The UN is not just about Iraq

Shashi Tharoor

The United Nations exists to find solutions through the common endeavor of all States. It is the one indispensable global organization in our globalizing world.UNITED NATIONS-- The cliche about television news is supposed to be, "if it bleeds, it leads". Today, radio, TV and even the print mediaappear to be working on the presumption that "if it might bleed tomorrow,it must lead today." As a result, news about Iraq drowns everything elseout.

In mid-January, as the rumors of war over Iraq swirled around the building, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed a press conference at his headquarters. It was his first press conference in over a year and the briefing room was overflowing with international journalists, the in-house press corps having beenaugmented by itinerant irregulars. One veteran rose to ask theSecretary-General: "Why has the United Nations become obsessed with Iraq?"

In his usual mild manner, Mr Annan turned the question back to his interrogator. "Is it we who are obsessed with Iraq or you?" he askedgently. "Don't you think the media bears any responsibility for the extentto which Iraq has eclipsed everything else on our agenda?"

If confirmation were needed of the Secretary-General's point, it came the next day, in the New York Times' account of the press conference. The Secretary-General had deliberately ranged over a wide array of topics, from climate change to civil conflict and fromCyprus to Cote d'Ivoire, and he had invoked UN concerns about poverty,HIV/AIDS and African development. The Times' story, spread across thebottom of an international news page, referred to only one subject: Iraq.

For those of us whose job it is to make people everywhere aware of the enormous challenges facing today's world, it couldn't get much worse. Much of what the UN seeks to do requires rousing the consciences of the affluent and tranquil about the plight of the poor andthe strife-torn. Large sections of the world's people requiredesperately-needed help from the United Nations to surmount problems theycannot overcome on their own.

The world media's identification of the United Nations with only oneissue, Iraq, comes at a terrible time. Civil war rages in Cote d'Ivoireand sputters in the Congo, while long-running conflicts may be close topermanent solution in Sierra Leone and tantalisingly too far in Cyprus.The arduous task of nation-building proceeds fitfully in Afghanistan, theBalkans and East Timor.

Twenty million refugees and displaced persons from Iran to Liberia and beyond depend on the UN for shelter and succor. Decades of development in Africa are being wiped out by the scourge of HIV/AIDS while the Millennium Development Goals -- agreed upon with much fanfare in the largest gathering of heads of government in human history, the UN's Millennium Summit of September 2000 -- lag behind the pace needed to fulfill them.

The resources needed to eliminate poverty, to bring girls into school, to promote health and clean drinking water, have simply not been made available at the levels required. None of these goals can be met without the support of ordinary people around the world -- the informed publics who sustain the political will of their Governments. And yet they hear little about these issues, whose feeble echoes are drowned out in the drumbeat over Iraq. The media bears a vital share of the responsibility for this.

In the process, the soaring aspirations that the framers of the UN Charter set themselves as they created the world body from the ashes of the Second World War are all but forgotten. The world is told that the relevance of the United Nations depends on its conduct on one issue alone, Iraq. No doubt what happens in the Security Council on Iraq is of vital importance to the UN's role in maintaining international peace and security.

But when this crisis has passed, the world will still be facing (to useKofi Annan's phrase) innumerable "problems without passports" -- problemsof the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, of the degradation ofour common environment, of contagious disease and chronic starvation, ofhuman rights and human wrongs, of mass illiteracy and massivedisplacement.

These are problems that no one country, however powerful, can solve on its own, and which are yet the shared responsibility of humankind. They cry out for solutions that, like the problems themselves, also cross frontiers.

The United Nations exists to find these solutions through the common endeavor of all States. It is the one indispensable global organization in our globalizing world. My appeal to the media is simple: let us not, by reducing its value to one issue, risk deprivingourselves of the only effective instrument the world has available toconfront the challenges that will remain when Iraq has passed from theheadlines.

(Shashi Tharoor is UN Under Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information and the author, most recently, of the novel "Riot".)