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KEYNOTE SPEECH AT CONFERENCE ON REFORMING THE UNITED NATIONS

THE SECRETARY-GENERAL

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KEYNOTE SPEECH AT CONFERENCE ON REFORMING THE UNITED NATIONS

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Columbia University , New York , 17 October 2005

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Senator Mitchell,

President Bollinger,

Mr. Solomon, [President, US Institute of Peace]

Dear friends,

First, let me thank you for holding this conference, which could hardly be better timed. Reforming the United Nations is as important a task today as it ever was. We need all the ideas and all the sustained commitment we can find, not only from governments but from universities like this, from think tanks such as the US Institute for Peace and the Center for International Conflict Resolution, and from talented individuals such as those I see before me in this room.

I am particularly grateful to you, Senator, to your colleague Speaker Gingrich, and to USIP, for the excellent work of the Task Force on the United Nations which you led earlier this year, and for the enormously valuable and constructive report which you produced – a report, I may add, whose findings coincided, on many points, with suggestions that I myself had put forward as an agenda for the World Summit, in my report "In Larger Freedom".

Four months later, and one month after the Summit, this is a good moment to take stock.

You yourself, Senator, have acknowledged that the agreements reached at the Summit did establish a starting-point for reform. I believe your report, along with some similar efforts in other member states, complemented my own proposals and helped to bring us to this point. The challenge now is to implement what was decided, and to fill the gaps that have been left.

Let me first draw your attention to the Summit's achievements in the area of economic and social development – which for most member states is by far the most important. This Summit stimulated important commitments, from both donor and developing nations, to take actions to advance the Millennium Development Goals – thereby rolling back poverty and disease, enabling women to play their essential role in development, and also safeguarding our global environment. It followed your own focus on the importance of governance and economic growth, as well as an enabling world environment, in achieving these results. And it called for some important measures, very much in line with the USIP report, to improve coherence and coordination among different UN agencies.

Can we really call the Summit a failure, when it clearly endorsed the MDGs (as we call them), when it prompted a doubling of aid to Africa, and commitments from many donors to timetables for scaling up their overall development assistance to 0.7 per cent of gross national product? On the contrary, if progress continues I think there is real hope that this will be remembered as the decisive moment when mankind at last broke out of the vicious cycle of global poverty.

I myself particularly appreciated President Bush's speech to the Summit, in which he not only gave strong endorsement to the MDGs, but also made a potentially historic offer to give poor countries the chance to trade their way out of poverty, through a successful Doha Round that would eliminate tariffs on their goods and end unfair agricultural subsidies. I believe that trading opportunities are indeed no less important, as an enabler of development, than financial assistance or debt relief; and that, so long as developing countries are not given the chance to compete on a truly level playing field, we shall be fighting poverty with one hand tied behind our back. The WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong, in two months' time, thus takes on crucial importance.

In other areas where your report called for change, I would say that we got our foot in the door, but that only with a lot more pushing will we actually get through it, and convert the general statements in the outcome document into specific, tangible improvements in the UN's performance – improvements that make a real difference to the lives of people around the world.

The pushing and shoving will go on between governments and their representatives in the General Assembly, but governments generally move forward best when they are under pressure from behind – from domestic constituencies who care profoundly about the issues involved. I believe such constituencies – people who care about international security, about human rights, and about successful nation-building in war-torn countries – are well represented in this room.

Let me illustrate my point by looking more closely at four areas where the USIP report called for specific changes: terrorism, human rights, peacebuilding, and management reform.

Terrorism

The Summit did produce a clear, unqualified condemnation of "terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes". But it left it to the General Assembly to conclude a comprehensive convention against international terrorism within a year, and to develop the elements I identified in Madrid last March into a comprehensive global counterterrorist strategy, enabling nations and regional bodies to respond to this threat in a consistent and coordinated way. I am ready to provide an updated version of the elements of such a strategy, if so requested, when the Assembly decides to discuss the issue. But the ball is clearly at the feet of the member states. We need further strong pressure, from them and on them, to push it over the line.

Human rights

Sixty years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, thirty years after the Cambodian killing fields, and ten years after the horrors of Rwanda and Srebrenica, all member states of the United Nations have now at last accepted their responsibility to protect their own populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. And they have expressed their readiness to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, when peaceful means are inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their own populations.

On the conceptual level, this is a historic breakthrough. But it by no means guarantees that the Security Council will act swiftly and decisively – in Darfur, or anywhere else where action is needed. It is not a substitute for the political will and military strength that governments will always have to muster when push comes to shove.

