As someone who has been trapped in midtown Manhattan’s traffic gridlock every September for the past few years when heads of State and governments converge on New York for the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, I eyed a recent report that the UN plans to expand its footprint in the Big Apple, with some disquiet.
The headquarters is undergoing major renovation that will cost nearly $2 billion, not including the inevitable cost overruns. That bill will be paid by the UN’s member countries, including India and its taxpayers. Now, the UN wants a greater presence in land-limited Manhattan, two-thirds of an acre more, carved out of a playground. That’s likely to cost another $500 million or so.
Fed up New Yorkers, of course, would rather that the UN move elsewhere altogether, another continent preferably. Keeping them company is an unlikely advocate, for reasons of his own.
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi offered a similar suggestion in 2009. In a speech that ran well over an hour beyond his 15-minute limit, and was marked, but not marred, by his translator fainting — we don’t know if it was the length or the content of the speech that induced the fainting spell — Gaddafi demanded the UN move its HQ to New Delhi, Beijing, or, of course, Libya.
Gaddafi was possibly irked since New York authorities would not permit him to pitch his Bedouin tent in the city. But while it was easy to dismiss his speech as a rambling rant, his call to move the UN out of New York may have illustrated the disconnect of the institution from its mandate.
With India completing six months of its two-year tenure as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), it may be time to assess what exactly the UN is getting done around the world.
Much of the turmoil occupying the Security Council’s time this year has occurred in Africa. The first wave of the Arab Spring emerged in Tunisia, before spreading to Egypt, both North African nations. In neighbouring Libya, Gaddafi is locked in a battle with his opponents and, of course, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). A new nation of South Sudan has been birthed. Somali pirates remain an international menace.
In effect, beyond the AfPak theatre, the largest events shaping the world have taken place in Africa. Since India assumed its non-permanent seat at the UNSC in January, over two-thirds of its meetings have focused on Africa and that continent has seized about 90% of its time. But here’s a question: How many African countries have permanent seats on the Council?
The answer? Zero.
When the Preamble to the Charter of the UN was conceived in San Francisco, it spoke of “equal rights” of “nations large and small”. The UN was a byproduct of World War II and continues to reflect the reality of a mid-20th century world. While the tortuous bureaucratic process of Security Council reform moves along like snails in molasses, the 21st century is ignored. Germany, the pre-eminent European power of today; Japan, the second-largest donor to the UN’s coffers; Brazil, India and South Africa remain on the margins of the decision-making process.
Other global groups like the G20 have supplanted the UN in the economic sphere, even as the UN has been struggling for decades to define a ‘terrorist’.
Obviously, that’s frustrating for countries like India. And that sense was recently echoed by India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Hardeep Singh Puri while participating in an “informal thematic debate” on ‘The United Nations in Global Governance’. Ambassador Puri said, “I am not entirely sure about our relevance beyond those of us who are actually involved in the industry of the UN. I think the marketplace’s perception of us is quite different.”
You bet, New Yorkers would say. More importantly, many would want the UN to be increasingly irrelevant elsewhere.
Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years
His column American Jalebi will appear every fortnight. The views expressed by the author are personal.