Press Releases

     
    For information only - not an official document.
    Press Release No:  UNIS/SG/2562/Rev.1*
    Release Date:   May 2000
    Secretary-General, in Commencement Address, 
    Puts ‘Case for Multilaterialism

    NEW YORK, 15 May (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of the commencement address delivered at Wingate University, North Carolina, on 13 May, by Secretary-General Kofi Annan:

    How pleasant it is to be here in this beautiful North Carolina springtime.  And how exciting to play a part in one of the first commencements of the new millennium.  There is nothing like seeing you, the millennium generation, so exuberant and ready to make your mark on tomorrow, to make this United Nations Secretary-General feel more hopeful about the future.  Congratulations, graduates, on your big day.  The world is waiting for you!  And congratulations to all parents, friends and loved ones who have helped make this day possible.

    I want to thank you all for welcoming me into your community.  Your legendary Southern hospitality has made me feel instantly at home.  The Wingate campus reminds me of my own years at Macalester College near St. Paul, Minnesota.

    I am also put in mind of the contributions made by distinguished Southerners such as Senator Cordell Hull of Tennessee and Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas to the United Nations and wider international community.

    And I feel a kinship with your state as well.  North Carolina was the first colony in America to instruct its delegates at the Continental Congress to vote for independence from England.  The first colony in sub-Saharan Africa to win independence from England was my home country, Ghana.

    You might even say that Ghana and North Carolina are neighbours.  If you sail east/south-east from Cape Hatteras for about 4,500 miles, you will land in Ghana.  That may not sound like anyone's idea of "just down the road", but today, people, goods and ideas cross such distances with ever greater frequency, speed and ease.  North Carolina's farms and factories send their products to countries all over the world, including Ghana.  Your renowned educational institutions, medical centres and scenic wonders attract students, visitors and workers from all over the world, including Ghana.

    This is all part of what we have now come to call globalization.  Globalization is not just a backdrop; it is the very context in which live.  We are all becoming participants in a single global economy.  The same icons, whether  on a movie screen, on a computer screen, are recognizable from nearby Charlotte to Cape Town, South Africa.

    Our jobs depend not only on local firms and factories, but on faraway markets for the goods they produce.  Our safety depends not only on local police forces, but on guarding against the global spread of pollution, disease, drugs and deadly weapons.

    I recently read a good description of our era.  The twenty-first century, it said, will be one of "vanishing borders and complex relationships in business, government and human relations".  This quote does not come from a political science textbook.  It is not from an article in a business magazine or even a United Nations report.  It can be found in a brochure published by Wingate itself about your own international study and travel programmes.  I am glad to know how many of you have seized the opportunity to explore the world and get to know the people with whom you share it.  You are preparing yourselves very well for life in today's global village.

    As you know, my visit here came about through the efforts of one of Wingate's most famous graduates, Senator Jesse Helms.  I first met Senator Helms a little over three years ago when I had just been elected Secretary-General and I visited him in Washington.  And we have met several times since.  Our visits have always been cordial, friendly, and correct.  We have tried to resolve our differences, although we have not solved them all.  Over the years, as you know, Senator Helms has been a staunch advocate of United States interests, and I respect that.  Again over the years, Senator Helms has voiced some harsh criticism of the organization that I have proudly served for most of my adult life:  the United Nations.  But, recently, he called for a "new beginning" in the United Nations-United States relationship.  I welcome that and I think this is something that is already happening, and I hope we will continue on that road. 

    And I must say that I know that your effective, creative and experienced United States Permanent Representative, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, agrees with me and Senator Helms that we should do whatever we can to improve United States-United Nations relations.  He is not only protecting United States interests effectively in New York; I can assure you, he is working hard to improve the United States-United Nations relationship.  And Senator Helms and I agree that he should have been sent earlier to New York.

    The world needs the United States and the United Nations to work well together.  But the United States-United Nations relationship has been terribly damaged by myth, misinformation and misunderstanding; by failures of performance, and by failures of political will.  My concern today is not about history or blame but, rather, the future.  We will build strong United States-United Nations ties only on the basis of an understanding about the nature of our world and about the place of our United Nations in that world.

