Libertatem Magazine

Interview with Joseph Therattil, Former Member of Indian Delegation at the United Nations

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Mr. Joseph Therattil is an alumnus of St Stephens, Delhi and was an officer working for the United Nations for a period of 12 years from 1968 to 1978. Post his career in the UN, he subsequently practised as a lawyer in Kerala.

In a distinguished career working for the UN, he was a Member of the Indian delegation dealing with Legal and Political Committees, Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Progressive Development of International Law, an officer for the United Nations Institute for Training and research among other roles.

Mr. Joseph is currently happily retired and living in Kochi, Kerala.

Below is the transcript of the interview conducted with Mr. Joseph Therattil.

Interview with Joseph Therattil, Former Officer at the United Nations

Rohan Mathew T: How did you progress from being a young boy in Kerala to work in the United Nations? Could you give us some more insight on your life story and educational Journey that led you to reach this position in your career?

Joseph Therattil: When I was a young boy the education system was very different from the presently existing education system. There was no competition as is now happening. Nobody ever thought of ranks. All that each person wanted was to pass the final exam annual examination and get promoted to the next higher class. In the 7th and 10th classes, there were public examinations. That is the government conducted the examinations on a state level and persons. Marked with three classes first second and third above 60 per cent versus 1st class between 50 and 60 were second class and below 50 was third class. I was not a brilliant student, but I always did well in my studies I passed in the first class both 7th and 10th Class annual examinations. Then I did what was then called intermediate class that is through years after the 10th class known then as SSLC (Secondary School Leaving certificate). After the intermediate, I went to Delhi to study at St Stephen’s College, which was then considered as one of the Premier education institutions in India.

I passed BSC chemistry in 1951. After that. I took employment as a cost accountant trainee and at the same time, I studied law in the evening classes in 1953. After I completed my LLB degree I wrote and cleared the IAS exams. Now though, I was not very particular about a government job I joined the Indian Revenue Service as an income tax officer in Calcutta from 1954 to 1962. Though the job had its perks I was not happy in the government job because corruption was very widely prevalent and I had an instinctive dislike for corruption of any kind. So, in 1962 being a serious reader of books I thought I should have further education. Since my sister was already in New York, I applied for admission in one of the American colleges I went to in 1962 summer to New York to study at the new school for social research where I got my masters degree in economics and political sciences. I also registered as a PhD student doing research in international law.

After graduating the first job I had applied for and got in the UN was as an advisor to the Indian Delegation.

Rohan Mathew T: In a 12-year career as an officer, delegate, chairperson among many other roles. How would you describe the work you engage yourself in within the United Nations?

Joseph Therattil: My job with the Indian delegation to the United Nations was very interesting and rewarding to me personally. I worked in effect as a member of the Indian delegation representing India in the legal and decolonization committees. My main job was dealing with treaty law and similar International legal instruments and in the decolonization committee, it was making colonies independent of their administering powers.

I actually did speak for India in various committees because of my educational background and knowledge about International affairs. As a member of the legal committee, I also represented India in the special committee on the codification of international law.

There are a number of sub-committees that were formed and I was the chairman of one of the subcommittees and I was able to guide the subcommittee in coming to a definition of use or threat of use of force as a principle of international law, which is also enshrined in the charter of the United Nations.

After working as a member of the Indian delegation for four years. I became a member of the United Nations Institute for training and research my main job was guiding research in various legal subjects and also coordinator of the training programs of diplomats and international officials.

Both these aspects of my professional work were very rewarding and on the whole the work there was very satisfying and I was on an equal par with ambassadors from other countries and legal Scholars.

Rohan Mathew T: What made you take a major career shift from working in the United Nations to becoming a lawyer in Kerala additionally. What work did you engage yourself in after taking this decision to come back?

Joseph Therattil: In 1978, though I very much enjoyed working for the UN, I thought of giving up my job in New York and coming back to Kerala to take care of my parents.

I had stopped working at the age of 46 and there was no pension until I attained the age of 60. So I had to work and naturally, the work and the work which attracted me most was legal work. My father also practised as an education.

My first job upon coming back was as a private lawyer and I was lucky that my office was near the Office of then retired Justice Chevalier Joseph who was a very respected judge and I had had many enlightening conversations with him.

My job mainly consisted of appearing independently for clients in the high court as well as in the lower courts like district courts.

My clients included a number of religious institutions including all the Diocese Catholic dioceses in Kerala, banks such as The Reserve Bank of India and various insurance companies and also some central government Enterprises.

Though, it did not give me much monetary return it gave me the opportunity to study different legal enactments and be acquainted with the entire gamut of law. Apart from this work my office took up a limited amount of criminal cases as well though only a very small amount.

Rohan Mathew T: What are your most memorable experiences working for the UN? Could you share some of your most cherishable ones?

Joseph Therattil: An interesting Incident in my life as a member of the Indian delegation to the US was a confrontation with the foreign minister of Pakistan Ali Bhutto. While discussing the issue of Kashmir stopped him because he exceeded his time by referring to Kashmir on a subject on an agenda item that had nothing to do with it. I made him stop his speech and this was reported in the Indian papers saying that the junior-most member of the Indian delegation prevents the foreign minister of Pakistan from speaking in the fourth committee. With this incident, I became more known in the United Nations delegation circles.

Rohan Mathew T: With a multitude of choices for young legal students to move into, how would you describe working the United Nations as a career path for them?

Joseph Therattil: During those days, there were two ways two join the United Nations. One is that you are recommended by your government to be appointed in any of the UN organizations and the second or the more difficult one is there is an internship program at the United Nations where Graduates Rush from college. If you get selected for this internship you stand a good chance of being absorbed as a staff member of the office where you did your internship or in any other part of the UN system.

Working for the United Nations system in the United Nations Headquarters in New York or Geneva and in the specialized agencies is a very intellectually rewarding experience. Not only that you deal with International Affairs and live issues which are being discussed all over the world. You are able to study subjects with interest and I would say that for any young person working at the United Nations is intellectually very satisfying and I would definitely recommend it as a great and enriching career path for the new generation of legal students.


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