home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

Does the United Nations Have a Future?

Address by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, 40th Anniversary Commemoration of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Foreign Affairs Canada, Ottawa, 14 November 2005

Turning 40.

Most of us who have navigated our way through these various disconcerting milestones would now, I think, acknowledge that turning 40 is not quite what it used to be. Mid-life crises these days tend to be delayed another decade or so, and it’s not until you’re 60 that anxieties about impending senility really begin to set in, and one really needs to take major evasive action to ward off the ravages of time.

So on the face of it the United Nations, whose 60th birthday has come and gone this year with depressingly little repair and renovation to show for it, has rather more to be worried about than the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, whose 40th anniversary year we begin to celebrate this evening. And so again – though I suspect that here in Ottawa right now it’s the future of the Liberal government that is rather more on people’s minds than the future of anything else - it’s on the UN, rather than Carleton University’s institutional pride and joy, that I will be focusing this evening.

That said, I could hardly let the occasion pass without acknowledging just how much pride and joy both Carleton and Canada should have in the Norman Paterson School, and how much of an occasion for real celebration is its fortieth anniversary. Founded, as you all know, by Senator Paterson, with its character shaped from the outset by his close friend Lester Pearson, that quintessential Canadian statesman, who taught there after his retirement from government, this is a superb institution, with a justifiably outstanding reputation here and abroad for the calibre of both the resident and visiting scholars it attracts, the quality of its teaching and research, and its indispensable role in training successive generations of Canadian diplomats.

Under Fen Hampson’s admirably focused leadership, this is a school that nurtures and encourages, as it has now for decades, all that creativity and idealism; all that commitment to multilateralism, and cooperative internationalism, and a rule-based international order; all that instinctive reluctance to succumb to the dictates of great power realpolitik; and all that sheer professional competence, that the rest of the world recognises as what is best about Canadian diplomacy.

Canada and Australia.

Of course it is tough for an Australian to have to admit that Canadians could be very good at anything, let alone better than us. And to have to own up to it two days in a row is getting close to human endurance. I certainly never conceded anything of the kind all those years I was working, and sparring, as Foreign Minister with Joe Clark and Barbara McDougall and Lloyd Axworthy. But, as I said yesterday in addressing graduating students at Carleton, I do have to concede, without getting too political about it, that in recent years, under its current management, Australia has been looking much more inward than outward, and that among the world’s middle powers it has been Canada rather than us that has been exercising the real diplomatic leadership on a whole range of human security issues, and in particular efforts to make the multilateral system work more effectively.

In particular it has been Canada that has taken the lead in wrestling with one of the great international moral issues of our time: how to ensure that we respond effectively to the horrors of genocide and ethnic cleansing and other atrocity crimes, ensuring that there will never again be Rwandas and Srebrenicas to sear and shock our consciences; never again be the orgies of hate-fed killing and maiming that destroyed the lives and futures of so many hundreds of thousands in the 1990s; and never again be the case that any leader, military or civilian, is obliged to endure, in the way your own wonderful General Romeo Dallaire had to, the agony of impotence in the face of evil.

It was Canada that responded to the challenge thrown out to the international community by Kofi Annan at the UN General Assembly in 1999, and again in 2000, to once and for all find consensus on the tension between the demands of humanity and the claims of state sovereignty that were so deeply dividing it. It did so in a very Canadian way, by establishing an international panel of experts, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which I was asked to co-chair along with my distinguished Algerian colleague Mohamed Sahnoun, and which published its report, The Responsibility to Protect, at the end of 2001.

And it followed up that report in an even more familiar Canadian way, with an intensive and sustained international diplomatic and political campaign, with the charge in the end led by Prime Minister Paul Martin himself directly calling some of his key counterparts, which resulted in the ‘responsibility to protect’ concept being unanimously endorsed this September in the UN 60th Anniversary World Summit – one of the very few achievements, in fact, of that extraordinary gathering, the biggest ever held, of all the worlds leaders.

The World Summit.

Which brings me directly to this evening’s topic. What happened in New York at the World Summit in September – and more particularly what did not happen there - does raise real questions about the UN’s future as the world’s pre-eminent guarantor of peace and security. Nobody suggests that the glass tower beside the East River is yet afflicted with anything like the malaise and marginalisation that characterised the Palais des Nations in Geneva in the 1930s. And of course the whole sprawling family of agencies, programs, organisations and funds that operate under the UN banner in development, disaster relief and various regulatory environments will, with varying degrees of effectiveness and credibility, continue to have lives of their own. But for 60 year-olds who don’t take a pretty hard look at their lifestyles, decay and debilitation are not very far away. And the member states of the UN two months ago did anything but that.

