The United Nations is a complex of three buildings by the East River in New York. An international organization of limited powers and unlimited talk, it is an object of scorn to some and of idealism to others. But it is also a daily home to 5,000 civil servants, 2,000 diplomats and 250 reporters. It is these people, of course, who make it work.
On the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, Times U.N. correspondent Stanley Meisler profiles three of them : an Indian bureaucrat who writes distinguished novels on the side; a Czech diplomat who counted California as home for much of his life, and an American journalist who used to chat with the legendary Dag Hammarskjold in Swedish.
'No Ministry in the World Can Match Us in Peacekeeping'
Critics delight in bashing U.N. officials as fat cat bureaucrats--wasteful, lazy and overpaid. Nothing infuriates Shashi Tharoor and his family more.
"My wife gets calls for me at 9 p.m. and gets angry that anyone would presume that I would be home at that hour," said the 39-year-old Tharoor, who serves as special assistant to the undersecretary-general in charge of peacekeeping.
The mouthful of a title covers double duties: Tharoor operates as chief of staff for Undersecretary-General Kofi Annan, who commands missions of almost 65,000 U.N. troops around the world. He is also the key official in New York handling the Bosnia crisis.
"I have two genuine jobs at a time of high-octane stress," he said in a recent interview over lunch at a restaurant near the U.N. Tharoor estimates that he works 14 to 16 hours a day, often seven days a week.
That leaves him almost no time for his third job--novelist. He is surely the best-known U.N. bureaucrat in the literary world, though most of his readers do not realize that he is a U.N. bureaucrat.
His first of two satirical novels (both published by Arcade) caused a sensation. "It was called things I'm embarrassed to repeat," Tharoor said. "It was enough to turn a young man's head."
"At long last," wrote the Indian historian and editor Khushwant Singh, "I have come across a novel written by an Indian which justifies its title. 'The Great Indian Novel' puts Shashi Tharoor in the front rank of contemporary Indian writers."
The second novel, "Show Business," a hilarious portrait of Indian politics and the Bombay film industry--better known as Bollywood--received an enthusiastic review on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.
Tharoor wrote the books while working as a U.N. bureaucrat, but he was forced to shunt fiction aside when the former Yugoslavia split apart four years ago and erupted into chaos and war. "I have not written a creative word since Yugoslavia," he said.
Tharoor was born in London in 1956. His father, the London manager for an Indian periodical, the Statesman, returned to Bombay when Tharoor was 3.
"I was an asthmatic child in a city without TV," he said, and, when he ran out of books to read, he would amuse himself by writing stories. (His first short story was published when he was 11.)
After graduating from Delhi University, he completed his education in the United States, earning a doctorate from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 1978. He soon joined the Geneva staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and, in three years, found himself assigned to Singapore to work with Vietnamese fleeing for the high seas.
"I learned what a difference the United Nations can make," Tharoor recalled. "I was able to put my head on the pillow each night and know we had made a difference in people's lives."
Tharoor, who moved to the peacekeeping office in New York in 1989, resents all the abusive accusations that the U.N. is inefficient and wasteful and a failure in Bosnia.
"Of course, the organization is not perfect," he said. "When you try to meet the needs of 185 member states, you're bound to have programs that some people don't find useful. Yet no ministry in the world can match us in peacekeeping."
Although Tharoor has not written fiction in four years, his creative hand shows up in official reports that are anonymous or even signed by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. A U.N. report on Bosnia excited diplomats and bureaucrats a year and a half ago with the depth of analysis and the craft of its words. "The tragedy that provoked [the U.N.'s] involvement remains an affront to the world's conscience," the document concluded.
The report was so elegant and philosophical and reasoned that everyone guessed at once who had written it. And they were right.
'The Non-Permanent Members Are Definitely Second Fiddle'
When Czech Ambassador Karel Kovanda joined the Security Council in January, 1994, a reporter told him, "Well, now there are two Czech ambassadors on the Security Council." This pale joke alluded to the well-known fact that American Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright was born in Prague.
But Kovanda quickly rejoined: "No, there are two Americans." The ambassador was alluding to the little-known fact that he had studied and worked in the United States for 20 years, becoming a citizen along the way.
In fact, he could have said there were now two British ambassadors on the Security Council, for Kovanda was born in the British town of Gilsland near the Scottish border in 1944. His father was a soldier with the Czechoslovakian Army in exile during World War II; his mother was British. Kovanda is entitled to carry a British passport.
The cosmopolitan sophistication of Kovanda probably accounts for his success at avoiding one of the pitfalls of life on the Security Council: Although he represents a small country of little power, he has not been shunted aside or ignored by the Big Five--the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China--who dominate the council.
The Czech Republic is one of 10 countries elected to serve two years in the non-permanent seats of the Security Council. "The non-permanent members are definitely second fiddle," said Kovanda recently over morning coffee in the Delegates Lounge. "But how loud the fiddle plays depends on the non-permanent member itself."
Kovanda's second fiddle has played loudly. In the Rwanda crisis, for example, he used the term genocide to describe the massacres of Tutsis at a time when many ambassadors were reluctant to accept that conclusion.
"My country has no influence in Rwanda," he said. "But my country has adherence to human rights as one of its cornerstones. So I didn't have to ask my country for instructions. . . . For a country from Central Europe it isn't hard for a person to appreciate what is and what isn't genocide."
