TERENCE SMITH: The United Nations' concern that the war in Iraq has pushed important international stories into the background has released its first annual list of issues that it believes the world should hear more about.
To explain we turn to Shashi Tharoor, under secretary general for communications and public information at the United Nations. Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us. Can you explain, first, why you're doing this, what the goal is in publishing such a list, and why now?
SHASHI THAROOR, United Nations: Well, we've been thinking about this for a couple of years. In fact, I first began worrying about this in January of last year, when Secretary-General Kofi Annan held a press conference here at U.N. headquarters and talked about all sorts of issues that are deeply troubling and serious around the world, and every single question he got was about Iraq, and the repetition of that quite recently, I think, confirms the point that over the last year and a half there's been a sort of distortion in the way in which international affairs is covered. Iraq has crowded out all sorts of things, and I'm not undermining the importance of Iraq. It's a vital story, and people are understandably concerned about it, but as a result of the space it's taking, all sorts of other stories are falling off the radar screen. And we felt the time had come to do our little bits to try and redress the balance or at least to try and help the media redress the balance.
TERENCE SMITH: We'll talk about them individually, but what sort of stories are you talking about?
SHASHI THAROOR: Well, we've got a whole lot of stories on the list. In fact, when we decided to do this, we invited all the U.N. agencies to come up their suggestions for what they thought were the kinds of stories on their beat that were being neglected in the world media, and we got over 60 suggestions, almost all equally compelling. And it took a group of U.N. Colleagues to narrow it down to ten, of which story number one is the terrible situation in northwestern Uganda, where you have an extraordinary situation of kids serving as killers, where a rebellion led by the so- called Lord's Resistance Army, essentially press-gangs kids. As many, according to some estimates, as 90 percent of that army consists of children, and I don't mean just older teenagers, I mean kids from as little as eight or ten years old to young teenagers, and their victims are also kids. They are going out killing, abducting, violating and injuring other children, so this horrendous war of kids against kids seemed to me to be a story that we really felt the world should know more about.
But beyond that, we have other kinds of stories, too. We have stories about crises that haven't yet happened. You know, when the tragedy of Rwanda happened many of us wondered if the world had been warned about Rwanda months in advance, would the response have been different? Well, we're worried, not that there is a genocide about to happen, but we're worried about the simmering caldron in the central African republic, where there are serious tensions brewing.
We also, however, wanted to look at some positive stories. So we turned to some stories where there's actually good news to report. Now, you know the cliché that no news is good news. Well, when it comes to the media, and the U.N. anyway, it's often the case of good news is no news. We've got one example here in the list which is a classic of its kind: Tajikistan, a country riven by a gruesome civil war, extraordinary amount of suffering, and now they are slowly but successfully building peace in that country. No one has written about it; no one has focused on it. We also talk about other situations: The painstaking peacemaking efforts involving the world court, the international court of justice and the U.N., on the Bakassi Peninsula between Nigeria and Cameroon -- two countries that could have gone to war over a dispute and were instead finding peaceful solutions.
So we've got all these different kinds of stories, and we've also got some, what I guess one might call social interest kinds of stories. There's the work going on right now-- almost about to conclude successfully-- on a convention on disabilities, which if adopted, as we hope it will be, will have implications for every country in the world and for every disabled person around the world, giving them rights and privileges they haven't had before.
TERENCE SMITH: You also, I believe, just to point one out, that it's sort of a good news and bad news story.
SHASHI THAROOR: The peacekeeping paradox.
TERENCE SMITH: And that's what you call the peacekeeping paradox.
SHASHI THAROOR: That's right.
TERENCE SMITH: Explain what that means.
SHASHI THAROOR: Well, you know, we have an unusual situation in the world where, in fact, despite the headlines about war in Iraq and indeed troubles in the Middle East and elsewhere, peace is actually breaking out around the world. A number of situations which were mired in conflicts very recently have found themselves amenable to peaceful resolution: The Ivory Coast, or Cote D'Ivoire, as it prefers to be called; Haiti quite recently; Sudan; Burundi; Sierra Leone; and a number... and Liberia just last year. And all of these situations are situations where you had conflict and killing and atrocities and problems, and now suddenly we have peace. Peace has been achieved and peacekeepers are being sent there.
But the paradox is that the world isn't geared up to cope with this level of... of... of peace. We don't have, for example, readily available, trained, well-equipped peacekeepers with the right skills and the right availability to go out and serve in all these places. We're struggling to find enough French-speaking peacekeepers for Cote D'Ivoire and Haiti. We're going to need peacekeepers who are willing to go into difficult parts of Africa and do their bits for the future of those countries. And to do that we need the world to be conscious of how important it is that instead of just picking up the pieces after tragedy, we go in to help build up peace and prevent tragedy.
TERENCE SMITH: Another underreported story on your list is the role of women as peacekeepers. Tell us what you mean by that.
SHASHI THAROOR: Well, you know, the fact is that we always hear about women as victims, and particularly they are victims of war, civil conflict; most refugees are women and children. But what you aren't realizing is that in many situations around the world, women are actually building peace after conflict. In Rwanda after the horrors of genocide and civil war, we now have women elected to 49 percent of the seats in the Rwandan parliament, holding responsible positions in that country, working at the community level and the national level to try and build institutions of peace and taking decisions to transform that society. Women are peacekeepers, women are educators, and in countries around the world they are asserting themselves more and more. It's astonishing no one has written about it.
TERENCE SMITH: You also have an environmental story on your list, talking about the over fishing in the world's oceans.
SHASHI THAROOR: That's a serious issue. You know, we hear sometimes words like "biodiversity," and people's eyes glaze over, but it's extraordinarily vital for the future of this planet that we preserve as much of the rich diversity that mother nature has given us, and yet we are finding through over fishing that entire stocks of fish are disappearing from the world's oceans, and what this means for the world is equally important.
A different sort of environmental and human story is the one about indigenous people, people who have chosen to live in isolation, in their own societies, to preserve their own cultures and ways of life, particularly in Latin America-- the Amazonian Rainforest and so on. And these people are finding their living space disappearing as development, logging, clearing is essentially reducing the possibility for them to have the space to conduct the lives they have lived for thousands of years. And that's another sort of environmental and human interest story on the list.
TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask you this: If these stories were better reported or more fully reported and written about, what would be the result that you're... that you're seeking here? Would it be more funding? Would it be international, political will? What... what exactly would you like to see come of it?
SHASHI THAROOR: Both of those are relevant, but the first and most basic thing is awareness. We want people to be aware of the kinds of challenges the U.N. is facing, not because we believe these are important to the lives of human beings around the world, but also because, of course, we hope it will increase their support for what the United Nations is trying to do to address each of these ten and many other challenges around the world.
TERENCE SMITH: Shashi Tharoor, thank you very much for helping us point the spotlight on them, even briefly. Thanks very much.
SHASHI THAROOR: Thank you very much.