A fig leaf for the world’s woes

[Long version of essay first published in The Hindu’s blog thREAD]

Seventy years after it was founded, the United Nations continues to function on a budget lesser than that of New York City’s. Where is this global organisation headed?

Vidya Venkat


When I was a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl preparing for my All-India UN Information Test, knowing the United Nations well enough meant remembering all the expansions for all the abbreviations that the numerous UN agencies stood for – UNICEF stands for United Nations Children’s Fund, UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and so on. When I visited the United Nations’ headquarters in New York in September 2015, I got to see at first hand what happened behind the closed doors of the organisation. And it was surprising to learn just how many people, both within and outside of the organisation, had begun to feel that the UN had perhaps become redundant; and this when all the euphoria about the UN turning seventy, on October 24 (2015), was already beginning to build up.

On September 20, 2015 when I first landed in New York, early in the morning, the air was already thick with anticipation of the week’s events. Pope Francis was going to be the chief guest at the UN General Assembly summit for the adoption of the SDGs (or Sustainable Development Goals, another one of those complicated ‘UN’-type abbreviation) underway at its headquarters. The Pope’s encyclical on climate change, warning of dire consequences for humanity if everyone failed to act on the issue, had already attracted attention worldwide. The taxi TV installed in the yellow NYC cab I rode from the Newark airport to the hotel ran back-to-back promos on the 17 SDGs. The driver got excited when I told him that I was a journalist from India here to cover the UN summit, which the taxi TV anchor was talking about. “Oh, really? So you would be meeting the Pope, eh?” he asked with a smile. “I hope so,” I replied, sounding unsure as it was my first time in New York and the UN, and I had no idea what to expect.


Part of the reason why the world has become less interesting these days is because the internet and Google, especially, has taken away the thrill of discovering something new. Before my New York trip, I had already studied the route map from the hostel on East 44th street, where I was staying, to the UN headquarters building on 1st Avenue, near 42nd street, a gazillion times, just so that I would not turn up late to collect my media accreditation and entry pass the next day, which was the first thing on my agenda. I pretty much knew what to expect as the UN headquarters building would come into view – a tall glass-exterior building, flanked by the East River on one side, with a row of colourful flags of UN member countries stacked on its entrance gate. But there was one thing that Google, or anyone else for that matter, could not have prepared me for – the never-ending queues that I confronted nearly everywhere I went, in the UN, at the entry gate, at the security counter…


In fact, anyone who is fully convinced that the UN doesn’t matter anymore, must try and get hold of an entry pass to the UN headquarters buildings at least once in their lifetime. Once they see the hundreds and thousands of journalists, young diplomats, children (yes, children holding banners on child rights and all!) and all the concerned citizens of the world jostling with one another in one common unending queue for hours together just to get into the building, they might realise that here is a great monument to world peace that so many persons, young and old alike, are simply dying to enter. My own prized media accreditation pass, that promised me an entry into all the UN buildings, came into my hands after waiting in two separate queues, one for the security clearance and another for collecting the pass itself, comprising 300 odd people from some 50 countries for more than five hours…

Fit for whose purpose?

No I am not trying to make sceptics look stupid by suggesting that just because there are thousands of people from across the globe queuing up to enter into the UN building in New York at any given point of time, that the organisation must after all be very useful for the world. In fact, when one looks at the really tall aims that the organisation has set for itself, like ‘End World Poverty’ and ‘Achieve Global Peace’, and then measures these against the means available for realising the same, one sees the massive gaps that exist between what the organisation promises and what it can realistically achieve.

un sdgs

“Funding of all UN system-wide activities is around US$40 billion per year. While this may seem to be a substantial sum, in reality it is smaller than the budget of New York City, less than a quarter of the budget of the European Union, and only 2.3 per cent of the world’s military expenditures.” This is what authors Jens Martens and Barbara Adams observe in their latest briefing paper ‘Fit for Whose Purpose?’ written for the Global Policy Forum, an independent global policy watchdog. This paper by Adams and Martens became the subject of a popular discussion on the sidelines of various seminars taking place within the UN headquarters before the summit for the adoption of the SDGs took off. While speakers at the various seminars I attended spoke about the lofty goals to be adopted as part of the SDGs, away from their microphones, they indulged in worried chatter as to how they were supposed to be achieving this.

Adams observes that Member States have failed to provide reliable funding to the UN system at a level sufficient to enable it to fulfil the mandates they have given it. “Many Member States, particularly the large donors, pursue a dual approach of calling for greater coherence in UN development activities while at the same time increasing their use of earmarked funding, which furthers fragmentation,” she says, adding, “This pick-and-choose dynamic, together with ongoing financial constraints, has opened the space for corporate sector engagement. Increasingly the UN is promoting market-based approaches and multi-stakeholder partnerships as the business model for solving global problems. Driven by a belief that engaging the more economically powerful is essential to maintaining the relevance of the UN, this practice has harmful consequences for democratic governance and general public support, as it aligns more with power centres and away from the less powerful.”

