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Celebrating the UN's 70th Anniversry

Keynote Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA FAIIA to the Annual Conference of the United Nations Association of Australia, Canberra, 21 August, 2015

“70” has something of a use-by feel about it, as I had cause to reflect when I reached this biblical milestone a year ago. But I don't think that anyone could seriously claim that the United Nations at 70 is on its last legs. There’s a lot to admire, and a lot to look forward to, as we celebrate this year the seven decades that have passed since the UN was established in 1945.

As someone who has worked in and around the UN for a large chunk of my professional life, as 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. 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’.

And when the UN is working at its best, there is nothing quite so exhilarating as working with it, and I’ve been lucky enough to have a number of such experiences. 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 the 2013 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 for me 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 Srebrenica, and of Darfur. That exhilaration was reinforced when ‘R2P’ 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. This certainly happened with  ‘R2P’ very soon after the Libyan decision I’ve just mentioned, when the US, UK and France decided to militarily pursue an open-ended regime-change agenda, and were perceived by the other members of the Council as over-reaching the narrow civilian protection mandate they had been granted, with the result that the Security Council became totally total paralysed over the even worse atrocity crime unfolding  in Syria –  which paralysis, in that context at least if not elsewhere –  has continued to this day.

While in all my years of public life there is no single institution that I found more exhilarating at its best, I don't think there is any more debilitatingly frustrating at its worst, than the United Nations.  The Security Council, for a start, has all too often been less a vehicle for high-order statesmanship than the prisoner of great power manoeuvring. The General Assembly is too often a theatre for empty rhetoric; the Economic and Social Council most of the time a dysfunctional irrelevance; and the Secretariat, for all the dedication and brilliance of a host of individuals, alarmingly inefficient.

I have to acknowledge that my own efforts over the years to advance the cause of internal UN reform have been 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.

The difficulties and frustrations we all have from time to time with the UN should be seen as part of the larger problem of achieving global public goods through collective action. On the one hand we know that the countries on this globe are more interconnected and more interdependent in more ways than they have ever been. Economic interdependence – not least between the old and new geopolitical giants, the US and China – is becoming ever more inescapable; innovation in communications technology ever more unstoppable; and “problems without passports” ever more overwhelming – i.e. those problems which cross traditional state boundaries and are manifestly beyond the capacity of any one state, however big and powerful, to solve unilaterally, including climate change, nuclear disarmament, terrorism, piracy, major organised international crime, climate change, health pandemics, refugee management, not to mention some major trade and financial imbalances.

But the other side of the coin is that as interconnected as we are, we are also profoundly disconnected. Cooperative international governance of the kind we need to effectively address so many of these problems is not totally lacking, but it is very far from being an instinctive habit of mind among the world’s policymakers and decision-makers.

Meeting the challenge of improving global governance is about as impossibly big a problem as there is. There are five big gaps that need to be closed, which my ANU colleague Ramesh Thakur, with Thomas Weiss in their Global Governance and the UN (2010) have identified as knowledge gaps, normative gaps, policy gaps, institutional gaps and compliance gaps. The truth is we have, as an international community, so far only filled any of these gaps very erratically and incompletely, and there is a huge amount yet to be done. 

Knowledge Gaps. The first requirement for getting something done about an international problem is ensuring that all the relevant players know that it exists.  The UN system, with its  multiple organs and agencies, has generated an enormous amount of information and analysis across its three broad areas of activity – peace and security, human rights and development, both directly and through the blue-ribbon expert commissions and panels it has regularly established.

But still gaps exist. In the case of conflict prevention, for example, the really critical need is that there be detailed knowledge of the factors at work — political, economic, cultural, personal — in each particular risk situation. The basic point about conflict is that it is always context specific. Big overarching theories – whether cast in terms of clash of civilizations, ancient ethnic enmity, economic greed, economic grievance, or anything else — may be good for royalties and undergraduate lectures, not to mention keynote speeches and, to be fair, may also be quite helpful in identifying particular explanatory factors that should certainly be taken into account in trying to understand the dynamics of particular situations. But they never seem to work very well in sorting between those situations which are combustible and those which are not. For that you need detailed, field-based case by case analysis, not making assumptions on the basis of experience elsewhere, or what has gone before, but looking at what is under your nose, right now.

This is an area where the performance of governments and intergovernmental organizations is incredibly patchy – sometimes first rate, more often lamentably inadequate - but where in recent years a lot of the gap has been filled by global NGOs like my own International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch, often working with academic consultants or secondees. That is by no means an optimal solution, but it has contributed importantly to some of the much better international performance on conflict prevention and resolution we have in fact seen, most people’s intuition to the contrary, over the last two decades.

Normative Gaps.   Knowing about an actual or emerging international problem is one thing, but having enough concern to want to take some action in response is something else, particularly if it may involve the expenditure of national blood or treasure. One of the most crucial factors in determining whether there will be an appropriate response is the existence or absence of relevant international norms, i.e. generally accepted standards of proper behaviour for the kind of situation in question, especially as recognised and embodied in UN resolutions and declarations (at the soft end of the normative spectrum) and conventions and treaties (at the harder end). The UN may not win plaudits in many contexts but given its universal membership it does have an important norm-setting role whenever all, or the great majority of, its members do agree on what are appropriate responses.

The complete elimination of nuclear weapons is a normative goal which is best described as work in progress, as perhaps is the case with other major issue areas like responding to climate change and corruption and global poverty. But there are some important recent examples of normative gaps being significantly filled in the peace and security area. The emergence of strong international sentiment against landmines and cluster bombs through the Ottawa and Oslo treaty processes are two of them.

