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Why the UN Matters

Keynote address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Chancellor of the Australian National University, Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne and President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group, to the United Nations Youth Assembly, Sydney, 29 September 2010

Congratulations to everyone responsible for bringing this youth assembly together, and thank you for inviting me to join you. I am absolutely delighted at this evidence that out there, in this very materialistically minded and rather complacent community of ours,  there are a number of young people who instinctively feel that  –  when it comes to peace and security, guaranteeing basic standards of decent living, and respecting and protecting human rights and dignity –  not all is right with the world, that there is much that can and should be done to make things better, and that the United Nations, for all its faults and for all the criticism that is regularly hurled at it, is much more part of the solution than the problem.

Most people, I’m afraid, haven’t the faintest idea just  how many different roles are played by the UN   –  by the multiple departments, programs, organs, and agencies within the UN system, across the whole spectrum of issues and areas from peace and security between and within states to human rights and human security more generally: health, education, poverty alleviation, disaster relief, refugee protection, people and drug trafficking, heritage protection, climate and the environment and many others as well. Nor do most people appreciate just how many of these agencies have performed outstandingly well for many decades, and how very little, comparatively, it all costs.

Figures are usually rather boring, but I think you’ll find these ones pretty interesting. When I last sat down to analyse all this a couple of years ago, the core functions of the UN – leaving aside the peacekeeping missions but counting everything that goes on in the big headquarters in New York; the big UN offices in Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi; and the five regional commissions spread around the world –  I found that they involve some 37,000 people at a cost of just over $2 billion a year. That might sound a lot, but not so much when you know that that is just about exactly the same number of employees it takes, at close to double that amount ($3.6 billion), to run the New York Police Department, just one part of one city’s administration in one of the UN’s 192 member states.

If you then add to these UN core functions everything else done by the whole UN family –   its related programs and organs (like the UN Development Program  and  the office of the  UN High Commissioner for Refugees), the other specialized programs and agencies of the entire UN family (like the Food and Agriculture Organization  and the World Health Organization), and also its peacekeeping activities (which involve over 88,000 international military, police, and civilian peacekeepers) the total UN system cost is still no more than $15 billion a year. Which again sounds a big number, and it is, but not when you realise that it’s just a small fraction of what the US military is spending on just one current conflict – that in Afghanistan – and even more so when you contemplate that it’s less than half the amount ($33.2 billion) paid out in Wall Street bonuses in 2007, the year before the global financial and economic meltdown.

Leaving aside the peacekeepers, the whole UN system employs, when I last counted, 98,000 people worldwide –  which again sounds a pretty fair number, but not so many when you remember it’s less than the crowd that filled the MCG for last week’s AFL Grand Final . And maybe even more so when you know that 98,000 is about as many as work in Walt Disney theme parks and resorts around the world, and just over half the number who sell Starbucks coffee…


There’s something else that the sceptics need to know about the UN, and that is just how important an institution it continues to be when it comes to preventing and resolving deadly conflict, with all the horror and misery that such conflict brings in its wake.

You could be forgiven, watching the nightly TV news bulletins, listening to the radio, and  reading the newspapers, for thinking that the world is becoming an ever more dangerous and ugly place, that there is as much if not more conflict going on than ever, and that all the human misery that comes with this is just an inescapable part of the tooth and claw world of international life.  But despite all the terrible cases we all remember, and all the terrible cases still ongoing in the Congo, Sudan and elsewhere, the truth of the matter is much more encouraging.

Over the twenty years since the end of the Cold War, there has in fact been an extraordinary decrease – around 80 per cent in each case — in the number of wars (defined as those with 1000 or more reported battle deaths in a year), the number of episodes of mass killing, and the number of people dying violent battle deaths. Though during this period a number of small new conflicts have commenced, and a number of apparently successfully concluded conflicts have broken out again within a few years, it is the case that, on average, more conflicts each year have stopped than started.

In the case of battle deaths, whereas most years from the 1940s through to the 1990s had over 100,000 such reported deaths — and at one point as many as 500,000 — the average for the first years of this new century has been fewer than 34,000. For conflicts in which states, as distinct from non-state groups, are one or more of the actors, the average conflict in the new millennium kills 90 percent fewer people each year than did the average conflict in the 1950s. Of course violent battle deaths are only a small part of the whole story of the misery of war: over 80 per cent or more of war-related deaths are due to disease and malnutrition rather than direct violence, as we have seen, for example, in the Congo and Darfur. But the trend decline in battle deaths is significant, and hugely encouraging.

The evidence for all of this comes from the statistics that have in recent years been meticulously compiled, drawing on the best available worldwide data (not much of which is available from UN or other official sources) by the Human Security Report team now working out of Simon Fraser University in Canada, and published in successive reports since 2005, summarized in a mini-Atlas of Human Security published in 2008, and now being updated for its forthcoming 2010 report.

