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Strengthening UN relevance and legitimacy in the new millennium: address to United Nations Youth Association, Canberra.

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Address to United Nations Youth Association


10 July 2007



According to conspiracy theorists you are all plotters.

In supporting the United Nations you are each seeking to create a world

government that will usurp our country’s legislature and indeed our way of life.

For instance, in her infamous maiden speech, Pauline Hanson described

international treaties not as beneficial agreements freely entered into by

independent and sovereign nations but as an attempt by outside forces to control

our country.

The reality is, as former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has stated:

"Sovereign states are the basic and indispensable building blocks of the

international system".1

So clearly some informed debate is necessary. And that's where you come in.

While not as far out in the twilight zone as Pauline Hanson and co. a number of

conservative politicians find it difficult to hide their disdain for the UN and


multilateralism. For instance, our Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said only a

few years ago in this very building:

"Multilateralism is a synonym for an ineffective and unfocused policy

involving internationalism of the lowest common denominator."2

So, again there is a need for fair appraisal of the role of the United Nations. And

again that's where you come in.

Before you here at the National Press Club today as a fair minded, interested

and interesting audience, I intend to discuss the strengths of the United Nations,

identify some of its weaknesses and to at least flag some constructive


I will conclude by discussing the role that you can all play in terms of being a

bridge between the activities of the United Nations and the Australian community.

Firstly, let's all take a reality check.

For those who genuinely believe that the world would be a better place without

the United Nations, can I just remind them of the time before the world body was

created and point out three things:

• two world Wars;

• a great Depression; and

• a devastating pandemic that killed more people than the World War I and

World War II put together.

While there were obviously a number of causes to these devastating events, the

lack of sophistication of international infrastructure was certainly a factor in the

extent of havoc, destruction and loss those events caused.


The purpose and role of the United Nations is just as relevant today as it was

when it was founded in 1945.

Rising from the ashes of the destruction and human devastation of the Second

World War, the primary objective of the United Nations was to avoid international

conflict and to resolve political contests by peaceful means.

Specifically, its purpose was to bring an end to armed conflict and preserve

international peace. Even at the time of its creation the interconnection between

human rights and sustainable development were seen as integral to international


Today, the major challenges that confront each and every citizen on our planet

cannot be solved by one country acting alone. This is the case whether we are

talking about the threat of international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of

mass destruction, finding a global solution to climate change or advancing the

Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty.

Even if one country wanted to pay all the bills and take all the risks, the reality is

that no single government is capable of solving these challenges alone.

We can also genuinely ask whether the course of the events in Iraq would have

been different if the intervention had been endorsed by the International

community. Arguably the intervention would have had greater legitimacy and the

international community would have had ownership of finding a solution to

sectarian tensions before they developed into the bloody civil war.

As a wise international commentator told the US Congress earlier this year:


"there must be a global partnership -- public and private, North and South.

New global partnerships can help to clear the path to a more peaceful,

prosperous and just world in the 21st century."3

While it has become something of a blood sport for some conservative politicians

to criticise the United Nations, the reality is that most of the critics would have to

acknowledge that in its 62 years the United Nations has had considerable


In October 2005 five governments presented a Human Security Report.4 The

report concluded that the United Nations deserved much of the credit for

achieving a dramatic decrease in the number of conflicts and mass killings

occurring around the globe. It noted a significant reduction in the number of

battle deaths and a significant number of conflicts now being peacefully resolved.

Specifically, since the late 1980s there has been an 80 percent decrease in the

number of genocides and politicides. The average numbers killed in armed

conflict have decreased 98 percent from 38,000 at the start of the 1950s to an

average of 600 in 2002.

By early this century the number of civilian deaths was down to approximately

600 per conflict. The report also noted that more civil wars have been ended by

negotiation in the past 15 years than in the previous two centuries.

Reinforcing the evidence that the UN deserves much of the credit for these

welcome developments is the marked increase in UN activities over the last two

decades. There has been a sixfold increase in the number of preventative

diplomacy missions. We’ve seen an elevenfold increase in the number of UN

economic sanctions against regimes and a fourfold increase in UN peacekeeping

operations. Keep in mind these peacekeeping missions continue to grow larger

and more complex since those in the Cold War period.


As Gareth Evans, our former Minister for Foreign Affairs, said in discussing the

Human Security Report - even if a great many people don't want to acknowledge

it, the best explanation available "is the huge increase in the level of international

preventative diplomacy, diplomatic peacemaking, peacekeeping and peace

building operations, for the most part authorised by and mounted by the UN, that

has occurred since the end of the Cold War."5

But as fair and objective observers you will know the United Nations does not just

deal with countries in crisis. Our current Foreign Minister, Mr Downer, won't be

terribly interested in my opinion but he may be interested in the view of

Nicholas Burns, the United States Under-Secretary for Political Affairs. Mr Burns,

who I met recently in Washington, and is far from a romantic liberal multilateralist

has noted:

"The UN also plays a vital role in addressing great trans-national issues

that are at the forefront of today's challenges, such as HIV/AIDS, tsunami

relief, literacy, democracy promotion, human rights, trafficking in persons,

freedom of the media, civil aviation, trade and economic development, and

the protection of refugees to name but a few."6

Another significant achievement of the United Nations - which I’m sure would be

important to all of you - includes environmental protection.

