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Valuing the United Nations

Opening Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of the Australian National University, to the 22nd World Model United Conference, Melbourne, 18 March 2013

No organization in the world embodies as many dreams, yet delivers as many frustrations, as the United Nations. Nothing could be nobler or more moving than the Charter’s stated goals, not only ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’, but to ‘reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights’ and ‘promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’.

But only sporadically and erratically has the UN been the central player in advancing and achieving these objectives. For most of its history the Security Council has been the prisoner of great power manoeuvring; the General Assembly a theatre for empty rhetoric; the Economic and Social Council a largely dysfunctional irrelevance; and the Secretariat, for all the dedication and brilliance of a host of individuals, alarmingly inefficient.

When I think back on my own experience with the UN, it has involved exactly this kind of contradiction.  In all my years of public life there is no single institution that I found more exhilarating at its best, yet more debilitatingly frustrating at its worst, than the United Nations.

My efforts, in particular, to advance the cause of UN reform, were about as Quixotic and unproductive as anything I have ever tried to do. I’m talking about reform of Secretariat structures to reduce duplication, waste and irrelevance; reform of personnel practices to ensure that the best people were in the right jobs; and above all reform of the structure of the pinnacle of the whole system, the Security Council, to ensure that it began to reflect the world of the 21st century and not that of the middle of the last.

But I have had, equally, a number of exhilarating experiences, of the UN at its best. Let me tell you about three of them.

The first was the success of our peace plan for Cambodia in the early 1990s, which dragged the country back from a hellish nearly two decades of horrifying genocide and ugly and protracted civil war. The plan was, in a nutshell, based on getting the UN to do something it had never previously done of this kind, or on remotely this scale, viz. assume responsibility for a country’s whole administration during its transition from war to peace. Our idea was that such a commitment by the UN would give China a face-saving reason for stepping back from its long-standing support for the genocidal Khmer Rouge, which was in turn the indispensable ingredient for a sustainable peace.

And so it all worked out. I have never been more moved by anything in my life than the sight those Cambodian men, women and children lined up at the polling stations in their scores of thousands in May 1993, knowing the risk of Khmer Rouge bomb attack, but thrilled at the prospect of peace at last, and the chance to have some say at last in how they lived their lives.

The second real sense of achievement was successfully steering to conclusion a year earlier, through the labyrinthine machinations of the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, the Chemical Weapons Convention, still the most robust arms control treaty related to weapons of mass destruction ever negotiated – an achievement rendered that much more piquant by knowing that the Conference has not successfully negotiated anything since then, for the last 20 years, even its own work program. 

The third time of exhilaration was when the General Assembly, sitting at head of state and government level as the World Summit 2005 on the 60th anniversary of the UN, unanimously endorsed the concept of states’ responsibility to protect populations at risk of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes – a concept which I had been centrally involved in developing in an international commission I co-chaired a few years earlier, and have been promoting ever since in the hope that, once and for all, as an international community, we can eradicate the shame of the Holocaust, of Rwanda, of Srbrenica, and of Darfur. That exhilaration was reinforced when this was invoked as the rationale for the intervention in Libya in 2011, which unquestionably saved scores of thousands of lives that would otherwise have been lost, as so many millions had been lost in the past.

The trouble is that for every high in the world of the UN there seems to be an accompanying low, and that happened with ‘R2P’ not long after the Libyan decision with the Security Council’s total paralysis over the even worse atrocity crime situation in Syria, which has continued to this day.  I believe that there is a way of regenerating consensus among the major players in the Security Council as to the – very limited – circumstances when it is right to militarily intervene in a sovereign country to protect its citizens, based on the proposal which Brazil has floated which it calls ‘Responsibility While Protecting’ and I hope very much that during Australia’s present new two-year term on the Council we can take a serious initiative that will help build that consensus.

There are a lot of good news stories that should be told about the UN at its best, and I believe that there are few better voices to tell them, in communities around the world than you, the more than 2000 brilliant and passionately committed young students, who have gathered here this week in Melbourne for the 22nd World Model UN Conference, the first to be held in Australia.

One of the things that you can tell people, because most haven’t the faintest idea, is 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 begin to appreciate just how many of these agencies have performed outstandingly well for many decades –and how really very little, comparatively, it all costs. Let me give you some figures which you can use to silence some of the doubters and sceptics.

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 –  currently involve the employment of 44,000 people at a regular budget cost of around $2.5 billion a year. That sounds a lot, but maybe not quite so much when you realize, to take examples from just three of the UN’s 193 member states, that the Tokyo Fire Department spends about the same each year, the Australian Department of Human Services (with less staff) $3 billion more, and New York City about $66 billion more.

If you then add to these UN core functions its related programs and organs (like the UN Development Programme and  the office of the  UN High Commissioner for Refugees), and also its peacekeeping activities (which now involve some 110,000 international military, police, and civilian peacekeepers) the total UN system cost is still little just around $30 billion a year.

Which again sounds a big number, and it is, but not so much when you realise that it’s much less than a third of what the US military has been spending each year on just one current conflict, in Afghanistan [$105 billion in FY11/12]. And even more so when you remember that it’s less than the amount [$33.2 billion] paid out in Wall Street bonuses in 2007, the year before the global financial and economic meltdown.

The whole family of UN Secretariat and related entities, together with current peacekeepers, adds up to around 215,000 people worldwide –not a small number, but maybe one that is better put in context when you know that it’s less than one-eighth of the 1.8 million staff employed by McDonalds and its franchisees worldwide!

The bottom line in all of this is that the UN is fabulous value for what the world spends on it, and that if it ever ceased to exist we would have to reinvent it. Yes, there are a lot of frustrations, and yes it could do better still in all sorts of ways, which I hope that the next generation of world leaders, your generation, will make happen.

But what we all need to remember, above all, as probably the most famous and respected, of its Secretaries-General, Dag Hammarskjold, put it, in those immortal words of his: “The UN was created not to bring us to heaven, but to save us from hell”.

Congratulations to everyone responsible for bringing this huge and fantastic conference together, thank you for inviting me to be your Patron and to join you today, and every best wish for a week of tremendously productive conferencing.