Press Releases

    DSG/SM/278
    30 January 2006

    Despite Recent Crises, UN Central Vehicle for Combating Innumerable "Problems without Borders", Says Deputy Secretary-General in Montreal Address

    NEW YORK, 27 January (UN Headquarters) -- Following is Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette's address at the University of Quebec, in Montreal, 26 January:

    It gives me great pleasure to join you all today.  As a Montrealer, I always enjoy spending time in this city.  I congratulate the University of Quebec at Montreal on its decision to dedicate its 2006 Raoul Dandurand conference to the United Nations, and I am delighted to see that this audience includes members of my family, along with many old friends and colleagues, to whom I extend a warm welcome.

    You have entitled this closing meeting "Do the major Powers have the capacity and will to save the United Nations?" I'd like to dwell on the words "save the United Nations".  Is that meant to suggest that the United Nations is moribund, or on its last legs? Before discussing the role of the major Powers, I think it is important to examine first the state of health of the Organization as we begin 2006.  Recent years have been rife with crises of every kind, most notably the bitter clashes over the war in Iraq, reports of sexual abuse perpetrated by our "blue helmets" and lapses in the "oil-for-food" programme.  Their impact on the Organization's reputation must not be underestimated, but it may be useful to step back somewhat from these recent events.  I hope to persuade you that the patient is doing better than one might think, and that it has been demonstrating a surprising ability to manage change for some 15 years now, but also that it must continue to receive proper care if it is to continue to prosper in its sixth decade and beyond. 

    The establishment of the United Nations was an act of extraordinary foresight and creativity.  Our founders designed an instrument of common progress unique in human history.  And they imbued it with all the key concepts that continue to be prerequisites for a peaceful and stable world: peaceful settlement of disputes; economic and social advancement of people; and respect for human rights.

    For several decades the Security Council remained hobbled by cold war rivalry.  But, at the end of the 1980s, two new phenomena transformed the international scene, and the United Nations with it: the end of the cold war and globalization.

    If anyone doubts the capacity of the United Nations to change and innovate, they need only look at the variety of ways in which it has responded to these changes in the world since around 1990.

    Peacekeeping

    First of all, the Organization's peacekeeping missions have increased in both number and complexity -- in the first 45 years of its history, only 13 peacekeeping operations were set up, but in the 15 years since then, twice that number have been deployed.

    Peacekeeping has evolved, almost beyond recognition, from its traditional cold war era role as a monitor of ceasefires.  Today, United Nations missions engage in such tasks as assisting political transitions, providing police services, operating tribunals, organizing elections, disarming militias and former combatants and protecting humanitarian aid workers, among many other initiatives. 

    Peacekeeping missions are now often mandated under Chapter VII of the Charter, allowing -- indeed, requiring -- peacekeepers to use force, not only in their own defence but also to deal with armed elements that threaten the civilian population.

    Twice in its recent history, the United Nations has even been asked to act as the Government of a territory, as it did in East Timor -- which a Unite Nations-mandated transitional Administration shepherded through to independence in 2002 -- and Kosovo, where the United Nations still retains final responsibility for the administration of the territory, as talks on its final status draw closer.

    Sanctions

    The United Nations has also been innovative in the area of sanctions.

    In Iraq, the Security Council imposed the most comprehensive sanctions regime ever designed.  The lessons learned from the unintended consequences of such a drastic formula, enabled the Council to develop more carefully targeted types of measures, such as travel bans and the freezing of bank accounts.  The measures introduced by the Council to curb the illegal exploitation of natural resources as a means to dry up financial resources for combatants, are another good example of innovative action. 

    Tribunals

    Another area where the United Nations has shown itself capable of considerable innovation in the last 15 years is that of criminal justice, starting with the establishment of two ad hoc criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.  The United Nations has also set up a mixed tribunal in Sierra Leone, which has allowed this war-torn country to take responsibility for judging its own war criminals, while benefiting from the expertise of international judges and prosecutors.

    The most spectacular innovation in this area is, of course, the creation of the International Criminal Court.  The Court itself is not an organ of the United Nations, but it came into existence through United Nations efforts, and the Security Council can refer situations to it, as it did already last year with Darfur.

    Human Rights and Terrorism

    Human rights are more central to the actions of the United Nations today than at any other time in its history.  The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, let us remember, was created only in the early 1990s.  Its successive incumbents -- particularly Mary Robinson and now our compatriot Louise Arbour -- have not only been ardent promoters of human rights around the world, but have expanded the capacity of this Office, to make a practical difference on the ground.  Each peacekeeping mission now has a human rights component, and there are a number of human rights monitoring missions in action in places as diverse as Nepal and Colombia.  And, even as we meet, delegates are at work in New York to establish a Human Rights Council to replace the much criticized Commission on Human Rights. 