Measured against the mess that was on the table three days before the World Summit began, the outcome document unanimously endorsed by the world’s assembled heads of state and government could be, and has been in some quarters, painted as something of a triumph. But measured against what was on the table three months earlier – and bearing in mind how much change was needed, how much work had been done on a detailed agenda for change, and how many hopes and expectations were riding on the Summit - the outcome was depressing and desolate indeed.

There emerged from the last minute scramble to avoid a diplomatic train-wreck a few shafts of light, and a few passages of dim light holding out the hope of brightness beyond. There were a few areas of grey twilight – neither light nor dark. But there were also a few more areas, unhappily, of totally unrelieved gloom.


The best news of the summit, and not just for Canada and me personally, was I think the leaders’ endorsement of the principle of the ‘responsibility to protect’. The core idea which was endorsed by the leaders – but only after a fierce rearguard action from a small group of developing countries, joined by Russia, who basically refused to concede any kind of limitation on the full and untrammelled exercise of state sovereignty, however irresponsible that exercise might be - is that state sovereignty carries with it responsibilities as well as rights: while the primary responsibility for protecting its own people from avoidable man-made catastrophe rests with the sovereign state itself, if that responsibility is abdicated, through incapacity or ill-will, it shifts to the wider international community – which then has the responsibility to react including (but only as a last resort) by military intervention authorised by the Security Council. Getting acceptance of this as, in effect, a new international norm, should be hugely helpful in generating consensus for action when some new Rwanda, Bosnia or Kosovo situation comes along, as it all too inevitably will. Principles still have to be translated into practice, and that will never be easy, but the argument will proceed from a very much stronger base than has been the case in the past.

The second area in which the news was reasonably good was the commitment by the leaders to further improving the UN’s already quite substantial conflict prevention and resolution capability - involving a commitment to better peacemaking capacity (though better prepared and supported mediators and negotiators); more readily available reserves, both military and civilian, for peacekeeping and other peace operation; more substantial cooperation between the UN and regional organisations; and a far more systematic and coherent approach to post-conflict peacebuilding through the establishment of a new institution to fill a longstanding international gap, a Peacebuilding Commission.

The idea of the Peacebuilding Commission is to bring together – in a new institution, serviced by a highly professional secretariat, with decent funding support - all the key stakeholders for each particular situation, including not only the UN’s own programs and agencies, but the international financial institutions, the donor community, the relevant regional organisations and of course representatives of the countries in distress, in order to work out coherent recovery and reconstruction plans and systematically, and with sustained rather than ad hoc attention, ensure their implementation. What was left unresolved was the detailed composition of the new body and the question of its relationship to either the Security Council or ECOSOC or both. These issues were to be negotiated, and the Peacebuilding Commission established, by the end of the year. But at least until very recently the news from New York has not been very good: the US wants simultaneous progress on two other matters of considerably greater inherent sensitivity (the Human Rights Council, and management reform, of which more in a moment), and progress on the Peacebuilding Commission is being held hostage to that linkage.

A third rather small ray of light was the agreement to double the resources and approve a new action plan for the High Commissioner on Human Rights. With the main preoccupation of everyone on the human rights front being the issue of a new Human Rights Council, one suspects that this support for Commissioner Louise Arbour – another one of Canada’s living national treasures - and her small team sneaked through in a fit of absence of mind by the summiteers, but it was good news nonetheless.

Potential Light.

The agreement to create a new Human Rights Council counts as potential but not actual light at this stage. The idea is to replace the almost totally dysfunctional Commission on Human Rights with a less politicised, more professional body actually committed to advancing human rights, and not defending the indefensible. The proposal is for a smaller new body elected by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly in a way that would exclude the worst human rights violators from membership. This has been a talismanic issue for the U.S., and one strongly supported by many others in the West, but a fierce rearguard action was fought against it by a group of countries – Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Uzbekistan and Cuba prominent among them – who have blocked every attempt to reach agreement on the structure, mandate and mode of operation of the new body. In the event there was agreement to create a new Council, but every other issue was left completely unresolved: we have the shell, but no substance at all, and with as yet no sign of any breakthrough emerging from the ongoing discussions in New York

The other issue on which some important change was mapped, but not actually accomplished, was management reform, focusing on the Secretariat but also in the UN system generally. Encouraging noises were made in the Summit outcome document on the need for change, and the Secretary General is now to follow up by bringing forward a series of specific proposals. But everything will depend on how the member states respond to these specifics, and the auguries are yet again not good. The central issues here are empowerment and accountability – the Secretary-General, presently probably the most impossibly micro-managed chief executive in the world, needs much more freedom of action to choose and deploy resources where and when they are needed, subject to fully explaining and justifying what he has done.

