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Current Affairs and the UN Today

Speech to 6th formers, Westonbirt School, Tetbury, Gloucestershire, 30 April 2003.

Today the world scene, and the Middle East in particular, is much in our minds, and the role of the United Nations is centre stage. You may have heard about the letter sent to the Prime Minister by 52 former Ambassadors, High Commissioners and Governors on 26 April. I was among them. The letter expressed our dismay about the politics pursued by the United States and Britain over Iraq and Palestine.

The role of the Untied Nations goes much wider and deeper than issues of peace and war, but let us start with the war in Iraq. This has been bad for multilateralism, bad for global governance, and bad for the United Nations, and in the words of the UN Secretary-General was "not in conformity with the Charter".

The invaders saw themselves as liberators, but have been increasingly seen as occupiers. The present guerrilla conflict was both predictable and predicted. In the Islamic world, the war in Iraq is indissolubly linked with the problems of Palestine. Recent US support for the Israeli Prime Minister's policies over the illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories has made a bad situation still worse. That is where we are today.

Can the United Nations, as the embodiment of global governance, still help? Of course it can. US indifference is not new and 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 was my job in August and September 1990. The resulting 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, 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 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. These are inimical to the whole concept of the United Nations, and set the scene for much of what is happening in the world today

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.

I suggest the main reasons are as follows:

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. A good example is the attitude of the Administration towards climate change. 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 the European Union is among countries obliged to retaliate against US actions or inactions.

For the rest of the world the most conspicuous feature of US foreign policy is the exertion of military power. 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. 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. Imperial overstretch was a regular feature. I expect it will be so in the future as in the past. Invariably the balance has been restored sooner or later.

I now return to the war in the Middle East and the role of the United Nations. At first it seemed that the United States could simply ignore the United Nations. But within a few months, and today more than ever, the United States has found that while winning battles is easy, winning the peace seems impossibly difficult. Unfortunately many Iraqis have associated the United Nations with the United States: hence the damage done to UN buildings and staff in Baghdad. Now things may be changing. The United States badly needs the United Nations, first to legitimise its position in Iraq now and in the future, and secondly to facilitate its withdrawal from an ever stickier military quagmire.

Negotiations are in train in New York. This time the United Nations holds most of the cards, and can insist on tough conditions. I have some ideas of my own about the what should now happen, and we could perhaps discuss the prospects later. In the meantime the letter from the 52 former diplomats sets out the position with painful clarity on both Iraq and Palestine. I have to say that in all my 36 years as a diplomat I have never seen such a mess, and sometimes felt embarrassed about the part the present British government has played in creating it.

Let me now turn to the wider picture. The current perturbations in the Middle East, indeed throughout the Islamic world, loom large for us, but they have to be seen against a darkening background, or rather a new realization of the fragility of the natural world and the effects of human actions upon it. A remarkable statement was published after a meeting of some 1500 scientists in the four great international global research programmes at Amsterdam in July 2001. It stated squarely that:

  • Human-driven changes to the Earth's land surface, oceans, coasts, atmosphere and biodiversity were "equal to some of the great forces of nature in their extent and impact….Global change is real and happening now".
  • "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".

The Prime Minister, however distracted by Iraq, has said several times, most recently last week, that there is "no bigger long-term question facing the global community" than the threat of climate change.

Concern about the global human impact is one of the two major global themes that have emerged in the last twenty years. The other relates to how humanity divides the Earth's resources. At present about 20% of the world's people consume between 70% and 80% of them. 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 the localized poor. It would be nice to think that the rift was gradually narrowing. Unfortunately the opposite is the case. All predictions show that it is becoming wider every year.

Clearly this range of issues could not possibly be dealt with by any one country however powerful. It involves all the world's governments and all the world's peoples. In short it requires a global approach to sustainability which can only take place within and through the United Nations. The process began over 30 years ago and falls conveniently into three phases.

The first phase was between the UN Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in 1972 and that on Environment and Development at Rio in 1992. This phase led to: the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1973; two World Climate Conferences in 1979 and 1990; and the report of the Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development of 1987.

The second phase was between 1992 and 2001. The achievements of the Rio Conference included a declaration containing three important principles: that the polluter should pay; that the often misunderstood precautionary principle should be more widely applied; and that environmental considerations should be at the centres of decision-making. Then there were legally binding Conventions on Climate Change and Biological Diversity and later Desertification which have been followed by subsequent Conferences of the Parties. There was Agenda 21, or a voluminous list of action points for this century. The UN Commission on Sustainable Development was created. Finally it was agreed to revise World Bank lending and to reformulate the Global Environmental Facility.

The third phase takes us to where we are today. Since Rio the Conventions then created have mostly been ratified, and there have been several Conferences of the Parties. But generally the results have been disappointing. Reports prepared for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last autumn indicate that most global environmental problems are getting worse.

What of Johannesburg? Did global governance attain a new level of maturity? The encompassing theme should have been how to exercise human responsibility for the state of the planet in our own interest as well as that of other creatures in the global ecosystem. 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".

At Johannesburg global problems were sold short and the United States was not alone in contributing to the result.

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. Until recently, in spite of recent shortcomings, the UN system has had almost excessive political credibility. Far more responsibility is loaded on it than it can possibly carry. Secondly the tasks it is given are often confused or imprecise, not least because member states themselves do not know how to cope with them. Thirdly it is not given the financial and other resources it needs to function effectively. The reason it did not succeed in Kosovo was that it did not have anything like sufficient resources. Last it is not allowed to carry through necessary internal changes and reforms.

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.

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. Conferences of the Parties to such global agreements as the Kyoto Protocol and the Convention on Biological Diversity will continue. The UN Secretary-General has asked the UN Development Programme to monitor the Johannesburg and Monterrey targets and the Millennium Development Goals. The 12th meeting of UN Commission on Sustainable Development finishes today [30 April]. Water, sanitation and human settlements were top of the agenda. Much quiet work is being done by the UN, but it needs real political and financial support if it is to be asked to do more than monitor the issues.

Here the multilateral approach is the only approach. We need a multiplicity of ideas and a multiplicity of responses. Despite what the freemarketers say, we cannot all live like Americans. Nor would we want to. 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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