The figures are good news enough, but even more encouraging is the analysis which lies behind these figures. There are a number of available explanations for the dramatic decline in wars and battle deaths. One is the end of the era of colonialism, which generated 60 per cent or more of all international wars each year from the start of the 1950s to the end of the 1970s. Another important, and plausible, reason is the end of the Cold War, which meant after 1990 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, the best explanation is the one that stares us in the face, even if a great many don’t want to acknowledge it, and that is the huge upsurge in activity in conflict management, conflict resolution, and post-conflict peace-building activity that has occurred over the last decade and a half. A good deal of this has involved very significant roles being played by a number of regional organizations, major NGOs (not least, I think I can claim, my own International Crisis Group), and certain individual states, but the whole effort has been spearheaded by the much maligned UN itself, in mediation, negotiation, and peacekeeping operations in difficult transitional situations, and it deserves much more appreciation for this role than it has received.

So for people like me in the past and hopefully you in the future who devote large chunks of our professional and personal lives to preventing and resolving deadly conflict — and doing so not least because of the huge contribution that this can make to reducing poverty and all the misery associated with it — my message is clear, simple and I hope encouraging: we are not all wasting our time.


The UN plays many different roles apart from peacekeeping and peace-building, and running the multiple programs administered by all the departments and agencies I referred to earlier. It also operates, through its two great central organs – the General Assembly and the Security Council –  as a stage for debate, a source of legitimacy, and a source of authority. Above all else, the UN –  especially through the General Assembly, because of its universality, having as members every one of the world’s sovereign states –  plays a crucial role in setting international norms, i.e. determining what are the appropriate standards of proper behaviour for different kinds of situation. Whenever all, or the great majority, of the UN’s 192 member states actually agree on something –  by way of resolutions or declarations at the soft end of the spectrum, or conventions and treaties at the harder end –  that does make a difference.

There are scores, probably hundreds, of areas where the UN has played a norm-setting role, on everything from eliminating poverty to prohibiting child soldiers to protecting Chinese pandas. Some of its efforts can at best be described as work in progress, like getting everyone to accept the desirability, and necessity, of completely eliminating nuclear weapons, or acting effectively on climate change. But in other peace and security areas UN processes have played an important part in generating strong international sentiment against landmines and cluster bombs through the Ottawa and Oslo treaty processes.  

The norm-setting effort that has been closest of all to my heart, and in many ways the most crucial of all if our common humanity is to be anything more than a rhetorical flourish, is the effort to end once and for all mass atrocity crimes – genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other major crimes against humanity and war crimes: to get the world once and for all to accept that whether or not such crimes are committed behind the walls of a sovereign state, they are everyone’s business, and simply cannot be ignored. Let me tell you the story of the role that the UN has played in establishing over the last few years a wholly different way of tackling this problem.

In coming to grips with the issue of mass atrocity crimes committed within a sovereign state, the starting point is to recognize that, until very recently, whatever may have been the formal status of international humanitarian law in some of these contexts,  there was simply no generally accepted principle in law, morality or state practice to challenge the core notion that it was no-one’s business but their own if states murdered or forcibly displaced large numbers of their own citizens, or allowed atrocity crimes to be committed by one group against another on their soil.

Even after World War II, with the awful experience of Hitler's Holocaust encouraging the embrace of new legal norms – the recognition of individual and group human rights in the UN Charter and, more grandly, in the Universal Declaration; the recognition by the Nuremberg Tribunal Charter in 1945 of the concept of “crimes against humanity”; and above all the signing of the Genocide Convention in 1948 – things did not fundamentally change. The overwhelming preoccupation of those who founded the UN was not in fact human rights or internal conflict but the problem of sovereign states waging aggressive war against each other. And what actually captured the mood of the time, and the mood that prevailed right through the Cold War years, was, more than any of the human rights provisions, Article 2(7) of the UN Charter: "Nothing should authorise intervention in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any State".

The state of mind that even massive atrocity crimes like those of the Cambodian killing fields in the mid-70s were just not the rest of the world’s business was dominant throughout the UN’s first half-century of existence: Vietnam’s invasion, which stopped the Khmer Rouge in its tracks, was universally attacked, not applauded. And Tanzania had to justify its overthrow of Uganda’s Idi Amin by invoking ‘self–defence’, not any larger human rights justification.

It was not until the 1990s that anything resembling a serious international debate really took about these issues, in the context of successive tragedies unfolding in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Balkans. But it was an essentially one-dimensional debate, about the rights and wrongs of “humanitarian intervention”, i.e. the use of coercive military force, for human protection purposes, against the will of the government of the country in question. And essentially for that reason there was a conspicuous lack of international consensus.

