Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

Millions of People Worldwide on the Move (May 17, 2004)
"Migrations, particularly illegal movements of people, are cause for concern in every region. There has never been a migration study this big or ambitious. The topic has some built-in tensions, and opening it up for world scrutiny risks some hazards."

No Simple Place to Pin Blame for Iraq Oil-For-Food Problems (May 10, 2004)
"The U.S. General Accounting Office is documenting what a shambles the U.S. made of the oil-for-food program after it took over in November, and warning that the new Iraq must be watched closely or history will repeat itself."

Reducing Poverty Takes More Than Just Money (May 3, 2004)
"Poverty has so many other facets beyond what it takes to live from day to day.... Unless all countries and international financial institutions look at the big picture, people in developing countries don't stand a chance of significant gains."

Losing Faith In Democracy: A Warning From Latin America (April 26, 2004)
"The publication last week of an alarming report ... from Latin America will only confirm for many that the euphoria of the early 1990s over the spread of democracy is now history."

Oil-For-Food: Where Was the Security Council? (April 19, 2004)
"Some U.N. officials may have been complicit in Saddam Hussein's illegal profiteering from the 'oil-for-food' program that sustained Iraqi civilians from 1997 until last November."

Corruption's Threat to Democracy (April 12, 2004)
"In March Transparency International released a list of ten top corrupt leaders of the last quarter century. Except for Ukraine and Yugoslavia, all were in Africa, Asia and Latin America."

More from U.N. Notebook.

U.N. Notebook | May 24, 2004
from U. N. Wire A University in a Class by Itself

by Barbara Crossette

Ramesh Thakur,
senior Vice Rector,
U.N. University (U.N. photo)   
UNITED NATIONS—Outside the U.N. system, there are not many people who know that the organization has a university of its own. It is called the U.N. University, but it has no basketball team nor even a traditional campus. It is a research institution that serves as a think tank for the United Nations.

The university, based in Tokyo, was founded with the intention of "transcending national perspectives," says Ramesh Thakur, the senior vice rector, who holds the title of U.N. assistant secretary general. "UNU provides and manages the framework for bringing together the world's leading scholars to tackle the pressing problems of the day for the survival, development and welfare of all human beings everywhere." Not a small job.

Thakur, who directs the university's peace and governance programs, is a walking example of international identity. Born in India, he is now a citizen of Australia and New Zealand. His wife is Australian, and so he calls that country his "nation-in-law." One of his two children is working on a Ph.D. in New Zealand and the other is studying Chinese medicine. Thakur came to the U.N. University from Australian National University, where he was head of the Peace Research Center. He was educated at Calcutta University and Queens University in Canada, and was a professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand from 1980 to 1995.

In 2001, he was a member of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, whose report, The Responsibility to Protect, turned an argument in the United Nations over how much outside interference was acceptable in a troubled country into a discussion of how to, and who should, protect people when a nation falls into crisis.

"We in UNU believe that the operational activities of the United Nations must be guided by in-depth empirical and analytical research," Thakur wrote in an exchange of emails. "And thus our aspiration is the UNU should be the intellectual font of authority for the everyday operations of the U.N.," he said.

Nobody thinks that day has arrived, or is coming soon, given the pressures of national and international politics and diplomacy. But U.N. officials who put a high priority on operating with the maximum amount of information at their disposal say that research and discussion led by the university has been very useful in a number of areas of global concern.

UNU has developed links with a wide range of educational institutions around the world and occasionally works jointly with one or more of them to produce international conferences on topical global issues. In Ireland in July, UNU and the University of Galway will be holding a major meeting on international accountability for disruptions of peace and security, bringing together prosecutors from U.N. war crimes tribunals. Rapid developments in international law, especially the recent birth of the International Criminal Court, have opened many new areas of interest for legal scholars.

The low profile of UNU often means that its experts are overlooked in the U.S. media, though the institution's New York office has compiled a worldwide database of expertise. But the United Nations in its broadest sense has problems getting its expertise recognized because the work of the Secretariat tends to go on in the shadow of the theatrics of the Security Council or other bodies serving as a platform for national policies.

The university was established by the General Assembly in 1973, with generous support from Japan, which ensured its center would be in Tokyo. This makes it the only U.N. entity with a central headquarters in Asia. Around the world, there are more than a dozen UNU research and training centers to supplement headquarters work. People from more than 30 countries are on the staff worldwide.

Working on an annual budget of around $35 million—which, Thakur points out, is equal to less than 2 percent of Tokyo University's budget—the U.N. University focuses on five research areas: peace, governance, development, the environment and science, and technology and society.

The university's rector since 1997 has been Hans J.A. van Ginkel, a Dutch professor with a background in science and technology as well as social sciences, geography in particular. From 1968 to 1985, he was attached to Utrecht University in the Netherlands, first as a professor and then as dean of faculty. He is a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 1994, received a Dutch knighthood. Since 1997 he has been a member of the board of the Asian Institute of Technology, near Bangkok, a pioneering center for research into new technologies for the region.

UNU's work is also guided by a governing council of international experts in a wide range of fields. The university tries to connect the cutting-edge thinking and research of the experts and staff researchers with programs for training and building capacity in developing nations. Several of the resident experts in Tokyo on the environment and sustainable development are Japanese, reflecting that government's growing role as a source of aid and expertise for the developing world.

Thakur, an author and frequent contributor to op-ed pages around the world, is a passionate advocate within the U.N. system for ferreting out and airing new ideas, wherever they originate—although the United Nations is not always known as a place that encourages this.

"Ideas matter," he says, "which is why intellectuals are always the second set of targets for elimination by tyrants" (the first being political rivals). Countries rise and fall on the space and nurture ideas get, he says. "A society that is bereft of and represses new ideas is a society doomed to stagnation."

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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see

Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.