Change here cannot happen without member states allowing and encouraging it, and unfortunately the crucial change issues have tended to lose their way, caught, as Kofi Annan said rather ruefully in the lead-up to the Summit, in the crossfire ‘between uncritical lovers and unloving critics’. The passion of the US to achieve far-reaching change at almost any cost, and the passion of some NAM critics at the other extreme to resist almost any change at all, is inhibiting any real momentum developing for basic, sensible change to make the system work better.


In the twilight zone were a number of reform issues on which the Summit went neither forward nor backward. Most prominent of these were the large list of development issues – important to get right not only in their own terms, where the imperatives are obvious enough, but in the context of a Summit which had at its core the notion that security, development and human rights issues (or, if you like, state security, human security and human dignity issues) are in this contemporary age inextricably interdependent and interlinked.

On development the news was essentially neutral: no major advances, but no retreats either – though the US created major havoc in the negotiation process for a time, not only by not being prepared to make any specific financial commitments, which was expected, but arguing against any reference even to the Millennium Development Goals in the Outcome document!

A broad consensus had already developed around the Millennium Development Goals and the outcome of the Monterrey International Conference on Financing and Development on what is required from both developed and developed countries. For the developed countries it involves more aid, both long term and of the ‘quick win’ variety, wider and deeper debt relief, and a serious commitment to a decent outcome from the Doha trade round. And for the developing countries it involves clearer national strategies for achieving stronger governance, eliminating corruption and policies capable of generating economic growth. Basically the Summit preserved and reiterated that consensus, as given some further content by the earlier Gleneagles G8 meeting, but without doing anything much to translate the by now familiar rhetoric into operational reality.

The other issue I would put in the twilight category is reform of the debating chambers: ECOSOC and the General Assembly. Both these crucial institutions, whose role should be norm-setting and direction-setting as well as providing high-level discussion forums for the great global issues of the day, have become conspicuously dysfunctional, and must be restored to pre-eminence. Much of that would achievable simply through better agenda and process management, and the Summit outcome document essentially ended up paying lip service to just that. The trick, as always, will be to translate the rhetoric into effective operational reality.


On disarmament and non-proliferation the story is one of unrelieved gloom. What was needed was action both on the supply side, in particular to constrain the availability of fissile material; and on the demand side to reduce the motivations for acquiring weapons of mass destruction (by addressing everything from real security threats to perceived double standards in arms control regimes), but what is presently likely to happen is neither. There was no sign at the NPT Review Conference earlier this year of any agreement whatever on any of the four big activities crying out for shutdown by mutual consent if a new cascade of proliferation is to be avoided - nuclear testing, new and continuing weapons programs, reprocessing or uranium enrichment. And when it came to the Summit, no agreement whatever could be reached on anything: the page is a complete blank. Failure to even begin to find a new consensus on these issues is potentially quite disastrous, bringing closer what some of us increasingly fear will be a new era of proliferation. It has certainly given those of us on Hans Blix’s Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction plenty of work to do in identifying a productive way forward, and I would hope that this is an area in which we can see some very strong support from Canada, as we have in the past.

Similarly on confronting terrorism, where the need was twofold - partly to embrace a broad based policy response going beyond intelligence, policing and military cooperation to addressing root causes, including political grievances; but above all to find common cause at last on an international definition of terrorism making attacks against civilians and non-combatants as indefensible as piracy and slavery. In the event , some lip service was paid to the first – with the General Assembly given a mandate to come up with a comprehensive strategy document. But on the second the leaders went no further than to condemn terrorism ‘in all its forms and manifestations’ – absolutely shirking the crucial norm setting task of saying that the particular form of violence against civilians was absolutely prohibited.

