Global Citizen from Gulmi at UNICEF, New York

Remarks by Kul Chandra Gautam

at the book launch of his memoir: Global Citizen from Gulmi

at UNICEF, New York, 5 September 2018


Thank you, Paloma, for your warm words of welcome.  And I thank the whole DOC team and the UNICEF family for organizing this wonderful get-together.

Dear friends,

I am deeply grateful for the kind remarks that have been made about the contents of my book and about myself.

Maria Luiza, please convey my gratitude to the Secretary-General for his kind message. And Shahida, please convey my greetings to the UNICEF Executive Director.

Thank you, Ambassador Karki for coming all the way from Washington DC, and your warm words on behalf of the Nepali community.

Dear Caryl, it is always a delight to collaborate with you and the US Fund for UNICEF.

A few years ago, you honoured me with the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award. The elegant spirt of Audrey continues to inspire me. As do many other Goodwill Ambassadors who instill a warm glow of human touch that has long been the hallmark of UNICEF.

Meeting in this Hall named after Harry Labouisse evokes many nostalgic memories for me.

For some of our friends who may not be familiar with UNICEF’s history, Labouisse was the 2nd Executive Director of UNICEF.

He received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of UNICEF in 1965.

His predecessor, the first Executive Director of UNICEF, was a remarkable leader named Maurice Pate.

When he was offered the job as the first head of UNICEF, Maurice Pate told the UN Secretary-General that he would accept the job on one condition – that UNICEF should be allowed to help children in need everywhere, including in the so-called “enemy states”.

Please recall that article 53 of the UN Charter speaks about the “enemy states” – the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) – that had been defeated in the Second World War.

The principle of helping children everywhere regardless of the politics of their parents allowed UNICEF to help children in post-war Germany, Italy and Japan, as well as in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe during the Cold War.

Invoking that principle, UNICEF provided humanitarian assistance to children even in countries and territories whose governments were not recognized by the UN, and where other UN agencies were not allowed to work.

Harry Labouisse led one such early effort during the Nigerian civil war in Biafra in the 1960s and another to help the children of Indo-China at the height of the Vietnam War.

Thus, UNICEF was way ahead of the rest of the United Nations system in practicing what we today call the “responsibility to protect”.

I was an anti-Vietnam War activist during my student days at Dartmouth College. One of my favourite professors there was Donald McNemar with whom I took a course on international law and the United Nations. That course instilled in me a deep interest in the UN, which eventually-led to my joining UNICEF.

I am delighted that Prof McNemar is herewith us today. Thank you, Don.

In 1973, when there was the Paris Peace Agreement to end the Vietnam War, Harry Labouisse launched a massive program of UNICEF support for post war relief and reconstruction all over Indo-China.

I joined UNICEF in that campaign. And that was the beginning of my three and half decade-long career in the United Nations.

So, this conference hall, named after my first big boss and hero, Harry Labouisse, carries a very special meaning for me.

This hall has been the venue of many momentous events.

In 1989, when the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the UN, we celebrated it in this hall.

I cherish the hope that one day it will see another celebration, when the United States of America ratifies the CRC, and helps make it the first-ever universal law of humankind.

In 1990, when UNICEF led the organization of the first ever World Summit for Children – the largest gathering of world leaders in history until that time – we celebrated that historic milestone – right here in this hall.

James Grant – the 3rd Executive Director of UNICEF – was the master-mind behind that world summit, and I was fortunate enough to be tasked to draft its Declaration and Plan of Action.

These days, so many summits happen at the United Nations, that we feel rather blasé about such summits. But the very first summit held at the UN in 1990, when the Cold War was drawing to a close, was an exhilarating affair, not only in its pomp and circumstances, but in the substance of its outcome.

It was the first summit to adopt ambitious, time-bound and measurable goals for children and development – to drastically reduce maternal and child mortality; to combat diseases and malnutrition, to promote basic education, to protect children from abuse, exploitation and discrimination.

But some cynics said that at the UN goals are ever set and never met. The Summit for children soon proved that cynicism wrong.

The goals of the Summit for Children, relating to child survival, protection and development were the most systematically implemented and rigorously monitored.

Extra-ordinary social mobilization and political commitment were harnessed. The result was that most of the goals of the Summit were achieved or even exceeded in most countries.

Encouraged by the success of the child-related goals, when world leaders met again at the Millennium Summit in 2000, the most prominent among the goals they approved in the Millennium Development Declaration were – guess what? – those relating to the health, nutrition and education of children.

In a very real sense, and unbeknownst to most of us here, the foundation of today’s sustainable goals was pioneered by the goals of the Summit for Children.

It is a story I tell in some detail in the book I am presenting to you here today.

The master-mind behind the story was UNICEF’s legendary leader Jim Grant. And I was lucky to be a supporting actor, along with many others – some of whom – veteran UNICEF retirees – are here with us today.

Some of you in the audience may not have even heard of Jim Grant. So, let me share a statistic that will explain why Grant was among the most inspiring leaders ever in the UN system.

Nicholas Kristof, a well-known columnist for the New York Times, said of Jim Grant that his work and leadership probably helped save more lives than were killed by Hitler, Stalin and Mao Ze Dong combined.

He remains one of the great unsung heroes of the 20th century.

But historically, the leadership in UNICEF came not only from its Executive Directors.

