New Internationalist

What the UN means to…

Issue 375

Alejandra Costamagna - writer, Santiago, Chile

'IT is impossible not to think about the UN after Bush and Iraq,' she says. 'The UN would be quite a different thing without that background. The UN has become Bush's toilet. The UN has become an operator dealing with the disasters Bush has created in Iraq and Afghanistan.’

So what is the UN’s current mission?

‘The UN should take upon itself the task of trying to stop Bush's terrorist offensive. Try to correct the political imbalances of the US. This is not necessarily its main mission, or it was not until now. But there is urgency right now, given these circumstances. Protect human rights, keep a state of law in the world - that's urgent.'

And what about the UN and development?

'What should it do? See that global development is more democratic and is once more seen as an equitable goal for all in the world. I think the UN does try to advance in this understanding, but the political realities obscure its efforts. While I feel the UN is now totally subordinated to US policy, I also have the feeling that many things are moving and we, the citizens, don't have the slightest idea what's going on.'

Is the UN known among Chileans?

'Very little. People learn about the UN when they hear about wars and disasters. In a recent survey, most did not even know what "UN" stands for. Many know that Chile became a member of the Security Council when the Iraq war was about to start. Maybe because Chile opposed the war, people felt closer to it.'

Interview and photo by Alejandro Kirk

Rafael Linares – street bookseller, Caracas, Venezuela

RAFAEL sells used books under a highway bridge in crowded downtown Caracas. All kinds of things are sold here, from books to pirate software, CDs, DVDs, clothes, food, beer. Traffic and music are heavy and noisy. Some people quietly play chess.

Before selling books, Rafael walked the streets pushing a cart with ice cream; before that he was an alcoholic who recovered and found religion. He lost an eye in a street fight. His arms have scars that suggest he's been in jail at some point.

Now he carries his Bible everywhere, along with the Venezuelan Constitution. He, like most poor people in Venezuela, is a staunch supporter of the President. Hugo Chavez, he says, was sent by God to look after the poor. The Constitution is Rafael's Bill of Rights - and Chavez its defender.

Do you know anything about UN agencies?

'It should get involved with people like us'

'No, not really. By the way, somewhere here I have a book about UNESCO [he starts searching in the huge metal box where he keeps his goods]. I think it's about starvation, I can't recall the title...'

Have you ever met a UN official?

'No, never.'

Can you identify any UN person?

'Kofi Annan. I think he's a balanced man. Also the Brazilian, the one who died in Iraq [Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN Envoy], he seemed to be a simple man, a peace lover.'

What's your idea of a UN worker?

'They should be sensitive to the needs of the people. Honest people. I think they are specialists who know their profession, who did not get their jobs because of any influential friends, but due to their own merits.'

Do you know of any UN development projects?

'Never seen any one. Never ran into one.'

What should the UN do to get its projects known?

'It should get involved with people like us, as persons, find out what they want, what they need. Do social work with the others, research how hard is the daily struggle for life, how they fight. I am Christian, I love God. Every day I pray to God to have mercy on this country.'

What has the UN got to do with that?

'They should help this country find peace. We don't want bloodshed. We always had differences. Always there has been Magallanes and Caracas [a reference to baseball teams. Caracas is generally identified with opponents to Chavez; Magallanes is the country's most popular team and associated with the lower classes]. We can dissent in peace!'

Ramesh – vendor of periodicals and magazines, Delhi

SMILING through a face tanned mahogany by life on the streets of Delhi, Ramesh says that his biggest disappointment with the UN was its failure to prevent the devastation of Iraq, where he worked as a truck driver before the first Gulf War in 1991.

'The pictures I see of Iraq in these magazines sadden me. Iraq was a beautiful and prosperous country with intelligent hardworking people. My Iraqi employers in Baghdad were warm-hearted and generous and would often invite me to share their meals. I just hope they are alive and well.'

SMILING through a face tanned mahogany by life on the streets of Delhi, Ramesh says that his biggest disappointment with the UN was its failure to prevent the devastation of Iraq, where he worked as a truck driver before the first Gulf War in 1991.

Interview and photo by Ranjit Devraj

Usha John - teacher, Faridabad, India

Usha John - teacher, Faridabad, India

Usha is optimistic about the UN. But that is mostly because of the humanitarian work done by agencies like UNICEF and UNESCO – in a country with masses of impoverished, illiterate people.

Usha feels that India made an historic blunder by not getting itself a seat on the Security Council when it was possible. ‘Look at them [Indian leaders] talking so excitedly now about an expanded Security Council when we all know it is not going to come about so easily...

