Workshop examines ways to respond to critics of UN

19 February 2004

Representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) gathered at United Nations Headquarters in New York today to hear ideas on how to explain to the world body's critics the role that it plays in maintaining peace and security and promoting development.

Speaking at the opening of the daylong workshop, Shashi Tharoor, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said it was important to understand that the UN is always going to be subject to criticism in part because it is both a stage where its Member States can advance their national agendas and an actor, embodied by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in executing the policies made by those countries.

"We all know the general public often fails to see that distinction. To most people 'the UN' is a shapeless aggregation, in which the sins of omission or commission of individual governments on the 'stage' are routinely blamed on the actor, the Organization," he told those attending the workshop on "Defending the United Nations: What Every NGO Should Know."

Mr. Tharoor stressed that those who want the Organization to succeed need to learn about its success and to find ways to tell the world about them. "As your partners, I very much want to ask you to explain what the UN is, not just in terms of the things it aspires to, but in terms of the things it can do, and does do, to make the world a better place," he said. "Let's be realistic, but let's not be defensive. We - collectively - have a proud record, and I believe we can stand on it."

One of the workshop speakers, Gillian Sorensen, Senior Adviser for the UN Foundation, said that in her travels around the United States, she noted "an enormous measure of interest, curiosity, readiness to learn and willingness to support the United Nations," but also a large reservoir of ignorance and apathy.

"Some of the criticisms [of the UN] have merit…but to my dismay there are a number of myth and misperceptions that persist, that live out there as if they are truth," she said, citing a number of fabrications she's heard about the Organization.

Another panellist, Ambassador William Luers, President of the UN Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA), stressed the importance of proper communication. "You have to find a way to relate to your community, to your audience, to the people you're talking to, [telling them] what does it mean to them," he told the audience, which included numerous US-based NGOs. "Make sure you know what it is in their lives that could be changed dramatically if we left the UN, or has been changed constructively because the United States is a member of the UN."

Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani of Singapore, the last speaker of the morning session, said the United States has suffered from negative external perceptions in the last decade or so. "The best way to reattach America back to the world is to use the United Nations as the vehicle to show that indeed America works for global interests and not just for its own interests," he said. "[If] you want to try and do something about changing the image of America in the world, or about changing attitudes towards America in the world, then I say, use the United Nations, it's the best shortcut you can have."


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