|THAROOR MOVES FORWARD ON HANDLING ADVERSE U.N. ARAB
25 June 2004
Realizing that public confidence in the U.N. was at its lowest in the Arab region, Under Secretary
General for Public Information and Communications Shashi Tharoor moved forward with a professional
meeting in Beirut. Hosted by Mervat Tellawy, Executive Secretary of ESCWA, the opening was covered
live on Lebanese television. Mrs. Tellawy started by stressing that the task ahead was delicate and
difficult requiring not only the efforts of U.N. press officers but input by all U.N. staff. Although
there were no precise data about the U.N. image, it was obvious that action was required. A
communications strategy with a specific target could include certain steps like highlighting more
effectively practical achievements in development, humanitarian and society building; presenting
better publications; updating mailing lists; more training courses for staff; closer contacts with a
selective number of communication leaders; increasing public information resources; closer
coordination among U.N. offices; clarifying organisational responsibilities indicating the difference
of authority between the Secretariat and the Security Council.
Samir Sanbar, former head of the Department of Public Information started by indicating that these are
not the best of times for the United Nations nor for the Arab region. They need not be the worse of
times, however, given the political will to act and the professional capacity to respond. The U.N. and
the Arab region seem destined to an indispensable partnership. Whatever the circumstances, they
eventually find out that they have a mutual interest.
Experience has shown that if the U.N. needs the bigger powers in order to survive, it certainly needs
the smaller ones in order to succeed. When the U.N. stands for international legitimacy, for human
development and dignity of life, it has the unflinching support of governments and peoples around the
globe. When weakened by political expediency or ineffective ? into a ceremonial state of glorified
paralysis. In any shape or form, however, the U.N. has always been and continues to be the only
inclusive international framework impacting on every aspect of human life. It could live up to
expectations only with full active participation of its member states. And as the U.N. is required to
stand fast and firm behind its own resolutions, the Arab countries are equally expected to explore
how best they could play their part. If the U.N. is currently limited in its decision making role, the
Arab region is even more limited in its U.N. impact. That is where U.N. press officers in the Arab
region have a difficult challenge which they could turn into a unique opportunity. They could not
only convey and interpret U.N. messages to the field but similarly convey and interpret accurately
and clearly the message of the region to headquarters. With professional talent and distinct
credibility they could help build a bridge over a growing divide or at least light a candle. For while
they represent the U.N. in the region, they also reflect the region in the U.N.
No matter how solid, a good Communications strategy cannot be an alternative to a solid political
strategy. It is political action or inaction that eventually makes or breaks an image. Talented
communicators therefore should not be the scapegoats of calculating politicians. Communications alone
cannot rebuild what was crippled by politics.
Shashi Tharoor indicated he was convinced that if people in the region knew better what U.N. people
did they will support its efforts. He stressed the role of civil society which is playing an
increasingly important role as a partner in communicating the goals of the charter. Hoping to hear
from participants honestly and openly what has, what can, and what must be done, Tharoor recognized
that this was a time of profound unease, reflection and self questioning in the Arab world, perhaps
more than any other time in recent memory. Iraq and Palestine were huge challenges, he said, adding:
"There is anger and resentment at the humiliation and suffering in Palestine...there is the daily
struggle of ordinary people for dignity and justice and for jobs and decent work. And there is
anguish of disappointed aspirations."
The U.N. did not sanction the war in Iraq, Tharoor said, but it has been very active in trying to
protect the rights and welfare of the Iraqis; the Coalition may have won the war but the U.N. interest
is to help Iraqi people win the peace. U.N. activities in the region went beyond the political and
humanitarian. It entails everyday life of every human being. There are experts from UNDP, UNESCO,
UNICEF, WFP and other members of the U.N. family. ESCWA (Economic and Social Commission for Western
Asia) is involved in a plethora of issues that are close to the hearts and minds of Arab people
everywhere -- education, city planning, water purification, desertification, housing and other
fields from women's rights to tourism. These many activities designed to improve the lives of ordinary
Arabs deserved to be better known in the region. "Our aim is not to divert attention from the "big
ticket" issues of Iraq and the Occupied Territories, he continued, but to help find ways to inform
constituents of work proudly accomplished. In conclusion, he stressed: "We at the U.N. have only
one mission. We want to make this world a better place."
Closed working meetings that followed provided an open forum for press officers in the field to
express their views and ask pointed questions. An overly bureaucratic paper prepared by someone in
New York was pointedly criticized: more creative proposals were encouraged. Many stressed the need
to give field officers more leeway while others from the field staff wanted more accurate feedback on views
expressed in the Arab media. Clearly, Information Centres had a special responsibility in that regard.
During an exchange of experiences, someone who had worked both at Headquarters and the field, urged that
those in New York ostensibly dealing with the Arab region should be of better professional quality,
with real journalistic experience and real knowledge of the Arab press. Otherwise, if it was left
to those with little clue of what was really required by and in the field, meetings in Beirut and
elsewhere could be held consecutively to no avail.
Those who followed the event were positively impressed by Tharoor's opening efforts. Lebanon's
second best talent is to welcome its visitor and Tharoor's is to charm his hosts. He was received by
the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament. Most newspapers printed
positive statements and interviews. A few days of mutual admiration can do wonders for the U.N. -- if
maintained to withstand the wily operators in New York.