Remarks by Kul Chandra Gautam
At Model UN Conference, Rato Bangla School, Kathmandu
18 December 2008
It is always a pleasure for me to see young people interested in the work of the United Nations. The Model United Nations programme is a wonderful way for students to learn about the UN, what it does, how it works, what are its successes and what are its shortcomings, and how we can make the UN stronger to solve global problems.
I myself participated in the Model UN programme as a student at my college. That participation deepened my interest in the UN which led to my eventually joining the organization.
Having spent more than half of my life – 35 years – in the service of the United Nations, I happen to think that the UN is an indispensable organization for global governance in our times.
But I know not everybody shares that view. There are some bitter critics of the UN. Some of them – for example, some of Nepal’s Maoist leaders, think the UN is a tool of the Big Powers, particularly the United States. Many American critics think just the opposite – that the UN has been taken over by many anti-American, undemocratic Third World countries that have a majority in the General Assembly.
Neither of these views is entirely true. For every example, people cite to prove their point, I could cite examples to prove the opposite point. In other words, the UN is quite complex. It defies simplistic, black and white, good or bad characterization.
But on balance, it is a vital organization, absolutely necessary in today’s world. If the UN did not exist, it surely would have to be created anew.
Many of us think of the United Nations as a distant organization that organizes big conferences in New York, Geneva, Paris and Rome. We see it on our television screen when big powers of the world discuss issues of war and peace in UN’s Security Council, or when our own leaders address its General Assembly.
I noted that in your agenda for the Model UN, you have listed issues like averting a new war in the Congo and the situation of Tibet and Georgia before the Security Council.
Under disarmament and international security, you will debate issues of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. You will discuss the human rights situation in Darfur and the climate change that affects us all.
Many ordinary Nepalis might think those are very remote issues for us. What does the UN do for me? Does the UN really matter to ordinary people in my village or my community, or is it only relevant for big people, in big cities with power and influence, or for lucky kids like those who go to Rato Bangla School?
Unbeknownst to most of us, the UN actually has great influence in all of our lives. In one way or the other, the work of the UN touches the life of every Nepali, as it does that of all citizens of the world.
A few weeks ago, I visited several districts to observe the vitamin A distribution and de-worming campaign for children carried out by Nepal’s 50,000 Female Community Health Volunteers. They reached 3.5 million children all over the country in two days. This noble work saves the lives and protects the health of millions of Nepali children. Among others, it is supported by the United Nations – specifically, its World Health Organization and UNICEF.
If you visit rural health posts, urban health centres, and district hospitals in Nepal, you will notice that UN agencies provide them with essential drugs and vaccines, and many health workers in these institutions receive training sponsored by the Government, but with the technical support of UN agencies like UNFPA, WFP, UNICEF and WHO.
In primary schools, and teacher training colleges of Nepal, unbeknownst to most teachers and students, they benefit from teacher training and textbooks provided with the support of UNESCO and UNICEF.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees helps Nepal cope with the burden of caring for Bhutanese and Tibetan refugees. The office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights helps monitor and publicize human rights violations – whether by rebel groups or by government forces, and supports our National Human Rights Commission to protect people’s human rights.
The International Labour Organization helps us to combat against the worst forms of child labour. The Food and Agriculture Organization helps us with agricultural training and ensuring food security. UNDP helps with issues of good governance.
The UN system as a whole helps us in emergencies like the recent Koshi floods, the dangers of HIV/AIDS or the bird flu pandemic.
The UN also helps us in raising awareness about our fragile environment and how to protect it from the impact of climate change.
Remittances of Nepali soldiers and police who serve in UN peace-keeping operations are of great help to our local economy in many communities.
More recently, Nepalis have seen the UN in the high visibility work of UNMIN. Without its help the peace process in this country would not have been so smooth.
Thus we can see that the UN has far more impact in our daily lives than most of us realize. Its role extends from technical assistance in science and technology, agriculture and industry, trade and commerce; to material help for health and education; policy advice on development planning; humanitarian assistance, and protection of human rights and prevention of human wrongs.
Remember the UN was founded after two horrific world wars, the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Its lofty Charter aimed to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.
Its founders expected the UN to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours.
Unfortunately, soon after its founding, the UN was confronted with a terrible Cold War involving two blocs of superpowers. That prevented the UN from living up to its full potential.
Yet, its record of achievement in preventing wars, promoting human rights, providing humanitarian assistance and supporting economic and social development is considerable.
Unfortunately, good news is rarely reported on the front page, sensational bad news tends to dominate the headlines. So you do not hear much about UN’s successes, but its shortcomings are widely reported.
When I joined the UN, 18 million children used to die every year in the world; last year less than 10 million died, although world population has more than doubled. The UN and its various agencies, such as WHO and UNICEF, provided considerable help in this dramatic reduction in child mortality.