An important point Adams and Martens raise is about how the UN has become increasingly corporatised. Unilever, for instance, was among the ‘sponsors’ of the SDGs, which spoke of “responsible consumption and production” and “protecting the environment” as part of the goals… The irony was stark as anyone who has been in India, would know of the controversial mercury pollution Unilever failed to clean up in Kodaikanal where it shut down its factory, which later led to the ‘Kodaikanal won’t’ protest video going viral on social media. Adams also speaks about how the symbols of the 17 SDGs adopted at the UN summit had been taken over as ‘Global Goals’ to be marketed by a London-based private firm Project Everyone. Adams asks pointedly whether the SDGs, that were painstakingly negotiated by member countries and adopted at the summit, now belong to the public or is a private good ready to be marketed for consumption.

The funds crunch in the UN has also meant that staff members within the various UN agencies are being retrenched, leading to disgruntlement among permanent employees. In fact the buzz in UN circles in New York around the time of the summit was about an unpaid UN intern in Geneva being forced to sleep in a tent as he had no financial support. A source working in UNICEF I spoke to in New York told me that the very nature of how the UN functioned, high on rhetoric but low on follow-up action, has meant that staff looking for meaningful avenues for  humanitarian work were moving to smaller NGOs and activist organisations that allowed them to do more impactful work. A legal consultant I know in New Delhi, who works in the non-profit sector space, voiced similar concerns. He told me he would rather do independent consultancy work that has a direct impact on marginalised communities and helps them to secure their rights. “The UN system is so bureaucratised that it hardly offers the flexibility for innovative work, and working closely with ruling governments means that there is little scope for campaigning of an adversarial nature on controversial issues such as state-sponsored violence or labour law violations,” he said.

The reforms agenda

me and mogens
That’s me with the UNGA President Mogens Lykketoft in his office at the UN headquarters

It was no surprise that UN General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft, who took charge of the UN General Assembly on September 15, sprung up in defence of the organisation. During an informal chat at his office in the UN headquarters, overlooking the East River, the former Danish politician told me that the UN is the only organisation in the world which undertakes global peacekeeping work at its current scale. Its peacekeeping forces, comprising over one lakh personnel – troops, police and military observers – are stationed in 16 conflict-hit regions across the world. Lykketoft drew attention to the UN’s programmes for vaccination that have saved the lives of millions of children in poorer countries where governments cannot afford public health care services at scale. He was also upbeat about the adoption of the SDGs, which emphasise rightly on sustainable production and consumption practices globally, and said that the goals had mobilised governments to take meaningful action to end poverty and conserve environmental resources for future generations by 2030. Never mind that countries such as India – claiming to have aligned themselves with the SDGs, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised in his September 25 UN speech – are grossly underfinanced and lacking in administrative means to meet the targets set by the UN for 2030.

Despite the UNGA President’s efforts to persuade me to look at the important work that the UN was doing globally, it is hard to overlook the failures of the organisation on several fronts. The most recent example is that of containing civil strife in Syria and addressing the refugee crisis that followed. As Simon Adams of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect observes in a recent paper, the UN’s failure to arrest the Syrian civil war is because Russia and China, who are part of the ‘permanent five’ members of the UN Security Council, have on four separate occasions employed their vetoes to block action in response to mass atrocity crimes in Syria, including most recently on a May 2014 draft resolution that would have referred the Syrian situation to the International Criminal Court.

It is clear that the permanent five who set the UN’s core agenda for its peacekeeping missions are grossly narrow in their focus and the UNSC ought to expand its veto powers to more countries, so that the world body can be more decisive in moments of crisis.

My visit to the UN happened only a few days after the Syrian baby Aylan’s heartrending image of lying washed ashore the Mediterranean Sea in Turkey shook the whole world. So what had the UN done to address the huge inflows of refugees fleeing the conflict zones and seeking entry in Europe? Lykketoft said that the UN was telling all its member countries to strictly follow the international refugee law and let asylum seekers enter European countries as it was their right to do so. He was also of the opinion that encouraging refugees and migrants from other countries was only going to work in favour of developed countries as refugees and migrants contribute significantly to the host economy and countries must act in their own enlightened self interest.

baby aylan
Baby Aylan washed ashore the Mediterranean sea

However, on the question of the much-needed reforms in the UN Security Council itself, Lykketoft was circumspect. He doubted whether the reform process, although initiated by the outgoing UNGA President Sam Kutesa, would go through while his term lasted. Besides the political reforms in the UN, the question of administrative reforms, to make the organisation more efficient and deliver on its mandate have also remained largely unaddressed, which has led to criticism of the efficiency with which the UN uses its available resources.