    In recent years increasing attention has also been given to the threat posed by international terrorism.  Already before "9/11", the Security Council had imposed sanctions on Al-Qaida and set up a special committee to monitor its activities.  But immediately after the attacks, the Council went much further by adopting the historic resolution 1373 (2001), which imposed stringent obligations on all countries, established a list of terrorist organizations and individuals, and created the Counter-Terrorism Committee, both to monitor Member States' compliance with that resolution and to help them bolster their capacity to enact and implement anti-terrorist legislation.

    In short, over the decades, and especially in the last decade and a half, the United Nations has proved to be a flexible instrument, to which its Member States can, and do, turn for an incredible array of functions.  And they do so because, together with its unique worldwide legitimacy, the United Nations has also demonstrated its capacity to deliver.

    That is why it was asked to help Afghanistan make a fresh start.  It may be recalled that the United Nations-mediated Bonn process put together the interim Government.  The United Nations-convened loya jirga laid the foundation for an Afghan Constitution.  And in United Nations-run elections, Afghans have now, for the first time, freely elected their President and Parliament.

    It is also why, despite all the acrimony surrounding the Security Council's refusal to endorse the United States military action in Iraq in 2003, the United Nations was asked a year later to help establish the interim Government of Iraq, and then to help organize the elections and referendum. 

    That, again, is why this year, it was the United Nations that was asked to verify the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon and, for the first time ever, to carry out a full criminal investigation, a task it is performing with all the toughness, thoroughness and fairness required in a highly charged political environment.

    That is why we now have over 70,000 soldiers deployed in missions, more than any country other than the United States of America.

    The humanitarian efforts deployed through the relevant United Nations agencies help millions of people each year.  The Organization has a leading role in the global fight against HIV/AIDS and is addressing the developing threat of avian flu.  It is rallying the world against poverty, disease and hunger through its Millennium Development Goals, and working in partnership with Governments, the private sector and civil society to meet these, as well as other challenges. 

    The United Nations is continuing to adapt to the imperatives of our time.  At last September's World Summit, our Member States responded favourably to most of the proposals that the Secretary-General put forward in his report entitled In Larger Freedom.  In addition to the agreement in principle to establish a new Human Rights Council, we can cite the establishment of a new Peacebuilding Commission and accompanying Peacebuilding Fund, measures to strengthen the Organization's capacity to respond rapidly to humanitarian disasters, the establishment of a Democracy Fund and, for the first time in the history of the United Nations, the recognition by States that the international community has a responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, when their Governments are unwilling or unable to do so. 

    The leaders gathered at the Summit also gave the green light to an in-depth review of the Organization's mandates and regulations, which should lead to a new round of initiatives to modernize the administrative machinery of the United Nations, based on the recommendations that will be put forward by the Secretary-General at the end of February. 

    Am I saying that the United Nations is fine as it is? Absolutely not.  While the outcome of the September Summit is more substantial than is generally believed, there remain a large number of unresolved issues, including reform of the Security Council, over which members continue to be deeply divided.  Even more alarming is the total absence of progress on non-proliferation and disarmament, which does not bode well for either the United Nations or the principle of collective security in general.  But what I am saying is that the United Nations record in the last 10 years or so has been a lot better than one might think, and shows that the United Nations can, and does, change, and that lessons are both learned and applied.  So much, in fact, has changed that the United Nations of today would be unrecognizable to the founders of 1945.

    The past is not always an earnest of the future, however, and the fact that the United Nations has more or less managed to adapt to circumstances over the past 60 years does not necessarily mean it can count on a bright future.  The future of the United Nations depends on the continued support of Member States, and the attitude of the major Powers is, of course, of utmost importance.

    Let us begin with some clarifications.

    First, when used in connection with the United Nations, the term "major Powers" is often taken to mean the five permanent members of the Security Council: the Russian Federation, China, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. 

    Today, however, which countries that can qualify as major Powers is more debatable and depends to some extent on the issue at hand.  Emerging Powers in the developing world, such as India, South Africa, Brazil or Nigeria, along with Japan, Germany and a few other major financial contributors, play a very significant role in United Nations affairs. 

    Secondly, the permanent members of the Security Council obviously stand out owing to their veto power, but this power applies only to the Security Council.  In other bodies, the influence of other major Powers may sometimes be equal to, or greater than, that of some of the permanent members.

    Thirdly, it should be recalled that veto power can only prevent something from occurring.  It cannot by itself compel others to support an action advocated by the veto holders. 

    Lastly, it is not possible to generalize about the major Powers' attitudes towards the United Nations.  While the permanent members may share certain interests related to their status, their views on specific issues can and will differ greatly. 

    That brings me to the core issue of this meeting: whether the major Powers have the desire or ability to save the United Nations.  Are they doing everything they can to ensure that the United Nations remains relevant and can play its role to the full? I have identified several questions that may help us to answer this, and I am sure our panellists will identify many more.

