Author, peace-keeper, refugee worker, human rights activist and now political candidate for the Indian Parliament, Shashi Tharoor straddles several worlds of experience.
Chairman of Dubai-based Afras Ventures and former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dr. Shashi Tharoor was the official candidate of India for the succession to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2006, and came a close second out of seven contenders in the race. His career began in 1978, when he joined the staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva, and included key responsibilities in peace-keeping after the Cold War and as a senior adviser to the Secretary-General, as well as the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information.
Dr. Tharoor is also the award-winning author of nine books, as well as hundreds of articles, op-eds and book reviews in a wide range of publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the International Herald Tribune, Time, Newsweek and The Times of India. He has served for two years as a Contributing Editor and occasional columnist for Newsweek International. Since April 2001 he has authored a fortnightly column in The Hindu and since January 2007 in The Times of India.
Born in London in 1956, Dr. Tharoor was educated in India and the United States, completing a Ph. D. in 1978 at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he received the Robert B. Stewart Prize for Best Student. At Fletcher, Shashi Tharoor helped found and was the first Editor of the Fletcher Forum of International Affairs, a journal now in its 31st year. A compelling and effective speaker, he is fluent in English and French.
In January 1998, Dr. Tharoor was named a "Global Leader of Tomorrow" by the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He is the recipient of several awards, including a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and was named to India’s highest honour for Overseas Indians, the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, in 2004. He serves on the Board of Overseers of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, the board of trustees of the Aspen Institute India, and the Advisory Boards of the World Policy Journal, the Virtue Foundation and the human rights organization Breakthrough. He is also a Fellow of the New York Institute of the Humanities.
Question: Is the U.N. still relevant?
Shashi Tharoor: Well I think it’s both relevant and irrelevant. It’s relevant in many ways as . . . as a body which . . . which pulls together every country on earth to pursue common objectives. In an interdependent world – in our globalizing world – it’s a global institution, and the one universal global institution. Every country, the moment it, you know, puts up its flag of independence wants to join the U.N. And that, I think, is the U.N.’s greatest strength. It’s irrelevant in a certain sense that . . . Well in . . . in two senses. One is that it’s irrelevant to the . . . in terms of its ability to prevent big, strong powers from doing what they want. The U.S. wants to go into Iraq. It goes to the U.N., it doesn’t get a blessing but it goes ahead anyway, and there’s nothing the U.N. can do about it. To that degree it’s true. But then I used to argue when I was at the U.N. at that time that that merely proves the U.N. was doing its job. It . . . You know, it discussed the issue and the U.N. failed to agree, which is only one way of doing its job. And that’s . . . that’s right. But at the same time it also proves that the U.N. is irrelevant to the war, but will one day be relevant to the ensuing peace. And I still hope that will turn out to be the case. The second way in which the U.N. is in danger of irrelevance is that a lot of its institutional membership is reflective of the geo-political realities of 1945 and not of 2007. So you’ve got the Security Council and its five permanent members; but the composition of that Council really reflects the world pattern at the end of the Second World War. You know the five victorious allies gave themselves the permanent seats. The non-permanent seats still show a disproportionate number of European countries. Today’s world is . . . is overwhelmingly not European. Europe with five percent of the world’s population has 33 percent of the seats on the Security Council. Countries like Britain and France have a veto in the Security Council, while Germany, and Japan, and China, and India, and Brazil, and South Africa don’t. So how do you make the institution more reflective of the world of today than of the world in which it was created? Until that’s done, and done I hope in the . . . in the . . . in the imaginable future, there is a real danger of the U.N. being seen as irrelevant by those who are left out of it.
Recorded on: 9/18/07