8 October 2003


NEW YORK, 7 October (UN Headquarters) -- This is the text of the opening address by Secretary-General Kofi Annan at a seminar in New York City today to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Papal Encyclical, “Pacem in Terris”.

Let me first thank Archbishop Migliore and his Mission (Holy See) for organizing this seminar, and particularly thank our distinguished visitor from Rome, my good friend, Archbishop and Cardinal-Elect Martino.  Renato, thank you for taking the trouble to be with us today.

And let me ask him to convey the prayers and good wishes of all of us to his Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, that great Messenger of Peace and generous supporter of the United Nations, at this time when we are all anxiously following news of his health.

It is fitting that today we should be commemorating an encyclical issued in 1963 by another great Pope, John XXIII, who was then in the last months of his life.  It is fitting that we should do so here at the United Nations.  For in one of the most striking passages of that document, Pope John expressed his “ardent desire that the United Nations Organization may be able more and more to adapt its structure and its methods of operation to the magnitude and nobility of its tasks”. 

If that wish was justified in 1963, it is perhaps even more so now.  In fact, it is the same wish that I have expressed recently, in my report on implementing the Millennium Declaration, and in my speech to the General Assembly just two weeks ago.

As you know, I am concerned by the apparent breakdown of global consensus on some of the most basic rules of international relations.  I have been urging Member States to reflect seriously on the threats and challenges we face in the twenty-first century, and to examine whether our rules and institutions may need adapting.  If we are to find a collective response to those challenges we need to consider this seriously.  And I am about to appoint a Panel of wise men and women whom I will ask to make specific recommendations.

But I would not do justice to this anniversary if I did not also note the specific way in which Pope John XXIII wanted to see the United Nations adapt itself.  “May the time come as quickly as possible”, he wrote, “when this Organization can effectively safeguard the rights of the human person; those rights, that is, which derive directly from the dignity of the human person, and which are therefore universal, inviolable and inalienable”.

Those words challenge us today as they did 40 years ago.  That great reforming Pope, whose transparent love and compassion touched the hearts of all humanity, had grasped a fundamental point about the nature and purpose of our Organization.

He had understood that, although we are an organization of sovereign States, our founders acted in the name of the peoples of the United Nations, and that their determination to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war was intrinsically connected to that “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small”, which they reaffirmed in the very next paragraph of the preamble to our Charter.

Again and again we have seen this connection demonstrated, as in country after country abuses of human rights have led to large-scale conflict.  Again and again, the United Nations has found itself dealing with the consequences.  Clearly, it should be dealing with the causes, and preventing these tragedies before they start.

Pope John XXIII also saw, very clearly, that the reality fell short of the ideal.  He knew that, in practice, many human beings have not found in this Organization an effective safeguard of their personal rights.

The problem is, of course, that if people look to an international organization to safeguard their rights, they do so because they have not found that safeguard in their own State.  Yet in the governing bodies of the United Nations they find themselves represented by the same State that they are appealing from. That State is likely to argue that the case is a matter “essentially within its domestic jurisdiction”, in which the United Nations is expressly forbidden to intervene, under Article 2.7 of the Charter; and other Member States of the United Nations are likely to agree, fearing that if they were to encourage intervention they will set a precedent that may later be turned against them.

In the 40 years since the Encyclical, this problem has become much, much more widely acknowledged.  In the mid 1990s, especially, we were all ashamed by our failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda, and in the former Yugoslavia, and this led to a vigorous debate about the responsibility to protect. 

I believe this debate is healthy and necessary, and I should like to think that the United Nations will act more swiftly and vigorously to respond to such shocking challenges in the future -- though I am bound to say I am not greatly encouraged by our hesitant and tardy response to the events in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in Liberia, this very year.

At the same time I think it is unfortunate that the debate has concentrated so much on the issue of military intervention.  This clearly is an extreme remedy, which is bound to cause death and suffering, often on a large scale.  It can only be justified in extreme cases, when death and suffering on a very large scale are already happening, or are imminently threatened.

We must all wish that things would never reach that stage, in any country.  And we should all do whatever we can to prevent them reaching that stage, by seeking to safeguard human rights at an earlier stage, by means other than military intervention.

The United Nations does seek, in many ways, to promote better observance of human rights throughout the world, and it does have mechanisms through which groups and individuals can appeal to it to safeguard their rights.  It has a Commission on Human Rights, and a Human Rights Committee.  It has Special Rapporteurs on certain themes, and on certain countries, and many specialized subcommittees and working groups. 

It also has a High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose staff work tirelessly in some countries to monitor the observance of human rights, and in many countries to help the authorities improve domestic safeguards.

At the expert level, all these bodies generally work well.  But the closer a case gets to the political level, where it is necessary for Member States to take clear positions, and to say things that may be embarrassing to the government of another Member State, the more reluctant and cautious they become. 

In the Commission on Human Rights, especially, we have increasingly seen States motivated more by political solidarity with each other than by an impartial concern to uphold human rights throughout the world.

This is why I think that the encyclical “Pacem in Terris” still challenges us, as much as it did in 1963.  In this respect, too, it is necessary -- and I believe confidently that it is possible -- to adapt the structure and methods of operation of the United Nations to the magnitude and nobility of its tasks, so that people everywhere can indeed look to it to safeguard their personal rights. 

We must always remember that States exist to serve and protect people, and not the other way round.  And we should be grateful to those great spiritual leaders, like Pope John XXIII, who remind us of that essential truth.

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