    The first of these questions is: are the major Powers ready to work through the United Nations to solve international problems? Judging by the Security Council's agenda over the past few years, it seems that States, particularly the most influential ones, are more likely than they were in the past to deal with threats to international security multilaterally.  It is also true, however, that reticence on the part of any of the permanent members or other influential countries may be enough to prevent the Council from taking up certain sensitive issues. 

    The nature of the mandates entrusted to the Secretary-General -- that is, whether he is asked to command military forces, provide political leadership or simply lend support -- is strongly influenced by the position of the permanent members.  But the views of regional organizations and of States bordering on conflict zones also have considerable weight. 

    The Secretary-General's views, too, are obviously important.  It is generally on the basis of his recommendations that the mandates of peacekeeping missions are developed. 

    The second question is whether the major Powers are ready to use their political capital to enforce United Nations decisions and ensure that it is allowed to operate.  The conclusions that could be drawn on that score will vary from one case to another.  In areas where the international community pursues a coherent strategy, and where the messages and actions of the most influential countries are in keeping with this strategy, the United Nations will succeed more easily in obtaining the expected results.  Too often, however, the mandates entrusted to the United Nations do not enjoy all the necessary political support, either because Member States are indifferent or, even worse, because major countries' differing political or commercial interests exert contradictory influences on the ground.

    Another pertinent question concerns the resources made available to the United Nations.  Do the major Powers provide the Organization with the resources it needs to implement the mandates it receives from its Member States?

    There is no question that the financial resources of the United Nations have increased considerably over the past few years, because of the increase in the number of peacekeeping missions, rising from $8 billion in 1997 to some $13 billion last year.  This sum does not include the budgets of United Nations agencies, funds and programmes.  Considering the scope of the mandates that we receive, however, these amounts are still relatively modest, compared with national defence budgets, for example. 

    The United Nations depends entirely on States to provide it with peacekeeping troops.  The performance of the permanent members and Western countries in this respect is a cause of concern.  It is true that these same countries assume important responsibilities in military missions endorsed, but not commanded, by the United Nations, in Kosovo and Afghanistan, for example, but the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of the troops deployed in United Nations missions now come from developing countries.

    A final observation with respect to resources is that the significant increase in spending on official development assistance since 2000, including by the major Western Powers, has had a positive impact on our humanitarian and reconstruction programmes.  However, resources are often lacking for certain activities essential for peacebuilding programmes, such as police training or reform of the armed forces.  Even more worrying is the fact that, all too often, resources dry up once the cameras have left the scene.

    We may also look at the role of the major Powers in terms of their position with respect to institutional reforms.  Do they support the institutional changes needed for the smooth operation of the Organization?

    The Security Council is the first entity that springs to mind.  The permanent members have certainly joined forces to protect their veto power, but on the issue of expansion they have taken various and even contradictory stances.  Member States are no closer to unanimity on the issue of the Human Rights Council.  Overall, however, the permanent members of the Security Council favour this organ, where they hold a privileged position, rather than the General Assembly, where they have less influence. 

    Beyond all these considerations, one question -- the most basic of all -- remains.  Are the major Powers ready to abide by the values and principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations in the conduct of their relations with the rest of the world?

    The concept of collective security that gave rise to the United Nations requires that Members agree to place self-imposed limits on their conduct, subordinating their actions to the rules and procedures they have freely accepted, in the interest of maintaining world order.  Nothing erodes the Organization's credibility more than the perception that there are double standards, with different rules for the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak.

    It is a reflection of the genius of the Organization's founders that they created a forum that acknowledges the reality of power, while simultaneously empowering each member country with a vote, and a voice.  The United Nations simply could not be effective without the involvement of the major Powers -- their economic clout, their military capacity, their global reach and influence.  At the same time, this Organization known as the United Nations cannot thrive and prosper if it is perceived to be nothing more than an instrument, through which the bigger countries exercise their power and influence. 

    The case for a strong universal, multilateral institution such as the United Nations is easy to make.  The world is beset by innumerable "problems without borders" -- weapons proliferation, the degradation of our common environment, contagious disease, terrorism and massive displacement, to name but a few -- that can only be overcome through effective international cooperation. 

    The United Nations is the central vehicle for this cooperation, and it has, on the whole, served humanity well.  The major Powers, and particularly the permanent members of the Security Council, bear special responsibility, because they have unique capacities to act and transform reality.  But it would be unfair and unreasonable to suggest that the future of the United Nations depends entirely on them.  The rest of the international community also has a responsibility.  It, too, must abide by the principles of the Charter and support the Organization's activities.  Indifference is almost more dangerous than criticism.  In conclusion, the United Nations is once again at a crossroads.  I fervently hope that the entire international community will rally behind it and agree on the steps that are necessary to strengthen its capacity to deal with the challenges of our times.

    * *** *