Mahatma Gandhi, Multilateralism, and the United Nations
Professor Ashis Nandy,
Mr Miloon Kothari,
Ladies and Gentlemen, colleagues and friends
Thank you all very much for joining us today to commemorate two of the greatest living legacies of our collective history – Gandhi ji’s philosophy and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
And if these golden warp and weft were not sufficient to weave a beautiful and noble tapestry of actionable ideas for us this afternoon, we’ve thrown in another strand – multilateralism and the UN.
Let me point out several happy non-coincidences surrounding this lecture. Firstly, this is the inaugural lecture in our UN@75 Lecture Series. We will be having many more lectures over the next year, up until the UN’s 75th birthday in October 2020. During them, we will explore with you the many facets of what the UN represents and does and strives to do but cannot always succeed, and why.
The UN is still the world’s premium multilateral organization today. No other multilateral body holds the legitimacy of the UN’s 193-strong country membership, nor the breadth of its mandate: human rights, peace and security and development. We know the UN is not perfect, but as many have said—if the UN did not exist, the world would have to create it. Dag Hammarskjöld(2nd UNSG) put his finger on it when he said: “We should recognize the United Nations for what it is – an admittedly imperfect but indispensable instrument of nations working for a peaceful evolution towards a more just and secure world.” So, the first non-coincidence is, therefore, that the first lecture in our birthday series the topic of Gandhi, human rights, and multilateralism.
Throughout this year, we’ve been commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Mahatma – his life and work and philosophy. So much of his thinking inspired the creators of the UN, and the norms and standards for which the organization stands. So there was no question that Gandhi had to be part of our inaugural lecture. And human rights are the moral compass of the UN, the moral and ethical values and standards that guide our work. So, there was also no question that human rights had to be a central theme of our first UN @75 lecture.
Second non-coincidence – the timing of this lecture. This week the world commemorated Human Rights Day. At India’s official event to mark the occasion, the Hon’ble President recalled that, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted around the time the Constituent Assembly was drafting our Constitution. Late last month we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution. That day in my address to the Supreme Court, I especially paid tributes to the women members of the Constituent Assembly. One of them was Hansa Mehta. A staunch disciple of Gandhi ji, she was a member of the Advisory Committee on Fundamental Rights. Co-incidentally, she was also India’s delegate to the historic endeavor under way at the United Nations; the drafting of the Universal Declaration. Hansaben was part of the Human Rights Committee there. And she had an equally crucial role to play in both the defining documents. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres was right when he said last year that without Hansa Mehta of India, we would likely be speaking of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Men, rather than of Human Rights.”
The President then went on to say that what we need to make the UDHR real is more introspection, empathy, and imagination. As just mentioned, we knew our inaugural lecture had to focus on human rights and what better timing than during the week when we commemorate the signing of the Universal Declaration.
And the final non-coincidence relates to the fact that we seem to have entered a global period in which the values of all three of our strands of the lecture today – Gandhi, human rights, and multilateralism – are under assault.
World-wide we see backsliding on the values that underpinned Gandhi’s life and works, on international human rights norms and standards, and on multilateralism and the UN more specifically. Xenophobia, hate speech, racism, purposeful exclusion and other forms of discrimination are on the rise, almost everywhere. International trade cooperation platforms are undermined and breaking up. And for the first time in decades, leading signators to critical arms control treaties are opting out—for example the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty or threatening to opt out of others, such as and the Arms Trade Treaty1.
So it is with a sense of urgency that I introduce this evening’s lecture. The world desperately needs the kind of introspection, empathy, and imagination to which the President referred and there is no better place to turn to for these than Gandhi-ji, human rights and multilateralism.
Given the deep knowledge, experience and life-commitments of both our moderator, the esteemed Mr. Ashis Nandy, and our Lecturer, the highly
distinguished Mr Miloon Kothari, I don’t think we could be in better hands. Thank you so much gentlemen, for initiating the UN@75 Lecture Series with us.