The last 12 months have been very painful for those of us who believe in collective answers to our common problems and challenges. In many countries, terrorism has once again brought death and suffering to innocent people. In the Middle East, and in certain parts of Africa, violence has continued to escalate. In the Korean peninsula, and elsewhere, the threat of nuclear proliferation casts an ominous shadow across the landscape.
And barely one month ago, in Baghdad, the United Nations (UN) itself suffered a brutal and deliberate assault, in which the international community lost some of its most talented servants. Yesterday, it was attacked again. Another major disaster was averted only by the prompt action of the Iraqi police, one of whom paid with his life.
I extend my most sincere condolences to the family of that brave policeman. And my thoughts go also to the 19 injured, including two Iraqi UN staff members. I wish them all a rapid recovery. Indeed, we should pray for all those who have lost their lives or been injured in this war—innocent civilians and soldiers alike. In that context, I deplore—as I am sure you all do—the brutal attempt on the life of Dr. Akila al-Hashemi, a member of the Governing Council, and I pray for her full recovery, too.
Excellencies, you are the United Nations. The staff who were killed and injured in the attack on our Baghdad headquarters were your staff. You had given them a mandate to assist the suffering Iraqi people, and to help Iraq recover their sovereignty.
In the future, not only in Iraq but wherever the United Nations is engaged, we must take more effective measures to protect the security of our staff. I count on your full support—legal, political and financial.
Meanwhile, let me reaffirm the great importance I attach to a successful outcome in Iraq. Whatever view each of us may take of the events of recent months, it is vital to all of us that the outcome is a stable and democratic Iraq—at peace with itself and with its neighbors, and contributing to stability in the region.
Subject to security considerations, the United Nations system is prepared to play its full role in working for a satisfactory outcome in Iraq, and to do so as part of an international effort, an effort by the whole international community, pulling together on the basis of a sound and viable policy. If it takes extra time and patience to forge that policy, a policy that is collective, coherent and workable, then I for one would regard that time as well spent. Indeed, this is how we must approach all the many pressing crises that confront us today.
Three years ago, when you came here for the Millennium Summit, we shared a vision, a vision of global solidarity and collective security, expressed in the Millennium Declaration.
But recent events have called that consensus in question.
All of us know there are new threats that must be faced—or, perhaps, old threats in new and dangerous combinations: new forms of terrorism, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
But, while some consider these threats as self-evidently the main challenge to world peace and security, others feel more immediately menaced by small arms employed in civil conflict, or by so-called “soft threats” such as the persistence of extreme poverty, the disparity of income between and within societies, and the spread of infectious diseases, or climate change and environmental degradation.
In truth, we do not have to choose. The United Nations must confront all these threats and challenges—new and old, “hard” and “soft.” It must be fully engaged in the struggle for development and poverty eradication, starting with the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals; in the common struggle to protect our common environment; and in the struggle for human rights, democracy and good governance.
In fact, all these struggles are linked. We now see, with chilling clarity, that a world where many millions of people endure brutal oppression and extreme misery will never be fully secure, even for its most privileged inhabitants.
Yet the “hard” threats, such as terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, are real, and cannot be ignored.
Terrorism is not a problem only for rich countries. Ask the people of Bali, or Bombay, Nairobi, or Casablanca.
Weapons of mass destruction do not threaten only the western or northern world. Ask the people of Iran, or of Halabja in Iraq.
Where we disagree, it seems, is on how to respond to these threats.
Since this Organization was founded, States have generally sought to deal with threats to the peace through containment and deterrence, by a system based on collective security and the United Nations Charter.
Article 51 of the Charter prescribes that all States, if attacked, retain the inherent right of self-defense. But until now it has been understood that when States go beyond that, and decide to use force to deal with broader threats to international peace and security, they need the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations.
Now, some say this understanding is no longer tenable, since an “armed attack” with weapons of mass destruction could be launched at any time, without warning, or by a clandestine group.
Rather than wait for that to happen, they argue, States have the right and obligation to use force preemptively, even on the territory of other States, and even while weapons systems that might be used to attack them are still being developed. According to this argument, States are not obliged to wait until there is agreement in the Security Council. Instead, they reserve the right to act unilaterally, or in ad hoc coalitions.
