Global Citizen: Future of the UN in a Nationalist World

Global Citizen: Future of the UN in a Nationalist World

Remarks by Kul Chandra Gautam

at Frontline Club, London, UK

5 October 2018


 Thank you John (Lloyd) for your kind introduction of the Panel, and for framing the issues for our discussion this evening. Let me also thank the management of this prestigious Frontline Club for hosting this event.

I am enormously grateful to the Right Honourable Clare Short for joining us in the Panel. I remember her with great admiration when she was Secretary of State for International Development – and in that capacity enormously helpful to my home country Nepal and to the United Nations. 

My special thanks also go to my dear friends and former colleagues from UNICEF David Bull and Sir Richard Jolly for being the master-minds of this event. I also thank Paddy Coulter OBE for facilitating our contacts with the Frontline Club and to Mike Penrose of UNICEF-UK for generously helping us out. 


Coming to the topic of our panel discussion as it has been framed in the programme announcement and by our Chair John Lloyd, I am aware that we are at an eminent journalists’ club here. 

Journalism, the news media, or ‘the press’ are often called the ‘Fourth Estate‘ – historically on par with the three other estates of the realm: the clergy, the nobility and the commoners. 

In modern democracies, the Fourth Estate is particularly important in its role of not just reporting the news but articulating views that can frame the political discourse and influence societal norms. 

How do journalists decide what is news? 

A very good journalist friend of mine once told me that they follow a simple rule: If a dog bites a man, that it not news. But if a man bites a dog that is news. 

In other words, exceptional events are news, and every day happenings – even if very important – are not news. 

I know it is completely fair to raise questions about the relevance of the UN and future of multilateralism in the current atmosphere of Brexit, America First and other forms of populist hyper-nationalism. 

I was at the UN General Assembly last week. One of the oft-quoted headlines that came from the UNGA was US President Donald Trump’s statement saying: “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism”.

Quoting this statement from the leader of the world’s most powerful nation, and similar remarks by a few other leaders, the media speculated that perhaps the world has reached a turning point of the UN being irrelevant in the face of such sentiments. 

Focusing on such sensational remarks is consistent with thetradition of journalistic exceptionalism. 

However, I heard the vast majority of other leaders at the UN giving the opposite message – that they believed and cherished the principles on which the UN was founded.

They emphasized the need for collective multilateral action to solve the most pressing problems of our times – e.g. climate change, war and peace, the fight against poverty and achievement of the sustainable development goals. But because these statements were not particularly dramatic or exceptional, they did not make the headlines. 

One event that made the headline was how the Prime Minister of New Zealand brought her breast-feeding baby to the UNGA. That was exceptional. 

As a former UNICEF official who believes strongly on the importance of breast-feeding, I loved this exemplary act by the NZ Prime Minister. 

But what went unnoticed in the world’s major news media was the most impressive, passionate speech by the New Zealand Prime Minister strongly defending the UN as an indispensable organization. 

I commend to all of you to watch and listen to Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s inspiring speech, and those of President Macron of France and the majority of world leaders at the UNGA.

You can then draw for yourself what conclusions emerge on the relevance of the UN. 

Donald Trump’s remarks were intended primarily for his domestic audience. At the UN, they generated laughter and ridicule by the assembled world leaders. 

So, I would not draw any conclusion that such remarks really represent the growing world-wide trend. 


Coming closer to home here in the UK. I just came to London this afternoon after attending an OXFAM Board meeting. 

As you know, OXFAM has come under heavy criticism in the British media following revelations of a sexual abuse scandal by one of its staff members in Haiti way back in 2011. 

OXFAM has apologized for its oversight of this case 7 years ago. It has taken important corrective actions so such events will not happen again in future. 

We all deplore such misconduct. But the relentless criticism of OXFAM has continued for months with salacious headlines in the British media. 

One gets the impression from recent media coverage that the whole of the charity and aid sector is riddled with sexual misconduct. 

DFID has suspended its support for OXFAM.  The current Secretary of State for International Development never misses a chance, not just in the UK but even in international forums to refer to the “OXFAM Scandal” as if it is the most notable happening in the charity and development sector. 

I for one happen to agree with Honourable Clare Short who testified before the international development committee of the parliament in June 2018 that the fallout from the sexual misconduct scandal at Oxfam has been “completely distorted and out of all proportion”.

Ms. Short went on to say, that she did not believe sexual abuse was a “special problem” within charities. As we all know, it is a deplorable problem in many sectors in many countries, including in the media houses. 

But the holier than thou sensational media coverage that tarnishes the image and glorious track record of an organization that has done so much good work across the world for over 70 years citing one or more exceptional events is truly regrettable. 

This is another sad example of the media portraying the exceptional as the normal. My appeal to the media is not to lose sight of broader historical context in reporting on contemporary events. 


Coming back to the UN, those of us who have worked inside the organization for a long time – in my case for over three decades – and those who have studied it  as academics, researchers and analysts can certainly point to the UN’s many flaws and imperfections that need to be fixed and revamped. 

I outline some of these in considerable detail in my memoir book. 

But I also recount many exemplary success stories of which we can all be truly proud. 

Sir Richard Jolly who is here with us today, and several other distinguished scholars have researched and co-authored a 17-volume intellectual history of the United Nations. 

