Press Releases

    DSG/SM/283
    WOM/1552
    16 March 2006

    Deputy Secretary-General, in Remarks to International Women's Forum, Defends Ability of United Nations to Adapt as World Changes

    She Cites Organization's Changing Peacekeeping Role, Flexibility Following End of Cold War, Onset of Globalization

    NEW YORK, 15 March (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of UN Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette's remarks to the International Women's Forum in New York yesterday, 14 March:

    Thank you, Lynn and Jan, for those kind words.  I am very happy to be here and to have the chance to speak to all of you.  As we meet just two and a half weeks before I leave my post in the United Nations, I thought I might use the opportunity to look back a bit.  To talk about my own experience as Deputy Secretary-General, and also about how the Organization has evolved in recent years.

    When I started as DSG in March 1998 -- 14 months after Secretary-General Kofi Annan took office -- my position was as new as I was.  It was clear I would have to hit the ground running on several fronts -- and that, at the same time, I would have to allay a few fears about what my new job meant.

    To begin with, a number of Member States had been very hesitant about the whole notion of a Deputy Secretary-General.  They made it known they did not want a new centre of power introduced in the Secretariat.  In fact, they didn't even authorize a new salary level for the post, as recommended by the Secretary-General!  They opted instead to approve a "bonus" arrangement that made clear their reticence and uncertainty.

    In the Secretariat, too, there was some anxiety.  Although my colleagues were too polite to say so, I am sure many of them were wary of my new functions.  Would I stand in the way of senior officials wanting direct contact with the Secretary-General?  Would I try to manage or interfere with their work?  And what subject-matter would I be dealing with?   The General Assembly resolution that created the post was very general.  It identified broad areas -- supporting the Secretary-General in ensuring coherence across the UN system, and strengthening the UN's role in economic and social development.  But beyond that, the job description amounted to a pretty blank page.

    From the start, it seemed to me that the best thing to do was to work with colleagues to improve those areas that needed it, and stay out of the way where things were working well.  And that is, in effect, how the job came to function from then on.

    That meant a key part of my work was coordination across the UN family.  Our system is, as you know, as complex as it is large, and one of the biggest challenges is ensuring it works with as little duplication or contradiction as possible, while preventing things from falling between the cracks.

    The most sustained example of any single coordination effort on my part was the UN's work in Iraq.  For more than a year, from 2002 onwards, I chaired a committee charged with preparing for a possible humanitarian crisis in case of a war.  Then, after war was declared, we were tasked with ensuring that various UN entities acted with coherence and complementarity. Our group brought together senior officials from a range of UN entities to ensure each one knew precisely what was expected of it.

    There were a number of similar exercises over the years -- ranging from Sierra Leone to Kosovo and East Timor -- where I was in charge of making sure the different members of the UN family were singing from the same song book.

    I did the same when we were preparing for a series of UN conferences and other high-level events -- from the Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg to the Summit on the Information Society in Geneva and Tunis.  And then there were of course those mega-summits -- the Millennium Summit in 2000 and the 2005 World Summit.

    I'm sure you will have heard a great deal already about the World Summit last September and its outcomes, so I will not dwell on that now.  But I would like to say a special word about the Millennium Summit of 2000.  That event will always have a special place in my heart as an event imbued with hope.  I don't mean to sound excessively nostalgic:  even in those days, the international community was not without its problems or differences of opinion.  But there was a palpable harmony in the room when leaders met.  The world seemed more benign, the challenges more manageable.  Looking back on it now, that world seems far away.

    Then there was one specific area of responsibility that touched me personally more than any other -- our work on HIV/AIDS.  I still remember the day when Nitin Desai, then Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, briefed the Senior Management Group about the impact of AIDS in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world.  About how it had devastating consequences far beyond the individual.  How it tore apart whole societies, and risked doing the same to entire countries.

    We were getting signals on many fronts that we needed to radically increase the pace and scope of the international community's efforts to fight the epidemic.  Our stepped up response culminated with the launch of the Secretary-General's Call to Action on HIV/AIDS in Abuja in the spring of 2001, which gave rise to the launch of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, as well as a range of other measures.  Soon afterwards, the General Assembly held its first Special Session on HIV/AIDS.

    Our work on HIV/AIDS is an excellent example of the UN both leading and working in partnership with a broad variety of actors -- State and non-State -- thanks in large part to UNAIDS under the inspiring leadership of Dr. Peter Piot.  The GA Special Session brought together Governments, NGOs, people living with HIV/AIDS, the private sector -- all those who need to play their part to the full if our struggle is to succeed.  And that is the kind of partnership the UN aims to pursue in its work on the ground, every day.

