20 May 2005

“We Must Be Pragmatic and Visionary” to Reach Agreement on Major UN Reform at September Summit, Says Deputy Secretary-General in Ottawa Address

NEW YORK, 19 May (UN Headquarters) -- Following is Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette’s address to the Human Security Network in Ottawa, 19 May:

It is a great pleasure to join you for this conference.  I would like to thank the Government of Canada and all others involved for providing this timely opportunity to talk to you about current efforts to revitalize the international system and reform of the United Nations -- and in particular how that effort relates to the important work for human security that your network is carrying out with such admirable focus and dynamism.

As you know, in September 2003, the Secretary-General told the General Assembly that the international community had reached a fork in the road.  Divisions over the war in Iraq, and before that the shock of the terrorist attacks on the United States, had transformed the international security environment and generated deep divisions over the threats we face, and the ways in which we address them.

With his eyes on September 2005 and the five-year review of the Millennium Declaration, the Secretary-General has issued a report entitled “In Larger Freedom”, which is now the object of intense discussion in the UN General Assembly, as well as in civil society at large.

The challenge now is to get from a set of proposals to a slate of decisions at the September Summit that will strengthen the work of the United Nations for development, security and human rights, and improve the functioning of the Organization’s decision-making bodies.

We live in a world substantially different from 1945, when the United Nations was formed.  Back then, collective security was understood to be primarily a matter of States and borders. The overarching existential challenge was to prevent a third world war.

That understanding must be broadened in the face of new perils.  Terrorism, organized crime, extreme poverty, environmental degradation, the spread of disease, the risk of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction -- these are today’s leading threats, many of which easily transcend borders.

The proposals in the Secretary-General’s report are meant to help the international system and the United Nations address today’s challenges more effectively and more equitably.  Building in part upon the report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, the Secretary-General’s report reflects a deep appreciation of the strong interrelation of human security and State security.  Indeed, neither can be durable without the other.

If that proposition is something that commands general agreement, nonetheless, there are important differences when it comes to determining which threats should be our priority.  At risk of oversimplification, let me suggest that countries from the global South tend to emphasize socio-economic threats, while countries from the global North seem more concerned about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Of course, the South is just as affected by terrorism as any other region.  According to estimates of the World Bank, 10 million additional people were thrown into extreme poverty in the developing world as a result of the economic downturn following the terrorist attacks of 11 September.  A terrorist attack involving a nuclear device could be far more devastating.

At the same time, the North has just as much interest in development and social justice.  Canada’s experience with SARS gave us a glimpse of how fast a newly emerging infectious disease can traverse oceans and continents, and expose the flaws of even modern health systems. SARS spread to dozens of countries within just a few days, killing hundreds of people and affecting thousands of others.  And compared to some other viruses, SARS has low levels of infection rate and lethality.

The reality is that we cannot afford to choose among the threats we face, saving some for some ill-defined “later”.  In an interdependent world, State security and human security are strongly interconnected.  Shocks and problems tend to have a system-wide impact.  We must recognize the links, and advance on all fronts with equal vigour.  And we must be serious about adapting our international mechanisms, including the United Nations, to rise to this task.

As I see it, we’re facing two alternative futures.

In the first, the United Nations has the mandates, know-how and resources to play its proper role in ensuring three basic freedoms, as outlined in the Secretary-General’s report:  freedom from want, freedom from fear, and freedom to live in dignity.  Let me add as an aside that, having worked for several years inside the UN system, I am tempted to suggest to suggest a fourth freedom -- “freedom from bureaucracy” -- to describe efforts to reform the UN itself.

The alternative future is much bleaker.  Without reform and strengthened cooperation, we could well inhabit a world:

-- in which HIV/AIDS and other deadly diseases continue to devastate societies and undermine State capacity;

-- in which more States will be incapable of providing basic services to their people, and vulnerable to collapse, leading to mass violence and humanitarian disasters;

-- in which nearly half of all countries emerging from conflict continue to lapse back into violence within five years;

-- in which the international community will yet again remain paralysed in the face of genocide or mass slaughter of civilians; and

-- in which States pursue nuclear capacity outside any rules, reversing progress towards disarmament.

In fact, this is our world as it looks right now.  Despite progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, peace and human security remain very fragile indeed.  Surely, you and your fellow Member States can do better.  That is where the Secretary-General’s report aims to help.  Building on the reports of the High-level Panel and the Millennium Project, he has put forward wide-ranging proposals for securing freedom from fear and freedom from want, for promoting the freedom to live in dignity, and for strengthening the United Nations itself -- both the intergovernmental machinery and the management of the Secretariat.  Here, I would like to highlight those recommendations that are particularly relevant in the context of the human security agenda.

First, the Secretary-General has placed a very strong emphasis on development.  Development is vital in its own right.  But it is also the most effective means of preventing conflict.  Fortunately, Member States are showing many signs of taking development more seriously.  There is an unprecedented consensus around the Millennium Development Goals.

