The George Washington University
May 5, 2006
The United States and the United Nations: Working Together in
the 21st Century
By Kofi Annan,
UN Secretary General
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you all for that wonderful welcome. An honorary degree from this great university is an honor indeed. I know that through me you intend also to pay tribute to the United Nations. I am deeply grateful for that, and for the chance to give the first of a series of annual lectures on the US-UN relationship.
My friends, I have promised to speak to you about "the United States and the United Nations Working Together", because I believe they must work together. I want especially today to stress the importance of continued American involvement in the UN's human rights work, where historically the US has always been in the lead, and especially to say how urgent it is that we all do more to help the people of Darfur, whose human rights have been violated in the most appalling way.
I see no hope of a peaceful and stable future for humanity in this century unless the United States provides strong and enlightened global leadership. But I do not believe the US can do this on its own.
Some of you may agree with that, but still say "why the UN–" "Can't we rely on our traditional friends and allies– Or on ad hoc coalitions of the willing– Or perhaps on a new organization, in which only democracies would be members–"
My answer is that those ideas are fine, but they are not alternatives to the UN. They are ways of making the UN work better.
In fact, the UN is all about friends and allies working together, and about building coalitions. It is also about democracy.
The world today is no longer divided between a democratic camp and a totalitarian camp, as it was 20 years ago. Instead, the UN's member states are strung out along a continuum. Some, like the US, are fully fledged democracies of long standing. Many have made the transition to democracy since the end of the cold war, and many more are still on the road –more open and tolerant than they used to be, but still subject to hesitation and backsliding. But almost all accept democratization as something desirable, at least in theory.
Over all, the governments that sit in the UN General Assembly are more representative of their peoples and more influenced by public opinion in their countries than they used to be.
In that great process of democratization, the United Nations is playing an important role.
Through our Development Program, our human rights experts, our election advisers and our new Democracy Fund, we are encouraging and helping well over 100 countries to improve their governance, to ensure greater freedom for their citizens, and to organize freer and fairer elections.
In short, now is the time to strengthen democracy within the UN – and you will find that that is what the vast majority of America's friends, allies and fellow democracies want to do. They are much more ready to cooperate with the US, or to follow an American lead, if decisions are taken within the UN framework.
Clearly, there is a whole range of global issues on which states need to work together in this century, if their citizens and businesses are to have the chance to live and prosper in a secure, orderly and predictable environment. In this age of globalization, a threat to one country is a threat to all, and an opportunity for one country is also an opportunity for all.
Probably the most obvious global threats, to you here in Washington, are international terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
Both of these require vigilance on the part of every sovereign state. But no nation on its own can make itself fully secure against either of them. States must work together.
That is why world leaders, meeting at the UN summit in New York last September, called for a comprehensive global strategy for fighting terrorism, based on the "five Ds" that I had put forward six months before: Dissuading people from resorting to or supporting terrorism; Denying terrorists the means to carry out an attack; Deterring states from supporting terrorism; Developing state capacity to counter terrorism; and Defending human rights, since any compromise on that front plays straight into the terrorist's hands.
Earlier this week I presented more detailed recommendations, based on those elements, to the General Assembly. I hope this will enable the Assembly to agree on a global strategy very soon, and I am sure the US will work hard, with other member states, to make that happen.
Similarly, efforts to control nuclear proliferation rely on the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor countries' nuclear energy program; and on the Security Council to impose discipline on countries that do not cooperate with the inspectors. The Council is now debating how best to do that in the case of Iran.
Most UN member states, however, would say that the most urgent issue of all is the struggle against global poverty – which is like a tsunami every day, if one judges by the number of children who perish from malnutrition, HIV/AIDS or other preventable diseases, or whose lives are blighted by lack of education and employment.
It is true that every nation has to save itself, or at least to ensure that its people have the chance to save themselves, by producing and exchanging goods and services in a free market, untrammeled by corruption or oppressive controls. But billions of people will never have this chance unless there is a level playing field for world trade, without quotas, tariffs or subsidies that discriminate against the products of poor countries. And many countries are so poor that they cannot avail themselves of trading opportunities unless they also receive help to build up their infrastructure and capacity.
In other words, development requires a global framework of fairness and solidarity. President Bush gave an important lead in this direction when he came to the World Summit last September and endorsed the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Enlightened US leadership is essential in this struggle, too.
Other areas where I believe nations need to work together, in order to protect themselves against threats and maximize opportunities, include global health risks such as avian flu; the management of global migration; measures to prevent climate change; coordinated relief efforts to deal with major disasters; and peacebuilding in war-torn countries.
But if there's one I want to stress especially today, dear friends, it is the need for nations to work together to protect human rights.
In theory at least, the UN's member states took an important step in this direction last September, when they agreed that each state has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity; and added that they were prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, should national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from such crimes.
But these fine words will ring hollow so long as people in Darfur are still being driven from their homes subjected to intolerable suffering.
No words can adequately express what I feel about this inexcusable tragedy. For more than two years now, I and many others have been urging the Government of Sudan, the other parties on the ground and the international community to act firmly and decisively to put an end to it.
We have made some progress.
A massive humanitarian relief effort has kept many thousands of people alive – yet last week Jim Morris, a great and generous American who directs the UN's World Food Program, had to make the terrible announcement that he will have to halve rations for the starving people in Darfur who have been driven away from their homes and farms, because the funds pledged by many rich countries are not coming through fast enough.
An African Union mission has been deployed, and has improved security at least in parts of the region. But it is not big enough, and it has neither the mandate nor the assured resources and equipment it would need to protect most of those whose lives are being threatened. The African Union has, therefore, decided in principle to support a transition to a United Nations peacekeeping operation in Darfur.