Similarly, the decision to create a new Human Rights Council is very important. But the Summit did not spell out the details that you and I would have liked to see. Everything will be decided in the General Assembly, which has just begun consultations on it. Here, everyone looks to the US to be fully engaged and play a leading role. Again, ensuring that this vital reform is carried through within the year, in a meaningful way which will bring real hope to millions of oppressed people throughout the world, is up to those who really care about human rights, inside and outside government.

It is up to them, too, to ensure that the plan of action for strengthening the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the decision to double the paltry 1.8 percent of the UN budget that that Office currently receives, are actually carried through, thereby helping to place human rights on a par with development and security among the UN's activities. If she gets these new resources, the High Commissioner will be able to use them to better fulfill her mandate – as the USIP task force recommended.

And finally, it is up to member states to ensure that the new Democracy Fund is properly resourced. Here, we have got off to a good start, with contributions totaling $42.5 million, from 15 countries. I am very grateful to the US for the leadership it has shown.

Peacebuilding

All of us have been shocked, over the last fifteen years, by the spectacle of countries apparently emerging from a bitter, destructive conflict, only to slip back again because the international community lost interest too soon and moved on to other crises. One reason for this has been the lack of any international institution specifically devoted to peace building, as opposed to peacemaking or peace keeping. And therefore I think one of the most encouraging results of the Summit was the decision to fill this institutional void by establishing a Peacebuilding Commission, backed by a small peacebuilding support office within the Secretariat, and a voluntary Peacebuilding Fund. All three of these correspond to recommendations in your report.

The outcome document calls for the Peacebuilding Commission to be operational by December 31, 2005. But its establishment still requires a final General Assembly resolution. The Assembly has begun consultations on this, while we have begun work on the design and terms of reference of the Fund, and I have taken steps to set up the Support Office, using staff posts available within existing resources. But none of this will produce results unless governments work hard in the Assembly to agree on the resolution and push it through, unless they vote a budget for the Support Office, and unless a significant number of them make sizeable contributions to the Fund.

Management reform

Here, too, world leaders took many decisions that you and I must surely welcome, because they correspond to requests that I had made, and which your report endorsed. For instance:

  • They asked me to make detailed proposals for an independent oversight advisory committee, to ensure the independence of the UN's oversight bodies – in effect, the Independent Oversight Board that you recommended. I shall have my proposals ready by the end of November.
  • They promised to "significantly strengthen, as a matter of urgency", the expertise, capacity and resources of the Office of Internal Oversight Services.
  • They agreed to my proposal for a review of all mandates that are more than five years old. I will submit recommendations in the first quarter of 2006. I am determined to make good use of this golden opportunity to eliminate outdated activities, and to update and reprioritize our entire program of work.
  • They resolved to consider a detailed proposal for a one-time staff buy-out. I shall submit this in February.
  • They asked me for recommendations to ensure that the UN budgetary, financial and human resource policies and rules respond to the Organization's current needs and enable it to do its work efficiently. I am now carrying out that assessment.

These measures complement the reforms on which I am already engaged, aimed at ensuring greater accountability, better performance and full compliance with ethics codes throughout the Secretariat. For instance:

  • We are working to improve transparency by making more documents and information, including internal oversight reports, available to member states.
  • We are reflecting on your very interesting recommendation, which was echoed in the Volcker report, that we should have a single chief operating officer in charge of daily operations.
  • I have approved the creation of an independent ethics office, and a new financial disclosure policy which affects a broader range of officials.
  • We have developed a new whistleblower protection policy, based on best practices around the world, including advice from the US Government Accountability Project, Transparency International and other international sources.
  • And the Management Performance Board, which I established earlier this year to ensure that senior officials are held accountable for results, held its first meeting in July.

All in all, I believe we now have an opportunity to transform the UN into a much more efficient and transparent instrument in the hands of its members. But these measures will not implement themselves. They require further decisions by the General Assembly; and to win those decisions we must convince a broad majority that a more efficient UN will better serve, and be more accountable to, not just one or a few member states, but all of them.

Having said all that, there is no denying that on some issues the outcome of the Summit was a disappointment, and a missed opportunity.

It was a disgrace that our leaders could not agree, even on a single sentence, about how to tackle one of the most urgent challenges of our time, the threat of weapons of mass destruction. New efforts in this area are absolutely essential. I am working with a group of countries led by Norway to try and find a way forward.

And it was certainly a disappointment that world leaders could not agree on Security Council reform. They must take seriously their commitment to continue trying for a decision on this, and their request for a review of progress by the end of 2005.

Our challenge now is to fill these gaps, even while working – as an urgent priority – to implement all the agreements that have been reached. It is up to us – the Secretariat, the representatives of governments, and people like you who are in a position to influence governments – to move boldly through the door that our leaders have opened, and forge ahead with real and positive change.

Thank you very much. Now I'll be happy to take a few questions.

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Published: Oct 20, 2005
Last modified: Oct 20, 2005

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