We are seeing encouraging efforts to live up to the commitments made in the Monterrey Consensus and at Johannesburg.  More and more countries are adopting specific time-tables for reaching the 0.7 per cent target for official development assistance (ODA).  The European Union, for example, is considering a proposal to significantly increase ODA to .56 per cent by 2010, and then to .7 per cent by 2015.  If adopted, this would be a very encouraging step.  I hope we will see a breakthrough on aid and debt relief at the upcoming G-8 summit in Gleneagles, as well as a successful conclusion to the Doha trade round.

Second, the Secretary-General has proposed the creation of a new intergovernmental Peacebuilding Commission, which would play a central role in helping States emerging from violent conflict. The Commission, which would be complemented by a dedicated Peacebuilding Support Office within the UN Secretariat, would fill a real institutional gap.  It would ensure that all key players in future peacebuilding endeavours -- from the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council to donors and the international financial institutions -- share an understanding of the challenges, needs, and required actions.  Discussions among Member States have indicated much support for this idea, and there is reason to believe that agreement can be reached in time for the Summit.

Third, the recent outbreak of Marburg disease in Angola and the resurgence of polio underscore the urgency of concerted action to strengthen biological security.  In the short term, the Secretary-General has urged fortifying the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network.  But the main job is to build up the public health infrastructures of developing countries, which is essential not only for addressing chronic deadly disease and naturally occurring outbreaks of disease, but also to counter the risk of biological terrorism.

The work of the WHO in mitigating outbreaks, excellent as it is, and of our many disease-specific solutions, is, nonetheless, akin to peacekeeping without peacebuilding:  essential, but all too often eclipsed by an absence of a longer-term effort to consolidate and make results sustainable.  The magnitude of the crisis in public health could hardly be more alarming: the AIDS pandemic, for example, has spread so rapidly and with such devastation that life expectancies in some African countries have plunged to levels the world has not seen since the black plague struck Europe in the fourteenth century.

Fourth, the Secretary-General has urged Member States to take action on the responsibility to protect, an issue that Canada has done so much to address and articulate.  Many countries remain concerned that this concept could be used as a fig leaf for unwarranted interventions.  At the same time, Member States are trying to bridge their differences, since most countries seem to share the fundamental goal of preventing genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass killing.

What is always striking to me in this debate is that, when you ask whether the United Nations should have intervened in the face of genocide in Rwanda, everybody would readily answer “yes”.  But when asked to agree on the principle of a responsibility to protect, suddenly one sees strong reservations.  It is true that, in many cases, the failure of the international community to protect the vulnerable has been a product of complacency on the part of those who endorse the responsibility to protect, and not from those who have reservations about it.  But there can be little doubt of the value of sending an unequivocal message that all States will be united in the face of any future atrocities.

Fifth, the Secretary-General has argued for more concerted efforts to limit the spread of small arms, light weapons and landmines, building on the growing awareness of the problem that has developed in recent years.  He has called on Member States to agree on an instrument to regulate the marking and tracing of small arms and to hasten negotiations on a separate instrument covering illicit brokering.  He has also stressed the need for Governments to demonstrate greater commitment to the convention banning anti-personnel landmines.  Indeed, while there are compelling fears about the possible proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, for the moment, on a day-to-day basis, it is small arms that are inflicting a terrible toll in human misery.

Finally, let me say a few words about human rights.  The Secretary-General has been very forthright in stating his views about the serious shortcomings of the current Commission on Human Rights.  The Commission has squandered much of its credibility, and this, in turn, has affected the standing of the entire Organization.  Given the centrality of human rights to our mission, and indeed the very identification of the United Nations with the cause of human rights, the Secretary-General has recommended replacing the Commission with a smaller, more focused Human Rights Council.

The new Council would meet throughout the year, be better able to respond to emergencies, and have a mandate to look at human rights conditions in all countries, removing the selectivity which exists today.  The proposal to elect members by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly is meant to bring greater rigour to the process of selecting members.  While such questions, as well as the relationship between a new Council and other United Nations bodies, would be for Member States to decide, it seems clear that endowing the Council with a status equal or nearly equal to the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council would have both conceptual and architectural clarity, and give human rights the central place they deserve in the institutional structure of the United Nations.

The proposals in the Secretary-General’s report give us the makings of a deal in which everyone’s concerns can be addressed, and from which everyone can benefit.  It is clear from the intensive discussions on the Secretary-General’s recommendations that Member States are taking the report very seriously.  This gives hope that the September summit can indeed agree on major reforms.  One document will not address all our problems.  But it could open the way to real progress in terms of human security.

Like our founders in San Francisco 60 years ago, we must be pragmatic and visionary at the same time.  It could be quite some time before we again have before us such an impressive constellation of ideas, proposals and engagement.  So I hope Member States will act while these stars are in alignment.

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