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The United Nations, Multilateralism and the Environment

St Edmund's College Law Society Lecture, Cambridge, 3 May 2003

I begin with the Iraq war. Not just because it is topical, but because it has clear implications for the United Nations, multilateralism and the environment:

In short the war has been bad for the United Nations, bad for multilateralism, and bad for the environment.

Can the United Nations bounce back? Of course it can. The United Nations has proved surprisingly robust over the last fifty years. It has survived extraordinary changes in international relationships, and adapted itself pretty well in the process.

I was the witness of five main changes, or groups of changes during my time as British Permanent Representative between May 1987 and September 1990. First and most obvious were the changes in attitude caused by the ending of the Cold War. The process was astonishingly rapid. Suddenly Permanent Representatives were able to talk to each other with a measure of common understanding and purpose. This was particularly so within the Security Council, and among the Five Permanent Members who found themselves at last able to fulfil most of the role given them under the Charter. New combinations developed among them: on some issues I found myself closer to our former adversaries than our friends. I was the informal chairman of the Five for almost two years. Some of our first essays in the management of crises took place in my apartment looking over the East River.

I was also the witness of the general replacement of confrontation by co-operation among the vast majority of United Nations members. This was despite the North-South polarity created by the break-up of the old colonial empires and a vast increase in its membership. Many of the new members had seen the United Nations less as a guardian of the status quo than as an agent of change to put right inequities between states. The arguments between rich and poor, between so-called developed and so-called developing countries, over such notions as new world economic orders or new world information orders had long proved sterile. Those who sang hymns to development were rarely clear about what they thought development meant. Many of the underlying problems remain unresolved (and indeed have got worse since then). A new approach to them was - and is - clearly required.

At the same time I was the witness of a new willingness to contemplate the use of force in the name of the international community. A real test came in the reaction to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the creation of the coalition under United Nations auspices to expel the Iraqis. This coalition was a classic example of the United Nations exerting the powers given it under the Charter. There had been a clear invasion of one sovereign state by another. Since then, for example in the Balkans, the United Nations has struggled to define its role in the face of far messier civil wars. But despite all failures and shortcomings, the Security Council remains the only global institution responsible for managing international peace and security.

I was also the witness of the development of new attitudes towards national sovereignty, a political concept first given legal force by the United Nations Charter. So far respect for sovereignty has been a foundation stone of the United Nations and its various institutions. Those who have the least sovereignty are always keenest to protect it. But over the years recognition of the constraints on it has become general, and erosion of the practice if not of the concept of sovereignty is widespread. Generally states are no longer watertight - if they ever were - from international law and practice, the behaviour of the global economy, transnational business and financial activity, international crime, and, with the development of information technology, communications on a global scale.

Last, and most important, I was the witness of - and a participant in - the process of drawing up a new agenda of points of global concern. Most now realize the dangers our little animal species has created for the good health of the planet, in particular the vertiginous increase in our numbers, pollution of land, water and air, consumption of resources in industrial countries, pressure on resources elsewhere, and destruction of other forms of life. I was a member of the ginger group which began the preparations for the United Nations Conference at Rio (the first meetings of the group were in the British Mission). Other obvious points were new threats to human health, in particular AIDS and now SARS, a vast increase in the numbers of refugees, and resurgence of ethnic and religious strife, the more assertive role of non-governmental organizations, and not least an increasing polarization of the world's rich and the world's poor.

In short we were looking at sustainability, and this must be the priority for the United Nations, its member governments and every human being. You may think I am exaggerating. But let me commend to you the Amsterdam Declaration. This remarkable statement was published after a meeting of scientists from the four international global change research programmes at Amsterdam in July 2001. There it stated squarely that:

"Human activities have the potential to switch the Earth's System to alternative modes of operation that may prove irreversible and less hospitable to humans and other life… the Earth's System has moved well outside the range of the natural variability exhibited over the last half million years at least. The nature of changes now occurring simultaneously in the Earth's system, their magnitudes and rates of change are unprecedented. The Earth is currently operating in a no-analogue state".


"The accelerating human transformation of the Earth's environment is not sustainable. Therefore the business-as-usual way of dealing with the Earth's System is not an option. It has to be replaced - as soon as possible - by deliberate strategies of management that sustain the Earth's environment while meeting social and economic development objectives".

No wonder that Crutzen and Stoermer have labelled the present epoch since the beginning of the industrial revolution as the Anthropocene.

Clearly we are talking about global problems that require global solutions, and here the United Nations is key. Multilateral approaches to sustainability have a long history which can be split into three phases:

What of Johannesburg? The result was well described by Geoffrey Lean, the doyen of British environmental journalists, as, "disaster averted: opportunity lost". The political declaration said little new, and was a triumph of repackaging. As for the Plan of Implementation, you will have your views on its value and only time will tell its true worth. Of course there were good points, but in my view the best comment on the plan as a whole was: "many trees but little wood."

In some respects we seem to have reached a watershed. So far I have described the gradual, sometimes hesitant movement of the world community towards international codes of conduct and law, and willingness to cooperate in coping with global issues, whether of peace and war, or of sustainability in all its aspects. But now we have to face up to what, I suppose, was a natural consequence of the ending of the cold war in the late 1980s and early 1990s: the emergence of a single superpower - the United States - which is increasingly setting its own agenda, laws, and rules of conduct.