Those in the global North tended to rally behind the rallying cry of the “right to intervene”; but in the global South the prevailing mood was defence of state sovereignty at almost any price – hardly surprising given that so many of them were newly born, very proud of their hard-won sovereignty, very conscious of their fragility, and all too conscious of the way in which they had been on the receiving end in the past of not very benign interventions from the imperial and colonial powers, and not very keen to acknowledge their right to do so again, whatever the circumstances.

In this environment, with the only seriously debated policy options being “send in the marines” or “do nothing”, it is not surprising that in the cases where effective international action was desperately needed there was no agreement at all, resulting either in no interventions at all occurring (as in Rwanda), or when they did their UN mandates being either half-baked (as in Bosnia) or non-existent (as in Kosovo). So over and again we found ourselves saying, after some new catastrophe, ‘never again’ – and asking ourselves, with a mixture of anger, incomprehension and shame, how we could possibly have let it happen again.

The good news is that the international community is much closer to consensus now than it ever has been on the proper conceptual response to the questions in issue. The divisive discourse of the 1990s about “humanitarian intervention” has almost completely given way to a wholly new conceptualization. Although most of the international law texts which address this issue at all still seem to be preoccupied with the earlier formulation, the issue is no longer about anyone’s “right to intervene” but rather everyone’s “responsibility to protect”. And that is because at the 2005 World Summit, which was in fact the UN General Assembly sitting at head of state and government level with the great majority of member states present, unanimously adopted this new approach. And because, despite multiple attempts in recent years to undermine the consensus that was reached, the UN has stood firmly behind the responsibility to protect principle.

As it has developed, that principle has three main dimensions. It begins with the notion that the primary responsibility for protecting its citizens from man-made catastrophe certainly remains with each sovereign state itself. It continues with the idea that there is a secondary responsibility for other states to assist them to so act. And it concludes with the principle that,  in the event of a state failing to discharge that responsibility, as a result of either incapacity or ill-will, then the responsibility shifts to the wider international community, which is obliged to act, as persuasively or as coercively as ultimately proves necessary, to halt or avert the harm in question.

What we have seen over the last ten years is the emergence, with astonishing speed as these things go, of a new international norm of really quite fundamental ethical importance, that may ultimately become accepted as a new rule of customary international law – though I certainly would not claim that state practice brings it near that point yet. The best evidence that some really fundamental mindset change is at work is I think to compare and contrast the swift and effective international response to the awful ethnic violence which broke out in Kenya at the beginning of 2008, to the dismissive turning away which characterised the unfolding genocide in Rwanda fourteen years earlier. 

In terms of my own and Australia’s involvement in all of this, I was present at the creation of the responsibility to protect concept in my capacity as Co-Chair of the Canadian-government sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which produced its report of that name in 2001. I also had the good fortune to be a member of the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, which generated the key peace and security recommendations for the 2005 World Summit, and was able in that role to ensure that the merits of the new norm were fully understood and embraced. I was also reasonably actively involved – although others played much more important roles – in the political and diplomatic lobbying which led to that concept being adopted as one of the unanimous resolutions of that Summit. And I have remained active since 2005 fighting off various rearguard actions – so far unsuccessful – to subsequently undermine that consensus in the General Assembly and elsewhere.  Throughout all this period successive Australian governments, both Coalition and Labor, have been strong and consistent supporters of the concept, and insistent on its effective application in practice.

What we all need to accept is that the job of consolidating and ensuring the effective implementation of the new norm is very far from complete. There are conceptual challenges – in particular to ensure agreement on definitional questions, as to what are specifically “responsibility to protect” situations, and what may be better characterised as more familiar conflict or human rights violation cases. There are institutional challenges – to ensure that there are early warning and response focal points established within all the key governments and intergovernmental organizations; to have in place civilian capability for diplomatic mediation, civilian policing and other critical administrative support and, at least in a standby capacity, rapid response military capability, to ensure available support in the most extreme cases which can’t otherwise be addressed.

And there is the political challenge – to be able, working with major governments and global NGOs, to quickly mobilize and sustain support for effective response when ugly situations arise. All that means lots more work for me – and hopefully for some of you – in the years ahead, but I think we can be reasonably pleased with what has been achieved so far.

In this area, as in so many others, the UN has been at the centre of this debate, and the largely unsung hero of the story. The bottom line is to remember, as the most famous and respected, probably, of all its Secretaries-General, Dag Hammarskjold, put it in those often-quoted lines which deserve to be engraved in all our hearts and minds: “The UN was created not to bring us to heaven, but to save us from hell”.

For all its many critics, it is not doing a bad job. And I hope that you here today – the best and brightest and most committed of your generation – will take that message forward, and do everything you can in your future lives to not only helping the UN to become more effective still in all the ways it needs to, but to continue that great tradition of international cooperation and commitment to human decency and our common humanity that the UN so magnificently represents.