    Of course, my job description also included many official and diplomatic duties, supporting the Secretary-General, as he cannot be everywhere at once.  That has meant receiving diplomats with great frequency on any number of subjects -- including many of your spouses, of course.

    And it has meant sitting next to the President of the General Assembly through every general debate since I joined.  I have probably heard more general debate speeches by Heads of State and Government than anyone else in the past eight years!

    Yes, it's a long time to sit still in one place -- but I have found the experience highly worthwhile.  This is, after all, a key function of the UN -- to provide a forum where all countries, large and small, rich and poor, have a voice.  To offer a chance to take a pulse of the world.  That is why I disagree entirely with those who say the general debate serves no purpose and should be abolished.

    If I was myself a product of UN reform, I have also been deeply involved in the UN reform agenda.  In 2000, I contributed to and then coordinated the follow-up to the Brahimi Report, which led to a transformation of UN peace operations, and strengthened our capacity to manage large peacekeeping missions.

    In 2002, I helped the Secretary-General lead the effort behind a reform package which helped set the stage for much of today's effort to adapt the rules and regulations of the Organization to today's realities.

    The year after that, I shepherded the report of the panel led by former President Cardoso of Brazil on the interaction of the UN with civil society, including NGOs.  This is an increasingly important role of the UN in today's world -- as the centre of a network of networks, as President Cardoso put it in his report, bringing together actors from all sectors of society.  I regret that the Cardoso report got less attention than it deserved, and that some of its practical recommendations were not picked up and acted on.   This is a subject that will be with us for a long time to come.

    I was also heavily engaged in reforms to improve staff security.  For too long, our security systems had not been keeping pace with either the changes in the world or the growing UN presence in the field.  Our men and women were paying an unacceptable price for that disconnect.  In 2000, we launched a security reform effort which led to the establishment of a full-time UN Security Coordinator for the first time.  With that reform, we finally seemed to be making progress on an issue that met with only half-hearted support for all too long.

    But barely had those reforms been implemented when the 2003 bomb attack happened at the UN headquarters in Baghdad.  I will never forget that day.  I was returning to New York from a few days' private visit in Europe.  UN colleagues met me at the airport, their faces ashen.  By that time, Sergio Vieira de Mello was already dead.  We did not know the fate of many of the others, several of whom I knew personally.  Days passed in a haze of grief and numbness.

    Until something like that happens, you can never really imagine that it can strike at people you know well.  Yet today, it is a tragic comment on the state of our world that such events have become a feature of life in international service.  Just a few weeks ago, I learnt that a former colleague from the Canadian foreign service had died in an explosion in Afghanistan.  I don't remember anything like that ever happening in the days when I was a young diplomat.  Life in the foreign service seems far more dangerous now.

    After the Baghdad bombing, we knew -- and Member States understood -- that we had to seize the bull by the horns and impose far stricter systems on staff security.  I am grateful to Member States for granting us the means to spend the resources required and to build the professional capacity we need.

    Friends, as you can hear, reform has been a key part of my life in the United Nations, and I daresay reform will be part of the life of the Organization for some time to come.  You have probably heard and read a great deal about the major reform effort we are in the middle of right now, so I will spare you a briefing on that.

    But I do want to talk a bit about how much the UN has changed in the past decade or two.  How it has reformed constantly to adapt to changes in the world as a whole.  At the end of the 1980s, two new phenomena transformed the international scene, and with it, the United Nations:  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.

    Just look at the UN's role in peacekeeping.  Our 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.  We now have over 70,000 troops deployed in missions, more than any country other than the United States of America.

    Peacekeeping has evolved almost beyond recognition from its traditional cold-war-era role as a monitor of ceasefires.  Today, United Nations missions engage in a wide range of tasks -- assisting political transition, 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 United 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 are another area where the United Nations has been innovative in recent years.  In Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, 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.  Other new kinds of sanctions include measures introduced by the Council to curb the illegal exploitation of natural resources as a means to dry up financial resources for combatants.

    There has been even more radical innovation in the area of criminal justice.  In the mid-1990s, the UN broke new ground with the establishment of two ad hoc criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.  It also set up a mixed tribunal in Sierra Leone to allow this war-torn country to take responsibility for judging its own war criminals, while benefiting from the expertise of international judges and prosecutors.