But because this progress happened over a long period of time, saving 8 million lives every year, or 22,000 every day is not headline news. However, when there is an accident or a natural disaster that kills a few hundred or thousand people that would be a major headline that all of us would hear about.
Most students at Rato Bangla school would not have even heard of smallpox, which used to kill 5 million people every year, during your parent’s childhood. This terrible disease was completely eradicated 3 decades ago, thanks largely to a UN-led global campaign.
Because of 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 I would call ‘problems without passports’ or visas – problems that cross all frontiers uninvited (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. And I am glad that these are also on your Model UN agenda.
Today, it would be fair to say that even those rich and powerful countries that once felt insulated from external dangers because of their wealth or strength or distance, now realize that the safety of people everywhere depends not only on your local police or national economy, but also on guarding against the global spread of pollution, of diseases, of illegal drugs, of terrorism and of weapons of mass destruction. None of these respect any national boundaries.
Today, whether you live in Kathmandu or Canberra – whether you are a Nepali or Norwegian – it is simply not realistic to think only in terms of your own country. Global forces press in from every conceivable direction. People, goods and ideas cross borders and cover vast distances with ever greater frequency, speed and ease.
We are increasingly connected through travel, trade, and the internet on what we watch, what we eat and even what we dream about for our children.
In such a world, issues that once seemed far away are very much in our backyard. Jobs depend not only on local farms and factories, but on faraway markets, on rules of international trade, norms of universal human rights.
That is precisely why we need an organization like the United Nations as a mechanism for international cooperation and global governance.
The UN is especially helpful for small and poor countries, because working together they have much stronger bargaining power than working alone.
[I hope when you meet in your various committees and commissions, you will not only think about your country’s national position on certain issues, but about your collective position as members of G-77, or non-aligned countries, or as WEOG group of developed countries, because that how negotiations are done on most issues at the real United Nations. If you do not do that, you are not seen as a good diplomat].
But big and powerful countries also benefit from the UN, because the UN umbrella allows them to play a partnership role rather than bullying unilaterally for which there is always a payback time.
Like all of us, as individuals 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.
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.
Remember the UN Charter speaks of “We the Peoples of the United Nations”, but in reality it acts like “We the Sovereign Member States” who are guided by our own selfish interests. So sometimes Member States pass resolutions or sign treaties which they have no intention of implementing. So yes, there is much hypocrisy at the UN, as there is in our own countries.
Imperfect though it certainly is, the UN has achieved an enormous amount in its 63 years. Most important of all, it prevented the Cold War from turning hot, first by providing a roof under which the two superpower adversaries could meet and engage, and second by mounting peacekeeping operations which ensured that local and regional conflicts were contained and did not ignite a global conflagration.
Over the decades, more than 175 UN-assisted peace settlements have ended regional conflicts. And in the past 15 years, more civil wars have ended through mediation than in the previous two centuries, in large part because the UN provided leadership, opportunities for negotiation, strategic coordination and the resources to implement peace agreements.
Over 300 international treaties and conventions have been negotiated at the UN, setting an international framework that reduces the prospect for conflict among sovereign States, that sets standards of conduct by governments, and that enshrines a framework of human rights.
The UN remains second to none in its unquestioned experience, leadership and authority in coordinating humanitarian action, from tsunamis to human waves of refugees. When the Blue Flag flies over a disaster zone, all know that humanity is taking responsibility, not just a single government. And when the UN succeeds, the world wins.
For their good work and achievements, the UN and its various agencies have won 13 Nobel Prizes. But the UN cannot rest on its laurels. Like everybody else, the UN too must reform and transform itself in keeping with these rapidly changing times.
Working inside the UN, I know there are many structural flaws, weaknesses in its personnel management, and its governance mechanisms that need to be reformed. But if you ask me, the biggest reform that the UN needs are in three areas – which are also the hardest to achieve.
Even in these times of worldwide financial crisis, the world seems to find plenty of money – and no shortage of justification – for grotesque amounts of military expenditure. But when it comes to providing basic services for people’s health, education, employment, and social protection, people are asked to tighten their belts and defer their demands.
The UN must be empowered to make the case that the days of military-based national security are over. We need non-violent, civilian-based human security. The UN has adopted wonderful Million Development Goals to combat poverty and promote human development. Perhaps the time has come for the UN to add one more specific MDG – to drastically reduce military expenditure and correspondingly increase investment in human development.
If we can achieve these 3 big reforms, we can help the UN to live up to its full potential, and our hopes and dreams for a better world for our children and their children.
I hope that your deliberations at the Rato Bangla Model UN will in a small way contribute to achieving these big objectives for the UN.
Muchas gracias, y buena suerte.
(Mr. Gautam is former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF)