The once widespread hope that the United Nations represented the chance of a new and peaceful world order has faded on in recent years. One possible reason is that the body is not representative but has a built-in bias, which puts decision-making in the hands of a very few nations.
A front page picture caught my eye the other day, not because of what it showed, but because of what it failed to show. It was a photo of two white men, lawyers, dressed in blue suits and blue shirts, they could have been brothers, telling the world how things were.
I am talking of course of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, addressing the Millennium Summit of the United Nations. The picture seemed even more ironic when I realized, that together, they represented only about 5 percent of the world’s population.
I was seven when my father first told me about the United Nations. In my primary school in India, where construction paper was scarce, and Crayola markers unknown, the one art project we did every year was a scrapbook of pictures.
My book, which my father helped me make, included a newspaper photo of the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb, and beside it a drawing of the United Nations. These were the icons of my father’s generation. The first symbolized the end of colonialism; the second, the beginning of international cooperation and world government.
At the mid-point of the 20th century, most people of the “third world,” like my father, looked to the U.N. as the guardian of freedom and peace. Even our prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, made that mistake when, in 1947—as political power passed into our hands from the British—he referred India’s dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir to that body.
Little did he realize that the U.N. had no moral or political authority to resolve global disputes, because the superpowers had designed it that way. There ensued 50 years of moving cease-fire lines, infiltrations, and terrorist attacks, in that pristine valley that was once our paradise.
In the Technicolor Hindi movies of my youth, men chased women around the chinar trees of Kashmir against the backdrop of the Himalayas. Imagine my delight, therefore, when I was finally able to stand in its saffron fields and ride in shikaras on Dal Lake while on a school trip in 1967.
Alas, no one can travel there now. Kashmir has been ravaged by communal violence for two decades. Perhaps a U.N. military intervention would not have solved the problem, but a truly representative world government might have prevailed on India and Pakistan to achieve a negotiated solution.
But the U.N. has repeatedly failed to resolve similar conflicts in the Middle East, Bosnia, Herzegovina, East Timor, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and many other lands—not because they involve matters of national sovereignty, but because the superpowers have failed to establish a moral prerogative.
For me, disenchantment with the U.N. was symbolized by the fact that my father simply ceased to talk of the glorious day when our U.N. representative, Vijaya Laxmi Pundit, addressed the General Assembly; she was one of the first few women to do so.
Since the NATO alliance has always controlled the Security Council, the U.N. has failed to function as a true world government. Instead, the mighty nations have continued to act selfishly, while preaching to the world about “human rights.” No wonder such sermons have fallen on deaf ears.
At its conclusion, the Millennium Summit adopted a declaration attacking the “usual suspects”—poverty, malnutrition, AIDS—enemies worth fighting. But the U.N. failed to address regional conflicts or the serious flaws in its own structure. And without remodeling itself, the U.N. cannot truly serve the people it purports to protect.
Why not give each member votes in proportion to its population—why not extend the “one citizen one vote,” principle to our only international body? Perhaps the U.N. can never exert much political or military power over individual nations, but constituted as a truly democratic agency, it will at least possess some moral clout.
The superpowers fear that the “rogue nations” will hijack the U.N., but if that happens, the U.N. would have little to lose, since it exercises little control over its members now. And there is a chance, however slim, that “third world” nations, given democratic representation in the U.N., will follow the principle of noblesse oblige.
Perhaps member-states will find it harder to ignore a truly representative U.N. For regions like Kashmir, where the notes of evening ragas once echoed in place of today’s bomb explosions, a new U.N. is perhaps the only hope for the new millennium.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.