They have documented some of the weaknesses of the UN, but also argue how many ideas and concepts pioneered by the UN have been a driving force in human progress. 

Those ideas have set past, present, and future international development agendas. They have led to initiatives and actions that have greatly improved the quality of human life. 

Citing the case of one UN agency, UNICEF, I chronicle in my book how under visionary leadership and with support from governments and civil society, UNICEF has succeeded in saving the lives and improving the livelihoods of millions of women and children in the poorest communities, including in times of natural disasters and man-made conflicts.

Some of the UN’s notable successes include: helping to prevent the Cold War between the Soviet bloc and the American allies from turning into a hot war, by providing a roof under which the two super-power adversaries could meet and engage.

We are disappointed that today the UN is having a hard time resolving the horrendous humanitarian crises in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Sudan and elsewhere. 

But let us not forget that over the past several decades, the UN mounted over 200 peacekeeping operations; protected millions of civilians, and contained local conflicts from becoming regional or global wars. 

Over 300 international treaties and conventions have been negotiated at the UN, setting international standards and norms to reduce conflict, to protect human rights, and to regulate the conduct of governments on issues ranging from the protection of the environment to preservation of our cultural heritage.

The UN’s work in setting global norms, international standards, and helping developing countries has a profound impact in the daily lives of millions of people.

Its role extends from providing technical assistance and material support in agriculture and industry, trade and commerce; to health and education.

The UN provides policy advice on development planning; protection of human rights, and prevention of human wrongs.

But why don’t we hear more about all these good things that the UN does?

Unfortunately, good news is rarely reported on the front pages of our media. Sensational bad news tends to dominate the headlines.

So, we do not hear much about UN’s successes, but its failures are widely publicized.

When there is an accident or a natural disaster that kills a few dozen or hundred people, it becomes a major headline that all of us hear about.


But the fact that the UN and its agencies, like WHO and UNICEF, helped eradicate smallpox that once killed three million people every year; or reduced 99 percent the cases of polio which used to cripple half a million children every year,and similar other spectacular achievements are easily forgotten.


Because of mass immunization, safe water supply and other health measures, partly supported by the UN system, today’s children are much healthier, live a longer life and are better educated than their parents and grand-parents.


But these are not headline news because they do not happen as one event, but as long processes.


To understand good news, you have to look at trends over time. To understand bad news, you just need to watch the headlines.


We need the UN and a multilateral approach to tackle what we call ‘problems without borders’ or problems that travel across frontiers without a passport or a visa, like climate change, drug trafficking, terrorism, epidemics and so on.


No one country or group of countries, however powerful, can tackle such problems alone.


It is these problems that remain at the centre of the UN’s activities.


The UN is especially helpful for small and poor countries, because working together at the UN they have much stronger bargaining power than working alone.


But big and powerful countries also benefit from the UN, because the UN umbrella allows them to play a partnership role rather than a patronising one which is no longer acceptable in this day and age.


For its good work and achievements, the UN and its various agencies have won 13 Nobel Peace Prizes. No other organization can claim such honour.


But we all agree that the UN cannot rest on its laurels. 


Like everybody else, the UN too must reform and transform itself to play a fuller role in confronting the challenges of human survival with dignity in the 21st century.


In my memoir I point out some of the structural flaws and weaknesses in the UN’s governance and management that need to be reformed.


I argue that the biggest reform that the UN needs are in fourspecific areas – which are also the hardest to achieve.


These four areas are: 

1) Democratizing the UN, particularly the Security Council, and also the system of appointing the heads of UN agencies and major departments which is currently deeply flawed.
2) The Responsibility to Protect vulnerable populations from massive human rights violations, oppression by their own leaders or by the neglect of the international community.
3) Prioritizing disarmament and development  and sparing the world of the massive misuse of resources for military security rather than investing in development and human security. 
4) And 4th, changing the system of financing of the UN, so the UN is not vulnerable to constant threats by major donors of either arbitrarily cutting off its budget or blackmailing it through what is called “chequebookdiplomacy”. 


In each of these areas I have got some specific suggestions and proposals, which I would be happy to elaborateafterwards after we listen to Honorable Clare Short. 


For now, suffice it to say that in my humble opinion, after the horrendous experience of two World Wars, our forefathers and mothers had the wisdom to create a framework of international organizations, with the UN at its centre. 


We need to build on, refine and improve these institutions, not to dismantle them in the pique of our naïve, nationalistic or overly idealistic dissatisfaction with their imperfections. 


Let us remember one thing – like all of us, as individuals, families, institutions or nations, the UN is not perfect.


In the past, it has acted unwisely at times, and failed to act at all at other times.


We live in an imperfect world. And the UN cannot make it perfect.


But it can, it has, and it must continue to make the world a better place.

Better – not perfect.


At its best, and at its worst, the United Nations is a mirror of the world.


It reflects both our hopes and convictions, and our divisions and disagreements.


But on balance, I can tell you that with all its imperfections, the UN has made an enormous contribution to the well-being of humanity in its seven decades of existence.


If the UN did not exist, we would surely be trying to create it anew.


Instead, let us keep, nurture and improve the existing UN rather than dismantling it now and trying to rediscover the wheel all over again. 


Thank you.