REVIEW: Article

The United Nations

We are in a turbulent world and the times are difficult—whether it be on the Korean Peninsula, the Middle East, the Balkans, Africa or Afghanistan.

Your United Nations has come under fire and we are on the eve of dangerous days ahead in all theaters of this troubled world.

However, seeing so many young people from different places coming together in support of our Organization is truly heartening to me. 

First, because the United Nations is your United Nations.  It was created almost 60 years ago for the peoples of the world, whose future you represent.  

Second, because it is very encouraging to see so many of you, the leaders of tomorrow. 

This is a crucial time in the life of our United Nations.  I am sure I speak for all of us in saying that the past year has been a difficult one, marked perhaps more than anything by the war in Iraq and the events related to it.  

Those events raised a number of wider questions about the nature of the challenges we face, and about the ability of the multilateral system to deal with them. 

They have underlined the pressing need to make the United Nations a more effective instrument in meeting threats to global security in the 21st century. The United Nations also must protect millions of our fellow men and women from the more familiar threats of poverty, hunger and deadly disease. We must understand that a threat to some is a threat to all.

The events of 2003 distracted the world’s leaders from that agenda, and we must now refocus on it. We must rededicate ourselves to our overriding mission to meet the Millennium Development Goals adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000. 

The number of people in this world living on one dollar or less per day, in hunger and without safe water, has not decreased. The numbers dying of AIDS and other infectious diseases have not decreased.

The factors that cause the desert to advance, biodiversity to be lost, and the Earth’s atmosphere to warm, have not decreased. 

In short, the agenda of peace and development set out in the Millennium Declaration is no less pressing than when it was adopted in September 2000.  On the contrary, it has taken on new urgency.

The world is saying that the United Nations matters. 

Are we right in believing that the United Nations matters?  I think we are, because the United Nations offers the best hope of a stable world and a broadly equitable world order, based on generally accepted rules.  That statement has been much questioned in the past year.  But recent events have reaffirmed, and even strengthened, its validity.

A rule-based system is in the interest of all countries—especially today.  Globalization has shrunk the world. The very openness, which is such an important feature of today’s most successful societies, makes deadly weapons relatively easy to obtain, and terrorists relatively difficult to restrain. Today, the strong feel almost as vulnerable to the weak as the weak feel vulnerable to the strong.

So it is in the interest of every country to have international rules and to abide by them.  And such a system can only work if, in devising and applying the rules, the legitimate interests of all countries are accommodated, and decisions are reached collectively. That is the essence of multilateralism, and the founding principle of the United Nations.

All great political leaders have understood this. It is one of the subjects now discussed intensively in the United States.  More and more countries feel the need to frame their policies, and exercise leadership, not just in the light of their own particular interests, but also with an eye to international interests, and universal principles.

Among the finest examples of this was the plan for reconstructing Europe after World War II, which General Marshall announced for the United States in 1947. That was one part of a larger-scale and truly statesmanlike effort, in which Americans joined with others to build a new international system—a system which worked, by and large, and which survives, in its essentials, nearly 60 years later.

During those 60 years, the United States and its partners developed the United Nations, built an open world economy, promoted human rights and decolonization, and supported the transformation of Europe into a democratic, cooperative community of states, such that war between them has become unthinkable.

In all these achievements the United States has played a vital role. America is, inextricably and indispensably, a part of this successful international system, based on the primacy of the rule of law.

In view of the political leadership of both parties in the United States, American power is an essential ingredient in the mix. But what makes that power effective, as an instrument of progressive change, is the legitimacy it gains from being deployed within a framework of international law and multilateral institutions and in pursuit of the common interest. Once again, in recent weeks, the United States found that it needed the unique legitimacy of the United Nations to bring into being a credible interim government in Iraq.

American leaders have generally recognized that other states, big and small, prefer to cooperate on the great issues of peace and security through multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, which give legitimacy to such cooperation.

They have accepted that others with a different view on a specific issue may, on occasion, be right.

They have understood that true leadership is ultimately based on common values and a shared view of the future.

Over 60 years, whenever this approach has been applied consistently, it has proved a winning formula.

But today it is threatened by a triple crisis, which challenges both the United Nations as a system, and the United States as a global leader.  It challenges us both to live up to our best ideals and our best traditions.

What does this crisis consist of?

First, a crisis of collective security.

Second, a crisis of global solidarity.

And third, a crisis of cultural division and distrust.

From the North American viewpoint, the security crisis looks the most obvious. We have seen international terrorism emerge as a major threat, most drastically after September 11, 2001. We worry about the spread of weapons of mass destruction. And we fear that existing rules governing the use of force might not give us adequate protection, especially if terrorism and weapons of mass destruction were combined.

This crisis came to a head last year, in the argument over Iraq. On one side, it was said that force should only be used in the most compelling circumstances of self-defense—when you are already being attacked or clearly just about to be—or otherwise by a decision of the Security Council.

On the other side it was argued, in essence, that in the post-September 11 world preventive use of force has become necessary in some cases, because you can’t afford to wait until you are sure that someone has weapons of mass destruction and is going to attack you. By then it may be too late.