‘As a teacher I know that but for UNICEF initiatives in building awareness and interventions on such burning issues as widespread childhood malnutrition, discriminatory practices against the girl child and vaccinations, nothing would ever have been done...

‘I was particularly moved by the UNICEF reports on the plight of infants and children in Iraq between the two Gulf wars, at a time when that country was placed under crippling UN sanctions... We now have problems teaching children in our schools about what the UN is all about – and surely the UN has strayed a long way away from what is written in the civics textbooks.’

Jenni Williams - women's rights activist, Zimbabwe

Jenni Williams is the National Co-ordinator of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), a pressure group formed in Zimbabwe in 2004. With a membership of over 1,000, WOZA has staged peaceful demonstrations against the Government’s infringement of human rights, particularly women’s rights. Its members have been arrested, charged and detained under Zimbabwe’s notorious Public Order and Security Act. Jenni Williams remains one of the few beacons of hope in a country where no more than lip-service is paid to the freedom of expression and association.

‘My view is that the United Nations provides its member countries with a platform for the discussion and hopefully resolution of issues for the betterment of the world,’ she says. ‘In this way it would seem that the UN has a louder voice in the world; that it helps those without a voice. I believe the role of the UN is not restricted to representing the interests of its members alone, but a larger world community... I think more and more there has been an improvement in the work of the UN as it begins to raise its profile in terms of being a mediator in major crises. In that way, the role of the UN is beginning to be appreciated in the world...

‘In Zimbabwe I feel the UN has not been able to represent us as people who have been abused by their government. I was abused outside the UN office some time ago and nothing was done. [There are] many others whose voices are never heard and whose plight is never documented. I feel the UN needs to refocus its core business of maintaining peace and promoting global development. It needs to look at its areas of weakness, like discrimination on racial and religious grounds. Above all, it has to tackle human rights more effectively. There are too many conflicts based on race and religion, such as the Darfur issue... However, there is room for unity in the world.’

Interview and photo by Busani Bafana

Sheela Khazanchi - grandmother, New Delhi, India and refugee from Kashmir.

Sheela Khazanchi’s earliest experience of the UN was of blue-bereted men buzzing about in jeeps in the rugged, coniferous terrain where the Line-of-Control (LoC) divides her native Kashmir between Pakistan and India.

‘We had great faith in the United Nations Military Observers Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP),’ she says, ‘but more than half a century later they are still there – and still observing.’

‘Still there – and still observing’

In the mêlée before the UN arrived in 1949 to monitor the ceasefire along the LoC – where the armies of India and Pakistan had fought each other to a standstill – Sheela lost her grandfather, Raghunath Tikoo. He, like many others, was caught on the wrong side and kidnapped, presumed killed by kabailis (Pathan marauders).

‘My grandmother died grieving a few years later and the rest of the family reconciled itself to the idea that they were never going to see the man they loved so much and who was their breadwinner,’ says Sheela, who now lives in suburban New Delhi.

In the light of subsequent events, the experiences of her family, tough as they were, seem like minor tragedies. The LoC had to be redrawn twice after full-scale wars in 1965 and 1971. There have been several fierce battles since. The latest was at Kargil in 1999. The two countries threatened to annihilate one another with nuclear weapons. The following year they amassed almost a million troops and were dangerously close to a third war.

‘We now hear,' says Sheela, ‘that there is a possibility that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, who met in New York on the sidelines of this year’s UN General Assembly in September, may finally decide to convert the LoC into an international border and settle the dispute once and for all. If that happens I may be able to see my homeland once again in my lifetime.’ Subsequent moves by the Indian Government to withdraw 45,000 troops have renewed hope that a resolution may finally be achievable.

Interview and photo by Ranjit Devraj

Inviolatta Moyo - development worker, Zimbabwe

Inviolatta is the Executive Director for the Western Region Foundation, which helps women, youth, orphans and community-based organizations in areas of health, water, HIV/AIDS, education and income generation. It operates in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces of Zimbabwe and receives some funding from UN agencies.

‘I always assumed that the work of the UN was distant from the ordinary people,’ she says. ‘But interacting with UN personnel on the ground gave a new insight about its work.

‘I always assumed the UN was distant from ordinary people’

‘I think, first and foremost, it must be more proactive and less reactive in acting on disaster, both natural and human-induced. The UN must harness resources more swiftly and effectively through its structures to ensure that it attends to peacekeeping operations and relief situations in terms of food, water and epidemics. At times its intervention comes late when a country has been reduced to ashes or people cannot be saved from a crisis. Yet the UN is supposed to be a peacemaker and a builder. The UN ought to increase its poverty alleviation support for vulnerable groups, particularly children and the aged.’

Interview and photo by Busani Bafana

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