More darkness surrounded the proposal to redefine the rules governing the use of force – essentially through a set of guidelines for the Security Council identifying criteria for legitimacy such as magnitude of threat, force as a last resort, proportionality of response and the need for such action to be likely to do more good than harm. This proposal was killed by a combination of resistance from the US to having any guidelines at all which might constrain the Security Council’s (and by extension its own) freedom of action, and some not very intelligible arguments from some on the other side that to have any principles purporting to limit the use of force to exceptional, highly defensible cases, is somehow to encourage it.

The final area of reform darkness was reconstruction of the Security Council. Almost everyone – leaving aside the present Permanent Five, whose enthusiasm for change remains wan at best – has for years acknowledged that the Council needs to be restructured to reflect the world of the 21st century, not the middle of the last. The concern, of course, is not just the unfulfilled aspirations of a handful of important countries: it is that if the Council does not become more obviously representative, its legitimacy will steadily erode, its dictates will become less and less self-enforcing, and on great issues of war and peace it will more and more often be bypassed. The great power now wielded by the P5 countries – whether they want to believe it or not - will become more and more a diminishing asset.

But the prospect of reform now seems to have again completely collapsed. The chances seemed for a time quite strong that the first of the two alternative models proposed by the High Level Panel and Secretary General – for six new permanent members, though with no change to the existing veto arrangements – would in fact command the necessary 2/3 support. There was a reasonable body of support emerging for Japan, India, Brazil and Germany taking four of those seats, with the Africans themselves choosing another two. But that fell apart, essentially because of intra-African politics - anxiety among other sub-Saharan Africans at the prospect of Nigeria and South Africa permanently ascending to heaven, and resistance by all of them to the prospect of Egypt taking one of the two African seats potentially on offer: with no consensus for change within Africa, any hope of the necessary overall majority disappeared.

It may be that over the next year or so some attention will now be paid to the alternative model of renewable non-permanent seats, which would enable the key aspirant countries to remain more or less permanently on the Council, but without formal permanent status. But don’t hold your breath.

A Wasted Opportunity.

Although there were a few noteworthy achievements – and there will always be those who will see a glass as partly full when it is mostly empty - it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that this year’s Summit was a huge wasted opportunity.

It was two years ago, in the aftermath of the US decision to ignore the Security Council and lead the charge into Iraq, that we came to what Kofi Annan famously described as ‘a fork in the road, a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself’: either the international community could reaffirm the international rule of law and abide by the principles of cooperative internationalism, or descend into anarchy, finding ourselves utterly unable to cope with the security problems of the 21st century - terrorism, weapons of mass destruction proliferation, continuing wars within and between states, organised crime, and the great pure human security issues of poverty, disease and environmental catastrophe.

He identified 2005 – the UN’s 60th anniversary year – as the appropriate opportunity for the world’s leaders to take stock of where the multilateral system had come to, and take some major steps forward to reform and revitalise it. He commissioned two major reports – from the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change on 21st century security threats (of which I was a member) , published at the end of last year, and from the Sachs Report on the Millennium Development Goals published early this year. Then in his own report, In Larger Freedom, published in March, the Secretary General superbly distilled the essence of those two earlier reports into a blueprint for change ranging over development issues, security issues, human rights issues, and the basic architecture of the international system.

In a speech in June this year Kofi Annan said ‘I think we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform the Organization, and if we miss it this time, I don’t know when [world leaders] are going to get the opportunity again’. He was not exaggerating. What made 2005 a critical watershed for the UN is the way three things came together in a way that has not been the case for a long time, and I suspect will not now happen again for a long time - the perceived need for change, a detailed agenda for change, and a clear opportunity, with the 60th Anniversary and all the summitry and expectations associated with it, to achieve change. But it has now become sadly apparent, with the UN Summit come and gone, that if we had a great opportunity in 2005, we have blown it.

What Went Wrong?

The basic answer is that politics as usual prevailed – not enough of the key players were prepared to look at the larger picture, as distinct from their own immediate interests; and there has been an absence of leadership in devising a process which might have made it possible for some kind of reasonable product to emerge.

Good policy was essentially crushed in a pincer movement between two forces, while a large majority of other states stood either passively or impotently by, allowing practically everything of substance to be ground down from either one of these forces or the other, and accepting without demur the principle of consensus rather than majority voting, with the 191 vetoes that effectively entailed, in a process which made it a miracle that there was any ultimate agreed solution.

