Author Michael Curtin on the UN and his New Book
Author Michael Curtin (@michaelcurtin15) first began contributing articles to my website in 2017, and since then has written dozens of articles ranging from topics as diverse as climate change to violence against women. Michael holds a graduate degree in Diplomacy and International Relations from Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy.
I interviewed Michael via email ahead of the release of his new book, Challenging the Misconceptions of the United Nations.
How does it feel to be a published author?
In a word, “exciting.” Also, it is a real sense of accomplishment. When you set out on this journey there are times when you ask yourself “will I ever get to the finish line?” This is a marathon and not a sprint. So, pacing yourself is key. But in the end, you cross the finish line and say I made it.
Can you give a general overview of your book?
The book is a compilation of blogs I have written advocating for the work of the United Nations through my time with the United Nations Association of the USA.
What prompted you to write it?
When I set out to write these blogs, I understood and knew the importance of multilateralism and global cooperation regarding the key issues of the day. Moreover, what I hoped to achieve in some small way was to alter the negative narrative surrounding the world body. What we see today are funding shortages at many key UN agencies which severely impact the important work that they do. And this clearly needs addressing.
What does the UN get right and what does it get wrong?
Well, they do succeed in providing humanitarian assistance to refugees and internally displaced persons, assisting states seeking independence under Chapter XI of the UN Charter which speaks to decolonization, the success story in East Timor, and perhaps its greatest achievement was creating a more stable post-war environment and preventing future great-power conflict.
One failure was the inaction by the UN prior to, and during, the Rwandan genocide despite the warnings by Lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire, who at the time headed the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda. Dallaire saw firsthand what was transpiring in Rwanda. What became known as the “genocide fax” that Dallaire sent to UN headquarters. He was warning of imminent violence and the UN and the international community failed to respond to what amounted to a lack of political will. They were fearful of what could occur coming on the heels of the Somali failure.
It would also be nice to see more women in roles as high-ranking officials. One day we will witness a woman as secretary-general. Seven women did run in 2016 that ultimately went to current Secretary-General António Guterres.
As you were writing, did your opinion of the UN change?
I would not say it changed; however, it did enhance my opinion of it, especially based on the humanitarian work it does around the world for vulnerable and marginalized populations who rely on the UN to provide for them. For example, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), have been working with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to deliver critical relief supplies to those people in need following the devastating earthquake in Turkey. A story (relief efforts) that has flown under the radar, but nonetheless is vitally important.
The UN is about to celebrate its 80th birthday. Has it aged well?
It has certainly withstood the test of time when one reflects on fifty delegates meeting at the UN Conference on International Organization in San Francisco in 1945. We now see 193 member states. So, in response to your question “has it aged well?” I would say it has.
People cite institutional bloat when criticizing the UN. Your view?
In the 1960s, we witnessed UN membership doubling and we sit here today with 193 member states. The challenges the world faces have grown exponentially since its creation. In 1980, the WHO declared smallpox eradicated. The 1990s saw the end of the Cold War where the UN’s role in maintaining international peace and security increased. COVID, humanitarian crises, the global effects of climate change, and the war in Ukraine, all have one thing in common: they require large sums of money.
Your specific question points to “institutional bloat” at the UN. It’s a good question and one that requires more space and time than we have here. However, it is worth noting that one of SG Guterres’ missions is to reform the global body and he has been working on this since the day he took the reigns in 2017. A transformation of the UN development system is one thing that has been looked at by the UN leader. So, the answer to your question is, yes, there needs to be reform and it has been recognized.
UN personnel have been accused of rape and sex trafficking. When whistleblowers have voiced their concerns, they have been punished. Has the UN done enough to address these issues?
Yes, these are unfortunate instances regarding UN personnel in Africa and it is something I do address in the book. I look at the cases of Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and the Central African Republic (CAR). Secretary-General Guterres noted last year that he vowed to make this matter a top priority for the organization. Measures have been taken to address this crisis, according to the Deputy Spokesperson at the UN.
Moreover, you ask about the treatment of whistleblowers. One example is Dr. Francesco Zambon, a former WHO researcher who called out then Assistant Director Dr. Ranieri Guerra to revise a report that Dr. Guerra wrote on Italy’s “pandemic preparedness.” In May 2020, the report was withdrawn following Dr. Zambron’s pressure.
My grandparents were friends with Dag Hammarskjöld and you’re probably not old enough to remember, but David Letterman had a running gag with Boutros-Boutros Ghali. Any favorite Secretaries-General?
Well, I am old enough to remember! I do like Secretary-General Guterres in addition to former SG Ban Ki-moon and the late Kofi Annan. Former SG Annan had some notable achievements, but we know there were some lessons to be learned during his tenure, especially as head of UN Peacekeeping amid the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
The book is very in-depth and covers a lot of ground. While writing it, did real-world events change your approach?
Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic did change the way I approached certain topics. For example, the Chapter Notes at the beginning of each chapter include what was happening at the time of the pandemic.
What is one significant thing you would change about the United Nations?
The UN Security Council. Now, I know I am not breaking any news mentioning the UNSC but those closely following the global body know that there are proposals out there to reform it. For example, Italy is proposing an expansion of the number of seats on the Security Council based on an interview that Maurizio Massari, Italy’s ambassador to the UN, gave to Pass Blue. However, we know that the five permanent members (P5) will not sign onto any proposals that in any way would take away their veto power. Moreover, reform of the Security Council is as challenging as trying to amend the U.S. Constitution. There needs to be agreement of at least two-thirds of Member States in a General Assembly vote and ultimate ratification requires a two-thirds vote of Member States as well. So, we should stay tuned for further developments on this issue.
Do you predict that the United Nations will be around for another 80 years?
I can say with certainty that I, nor many of us for that matter, will not be around for another 80 years but I do believe that the UN will.
Finally, where can readers buy a copy of your book?