After receiving a degree from the Prague School of Agriculture, Kovanda, able to travel because of his British passport, left Czechoslovakia in 1970 for studies in the United States. He earned a doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1975.
With a two-year break working for the Czech language service of Radio Beijing, Kovanda spent most of the next 15 years in California, teaching at UCLA, UC Santa Barbara and Cal State Long Beach; writing free-lance articles; earning an master's degree in business administration from Pepperdine, and working in the management of small companies.
After the Velvet Revolution routed communism and brought playwright Vaclav Havel to the presidency, Kovanda returned to Prague in 1990 and soon attracted attention with his translation and management skills. In 1991, the foreign ministry put him in charge of administration.
By the end of 1992, however, the country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. When the U.N. ambassador decided to join the new Slovak foreign service, the Czechs named Kovanda as their ambassador, his first diplomatic post.
Kovanda soon decided to seek a seat on the Security Council for the Czech Republic, mounting an American-style campaign of calling on every ambassador to plead for a vote. His fluency in English, French and Spanish helped, as did his ability to pass the time of day with the Chinese ambassador in his native tongue. In the end, the Czech Republic handily defeated Belarus in the General Assembly.
Kovanda, who is married and the father of an almost 2-year-old son, is not thrilled over life without the Security Council when his term ends Dec. 31.
"This is considered just about the pinnacle of what a diplomat can accomplish," he said. "It's a heady trip. . . . There will be a degree of a feeling of empty hands next year, which my family will cherish."
But Kovanda does not intend to become a remote and idle ambassador. He said he will probably campaign for a Czech seat on the 54-member Economic and Social Council, the body that supervises the independent agencies like UNESCO and the World Health Organization. Many analysts believe the Council should be strengthened.
And if elected, "and I think we will be elected," Kovanda said, "I plan to use that to the hilt."
'I Have Strong Faith in the Future of the U.N.'
When the U.N. was 30 years old, David Horowitz wrote: "With all its shortcomings . . . one must bear in mind that this world organization . . . is in its infancy. What really is 30 years when viewed in the long bloody history of millenniums of conflicts among the nations? We have here, in effect, a baby still in its diapers."
More recently, on the eve of its 50th birthday, Horowitz wrote, "True, as we all agree, the U.N. is not perfect. It has its shortcomings. It's still in its infancy. What's 50 years in the historic perspective of time?"
This U.N. correspondent for Jewish newspapers, mostly in the United States, always takes the long view--a natural perspective for him. Now 92 years old, Horowitz has been covering the U.N. since it was only 2 and he was almost half his current age. He is a familiar sight in the corridors of the U.N. press room, walking slowly, smiling often, wearing a black beret in a jaunty angle covering much of his white hair.
"I don't believe my own age," he said in a recent interview in his cluttered U.N. office displaying letters from such luminaries of the past as Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold. No one has covered the U.N. longer than Horowitz.
He still works five days a week and turns out two to three news stories plus a weekly column. He has been doing this kind of work since 1947 when the U.N. was headquartered in Lake Success on Long Island, and the years have left him with a bushel of memories and anecdotes. (The funniest thing he ever heard in the U.N.? Upset by the embittered exchanges between Israelis and Arabs, U.S. Ambassador Warren Austin cried out: "I wish the Jews and Arabs would behave like good Christians.")
Horowitz was born in Malmo, Sweden, in 1903, the son of a cantor. When he was 11, his family immigrated to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where his father was appointed cantor of a synagogue. In 1924, young Horowitz decided to explore his Jewish roots in Palestine and remained there for 10 years. Upon his return, he began a career in journalism, taking on U.N. coverage after the end of World War II.
Horowitz, who was president of the U.N. Correspondents Assn. in 1981, rates fellow Swede Dag Hammarskjold, who served from 1953 until his death in a plane crash in 1961, as the most outstanding secretary-general to serve at the U.N.
"He was a good administrator in addition to being a very alert diplomat, and, of course, we were from the same country," Horowitz said.
The biggest disappointment, he said, was Kurt Waldheim, the secretary-general from 1972 to 1981. "During the Waldheim period," Horowitz said, "he and I became very good friends. . . . He tried very hard to ingratiate himself with Jewish people. Now I know why."
When the revelations came a few years later that Waldheim had joined Nazi youth groups, Horowitz said he was shocked.
"I'm sure both the Russians and Americans knew about him, but there was no word about this."
Horowitz described Javier Perez de Cuellar of Venezuela, who served as secretary-general from 1982 to 1991, as the only one who ranked close to Hammarskjold.
"He had a sense of humor," Horowitz said. "He was what we say in Yiddish is a mensch . He would never refuse a question or fail to reply to any correspondents. He had something in him--a humanity. He was down-to-earth, and I liked him, and he was good to the press."
Horowitz is more ambivalent about the present secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. "He has tried his best, but he fell into a quagmire, and I don't envy him," Horowitz said. "He is trying his best but there is something there that's lacking--I don't know what. But I'm comparing him to Hammarskjold."
The anti-U.N. mood in Congress troubles many bureaucrats, diplomats and correspondents. But Horowitz is not among them. "I have strong faith in the future of the U.N.," he said. "I believe Americans will continue to be strong for the U.N., and I hope this will be reflected in the American Congress."
Horowitz takes the long view, as ever.