    And we will work together fruitfully if only we are clear about what the United Nations is and is not; about what the Organization can and cannot do; and about how the United Nations advances United States interests and values.  So I am happy to have this opportunity to take my case -- the case for international cooperation through the United Nations -- directly to you, the young men and women poised to become the leaders and global citizens of tomorrow.

    My guess is that you know the United Nations primarily through its peacekeeping operations, and especially for the few that did not achieve their goals, rather than the many that did help war-torn countries regain the path of peace.  You probably know about our work to protect refugees, vaccinate children and deliver food and shelter to victims of natural and man-made disasters.  As long as conflict, deprivation and repression plague the human condition, that work will continue, with or without globalization.

    But globalization generates a host of new and urgent demands.  Towns and villages have their planning boards, fire departments and municipal services.  Nations have their legislatures and judicial bodies.  There is a large and growing gap between the local and the global.  To bridge it and to meet global problems and threats, our interdependent world also needs institutions, mechanisms and rules.  More and more, the challenges we face cannot be addressed by any single country, no matter how powerful that country is, acting alone.

    It is this awareness that underpins the cooperation that is undertaken at the United Nations.  The Organization has no independent military capability, and very modest funds.  What influence we have derives from the force of the values we represent -- values such as tolerance and equal rights, values which are in fact America's own founding values.  We have no aspirations beyond helping sovereign states -- 188 of them -- to pursue their interests and improve their people's lives.  Those interests take many forms.  States have established rules to ensure the free flow of global commerce and trade, and to protect contracts, copyrights and property rights.  They have created norms for aviation, transportation, telecommunications, weather forecasting and even postal services -- norms that make global transactions possible.

    States have supported democracy through missions designed to ensure that elections reflect the will of the people.  They have agreed on measures to protect the Earth's ozone layer.  And they have taken joint legal action to bring war criminals to justice in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

    They have done all this, and yet must go further still.  The new global era demands that we do that.  That is why Member States are combating global warming through the Kyoto Protocol, which I hope the United States will soon ratify.  And that is why States have decided to create an International Criminal Court so that war criminals everywhere no longer enjoy impunity for their offences.  I look forward to the day when the United States ratifies this statute, too.

    In all of this work, the United Nations has been among the Member States' main instruments of choice; it has served as a vehicle and a forum for sovereign States to pool their efforts, coordinate their national policies, manage their disputes and overcome their differences.  They have found a clear national interest in the collective interest.

    But the United Nations is not just a tool; it is also expected to bring new ideas and analysis to the table.  That is why I recently submitted to the membership of the Organization a Millennium Report that seeks to outline the challenges in the decades ahead and how, through the power of education, information technology and cooperation, we might meet those challenges.  And I am pleased to know that copies of this Report have been distributed to all of you.

    The United Nations will be holding a "Millennium Summit" meeting in New York this September.  We expect dozens and dozens of heads of state and government to attend that Summit.  It is my hope -- and yours, too, I suspect -- that they seize this opportunity to make real commitments to make real progress and adopt an agenda for action.  

    It is true that this position of multilateralism which I have espoused is not universally acclaimed.  It is true that there is opposition to such cooperation as this, and to such thinking as I have indicated, and sometimes it is fierce.  But it is not true that most Americans are opposed to it.  On the contrary, public opinion polls show consistent support in this country for the United Nations, warts and all.  Even former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has said "there is no dispute that the vast range of United Nations activities are indispensable".  Rather, the resistance comes from a small but influential segment of the population.  Its most visible -- and most damaging -- expression is an unwillingness to honour the United States legal obligation to pay its financial contributions to the United Nations.

    Those who put that stranglehold on the United Nations tend to fear what George Washington once called "entangling alliances".  But that should not lead them to deny their country the benefits of partnerships and pragmatic problem-solving.

    They tend to define national interest in narrow terms -- and thereby miss some golden opportunities to come together in common cause, sharing burdens, risks and costs.  And they often imagine a world government infringing on sovereignty and imposing a utopian vision and arbitrary authority.  I say nothing would be less desirable.  That is emphatically not what the United Nations is about.  On the contrary, it can help to strengthen national sovereignty by helping to build safer, more stable societies.

