27 January 2003

Deputy Secretary-General, in Address to Montreal Model United Nations, Says "Nations Working Together Can Make a Difference"

NEW YORK, 24 January (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the address of Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette to the McGill Model United Nations Assembly, part of the annual Lester B. Pearson lecture series, in Montreal on 23 January:

I am delighted to join you today. As a United Nations official, I am very encouraged to know of your strong support for the Organization. As a Canadian, I am heartened by the way the Canadians among you are upholding our country's tradition of active engagement in world affairs. And as an admirer of Lester Pearson, in whose honour this series of lectures is named, I am glad to see your own commitment to his vision of a peaceful, prosperous world order based on freedom, tolerance and cooperation. Thank you, indeed, for this invitation.

You have gathered here from all over North America and beyond for what might be thought of as a serious game. A game, because this is a simulation; a role-playing exercise; a bit of chess, Monopoly and Risk rolled into one. But serious, too, because it is a highly educational experience to put yourself in another person's shoes -- to wear, if you will, another country's poverty or power -- and then imagine how you would handle the complex task of statecraft in a world of both opportunity and threat.

Indeed, I have often thought that it would do a world of good for people from different countries to switch places, as in the old prince and pauper story, if only for a day. A Montrealer, for example, could be whisked to Maputo, not as a tourist, but magically transformed into a Mozambican, there to face the challenges and constraints of life in a developing country. That would surely contribute to mutual understanding -- an idea that is, rightly, at the core of this model United Nations assembly and others like it around the globe.

Your session occurs at a particularly anxious moment for the world. Ten or 12 years ago, many people thought that the end of the cold war had liberated the world not only from a terrifying arms race, but also from political shackles that had prevented the world from truly confronting tyranny, armed violence and poverty. Surely, it was thought, the most serious obstacles to human progress had been consigned to the past.

But the world remains as complex as ever. In the past decade or so, we have seen genocide and appalling violations of human rights. And at this very moment, there is great anxiety over the prospect of war in Iraq, nuclear proliferation in the Korean peninsula, violence in the Middle East, and terrorism in general. The worldwide AIDS epidemic continues to spread; global warming is here; and the prevalence of extreme poverty is not just a blight, it is an indictment. Even Francis Fukuyama, who famously hypothesized that we had reached the "end of history" -- history understood as having culminated in the pre-eminence of liberal democracy and market-oriented capitalism -- has suggested, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, that history may well have started again.

The day-to-day activities of the United Nations certainly reflect this uncertain state of affairs. I would like to offer you a snapshot, a brief tour d'horizon, something of an inside look at what is on our minds and on our agenda. I hope it will give you not only a sense of the challenges ahead, but also some reason for optimism about the future.

Let me start with some of the Secretary-General's recent activities and preoccupations. Today, he is flying to Paris to take part in talks aimed at halting the downward spiral of conflict that has erupted in Côte d'Ivoire, which was once one of the most stable and prosperous countries in Africa.

Even when away from Headquarters, or immersed in efforts to resolve one crisis, he remains connected -- to other people, and most of all to other issues of equal urgency.

One week ago today, he had talks with President Chavez of Venezuela about efforts to keep the standoff in that country from deteriorating into violence.

Earlier this week, the Secretary-General met with foreign ministers attending a high-level Security Council meeting on terrorism, and warned in particular against sacrificing human rights and the rule of law in the name of anti-terrorism.

Yesterday, he met with one of his special envoys -- Canadian Maurice Strong -- who has just returned from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, known to you as North Korea, where he went to assess the humanitarian situation.

And, of course, the Council will be meeting this coming Monday to hear from the chief United Nations inspectors about the progress they are making -- or not making -- in Iraq.

Lest you think his time is spent entirely on matters of peace and security, let me stress that a typical day also sees him devote considerable energy to questions of economic and social development.

One week ago today, he presided over a meeting of the "Group of 77" developing countries -- which has actually grown to encompass 128 countries. He stressed two issues in particular: the need to ensure that current negotiations on intellectual property rights do not keep poor countries from addressing AIDS and other public health needs; and the need to pay more attention to the question of migration, which involves hundreds of millions of people, affects countries of origin, transit and destination, and raises serious questions of human rights, culture and cross-border relations.

Meanwhile, I have my hands full pulling together the different strands of the United Nations internal machinery, making sure all our departments, offices, programmes and funds communicate and coordinate their actions so that we can achieve maximum impact and efficiency in doing our job. This is especially crucial since so much of what the United Nations does involves several parts of the United Nations, be it the fight against HIV/AIDS, promoting sustainable development, or combating extreme poverty. Currently, with Iraq high on the agenda, I chair a Steering Group twice a week to discuss contingency planning and humanitarian coordination. Another central part of my job is leading the Secretary-General's reform effort and making sure that we move ahead with improvements to make the Secretariat as efficient and well managed as it can be.