This logic represents a fundamental challenge to the principles on which, however imperfectly, world peace and stability have rested for the last 58 years.
My concern is that, if it were to be adopted, it could set precedents that resulted in a proliferation of the unilateral and lawless use of force, with or without justification.
But it is not enough to denounce unilateralism, unless we also face up squarely to the concerns that make some States feel uniquely vulnerable, since it is those concerns that drive them to take unilateral action. We must show that those concerns can, and will, be addressed effectively through collective action.
Excellencies, we have come to a fork in the road. This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the United Nations was founded.
At that time, a group of far-sighted leaders, led and inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, were determined to make the second half of the twentieth century different from the first half. They saw that the human race had only one world to live in, and that unless it managed its affairs prudently, all human beings may perish.
So they drew up rules to govern international behavior, and founded a network of institutions, with the United Nations at its center, in which the peoples of the world could work together for the common good.
Now we must decide whether it is possible to continue on the basis agreed then, or whether radical changes are needed.
And we must not shy away from questions about the adequacy, and effectiveness, of the rules and instruments at our disposal.
Among those instruments, none is more important than the Security Council itself.
In my recent report on the implementation of the Millennium Declaration, I drew attention to the urgent need for the Council to regain the confidence of States, and of world public opinion—both by demonstrating its ability to deal effectively with the most difficult issues, and by becoming more broadly representative of the international community as a whole, as well as the geopolitical realities of today.
The Council needs to consider how it will deal with the possibility that individual States may use force “preemptively” against perceived threats.
Its members may need to begin a discussion on the criteria for an early authorization of coercive measures to address certain types of threats—for instance, terrorist groups armed with weapons of mass destruction.
And they still need to engage in serious discussions of the best way to respond to threats of genocide or other comparable massive violations of human rights—an issue which I raised myself from this podium in 1999. Once again this year, our collective response to events of this type—in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in Liberia—has been hesitant and tardy.
As for the composition of the Council, that has been on the agenda of this Assembly for over a decade. Virtually all Member States agree that the Council should be enlarged, but there is no agreement on the details.
I respectfully suggest to you, Excellencies, that in the eyes of your peoples, the difficulty of reaching agreement does not excuse your failure to do so. If you want the Council’s decisions to command greater respect, particularly in the developing world, you need to address the issue of its composition with greater urgency.
But the Security Council is not the only institution that needs strengthening. As you know, I am doing my best to make the Secretariat more effective—and I look to this Assembly to support my efforts.
Indeed, in my report I also suggested that this Assembly itself needs to be strengthened, and that the role of the Economic and Social Council—and the role of the United Nations as a whole in economic and social affairs, including its relationship to the Bretton Woods institutions—needs to be rethought and reinvigorated.
I even suggested that the role of the Trusteeship Council could be reviewed, in light of new kinds of responsibility that you have given to the United Nations in recent years.
In short, Excellencies, I believe the time is ripe for a hard look at fundamental policy issues, and at the structural changes that may be needed in order to strengthen them.
History is a harsh judge: it will not forgive us if we let this moment pass.
For my part, I intend to establish a High-Level Panel of eminent personalities, to which I will assign four tasks:
- First, to examine the current challenges to peace and security;
- Second, to consider the contribution which collective action can make in addressing these challenges;
- Third, to review the functioning of the major organs of the United Nations and the relationship between them; and
- Fourth, to recommend ways of strengthening the United Nations, through reform of its institutions and processes.
The Panel will focus primarily on threats to peace and security. But it will also need to examine other global challenges, in so far as these may influence or connect with those threats.
I will ask the Panel to report back to me before the beginning of the next session of this General Assembly, so that I can make recommendations to you at that session. But only you can take the firm and clear decisions that will be needed.
Those decisions might include far-reaching institutional reforms. Indeed, I hope they will.
But institutional reforms alone will not suffice. Even the most perfect instrument will fail, unless people put it to good use.
The United Nations is by no means a perfect instrument, but it is a precious one. I urge you to seek agreement on ways of improving it, but above all of using it as its founders intended—to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, to re-establish the basic conditions for justice and the rule of law, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.
The world may have changed, Excellencies, but those aims are as valid and urgent as ever. We must keep them firmly in our sights.*
* Editor’s Note: Secretary-General Kofi Annan delivered this address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, 2003.
Secretary-General of the United Nations