In the meantime, intensive efforts have been made by the African Union, with the support of the UN, the US and others, to help the parties reach a political agreement. I still hope that within the next day or two we may have an agreement embracing all parties. Indeed I appeal to all of them to seize this opportunity and come to a peace agreement for the sake of their people who have suffered so much.
But even if an agreement is reached we should not imagine that means the problem is solved. A great deal remains to be done to ensure that people in Darfur can even survive, let alone return in safety to their homes and to growing their own food.
The humanitarian agencies urgently need financial support, and humanitarian workers need a more secure environment, if they are to reach those most in need of their help. It is therefore very urgent that all countries in a position to do so provide the African Union with the help it needs to augment and strengthen its force.
Even in the best-case scenario, the AU will be expected to shoulder this immense challenge for several more months. It deserves the international community's help. The lives of the people of Darfur depend on it.
Meanwhile, we will be working round the clock, with the Security Council, to encourage the Government of Sudan and the other parties to implement the agreement on the ground and, with potential troop contributors, to put together a United Nations force, building on what is already in place but larger and more mobile. The longer this is delayed, the greater the danger that the peace agreement will unravel and the bloodshed will continue.
Such help is precisely the kind of concrete action that would respond to the calls of thousands who marched here in Washington this past weekend. I do hope there will be growing calls from all parts of the world for effective protection and help to all who have suffered, in Darfur and throughout Sudan, over the past decades of civil war. Their fate must be a source of concern and shame to all of us, as human beings.
It is precisely to promote that sense of solidarity with every other human being – no matter of what race or creed – that we need effective human rights machinery in the United Nations.
Ever since I became Secretary-General, I have insisted that human rights should not be dealt with by just one office or department, but treated as a "cross-cutting issue" that infuses all our work. And we have had considerable success in doing that.
But we have often been let down at the very top – in the body where governments come together to discuss human rights, and from which they should give us political guidance.
Until two months ago, that body was the Commission on Human Rights – the body which Eleanor Roosevelt helped to set up, and which was once the jewel in the UN's crown. Sadly, in recent years the Commission was divided into two groups of states – one of mainly developed countries, determined to indict the worst violators of human rights in the developing world, the other composed mainly of developing countries, including some of those violators but also others who, out of solidarity, voted with them to deflect criticism.
Amid the noise of this acrimonious and artificially polarized battle, constructive discussion on how to strengthen respect for human rights in different countries was largely stifled.
But on March 15th the General Assembly took a historic decision. It decided to replace the Commission with a new Human Rights Council, whose members will be elected directly by the Assembly itself. Each will need to win the support, in a secret ballot, of an absolute majority of the UN's membership. And instead of singling out a few countries for attack, this new Council will review the human rights performance of all, starting with its own members.
This is a great opportunity to make a fresh start. The new Council's agenda and procedures will be decided during its first session, which opens in Geneva on June 19th. Its first members will have a heavy responsibility: it depends on them whether the Council really is a spectacular improvement, or simply continues the practices of the old Commission under a new name.
That means it also matters greatly who those first members will be. They are to be elected in New York next Tuesday – just four days from now.
As you know, the United States decided not to stand for election this first time. I regret that, because I believe the US should always play a leading role in the UN's human rights work. But the US can still have a great influence, both on the composition of the Council and on the decisions of its members once they are elected.
I trust that Americans will be fully engaged in the debate. And by "Americans" I mean not only the Administration but members of Congress, pressure groups like Human Rights Watch, and – not least – experts from great universities like this one. Now is the time for all who really care about human rights to be fully engaged.
My dear friends,
Never in history can humanity have faced so many challenges that affect not just one nation or region, but the whole human race; and which call for a global response.
At such a time, international cooperation is not a choice. Nor is a global organization a luxury. They are necessities.
Granted, the organization we have is not perfect. Last year I recommended many reforms, including the establishment of the new Human Rights Council and Peacebuilding Commission – both of which, I hope, will now start work next month.
I also called for far-reaching reforms in the management of the Organization. Some of these have been endorsed by the membership – for instance, the creation of an Independent Audit Advisory Committee, and I have been able to push ahead with others that fall within my own competence – for instance setting up an Ethics Office, guaranteeing protection for whistleblowers, tightening the rules on financial disclosure by senior officials, and strengthening our main inspection body, the Office of Internal Oversight Services.
I have also provided member states with recommendations and tools to help them eliminate overlap, waste, and redundancy in the work of the UN, including suggestions for streamlining programs and consolidating reports, and an electronic registry of all the mandates which have accumulated over the past 60 years. Member states have now embarked on a substantive review of these mandates, and are clearly committed to making the Organization's work more efficient and effective.
By contrast they have not yet taken action on the proposals I submitted two months ago, in response to an invitation from last year's summit, for a radical overhaul of the UN Secretariat, aimed at improving our management systems and ensuring that our personnel respond more nimbly to the many demands that are addressed to us nowadays. I hope that, once they are provided with a more detailed version, they will soon do so. And I hope they will not give up trying for agreement on the reform which most people in the world consider the most essential, namely enlargement of the Security Council to bring it into line with the geopolitical realities of this century.
In the end only the member states can mold the United Nations into the global instrument that humanity needs, to help it respond to the global challenges of this century. The question is whether the nations of the world today have the wisdom to come together and do that.
To do so, they will need firm, clear-sighted leadership, from leaders who can look beyond narrow national interest, and articulate a global vision – and who will have what President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose vision was so central to the founding of the United Nations, called "the courage to fulfill their responsibilities in an admittedly imperfect world".
Such leadership cannot come from one country alone. But the world will surely look to the United States to play its part.
Thank you very much.
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