Not only this, even with the SDGs, which have been promoted with much fanfare, challenges remain in terms of ensuring that the targets set for achieving the 17 goals are backed up by indicators that allow countries to demonstrate in quantifiable ways that the goals have been met.

Listen to this Newslaundry podcast on Global Summits, where I also spoke about India’s challenges of meeting the SDGs

There is also the challenge of ensuring that the Bretton Woods institutions – World Bank and IMF – and the World Trade Organization act in a manner that is compatible with the UN’s newly adopted goals. Only a month before the SDGs were adopted, the WTO had ruled against India in a solar dispute with the U.S. India’s efforts to push for more solar power to tackle climate change and meet increased domestic power demands meant that it needed to increase the capacity of its solar panels, including from locally made solar cells, which the U.S. challenged as it hurt American businesses. India was seeking to subsidise local solar panel manufacturers which would have hurt American imports into India of the product.

Wasn’t such a move hurting the broader UN mandate of international cooperation to realise the SDGs, which included enabling countries to fight climate change? And then there is the intellectual property rights (IPR) regime as well, if often ensured that developing and less developed countries could never aspire to access the technological advances made by the West, as they simply couldn’t afford them and replication was obstructed by the IPR regime. I posed these questions before Jeffrey Sachs, during a press conference in Columbia University, as Sachs is special advisor to the UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon on the SDGs. Sachs acknowledged the challenge and admitted that unless and until other major world bodies such as the WTO and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) aligned themselves with the SDGs, the goals could not be achieved. But that change, for now, is a long way to come.


UN blue

Seventy years after it was created as an arbiter for world peace at the end of WWII, it is fairly evident that the UN continues to occupy a unique space in world affairs, commanding significant attention for the issues that it deals with. We need the UN for we really have no other organisation performing the tasks it does for us today. The question really is whether people the world over will continue to respect the organisation if it constantly fails to live up to its goals. Without a genuine reform process, both political and administrative, allowing other member countries to have a say in its decision-making processes, and also contribute to the sustenance of the organisation by donating to its coffers, it remains doubtful whether the organisation will be in a position to retain its relevance. The ongoing controversy involving corruption charges levelled against the former UNGA President John Ashe too seems to have come at a wrong time, just before the organisation celebrates its 70thanniversary. Ashe has been accused of accepting over US$ 1 million from a Chinese businessman and according to news reports the revelation has vindicated India’s suspicion regarding China’s efforts to stall the UNSC reforms process. If meaningful reforms do not change the UN for the better, one wonders  whether changing the colours of 150 iconic monuments, buildings, museums, bridges and other landmarks, to blue (the colour of the UN) to mark its 70th anniversary alone could enthuse people to believe in it.



So did I manage to meet Pope Francis on the day of the summit as the cab driver who picked me up from the airport had hoped I would? Let me recount to you what happened on September 25. People had started queuing up to enter the UN headquarters on 1st Avenue from 5 a.m. in the morning. I had reached at 6:30 am and after a two-hour-long wait in the queue, made it to the second security check gate, beyond which lay the entrance to the viewer’s gallery of the UN General Assembly Hall where the Pope was to commence his speech. The gallery was already full and no more journalists could be accommodated. So, about fifty print journalists and news anchors (whose accompanying cameramen alone were let in) were stuck in the security checkpoint outside the UN General Assembly hall and watched the Pope speak on the television set that was set up for us to watch a live broadcast. I am reminded of what a security staff with whom I tried negotiating for an entry said: “This is the UN, honey! Everyone is trying to get in all the time…”

A New Year’s resolution from Paris 2015

[A shorter version of this appeared in The Hindu’s op-ed pages on Jan 4, 2016]


The lesson from Paris 2015 is this: until world powers don’t stop digging black gold out of the bellies of Iraq, Africa and Saudi Arabia, the convoluted webs of violence, terror and climate change, will continue to keep us trapped in the times to come



Bullet holes in the wall at Bataclan, Paris terror attack site

New Year is the time for making resolutions, for turning back on the year that went by and reflecting on what lessons could be learnt from the past so we do not repeat our mistakes. Last year, Paris witnessed one of the worst terror attacks, besides those in Beirut and Baghdad. It also saw the climate change agreement being finalised. Could the latter be an answer to the former?

The thought had originally struck me while I was standing outside the Bataclan café in Boulevard Voltaire in Paris, staring at the bullet holes on the walls of the building at the site of the November 13 terror attack by Islamic State (IS) terrorists. It was the last week of November, and I was in the city to attend the UN climate summit – the 21st Conference of Parties (CoP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – where heads of states of over a hundred UN member countries were working out a deal to save the earth from the climate catastrophe.