Evidence suggests the effects of climate change would be even worse today

without the combined efforts of the international community in developing the

Montréal protocol which is starting to turn around the effects of ozone depleting

CFC chemicals.


Equally while much more work still needs to be done, the effort of the

international community in developing the Kyoto Protocol to reduce carbon

emissions into the atmosphere has been a significant achievement.

While it is regrettable that Australia is one of only two developed nations not to

have ratified Kyoto, the good will and constructive effort of the broader

international community must be acknowledged.

The unsung role of the United Nations also includes the promotion of women's

rights, providing safe drinking water, eradicating smallpox, pressing for universal

immunisation, reducing child mortality rates, fighting parasitic diseases,

promoting investment in developing countries, clearing landmines, preventing

overfishing, promoting sustainable forestry development, preventing and cleaning

up pollution, promoting the rights of consumers, fighting drug abuse, promoting

workers rights around the world, promoting improved agricultural techniques,

promoting stability and order on the high seas, improving air travel and sea

travel, protecting intellectual property, improving global communications,

improving education in developing countries, improving literacy for women,

safeguarding and preserving historic cultural and agricultural sites and facilitating

academic and cultural exchanges.7

A review of the extensive list of achievements of the United Nations and a

recognition of its ongoing relevance supports the view that if we did not have the

UN we would have to create it.

Having recognized the tremendous achievements of the international community

through the United Nations it would be insincere not to also recognise the case

for continuing reform.

In an address to the UN General Assembly in September 2003, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced the establishment of a high-level panel on


Threats, Challenges and Change to consider issues for reform of the UN to make

it more effective for the 21st century. Significantly for Australia, Gareth Evans

was selected as one of the 15 members of the panel.

The panel's report which was released on the 2 December 2004 formed the basis

of debate at the 61st Session of the United Nations General Assembly held in

September 2005.

Both sides of Australian politics supported the reforms agreed to by the

United Nations. The reforms included; a strong international recommitment to

achieving the millennium goals, replacing the discredited Commission on Human

Rights with a new Human Rights Council, establishing a Peace Building

Commission, endorsing the doctrine of "Responsibility to Protect", establishing a

Democracy Fund and implementing a number of technical and administrative


Disappointingly little progress was made in respect to reforming the Security

Council, the area of non proliferation or in developing a Convention against


It is all too often the case that an examination of those areas where the United

Nations has been ineffective or has achieved a mediocre outcome is due to

‘spoilers’. That is, those nations which oppose initiatives as a result of their

perceived self-interest. And an examination of those spoilers, in turn, reveals

that they are frequently representatives of totalitarian states.

This is one of the paradoxes of the United Nations. Both its strength and

weakness lies in its universality of membership. That is, there is no eligibility rule

or any selection process. Whist there are some suspension and expulsion

procedures under Articles 5 and 6 of the UN Charter, the voting requirements of


two-thirds of the General Assembly and only after recommendation from the

Security Council makes suspensions and expulsions extremely difficult.

All member states have an equal say on the activities of the United Nations. In

respect to universality of membership it has been said:

"The presence of so many authoritarian regimes in the community of

nations should not be taken complacently; it is a serious problem, both for

the capacity and even legitimacy of the United Nations, and even more so

for the people who live under their repressive rule."8

The rights of people who live in authoritarian regimes should not be overlooked.

In short, who do these representatives of the authoritarian regimes represent

when they attend deliberations of the United Nations or its constituent parts?

I would suggest that such representatives represent only the controlling elites of

those authoritarian regimes and not the ordinary citizens that reside within the

boundaries of the State.

This is important because the Charter of the United Nations begins with the

words “we the peoples" indicating, I would suggest, the international community's

primary obligations are not merely to nation states but also to their citizens.

Not only are we are entitled to ask, we have an obligation to ask, in whose

interests are representatives of authoritarian regimes acting?

It would be naive in the extreme not to recognise that invariably their primary

motivation will be to protect the interests of the ruling elite of their country. It may

well be that, in some instances, the interests of the ruling elite will coincide with

the interests of its citizens. But this will not necessarily be the case and, often,

those interests will be diametrically opposed.


The question for the international community therefore becomes: to what extent

should representatives of the ruling elites of the authoritarian regimes be

permitted to run interference on the pursuit of the broader ideals of the United


Obviously, in framing this question in those terms I would suggest a response is

necessary. What then is the appropriate response?

