure continuity of policy at a time when the fate of the organisation, and of the international order, hangs in the balance.

Ideally, therefore, India should have circulated Tharoor's name as a possible alternate, and announced it when consensus around one of the declared candidates proved elusive. The decision to announce his candidature now has put Tharoor in the front rank of contenders, and opened him to all the above objections from his opponents, and India's many detractors.

Despite this it would be distinctly premature to write off his chances. The election of the secretary-general is not like an election to the Security Council or the new Human Rights council. In the latter it is countries that are elected. In the former it is individuals.

How little the country of origin matters once the elections are over can be judged from the way past secretaries-general are remembered. How many people even know, let alone remember, that Trygve Lie, the UN's first secretary-general was from Norway? How many people associate Dag Hammaskjold with Sweden, U Thant with Burma (Myanmar) or Kofi Annan with Ghana?

Xavier Perez de Cuellar was, admittedly 'hispanic'. But how many of my readers can tell me which country he belonged to? Of all the commentators, only Rajeev Shukla, writing in the Indian Express, showed an understanding of this when he noted that there has been no opposition to Tharoor's candidature in any other country, even Pakistan.

A secretary-general's country of origin matters only at the very beginning of the nomination process. Even that is only because the UN is a hybrid organisation, part democratic Legislature and part Executive, in which the former seeks to regulate and limit the use of power by the latter. Since executive power has to be exercised on the UN's behalf by member states, it is respect for the principle of separation of powers that has inhibited large and powerful countries from putting forward candidates.

India is not big enough, powerful enough or threatening enough to make other nations disregard the many assets that Tharoor would bring to the post. The first, of course is that he is an insider. The disadvantage of being an outsider was illustrated by the difficulties that Kurt Waldheim faced when he was confronted by the Yom Kippur war in 1973.

Having staffed his cabinet with diplomats, Waldheim was forced to take a crash course in what he could and could not do from the only two insiders who were left in senior positions close to him. Boutros-Ghali too became an easy target for those who were looking for a scapegoat for the UN's failure to respond to the genocide in Rwanda, because he was an outsider.

But the most striking example of the virtues of an insider is Kofi Annan himself. Annan has guided the United Nations through the worst crisis in its history. Beginning with the bombing of Serbia, through the invasion of Afghanistan to the invasion of Iraq, the US and, regrettably on the first occasion NATO, has formally violated Article 2 of the UN charter, which requires all member states to respect the sovereignty of other member states and refrain from intervening in their internal affairs. The US has gone a step further and formally resumed the right to attack any country at any time, with its Security Doctrine of 2002. Together, these have destroyed the very foundations upon the United Nations rested.

But Annan has not only kept the edifice from crumbling altogether, but painstakingly continued to build the skeleton of an alternative model of global governance that, he is convinced, is the only one that will prove sustainable in the long run. Two path-breaking reports on The Right to Protect and Towards a more Secure World, created the intellectual foundations of this model. The creation of an international Criminal Court, Human Rights Council and a Peace Building commission are the first steps towards giving it concrete shape.

But we are only at the beginning of a long road. That is why having a secretary-general who has been part of this process from its infancy is so important. One can only hope that this consideration will allow other nations to rise above the incidental fact that Tharoor comes from India.

* The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China, and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a regular columnist with several leading publications.

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