The process goes back to the end of the First World War. I saw some of it for myself during the years I was at the United Nations in New York. Over the 1980s the United States was an ever more grumpy and reluctant partner in international affairs. For many Americans the rest of the world seemed a long way away, and the US interest in international management was in sharp decline. More than ever the criterion for any action was national interest rather than global interest.

These tendencies have become much clearer in the Administration of President Bush Junior. The way in which the United States with British support, tried to bully the Security Council into endorsing a war against Iraq, and then, having failed, launched it all the same, is present in all our minds. But already unilateralism had already taken over in Washington. John Major had to twist President Bush Senior's arm to get him to the Rio Conference in 1992; but no one could persuade President Bush Junior to go to Johannesburg conference ten years later. His Secretary of State got pretty rough treatment as a result.

The story is the same in other fields. The United States withdrew unilaterally from the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty; it failed to ratify the Biodiversity Convention or to accept the Biosafety Protocol; it refused to join the International Criminal Court (maintaining somehow that Americans were different from everyone else); it failed to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; and it refused to accept a new protocol to the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention.

The attitude of the Administration towards climate change aroused particular indignation elsewhere. The science is not now in question. Nor are the potential hazards for the world as a whole, including the United States. There is a marked contrast.

There are of course many inconsistencies in US policies. For example most Americans have an almost religious belief in free trade and market economics, but the Administration indulges in a wide range of subsidies and protectionist measures. It is not of course alone in doing so. But it has the utmost difficulty in accepting the judgements of the World Trade Organization, and is far from putting into effect what was agreed at the Doha meeting last year. Recent tariffs on steel, and subsidies to US agriculture have outraged the international community.

The big global issues have likewise had short shrift. Again the United States is not alone in this respect. Most serious among them is perhaps the widening division between the world's rich and the world's poor. At present about 20% of humanity consumes between 70% and 80% of its resources. The dividing line between rich and poor is not only between countries but also within them. Even in India and China, the rift is between globalized rich and localized poor. There has been debate about whether globalization has widened this rift. Successive United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reports suggest that it has. In the meantime there is a wishful belief among advocates of market forces that eventually these will bring development to all. Again the trends suggest the opposite. In assessing progress on the Millennium Development Goals last July, the UN Secretary General well said:

"There is no autopilot, there is no magic of the market place, no rising tide of the global economy that will lift all boats, guaranteeing that all goals will be reached by 2015."

For the rest of the world the most conspicuous feature of US foreign policy is the exertion of military power, unencumbered by much diplomacy or respect for the corpus of law and custom built up in the twentieth century. It seems strange that capitalist America should so endorse Mao Tse-tung's saying that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." Yet the United States spends more on defence and military technology than most other countries put together. Increasingly it looks like the world policeman operating under its own book of rules.

The world has known superpowers before, whether they be Persia, Greece, Rome, China, Spain, France, or Britain in their day, but the power of each has always been based to some extent on bluff, and they have pushed others into redressing the balance. Imperial overstretch was a regular feature. I expect it will be so in the future as in the past. An American once asked me whether we would remember these years as those in which the American Republic, like the Roman Republic 2000 years ago, turned itself into an Empire. I wonder.

If we are at a watershed, some, not least in this country, have been inclined to blame the United Nations for what has happened, or not happened, in New York. This is not only unjust but simply wrong. In my view the United Nations and its institutions suffer from four main handicaps:

There is a curious and unbridged gap between the often repeated wish of governments, expressed in the Security Council, the General Assembly and elsewhere, for the United Nations to defend international order, fulfil its obligations under the Charter, and take on new responsibilities; and the means - political, financial and administrative - by which it could do so. Governments often blame the United Nations for failures. More legitimately the United Nations blames governments.

Even though many governments say they want or expect more of the United Nations, and say they accept the substance of a new global agenda, most also want to hold on to their sovereignty - and money - as long as possible, and in some cases keep the United Nations from interfering in their affairs. In short governments lack the political will to tackle the issues themselves and are even less willing to let the United Nations take a lead for them.

This all sounds very gloomy. But perhaps current circumstances may oblige governments to do what they were reluctant even to think about before. Certainly the value of the United Nations has been underlined by current efforts to give it what both President Bush and Mr Blair said would be a "vital role" in the reconstruction of Iraq. It needs explicit political and financial support from all members in or out of the Security Council. Others would go still further, and give the United Nations the central role in negotiating at long last a settlement over Palestine.

As for the role of the United Nations and its agencies in dealing with the major issues of sustainability, climate change and protection of the environment, there is simply no other place or institution capable of organizing and promoting planetary action. The Johannesburg may have been a failure, but the problems it failed to deal with will not go away. They will be of gathering importance in the future. My own priorities are that we need to

Here the multilateral approach is the only approach. Wars must not be allowed to crowd out, even temporarily, the need to think about the big issues and work together in trying to resolve them. An enormous amount needs to be done. If the United Nations did not exist, we would have to invent it.

But it is more than an institution; it is an ideal. We need to hold on to the uplifting idea of the United Nations as the magic world in which humankind is one. Here symbols are vital. Seen from space as a passenger in the solar system, the earth is a tiny bright dot, or from closer to it, the blue water world. No matter that the myth does not always correspond with the reality, nor that its principles and standards are not always observed. The truth behind any set of myths, principles and standards is acceptance of aspirations held in common. That is the goal of multilateralism and the ultimate strength of the United Nations. We damage it at our peril.


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