Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

22nd April 2001

Taking the UN to the people

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NEW YORK— John Bolton, a senior vice president of the Washington-based think-tank American Enterprise Institute, once remarked that there's no such thing as the United Nations.

"If the (39-storeyed) UN Secretariat building in New York lost 10 storeys, it wouldn't make a bit of difference," he said, belittling the world body and downsizing its significance.

Last month, his statement came back to haunt him, as he appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee seeking its blessings for his proposed new appointment as US Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.

But in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the Committee and ensure confirmation of his appointment, he backtracked on most of his hardline statements. "I've actually changed my mind from time to time," he declared somewhat apologetically.

Whether his conversion is genuine or synthetic remains to be seen — but he is still on the verge of becoming an integral part of a new US administration whose UN-bashing hardliners are also politically arrogant and isolationist. 

The ruling Republican Party, whose right-wing conservatives play a key role in decision-making, is likely to marginalise the world body and play down its significance in multilateral diplomacy.

Senator Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the savagest critics of the United Nations, is even sceptical of US public opinion polls which have always favoured the United Nations.

"I would caution that you not put too much confidence on those polls," he told the UN Security Council last year. As an example, he pointed out that since he was first elected to the Senate in 1972, he has successfully run for re-election four times.

"Each time, the pollsters have confidently predicted my defeat. Each time, I am happy to confide, they have been wrong. I am pleased that, thus far, I have never won a poll or lost an election."

Bolton and Helms are symbolic of the average right-wing Republicans who hardly see any virtues in the existence of the United Nations.

But Secretary-General Kofi Annan, on the other hand, thinks the UN has got a bad rap — and is determined to set this right by ensuring that the UN gets what it rightfully deserves.

Last week he unveiled a proposed $50 million-60 million project that will help trumpet the UN's achievements and refurbish its sagging public image.

Annan believes that most of the UN's successes, particularly the admirable work done by its humanitarian and development agencies, remain unsung and unheralded — primarily due to lack of publicity.

For starters, the world body is planning to construct a new Visitors Facility as part of an attempt to spread its message among the 800,000 people, including 400,000 tourists, who visit the New York headquarters every year.

The project, which will include the construction of a new pavilion and a comprehensive package of interactive multi-media exhibits, will be funded entirely from private sources.

The New York-based UN Association of USA (UNA-USA) has offered to raise the $50 to 60 million to cover the full construction costs of a new building and boost the organisation's public relations efforts.

Justifying the project, Annan says "the activities of the UN system and its many significant achievements are not always known to the public.

"This has an impact not only on public opinion about the United Nations, but also, in some instances, on the policy stances adopted by decision makers."

For example, Annan says organisations of the UN system have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize five times, and six individuals have won the award for work either in association with, or under the aegis of the United Nations — facts which have not received due publicity.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1954 and 1981; the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in 1965; the International Labour Organisation in 1969; and the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations in 1988.

The prize was also awarded to: Cordell Hull, a former US Secretary of State for his leadership in establishing the United Nations; Lord John Boyd Orr, first Director-General of the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation, a UN agency; and Ralph Bunche, the UN Mediator in Palestine.

Other notable UN recipients include: Lester Pearson, President of the seventh session of the UN General Assembly, particularly for his role in the Suez Canal crisis; Dag Hammarskjold, the second UN Secretary-General; and Sean MacBride of the UNHCR for assistance to European refugees.

According to Annan, the United Nations has deployed some 50 peacekeeping and observer missions to date, and has negotiated about 172 peace settlements.

Additionally, it has enabled people in more than 45 countries to participate in free and fair elections where it has provided electoral advice, assistance and monitoring services.

Currently, the UN system also provides assistance to more than 19 million refugees and internally displaced persons worldwide. The UN system also constitutes the world's largest source of technical assistance and provides humanitarian relief assistance to nearly 30 million people each year.

But yet, unfortunately, most of the UN's achievements have not received the public exposure they rightly deserve.

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