At the same time, the intergovernmental bodies of the United Nations are active dealing with a wide array of issues. The Security Council is meeting almost on a daily basis and, in addition to Iraq, has recently discussed peacekeeping operations in Lebanon, Georgia and Western Sahara. Next week, the situation in Burundi -- one of the world's forgotten conflicts -- will be on the agenda. In Geneva today, the Committee on the Rights of the Child is in session, reviewing reports by Estonia, Italy, Romania and the Solomon Islands. And in Vienna, scientists from around the world are meeting to discuss the effects of atomic radiation.

In Addis Ababa the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa recently hosted a "big table" meeting of African finance ministers with their European counterparts on how best to implement agreements reached at recent world conferences on trade, aid and sustainable development.

United Nations officials are also taking part in two meetings that, depending on your point of view, either complement each other or are diametrically opposed to each other -- I am speaking here of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the attendees are largely from the private sector, and the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a gathering of mostly non-governmental organizations.

And, of course, there is the typical day not of the man at the top, but of our people on the ground, whether on the frontlines of the conflicts and disasters or in places far from the spotlight. Some are helping respond to the tragedy unfolding in southern Africa, where tens of millions of people face a combination of severe drought, AIDS and growing poverty. Others are helping to create jobs in Latin America and the Caribbean, where economic and related crises have sent unemployment figures to their highest levels in two decades. Still others have been discussing with the Sri Lankan authorities the return of refugees and internally displaced people uprooted by the civil war, following the signing of a ceasefire.

These many thousands of people, and many hundreds of issues, make up a sprawling and seemingly disparate agenda of human aspiration and need. But there is a thread, a principle, a connective tissue at its heart: and that is the need for multilateral cooperation.

Today, the number of areas where multilateral action is needed is larger than ever. Problems can cross frontiers more freely than people. Only by multilateral action can we protect ourselves from acid rain, the illicit trade in drugs or the growing problem of the odious trafficking in human beings. Only by multilateral action can we ensure an open global trading system that offers benefits and opportunities to all. Only by multilateral action will we be able to prevent terrorism. Individual States may defend themselves, by striking back at terrorist groups and the countries that harbour or support them. But, only concerted vigilance and cooperation among all States, with constant, systematic exchange of information, offers any real hope of denying terrorists their opportunities.

But, it is not enough simply to proclaim the virtues of multilateralism, and expect people and countries to come together and march happily along towards the common good. The fact is that interests clash. Issues are complex. Ideas that seem sensible often fail to gain traction, or are thwarted by well organized lobbies. Well meaning solutions have unintended consequences. Political will can be found for some issues, but not others. The mere existence of rules doesn't mean they will be adhered to -- not in a world that has yet to tame greed or criminality. And governments can sometimes be so fearful of rules and laws that appear to infringe on their power and prerogatives, that they fail to see the greater good of having all countries play by the same rules -- rules that they have all negotiated together.

Moreover, multilateralism itself is not free of weaknesses. Certainly, multilateralism helps to share burdens, promote trust, and provide legitimacy for actions taken, for example, in response to a threat to peace and security. But multilateral approaches can also be ponderous, limiting action to the speed of the slowest or most reluctant. Multilateralism can be undermined when States pick and choose what suits them at a particular moment -- an a la carte approach rooted in political convenience, rather than principled commitment. The logic of multilateralism demands a more consistent approach, and leadership to galvanize action.

The logic of the United Nations system is to serve as a forum, a tool, a vehicle through which multilateral approaches can be initiated, developed and brought to fruition. In the last 10 years or so, the world has been learning how to better address the challenges we face. Wars in Bosnia and Sierra Leone have been brought to an end. East Timor is independent. The United Nations, civil society groups and private sector businesses are working more closely together than ever before, with each recognizing the need for partnership. And Member States have adopted a far-reaching Millennium Declaration, a common vision for the twenty-first century that includes a set of ambitious yet achievable Millennium Development Goals -- such as achieving universal primary education, reducing child mortality and halving the proportion of people suffering from hunger, all by the year 2015. Momentum towards those goals received an important boost with pledges by major donor countries to open their markets, provide debt relief and reverse what had been a deeply disturbing decline in official development assistance.

Nations working together can make a difference. Nations upholding the rule of law can advance the cause of a fairer world. Nations that solve one problem together develop trust -- in each other, and in multilateral institutions and frameworks -- that can, in turn, solve others.

You yourselves, in your simulations, will soon see just how difficult, complex and, let's admit it, tedious an international negotiation can be. But you will also get a glimpse of how much can be achieved if people really listen to each other, and understand that far more unites us than divides us.

I hope that your interest will not fade once you leave this assembly. All too often, we have seen world conferences end with great fanfare around agreement on a plan of action, only to find, months later, little actual follow-up taking place. Nowhere has this tendency been felt more painfully than in Africa. And on no issue is it more important today that we change our ways than in stopping the spread of AIDS, in Africa and beyond. Short attention spans are the enemy of everything the United Nations is trying to do.

I also hope you will be ready to sacrifice, or accept certain constraints on your actions. We will never defeat global warming unless the richest countries modify their patterns of consumption. We will make no dent in global poverty unless the richest countries do far more to help the poor.

Your generation can and must improve on what mine has done. Let that work start today. I wish you all the best for a stimulating, rewarding model United Nations.

* *** *