Of reforms, definitions and democracy


Friendly Fire

Khalid Saleem

One wonders if the reader has had occasion to notice that it is invariably the executives on their way out who come up with radical proposals for the “reform” of the Organisation they would be saying good-bye to. All through the period that they preside over the outfit, they are more interested in what they can squeeze out of it and expend all their energies in parrying away the barbs directed at them. It is only towards the fag end of their tenures that bright little ideas keep popping up like so many jacks-in-the-box. Let us cast a cursory glance at that “citadel of hope”- the United Nations Organisation – and one of its former head honchos, Mr. Kofi Annan. It just so happened that during the final year of his second tenure Secretary General Annan significantly intensified his efforts aimed at reorganising/reforming the World Body ostensibly to “make it more effective”. It is a different matter that, not unlike most outgoing CEO’s, all he managed to do was to make the life of his successor miserable!
The hullabaloo about reforms aside, one would very much like to know what happened to the fancy rabbit that had materialised out of the same Secretary General’s tattered hat. One alludes to the proposal to establish the “UN Democracy Fund” that the UN Secretary General had reportedly proffered in 2005. In the passing, this happened to be in response to the call of US President George W. Bush at the 2004 UN General Assembly to establish a Fund “aimed at assisting nations seeking a transition to democracy or strengthening their democratic institutions”. The proposed Fund, as an awestruck world was informed at the time, was to be used “to provide grants to Non-governmental Organisations, States and International Organisations to carry out democratsation projects, particularly those that will help develop civil society and democratic institutions”. Not that anyone had disagreed with such a laudable cause. The only snag was that there was no elucidation as to 1) the criteria for doling out the largesse and 2) who would be the arbiter in this noble venture. What a pity that the whole thing went the way of most initiatives of the World Body. One would have been interested, in particular, in finding out how many and which lucky NGOs in the Land of the Pure managed to make the grade and if they did, what are they up to!
Democracy – an ephemeral concept at best – defies a deft definition. Experts of various genres have contributed their two-pennys’ worth but all to little avail. Then, there is also the little matter of deciding what would be the appropriate model for the uninitiated to follow? Would it be the American version, in which a candidate can win the majority popular vote and still end up as the loser on a technicality? Or would the choice settle on the Westminster type, wherein “the first past the post” becomes the winner and in which a political party though failing to win the majority vote can, nevertheless, emerge as the overall winner by a landslide? The poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal had proffered a definition of democracy as a system of government in which people are ‘counted’ rather than ‘appraised’. All in all, this definition may perhaps be the nearest to the truth.
To delve a bit deeper into the subject of definitions, it is obvious that the failure of the international community to find generally acceptable definitions of various concepts is one of the banes of the ill-starred United Nations. For one, “terrorism” is well on its way to becoming the buzzword of the twenty-first century and yet it is engulfed in a mist. One harks in vain for agreed definitions of the terms “terrorist” or “terrorism” that could, thereby, find a way into the international lexicon. The dictionary definition just would not do .As anyone who reads his daily paper knows, political leaders of all hues these days, emerging from their one-on-one parlays, take pride in declaring that, having discussed the issue, they agreed to cooperate in confronting the menace of terrorism. Any journalist impertinent enough to ask whether they were also agreed on what precisely constitutes “terrorism” would find them groping for a reply.
There are myriad other phrases too that defy agreed definitions, among them: “human rights”, “good governance”, “freedom-fighter”, “the rule of law’, “corruption” and so on. Needless to add, unless precise and agreed definitions are available, diplomats tackling these issues will be merely floundering in the dark. With little or no sense of direction, the New International Order is in danger of degenerating into a recipe for disorder.
By the way, the only persons who are getting a lift out of life of late are the spin-doctors and the slogan-mongers. India’s specialists in this category lead the field. The phrases “non-proliferation” and “cross-border terrorism” coined by them has paid such rich dividends in the field of scare mongering that even those who ought to know better got readily taken in. Now, when these compound words appear to be approaching the fag end of their shelf life, they may well be sizing up handy substitutes.
Meanwhile, the powers that be continue to vie with one another in efforts to milk the United Nations, each for its own ends. Oft-repeated platitudes about making the world body more democratic by cutting down the privileges of the chosen few have a hollow ring to them. What “the peoples of the United Nations” need to do is to ‘put their own house in order’. And that, as they say, is easier said than done!
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.

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