Continue reading “A New Year’s resolution from Paris 2015”

Trapped lives

trafficking 1
Picture sourced from flickr.com for representational purposes only.

(This is an account of a meeting I had back in 2009 with women trafficked from Bangladesh)

Bina* is not sure if she should be happy about the birth of her son. She sits staring at the 15-days-old child wriggling in her arms, leaning against a wall in a dimly lit room of the Government Vigilance Home in Mylapore, Chennai where she has been kept for the last eight months.

The woman, trafficked from a poverty stricken village in Bangladesh, was caught in a raid conducted by the Anti-vice squad of the police in a lodge in suburban Chennai. She says she had been brought to India by a broker in her village who promised to get her a job as a maid.

There are several others like her at this Home, who crossed the porous border between India and Bangladesh, mostly unwittingly, in the hope of finding a job that would help them survive and landed up instead in brothels and shady lodges in Indian metros.

Sheela*, the mother of two children, says an agent had convinced her family to send her to Dhaka to work as a maid. But this woman was first taken to Kolkata, then to Bangalore and finally to Chennai, where this broker, on whom she was completely dependent for everything, including food, would make her attend as many as 20 clients in a day.

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Shooting the messenger

First published in The Hindu

Though there is a law in place to “protect” people coming forward to expose corruption, the safety of whistle-blowers cannot be guaranteed in India


“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

– George Orwell

The Supreme Court’s insistence that the identity of the secret informer — who gave the copy of the entry registers of the official residence of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Director, exposing his meetings with 2G spectrum scam accused — be revealed, has the potential to seriously deter anonymous whistle-blowing in India. The lawyer, Prashant Bhushan, who submitted the document against the CBI chief in the form of an affidavit in the on-going investigations into the 2G scam, will now have to satisfy the court regarding the veracity of the evidence. The court, for its part, has taken recourse to the justification that court rules obligate every person filing an affidavit to disclose the source of his/her information. It has sought the information in a sealed cover.

Though there is a law in place with the apparent intention to “protect” people coming forward to expose corruption, the safety of whistle-blowers cannot be guaranteed in India. In an affidavit filed by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) on September 18, the appellants have noted that “revealing the identity of informants in the corruption case would not only be a breach of trust on the part of the organisation, but would also tantamount to putting them under serious risk of bodily harm, harassment or victimisation.” It has further argued that revealing the identity of the whistle-blower is not pertinent, as in most cases involving public interest, the court “has taken cognisance of information placed before it without asking the source of the information from the petitioners.” It cites the example of a bench headed by Justice J.S. Verma who never asked for the source of the ‘Jain diary’ in the Hawala case and yet ordered a court-monitored investigation into the Vineet Narain case (1998) 1 SCC 226.

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A Valentine’s Day Punishment

(Originally published in the Special LGBTI issue of Pambazuka News)

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni has justified the anti-gay bill as necessary in order to defend society from disorientation.


It was on the day meant to celebrate romantic love worldwide that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni announced to members of his party that he would sign the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law. The Valentine’s Day announcement by the President might have increased his popularity at home but the law itself is patently unconstitutional. The law is in clear violation of Section 29 of Uganda’s Constitution protecting freedom of expression, conscience, and belief. It states that only marriages between a man and a woman would be recognised and homosexual behaviour and related practices would be prohibited and penalised. The law also prohibits ratification of any international treaties, conventions, protocols, agreements, and declarations which are contrary or inconsistent with the provisions of the Act and prohibits the licensing of organisations that ‘promote’ homosexuality.

Only last month, in Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan approved the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill 2013, effectively banning gay marriage, same-sex partnerships, and participation in gay rights groups. In Nigeria, same-sex sexual acts, including touching in public, merit a life sentence in prison under the new law. The same is the case with not reporting homosexual people to the authorities. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, condemned the Nigerian law saying, “Rarely have I seen a piece of legislation that in so few paragraphs directly violates so many basic, universal human rights.”

Of the 19 African countries that are part of the Commonwealth, 17 have laws which criminalise homosexuality

What we are witnessing now is a wave of new legislation reinforcing prejudices imbibed from colonial-era laws that criminalise same-sex sexual relations. Uganda and Nigeria already had laws that criminalised homosexuality; these new laws go a step further by enhancing existing penalties. In fact, of the 19 African countries that are part of the Commonwealth, 17 have laws which criminalise homosexuality. Rwanda and South Africa are the only two African Commonwealth countries which do not have such legislation. This is not surprising given that 80 percent of Commonwealth member states have laws criminalising private consensual same-sex sexual relations.

Continue reading “A Valentine’s Day Punishment”