After avoiding wiretaps and spies in Syria, Pakistan and Nigeria, Ambassador Joseph Melrose let students listen in on his experiences as at the United Nations and U.S. Foreign Service.
“I find these controversies about spying on other countries totally bizarre. Whenever I checked into a hotel we immediately put a scrambler on,” Melrose said. “Pakistan would go through my phone bill and decide whether to listen to my calls. They got the number that my son used, and it was great because someone actually had to spend their time listening to whether he played ball with his friends.”
The event Thursday evening was hosted by Dorm Room Diplomacy, Model UN, African Student Union, the history department and the political science department.
Melrose spoke about the modern operations of the United Nations and spent nearly an hour answering questions about his work and thoughts on international affairs.
He described his experiences near — and sometimes in — war zones.
“I was in Vietnam during the Tet offensive,” he said. “Apparently I drove across enemy territory. When I met with officials they asked me how I got here without a plane: ‘Didn’t you see a lot of enemies?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I heard shooting.’ But I just drove through.”
Melrose said that he actually enjoyed the excitement of more dangerous territories.
“I never wanted to go to Europe,” he said. “Africa and Asia were always more interesting to me.”
Being near war and violence also gave Melrose an opportunity to help civilians caught in the middle.
“I helped some prisoners in Sierra Leone,” Melrose said. “We had a 5-year-old girl who I heard screaming. I asked about her and apparently rebels poured molten plastic in her eyes. We got her a visa and got her out of the country. ”
When Melrose explained the functions of the U.N. he began with a quote from former U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.
“’The U.N. was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell,’” said Melrose. “The charter was created through compromise, but today the U.N. is constrained.”
He said that there were structural limitations in the U.N. because member nations were divided between regions like Latin America, Africa and NATO bloc.
“Positions on standing committees today rotate among regional groups,” he said. “The secretary-general, for example, is appointed by each region and then confirmed. This results in informal quotas for positions.”
Melrose said that these expectations posed serious problems to the organization.
“This informal process in the U.N., in my view, has become too institutionalized,” he said. “Because of this system Sudan was almost elected to the human rights council.”
Melrose also explained the financial situation of the U.N.
“Organizations cannot function without money, and the U.N. is no exception,” he said “Fourteen members of the U.N. pay more than 1 percent of the budget. The rest of the 179 countries pay less than 1 percent.”
He described his perspective on the United States involvement.
“The U.S. pays 22 percent or about $590 million,” he said. “I can see the U.S. as the next Tea Party of the U.N., making fiscal reductions without being selective about what they want cut.”
Members of Dorm Room Diplomacy said there were happy with the event, which drew more than 80 students.
“It went really well, it was our biggest event yet and the talk was really interesting,” said Dorothy Manevich, president of Dorm Room Diplomacy and a senior majoring in history. “There was good insight for people looking to go into Foreign Service.”
Many of Melrose’s stories stuck with students after the event.
“He’s been through so much of U.S. history,” said Phoebe O’Connor, a junior majoring in philosophy, politics and law. “It was amazing how he saved that little girl in Sierra Leone.”
At the end of his presentation, Melrose challenged students to make a difference.
“Current development and aid projects are not successful. Sustainable development has become a catchphrase for almost every issue,” he said. “I think we do have the ability to improve things, but it’s up to you to be instruments of change.”