Indeed, the combination of global terrorism, possible proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the existence of rogue or dysfunctional states does face all nations with a new challenge.  The United Nations was never meant to be a suicide pact.  But what kind of world would it be, and who would want to live in it, if every country was allowed to use force, without collective agreement, simply because it thought there might be a threat?

I believe the way forward is clear, though far from easy.  We cannot abandon our system of rules, but we do need to adapt it to new realities, and find answers to some difficult questions: When is use of force by the international community, acting collectively to deal with these new threats, justified?  Who decides? And how should the decision be taken, in time for it to be effective?

Last year a panel of eminent persons was appointed to look into those questions, and suggest ways of making our United Nations work better, in an age when humanity needs the Organization more than ever.

Their recommendations are expected by the end of this year, and I hope that they will lead to wise decisions by governments. But panels and governments cannot change the world by themselves. They need not only good ideas but also sustained pressure from internationalists in all countries—people who are both visionary and pragmatic. 

The issues go beyond terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. We also need better criteria for identifying, and clearer rules for dealing with, genocide and crimes against humanity, where the problem is often that the international community reacts too weakly, and too late.

We lived through the traumatic experiences of Bosnia and Rwanda, where United Nations peacekeeping forces had to witness appalling massacres but could do almost nothing to stop them, because there was no collective will to act.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan has warned that the Security Council cannot expect to be taken seriously unless it fulfills its responsibility to protect the innocent. National sovereignty was never meant to be a shield behind which massacres are carried out with impunity.

As things stand today, we still face too many cases where governments tolerate, incite, or even themselves perpetrate massacres and other crimes against international humanitarian law. In the Darfur region in western Sudan, for example, thousands of villages have been burnt and more than a million people forced from their homes. In all, about 1.3 million people need immediate assistance.

The international community must insist that the Sudanese authorities immediately put their own house in order. They must neutralize and disarm the brutal militias; allow humanitarian supplies and equipment to reach the population without further delays; ensure that the displaced people can return home in safety; and pursue the political negotiations on Darfur with a renewed sense of urgency. Further delay could cost hundreds of thousands of lives. And this is just one example of an ongoing crisis in the world, particularly and sadly in Africa.

Now I come to the second crisis—the crisis of solidarity.

Whatever our views about the war in Iraq, we should never have let it divert our attention and resources away from the goals for reducing extreme poverty and its worst effects that all nations set themselves four years ago, at the United Nations Millennium Summit. These, you remember, are goals to be reached by 2015: goals such as halving the proportion of people in the world who don’t have clean water to drink; making sure all girls, as well as boys, receive at least primary education; slashing infant and maternal mortality; and stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Of course, much of that can only be done by governments and peoples in the poor countries themselves. But richer countries, too, have a vital part to play. They must meet agreed targets on aid, trade and debt relief. We know that the Republic of Korea is an active partner in this respect.

Unless we make those issues a priority now, we shall soon run out of time to achieve the Millennium Goals by 2015—which means that millions of people will die, prematurely and unnecessarily, because we failed to act in time.

And we know, from bitter experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere, that our world will not be secure while citizens of whole countries are trapped in oppression and misery.

Finally, the third crisis is the crisis of prejudice and intolerance.

We must not allow ourselves, out of fear or anger, to treat people whose faith or culture differs from ours as enemies. This is a lesson that is particularly close to my heart and one that I would very much like to recommend for your discussion.

We must not allow ourselves to blame “Islam,” or to suspect all Muslims, because a small number of Muslims commit acts of violence and terror.

We must not allow anti-Semitism to disguise itself as a reaction to Israeli government policies—any more than we should allow all questioning of those policies to be silenced with accusations of anti-Semitism.

And we must not allow Christians in the Muslim world to be treated as if their religion somehow made them a fifth column of western imperialism.  It is in times of fear and anger, even more than in times of peace and tranquility, that you need universal human rights, and a spirit of mutual respect.

This is a time when we must adhere to our global rulebook: a time when we must respect each other—as individuals, yes; but individuals who each have the right to define their own identity, and belong to the faith or culture of their choice.

So those are the three great tests that our international system faces, in these first years of the new century: the test of collective security; the test of solidarity between rich and poor; and the test of mutual respect between faiths and cultures.

I know that we can pass those tests.

I know we can preserve and adapt, for the 21st century, a system that served us well in the second half of the 20th.

Listen to the arguments of those from other nations, and assess them on their merits. Remember that they also want what you want: the chance to live decent lives in dignity and safety. We all depend on each other.

To all of you I say: these are difficult times, but we can rise above them.  We have much to be grateful for; much to be proud of; and much that we must keep safe, for future generations’ sake.

Now is not the time to abandon our rule-based international system.

Let us preserve it. Let us improve it. And let us pass it on—intact, and even stronger than ever!  I say, go out to the great big world, and make a difference.*

* Editor’s Note: This text is based on a speech presented by Under-Secretary-General Reed to the Graduate School of Pan Pacific International Studies at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, Korea on July 2, 2004.

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