    The Helms/Biden bill and Senator Helms's visit to the United Nations in January represent very important steps in the right direction and changes in atmosphere.  And I welcome that very much.

    But for longer-term solutions, the world community looks to you, the Class of 2000; to you, the Internet generation; to you and your counterparts around the world, for whom international cooperation is already, and will continue to be, second nature -- perhaps a leap of faith at times, but mostly just plain good old common sense.

    I do not mean to suggest that cooperation is an automatic recipe for resolving all differences.  There will always be occasions when cooperation fails.  There will always be unforeseen difficulties in the path of peace.

    I suspect you are following the current events in Sierra Leone, where United Nations peacekeepers have come under attack and a peace agreement is suddenly in distress and in trouble because one of the parties that signed the accord is no longer honouring its pledge to cooperate.  The situation there is very fluid, sensitive and tense.  To those who wonder how yet another United Nations peacekeeping mission could encounter such difficulties, I say that the United Nations is trying very hard to assess the failures of peacekeeping, and to learn the lessons of Rwanda and Srebrenica.  

    And I have appointed a panel for this purpose in which prominent Americans are taking part.  It will likely have many hard lessons for us in the Secretariat.  And I suspect it will have equally hard ones for the Member States, which sometimes give us unrealistic mandates or inadequate means to do the job assigned to us.  Peacekeepers need to be properly trained and equipped.  They need to be available at short notice.  And peacekeeping operations need to be planned and administered by Headquarters staff that is adequate.

    In the meantime, we are doing our utmost to save the peace process in Sierra Leone.  The people there need humanitarian relief but above all some protection.  The international community made a commitment to Sierra Leone and cannot now abandon the people of Sierra Leone in their hour of greatest need.  Indeed, the plight of Sierra Leone has become a crucial test of that fundamental solidarity between peoples, rising above race and above geography, which is the most basic guiding principle of the United Nations.  We must not fail Sierra Leone; we must not fail Africa; and we must not fail ourselves. 

    I sincerely hope that such troubles do not deter you from supporting the United Nations or getting involved in our work.  Indeed, it is at such times that the world needs you most.  

     I know that the United Nations can also seem remote.  But no matter what subject you have majored in, the chances are there is a direct connection between your life and the United Nations.

    Many of you are graduating with business degrees.  Last year's "NetAid" concert was a joint United Nations-business venture to fight global poverty through the power of the Internet.

    Some of you have studied psychology.  United Nations relief workers typically include men and women who provide counselling to refugees and others suffering trauma from conflict or natural disasters.

    Several of you are set to become teachers.  The United Nations has just launched a major initiative for the education of girls, which we regard as one of the keys to prosperity.

    Communications majors might be interested to know that the United Nations is forming a volunteer corps to train people in poor countries in the uses of the latest information technologies.

    And perhaps the scientists among you will help the United Nations' development work by joining the search for a vaccine against HIV and AIDS treatments that people in developing countries can afford.

    It does not matter whether you join the private sector, go into government service or work for a grass-roots or faith-based organization.  It does not matter if you work in a Wall Street law firm, soup kitchen across town or a literacy programme in Africa.

    What matters -- what the world needs you to do -- is to get involved in the noble project of working together to create a better world for your fellow men and women.  A fully reformed, updated and functioning United Nations -- a United Nations with the means to do the jobs entrusted to it -- can knit these efforts  together into a strong fabric of international cooperation for the global community.

    The great American poet Carl Sandburg, who chose to spend the last 20 years of his life among the friendly people and scenic beauty of North Carolina, once wrote that "Nothing happens unless first a dream".  We must remember that:  nothing happens unless first a dream.

    Our world may be getting smaller with every passing day.  But there is still plenty of room for big dreams -- your dreams.  Our era is one of momentous transition and transformation, one in which there are real openings for change, a receptivity to new ideas -- in short, room to make dreams come true.

    With your energies, ideas and fresh eyes, I know you will make your dreams come true and enrich the world in the process.  Good luck to all of you, thank you very much.  And go out and make a difference.
    __________________

    * Reissued to reflect amendments to text.

    * * * * *