    But the most remarkable 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.

    That brings us naturally to the subject of human rights -- an area more central to the actions of the United Nations today than at any other time in its history.  As you know, Member States are currently discussing the creation of a Human Rights Council to replace the much-criticized Commission on Human Rights.

    But there are other relatively recent developments worth noting in our human rights machinery.  The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was itself created only 13 years ago.  The successive High Commissioners -- particularly Mary Robinson and now Louise Arbour -- have not only been ardent promoters of human rights around the world, they have also strengthened the capacity of the 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 places as diverse as Nepal and Colombia.

    Terrorism is, of course, another area where the UN has had to move with the times.  Already before 11 September 2001, 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 resolution 1373.  This imposed a number of obligations on all Member States, established a list of terrorist organizations and individuals, and created the Counter-Terrorism Committee -- both to monitor Member States' compliance with the resolution and to help them bolster their capacity to enact and implement anti-terrorist legislation.  We hope this year to see a comprehensive convention against terrorism, and a global terrorism strategy, adopted by the General Assembly -- as mandated by last September's World Summit.

    Friends, as you can hear, throughout its recent history the United Nations has proved to be a flexible instrument, to which its Member States can and do turn for a wide array of functions.  I believe they do so for two reasons:  the Organization's unique worldwide legitimacy, and its demonstrated capacity to deliver.

    That is why, four years ago, the UN was asked to help Afghanistan make a fresh start.  The UN mediated the so-called Bonn process, which put together the interim Afghan Government.  The UN convened the loya jirga, which laid the foundation for an Afghan Constitution.  The UN then helped organize the elections which gave the Afghans their first freely elected President and Parliament.

    It is also why the UN was asked to play a similarly key role in Iraq -- despite all the controversy surrounding the Security Council's refusal to endorse United States military action there in 2003.  A year later, the UN was asked to help establish the interim Government of Iraq, and then to help organize the elections and referendum.

    And that, again, is why the United Nations was asked to verify the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon and to carry out a full criminal investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.  It is the first such investigation the UN has ever conducted -- and it is doing so with all the toughness, thoroughness and fairness required in a highly charged political environment.

    Those are some of the reasons why I will leave the UN extremely proud to have served here.  I will also leave far more knowledgeable about the UN system's complexities, strengths, and indeed weaknesses, than I was when I served as Canada's Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

    Overall, the past eight years have been an experience I have enjoyed thoroughly, and I am deeply grateful to the Secretary-General for having given me this chance.  I am especially grateful for having had the pleasure and privilege of working with such high-calibre colleagues these eight years.

    The staff of the UN is the Organization's greatest asset.  The vast majority work here because they believe it's the right thing to do.  They are not receiving nearly enough appreciation from outside the Organization, and they are often poorly served by inadequate management systems inside the Organization.  We are now in the midst of a management reform effort which I fervently hope will give staff the improved leadership, systems and conditions they so well deserve.

    Finally, let me say a special word about the women of the UN -- not only because I am addressing the International Women's Forum today, but because I truly mean it:  over the past eight years, I have been impressed and inspired by the talent and ability of the women I have come across, in every aspect of the work of the Organization.

    Under this Secretary-General, the UN has had more women in senior positions than ever before.  When I first started, our line-up included Nafis Sadiq of UNFPA, Carol Bellamy of UNICEF, Sadako Ogata of UNHCR, Catherine Bertini of WFP, Mary Robinson as High Commissioner for Human Rights, and, among the specialized agencies, Gro Harlem Brundtland at WHO.  I learned a great deal from all of them, and what's more, I found their company tremendously rewarding.  All of us used to have dinner twice a year on the margins of the meetings of the United Nations System Chief Executives Board, and the camaraderie that developed among us is something I will always value.

    Since they left, several of them have been replaced with equally impressive women, such as Louise Arbour, Thoraya Obaid and Ann Veneman.  And immediately below that top level, there is a group of women who are just as capable and talented.  The challenge before the UN now is recruiting, retaining and rewarding the next generation of younger women so that they can at long last achieve the goal of gender parity at all echelons of the UN Secretariat.

    Friends, as you can hear, my experience has taught me that the United Nations is in pretty good shape to take on the future -- and in much better shape than many people give it credit for.  I hope that is a message you will take away with you today, and I hope you will spread the word to others.  I thank you for listening, and I look forward to answering your questions.

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