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Appreciating the United Nations

Opening Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of the Australian National University, to the National Capital Model United Nations Conference, ANU, Canberra, 3 October 2014

Congratulations to everyone responsible for bringing this Model UN Conference together, thank you for inviting me to join you today, welcome to all the participants especially those coming from abroad,  and every best wish for a fascinating couple of days debate.

That debate will of course be aimed at replicating so far as possible the kind of experience you would have as diplomatic delegates from your country trying to get agreement on issues in a big multilateral conference.  And if the experience you have here is anything like the experience you would have in the real world, let me tell you are at least as likely to come away feeling frustrated as exhilarated.

As someone who has worked in and around the UN for a large chunk of my professional life, as Australia’s Foreign Minister, as head of the International Crisis Group, and working on a variety of expert panels and commissions in the international peace and security area, I have always loved – and do to this day – everything the UN stands for. But I’m a lot more schizophrenic about the institution itself.  The reality is that 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 what we all need to remember, in the immortal words of perhaps the most famous and respected of all its Secretaries-General, Dag Hammarskjold, is that “The UN was created not to bring us to heaven, but to save us from hell”.  And in that respect I have had a number of experiences, of the UN at its best. Let me tell you about three of them.

The first was the success of Australia’s 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 of 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, and now seen as a big international success story with its implementing Organization awarded last year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Our negotiating  achievement has been 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. But R2P is now being seen by most of the world – if not yet the Security Council itself, though I live in hope – as a key justification for the international action now taking place in Iraq to stop the murderous, genocidal IS in its tracks, and there is plenty of evidence that the basic elements of R2P are now firmly and irreversibly embedded in the world’s consciousness.

There are actually a lot of good news stories that should be told about the UN at its best, and I think it’s very important that the next generation of young activists and enthusiasts be able to tell them, because there are so many of our fellow citizens sceptical, cynical or just plain ignorant about what the UN does – starting, unhappily, with most members of our present government, although  Prime Minister Abbott does seem to have had a little bit of an awakening, since the MH17 affair, that multilateral institutions might not be a complete waste of time and money.

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. I apologise to those of you who may have heard me say all this before at other UNAA conferences, but I have updated the figures in question, and I really do think they bear repetition, just to put the whole UN enterprise in context.

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 some 44,000 people at a regular budget cost of  $2.75 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 almost as much as that each year, the Australian Department of Human Services (with less staff) about  $3.5 billion more, and New York City about $70 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 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 spent each year, for years on end, on the Afghanistan conflict alone. And even more so when you remember that it’s less than the amount that Wall Street bankers paid themselves in 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 225,000 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 1.9 million staff employed by McDonalds and its franchisees worldwide!

The bottom line in all of this is not only that if the UN ever ceased to exist we would have to reinvent it, but that it is fabulous value for what the world spends on it. Yes, there are a lot of frustrations, and yes it could do better still in all sorts of ways. But that’s up to you – the next generation of Australian leaders and world leaders – to make happen. In learning how to do it, this National Capital Model UN Conference is going to get you off to a flying start -- so make the most of this experience over the next two days, and the best of luck for the brilliant international careers that lie ahead of you.