Myths and Realities about the United Nations

It is always a delight for me to be with young people interested in the work of the United Nations.

I want to congratulate the International School of Bangkok and other participating schools for organizing this Model UN Conference in this magnificent setting of UN-ESCAP.

I trust in the last three days you all had an opportunity to learn about the UN – what it does, how it works, what are its successes and what are its shortcomings.

I hope you have also come up with some ideas on how we can make the UN more effective to solve global problems.

It is always a delight for me to be with young people interested in the work of the United Nations.
I want to congratulate the International School of Bangkok and other participating schools for organizing this Model UN Conference in this magnificent setting of UN-ESCAP.

I trust in the last three days you all had an opportunity to learn about the UN – what it does, how it works, what are its successes and what are its shortcomings.

I hope you have also come up with some ideas on how we can make the UN more effective to solve global problems.

I myself attended a Model UN program when I was a college student in America in late 1960s.

That participation deepened my interest in the UN which led to my eventually joining the organization and working for it for 35 years.

I hope your participation in the MUN has also tickled your interest and inspired you to perhaps join the UN or somehow contribute to its work.

Today I want to share with you my personal views on what is right and what is wrong with the UN and how we can make it a more effective organization to solve the huge problems facing humanity.

I have chosen the title of my presentation as: “Myths and Realities about the United Nations”.

I chose that title deliberately because I have noted that there are a lot of misperceptions about what the UN is and what it is not.

I suspect that there may be some confusion even among you who have attended this Model UN and participated in the simulation of the General Assembly, Security Council, the Human Rights Council and other organs of the UN.

The most common misperception about the UN is that some people think that it is a world government – with a lot of power, authority and resources to solve the world’s problems.

And they are disappointed when the UN seems incapable to quickly resolve the issues of war and peace, human rights and development challenges.

Some people have a very idealistic perception of the UN. They think that the UN must be always guided by very high moral and ethical standards.

And they are disappointed when all kinds of unholy compromises are negotiated at the UN.

The UN sometimes seems to apply double standards – one set of standard for the rich and powerful countries, and another set for small, poor and powerless countries.

This leads some people to think that the UN is just a tool of the Big Powers – like the 5 Permanent Members of the Security Council with veto power.

Some even accuse the UN of being an agent of America, the most powerful country in the world.

On the other hand, many Americans think that the UN is an anti-American organization, dominated by Third World countries that have a majority in the General Assembly.

So, you see, there are very different perspectives on what the UN is or what it does and does not do.

All the examples I just gave you are partly true, but not wholly accurate.

The truth, the reality, is often more complex, and not so simple or black and white.

Having worked at the UN for 35 years – almost the whole of my adult professional life – both at the field level and at high levels of policy-making at UN Headquarters, I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of the UN.

I have seen the best of the UN, and the worst of the UN, from inside as well as outside the UN.

It would take several hours to share those experiences and examples. But since we do not have much time, let me make just a few summary observations.

Idealism vs Reality

The UN is probably the most ambitious and idealistic institution ever designed by humankind that has now lasted for more than seven decades.

When you read the Preamble of the UN Charter, it reads like a manifesto to create heaven on earth.

It speaks about “We the peoples of the United Nations, determined 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”.

The UN was founded after two horrific world wars, after the tragedies of the Holocaust and Hiroshima.

It was expected to help Member States 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.

What a beautiful dream!

But we all know that in reality, the UN has many flaws, and it certainly has not lived up to the ideals contained in its Charter.

Yet, I happen to think that the UN continues to be one of the greatest inventions of humanity, and it is an indispensable organization for global governance in our times.

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

So, we might as well make the existing UN work better, instead of just lamenting its weaknesses.

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.

UN’s Achievements

Let me mention briefly, some of the UN’s major achievements and successes.

The UN helped 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.

The UN has 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 remains second to none in its experience and leadership in coordinating humanitarian action during natural disasters and man-made conflicts.

The UN’s work in setting global norms, international standards, and helping developing countries has more profound impact in our daily lives than most of us realize.

Its role extends from providing technical assistance in science and technology, 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 hundred or thousand 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 cases of polio which used to cripple half a million children every year by 99 per cent; 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 the UN cannot rest on its laurels. As I said, the UN is not perfect. Like everybody else, the UN too must reform and transform itself.

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 specific areas – which are also the hardest to achieve.

1. Democratizing the UN:

The UN is supposed to promote democracy in the world.

But its strongest organ, the Security Council is structured in a very undemocratic manner, with its 5 permanent members enjoying veto power.

There was some logic to this arrangement when the UN was founded 7 decades ago. But that logic is no longer valid now.

Yet, the composition and powers of the Security Council cannot be changed without the voluntary concurrence of the same 5 veto powers.

So, we need highly enlightened leadership in those countries, and a sustained global movement to bring real democracy inside the UN itself.

2. Responsibility to Protect:

Many countries, especially those ruled by dictators, like North Korea, Syria, Zimbabwe, even our next-door Myanmar hide behind their sovereignty to oppress their people, and even to deprive them of humanitarian relief in emergencies.

When governments are involved in massive violations of their citizens’ human rights, and are unable or unwilling to protect them from humanitarian disasters, they should not be allowed to get away with such crimes against their own people.

In 2005, a Summit of world leaders at the UN General Assembly agreed that the international community has a “Responsibility to Protect” vulnerable people if their government is unable or unwilling to protect them.

This provision must be delicately but forcefully implemented by the United Nations, but without applying different standards to different countries.

3. Prioritise Disarmament and Development:

The main purpose of the UN, when it was founded was to prevent wars and promote peace.

But today, the world is armed to the teeth. We spend $1.7 trillion per year on military expenditures.

That is more than $125 billion a month, or $4 billion every day.

Millions of deadly small arms are traded freely in the world’s arms bazaars and are circulating freely in our neighbourhoods.

Even in times of great 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.

What the world needs now is non-violent, civilian-based human security.

The UN has adopted ambitious Sustainable Development Goals to combat poverty and promote human development.

Drastically reducing military expenditures and correspondingly increasing investment in human security and sustainable development must command high priority in the coming decades.

If we can achieve these 3 big reforms, we can help the UN to live up to its full potential.


I have some specific suggestions in each of these areas. I am happy to share these with you through the organizers of this conference.

I hope you will study those suggestions and explore how you as future leaders of the UN can help implement them, along with your own bright new ideas.

To conclude, I am sure you are not surprised that I am a strong believer in the UN, but not a blind supporter.

I hope that my presentation will motivate you to learn more about the UN, and to become a curious, even critical, but constructive supporter of the United Nations.

The UN and the future of the world is in your hands.

Thank you

Remarks by Kul Chandra Gautam·

ISB Model UN Conference

Bangkok, 11 November 2017