On one side of the pincer was the US, which – while rightly determined to make the UN system more efficient and accountable, and to reform the human rights side of the house - was insufficiently sensitive to, or interested in, or (worse) outright hostile to a number of other issues, including on the development agenda, which were of immense concern to others. There was not much evidence of any willingness to acknowledge that the rest of the world is not quite persuaded that US interests are indistinguishable from collective interests, and that US values indistinguishable from global values. Obviously the atmospherics were not helped by either the style or substantive contribution of the new US Ambassador: putting so many amendments on the table so late in the process unleashed a flood of other spoiling amendments from others. There were some conciliatory noises from Washington in the last few days of the negotiations - the administration was clearly reluctant, perhaps not unrelated to its problems with Katrina, to be blamed for a zero outcome – but it was all too little too late.

On the other side, there was a hard core group of developing country members, led by Pakistan and Egypt (and on a number of issues India as well), who – while rightly emphasising the need for a genuinely multilateral and collective approach to security, and for the most part knowing perfectly well that the world has moved on from the 50s and 60s, that state sovereignty can no longer be unchallengeable, and that quotas and cronyism are no substitute for effective management - nonetheless found grounds for opposing specific movement forward in nearly every single one of the areas under debate. Two explanatory factors stand out – their unhappiness with the non-movement on Security Council reform (which seems to be the key factor underlying India’s robust spoiling role on a multitude of issues) and their even deeper unhappiness with the proposed new Human Rights Council – leading them to lay down poison pills in multiple other areas to secure their own objectives in relation to that.

What Next?

No organisation in the world embodies as many dreams, yet delivers as many frustrations, as the United Nations. This year we have seen both abundantly in play.

There are plenty who are justifiably now sceptical now that the UN and its member states will ever be capable responding to the challenge of reform, not just on the Security Council issue, but all those with which we have been wrestling this year.

But we have no alternative but to keep on trying – all of us, governments, NGOs, academics, the media: anyone who is in the business of making policy or influencing it. As the world learned, very much to its cost, when League of Nations fell apart in the 1930s, if we did not have an effective global collective security institution, we would simply have to reinvent one all over again.

What sustains me in that effort – just – is the evidence of how much good, for all its faults, and for all the need for drastic further reform, the UN system is capable of delivering. Just last month we had the launch in New York of the long-awaited Human Security Report, another essentially Canadian initiative, sponsored by five governments and put together by a University of British Columbia team under the direction of former UN security adviser (and, I hasten to add, to restore some national pride, Australian academic) Andrew Mack. Pulling together for the first time a mass of data not previously collected by any international agency, and drawing on much commissioned new work from think-tanks in the field like Upsalla, the report demonstrates, counter-intuitively for most people, that there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of conflicts (by 40 per cent since the early 90s); very big accompanying declines in the number of battle deaths; an even more striking reduction in the number of mass killings (by 80 per cent since the late 1980s) – despite Rwanda, Srbrenica and Darfur; and a large increase in the number of civil conflicts resolved by negotiation.

There are a number of reasons contributing to these turnarounds. They include the end of the era of colonialism, which generated two-thirds or more of all wars from the 1950s to the 1980s; and of course the end of the Cold War, which meant no more proxy wars fuelled by Washington or Moscow, and also the demise of a number of authoritarian governments, generating internal resentment and resistance, that each side had been propping up.

But as the authors of the Human Security Report argue, the best explanation is the one that stares us in the face, even if a great many don’t want to acknowledge it. This is the huge increase in the level of international preventive diplomacy, diplomatic peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations, for the most part authorised by and mounted by the United Nations, that has occurred since the end of the Cold War.

In all of this, regional intergovernmental organizations have played an increasingly significant part, as have the international financial institutions and individual states. And a very much more central and important role has been played in recent years by NGOs and other civil society actors. My own International Crisis Group, which didn't exist ten years ago, is perhaps a case in point. But it is the UN – the only international organization with a global security mandate - that has been the central player.

The message in that is I think clear for those of us here this evening celebrating the approach to international diplomacy that Canada has made so much its own, and in the nourishment of which the Norman Paterson School has for so long played such a central role. In short, those of us who continue to believe that a rule-based, cooperative international order is the best way to combat the world’s new threats to state and human security don’t need our heads examined. And, for all the frustrations of working through and around a UN system that still desperately needs major change, those of us who spend our professional lives trying to prevent and resolve deadly conflict haven’t been entirely wasting our time.