A prime source of UNICEF’s leadership in early years came from its highly committed Executive Board.

Let me acknowledge here the presence of the current President of the UNICEF Board (HE Ambassador of Norway) several Board members.

Excellencies, I would commend to you a brief chapter in my book on the role played by some of your illustrious predecessors. UNICEF was very dear to the early members of its Board. They nurtured, protected and promoted UNICEF’s interests in ways that are hard to imagine today.

Friends, the Charter of the United Nations speaks about “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations…”. But in practice, today that translates into “We the sovereign governments of the United Nations, determined to protect our national interest at all cost…”.

But in the constellation of UN agencies, there are organizations like UNICEF that continue to embody the spirit of “We the peoples”.

UNICEF’s large network of national committees, like UNICEF USA – has thousands of citizen volunteers and dozens of celebrity ambassadors. They and the millions of people in developing countries who benefit from the UN’s support – represent the voice and views of “We the peoples of the United Nations”.

In these days of many initiatives for UN reform, I argue how important it is to preserve this “we the peoples” dimension of UNICEF and the UN.

UNICEF’s greatest strength has always been its highly decentralized, field-based structure with very empowered country representatives.

Their role is not only to manage UNICEF assistance but to advocate for child-friendly policies drawing on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other normative principles.

I hope this strength of UNICEF will be preserved and protected in the context of the seemingly endless process of UN reforms.

I am aware and fully agree that Member States and the Secretary-General want the UN country teams to work in a well-coordinated manner.

But let us remember the wise words of the late Kofi Annan, who said, memorably, that those UN Country Teams had to be like winning football teams where all players pursue a common goal, but where there is room for individual brilliance.

Today, the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals are our shared destination.

All SDGs are highly desirable, but some are more doable, more cost-effective and urgent building blocks for others.

The goals related to the rights and well-being of children are such foundational goals that merit the highest priority.

Children have only one chance to grow, and if we fail them in their formative stage, we doom them for life.

Hence, I argue in my book – as all UNICEF-wallahs would do – Children First, and the best interest of children – must always come above all other considerations.

Commenting on my memoir, one astute reader said it actually consists of three books in one.

The first of the three books is of an autobiographical nature – of my unlikely journey from very humble beginnings in the remote hills of Nepal to eventually the lofty halls of the United Nations and beyond.

The struggles, trials and tribulations that I had to go through in that journey might not sound so unusual to my Nepali compatriots of similar backgrounds. But I am told these sound very intriguing – to the non-Nepali readers.

I leave it to you to judge for yourself.

The second book I am told is like a documentary – the story of UNICEF’s work for children across the world through the eyes of someone who was both a participant and an observer.

My key message here is not just about the good work of UNICEF and its great impact – in setting and achieving ambitious goals for children.

The more important point is how at its best, the UN system and a multilateral approach to solving global problems can succeed, where national and bilateral approaches, while necessary, are woefully inadequate.

All the triumphs and promises of global solidarity that I discuss, require a multilateral approach for sustainable success – whether it is spearheading a global child survival revolution or ensuring a rule-based global trading system; whether it is maintaining international peace and security or tackling global warming and climate change.

In today’s world, national action is not enough whether it is to combat terrorism or to tackle cybercrimes used to perpetrate violence against women and children.

Without global multilateral action it would be impossible to eradicate or even control deadly diseases like smallpox, polio, HIV/AIDS or ebola, or to protect the universally recognized human rights.

We can scream at the top of our voice “America First” or “Europe First” or “Nepal first” or whatever hyper-nationalistic slogans we like. But in this increasingly globalizing world, we will ALL sink or swim together.

Assuming that we would rather swim together than sink alone, I argue in the book that we owe it to ourselves and our future generations to build a robust multilateral system that also helps protect and preserve our national, regional and local identities in all their rich and beautiful diversity.

In the third book of my memoir, I outline my hopes and dreams for a peaceful and prosperous Nepal – and the world as a whole – with some markers of momentous changes for humanity that I see unfolding in this century.

I apologize to my Nepali friends, that we do not have much time to discuss about Nepal today.

Suffice it to say that Nepal’s prosperity – like that of all other relatively small and poor countries – depends heavily on how well we embrace the positive forces of globalization and global best practices and universal norms of good governance, rule of law, transparency and accountability.

These same factors are relevant for our increasingly inter-connected world community.

Reviewing some global mega-trends, I express my hopes for the triumph of a humane and pluralistic democracy all over the world, including in China. I also dream of the emergence of a Commonwealth of South Asia; a prosperous Africa and a vibrant Latin America.

These are all feasible, if not in our life-time, certainly during the life-time of our children.

Closer to home here at the United Nations, I speak about a drastically reformed UN system that will be fit for the 21st century with – some specific proposals.

The book concludes with some observations on how – not just peace and prosperity – but equity must become the defining issue of our times.

Empowerment of girls and women is the best catalyst for an equitable world order – with quality girls’ education as the best investment for ending inter-generational transmission of poverty.

To make a small contribution for that noble goal, the proceeds from the sale of this book will go to a girls’ education project assisted by the UNICEF USA in several educationally deprived districts of Nepal.

There is much more in the book for you to read and, hopefully enjoy.

But my time is up – so, I thank you all for joining us today.