It is often said that politics is the art of the possible. In that context it is unrealistic

to expect that sufficient numbers could be mustered in the General Assembly to

support a reduction or restraint on the influence and activities of authoritarian


On the other hand, it should not go without recognition that as a result of the

global spread of democracy in recent decades, democracies now constitute a

majority of United Nations membership.9 In this context it has been asked why

have democracies been such an ineffectual voting bloc? Specifically it’s asked:

“Why do developing nations allow a few prominent bloc leaders to speak

for them all despite their diversity of economic conditions, cultures and

interests? Why are some trans-regional blocs in the United Nations far

more cohesive than the trans-regional Democratic Bloc? Why do regional

blocs all too often shield their most repressive states from frank appraisal

by the international community? Why is the Warsaw Pact still intact as a

block in the United Nations? Why are near Eastern, South Asian, and East

Asian states all part of the same bloc " 10

Worthy questions I urge you all to consider.


It has been suggested that complacency, lack of commitment, lack of

determination and/or lack of effort on the part of democratic nations is the


In that context the recent creation of the United Nations Democracy Caucus has

been a welcome development.

The caucus was developed in June 2000 where over 100 governments gathered

at the first Community of Democracies meeting in Warsaw. The attending

countries pledged to form caucuses at international and regional institutions to

support resolutions and other international activities aimed at the promotion of

democratic governance.11

Unlike membership of the United Nations itself, membership of the democracy

caucus is only open to countries that are invited to be participants. The criteria

requires: "states which are elected on the basis of competency of multi-party

democracy elections and respectful of fundamental human rights."12

The Community of Democracies presents a real opportunity for democracies to

develop “a complimentary or catalytic caucus within the United Nations”. That

influence will only occur however through hard work, communication and a belief

that outcomes achieved through the United Nations are worth fighting for.

And once again - that's where you come in.

One of the most important responsibilities that national governments can perform

for the United Nations is educating their people about the body’s roles and


As the 2001 Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade

report stated, this is “not just a question of Australians appreciating the


importance of the UN in an abstract sense, but of understanding the work of the

UN as an integral part of modern government.”

In addition to allaying popular fears and misconceptions, an educated population

is also better equipped to hold the UN accountable. The Parliamentary

Committee states that “the UN needs to be accountable to its constituents in the

same way that national governments are and… much more information about the

operations of the UN needs to be disseminated.”

If the Government is serious about commitment to UN reform, it should provide

the Australian public with information for them to gauge the UN’s necessity and

evaluate the success or failure of its actions.

Unfortunately, the mechanisms for UN education have been cut back over the

last 11 years of the Howard Government. The UN Association of Australia, an

organisation that is tasked with the dissemination of information of the United

Nations had its funding reduced from $80,000 per year to just $10,000.

Members of the UN Youth Association who are present would also be aware of

the funding cuts to their own organisation.

The body has gone from receiving $95,000 per annum under a Labor

Government to only $500 from the UNAA, forcing it to seek the rest in ad hoc

private donations. UNYA performs a number of vital educational roles including

running conferences for school students, enabling them to participate in

international UN youth events and providing a conduit directly from them to the

Australian Mission to the UN in New York.

It is completely understandable that the 2001 Committee report recommended

that both UNYA and the UNAA receive increased funding from the Federal

Government. It is a matter of serious embarrassment that this increase has still


not taken place six years after the report was released.

The bottom line is that the Howard Governments at best ambivalent attitude to

the United Nations has been extremely short sighted. Our region as much as any

other confronts issues such as climate change, assisting potentially failing states,

dealing with the threat of terrorism, controlling narcotics and the evils of human

trafficking. None of these can be effectively dealt with without assistance and

input form the international community.

Your Association undertakes valuable work in connecting the youth of Australia

to the important work of the United Nations. The Howard Government’s cuts to

the UNAA should not have occurred - they were due to ideological obsession

and cynicism.

In the coming weeks I will be preparing a submission to our internal policy

development unit that those funding cuts should be reversed.

I am determined to restore the capabilities of UNAA and the UNYA so that they

can properly perform the role as Australian based UN educators, constructive

evaluators and contributors.




1 Report on UN reform "In Larger Freedom" March 2005 2 Alexander Downer on UN at Press Club 2003 3

"A Golden Opportunity: the US -- UN Relationship" testimony by Timothy Wirth, President, the United Nations foundation And the Better World Fund, 13 February 2007, Committee on Foreign Affairs US House Of Representatives. 4

The Report Was Prepared by a Canadian Team under the Direction of Australian National University Professor and the United Nations Security Adviser Andrew Mack. 5 “Where the UN Is Winning” The Age, 24 October 2005. 6

"On United Nations Reform" Nicholas Burns, Undersecretary for Political Affairs, Testimony As Prepared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Washington, DC 7 Major Achievements of the United Nations, 8

"Bridging the Foreign Policy Divide -- How to Keep from over Selling or Underestimating the United Nations", The Stanley Foundation, March 2007, Mark Lagon and David Shorr. 9 Ibid 10


11 "Campaigned for a United Nations Democracy Caucus" 12