But the one closest to my heart is the rapid evolution over the last decade of the “Responsibility to Protect” norm, which I’ve already referred to, recognizing that mass atrocity crimes occurring within sovereign states are  not no-one’s business, but everyone’s, and simply cannot be ignored.  Much still needs to be done to ensure its effective implementation in practice but no government can be heard to argue these days that sovereignty is a license to kill. The best evidence of that is not only the statements made in the annual debates in the UN General Assembly that have taken place every year since 2009, but the fact that, even since the breakdown of consensus over Libya in 2011, there have been in the UN Security Council since then thirty separate resolutions explicitly endorsing basic R2P principles.

Policy Gaps.  Knowledge that something is a problem, and a concern to do something about it, will not be enough by themselves to generate effective action: the other requirements are understanding of and agreement about the right policy levers to pull and getting agreement about them, having the institutional capacity to deliver that policy response – and of course, the indispensable implicit element in filling all these gaps, having the political will to do so.

The most important single UN mechanism for harnessing global policy commitment around particular issues are the thematic summits which it continues to regularly convene, with three big ones coming up over the next 12 months: the UN Summit to Adopt the Post-2015 Development Agenda in New York in September; the Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris in December; and the first World Humanitarian Summit, scheduled for May 2016 in Istanbul.

In the peace and security area generally there is a well-established set of existing institutions which can properly be described as having policy-making responsibility, in the sense of the capacity to pick and choose between appropriate response options and, at least notionally, to energise the necessary action. The problem with a number of these is not so much in their structure and role but their delivery: a classic example being the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, which I’ve already mentioned.

For present purposes the important point to note is that the international system cries out for a workable global policy formulation mechanism that recognises the reality that in the contemporary world security, economic and other major policy problems like saving the global environment overlap, and that will consolidate ideas, debate options, and generate policy conclusions that have an inherent credibility and momentum and universal take-up potential. The best available practical solution – certainly from Australia’s perspective – lies in the further evolution of the G20, from a meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors in 1999 to an all-purpose global policy formulation and advocacy body, meeting regularly at the head-of-government level, as it has now done since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2007.

There is some concern around UN circles that although the G20 has so far focused more or less entirely on economic affairs, it won’t be long before some major political crisis thrusts security issues on to its agenda, sidelining the Security Council in the process. If that energizes the Security Council to start seriously reforming its own composition so much the better. But it’s important, I think to recognize that while the Security Council’s role under the UN Charter is crucial to the maintenance of a rule-based international order, what we should be talking about with the G20 is policy formulation, advocacy and coordination rather than formally making, implementing and enforcing executive decisions. There is room, and need, in international governance for both.

Institutional Gaps.  In many different contexts, there are huge gaps in institutional capacity to deliver effective results, even when there is knowledge of a problem, normative consensus that something needs to be done about it, and available policy strategies that will actually make a difference. Many of the institutions in which we have invested responsibility for today’s most pressing global questions are manifestly not fit for purpose.

Ultimately the most crucial institution for the maintenance of global peace and security is the UN Security Council, the only international body with full, universally accepted executive decision-making authority. But its composition, together with the veto powers vested in its five permanent members, of course reflects far more the power realities of 1945 than those of the 21st century. If it remains unreconstructed and unreformed, it is only a matter of time –maybe another fifteen years at best – before its credibility and authority will diminish to dangerous levels in the eyes of most of the world. Having worked this issue for a number of years – and played with every possible formula for its resolution – I have to concede that this is not one of those problems for which intellectual creativity will be much help: it all boils down to whether the political will can eventually be found among enough of the key players to make the necessary compromises to keep a key lynchpin of the international system in place.

The second most crucial institutional gap to fill is strengthening the regional organizations which both the UN Charter and practical experience tell us are crucial in the maintenance of international peace and security. The UN’s own regional commissions, like ESCAP for Asia and the Pacific have been comprehensively underwhelming, but there are also obvious weaknesses in even the notionally most advanced and sophisticated intergovernmental organizations like the European Union (still anything but an effective union in terms of its foreign policy clout), as well as the important but still very incompletely developed African Union (AU) and ASEAN; to the barely functioning SAARC in South Asia. Despite their origins in economic cooperation, all these organisations have very important roles to play in peace and security issues, and will need to take up more of the burden in this respect in the future. The main hope for progress in the Indo-Pacific, though still in its infancy, is the East Asia Summit, which brings together (in the way that neither APEC nor the ASEAN Regional Summit do) all the key players at leadership level with the mandate to discuss the full range of economic, security and other key issues and the interconnections between them. 

Compliance Gaps.  The most profound inherent weakness of international governance is its inability to enforce compliance with specific decisions or broader norms generated by international bodies. Even the Security Council itself, whose decisions are supposed to have, at the formal level, the force of law, has to rely on individual member states to apply the diplomatic isolation, or economic sanctions or in extreme cases forceful military action on which it might agree. The decisions of the International Court of Justice are not self--executing, and in any event apply only to those states who accept its jurisdiction. Here as with most of the other gaps I have been identifying, there are no quick and easy fixes: just a long, grinding process of identifying areas where greater cooperation is required, and encouraging governments to provide it, recognizing that of all the mechanisms available, the UN family of institutions is by far the most comprehensive in scope and must remain absolutely central.

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 and the visibility that our Security Council seat gave to our justified outrage of the shooting down of that plane over Ukraine, that multilateral institutions might not be a complete waste of time and money. (His attitude up to then rather reminded me of a conversation I once had with US Secretary of State James Baker: “The trouble with you Americans, Jim, is that you have a reflexive prejudice against the UN”, I said, to which he replied, “No Gareth: it’s not a reflexive prejudice. It’s a considered prejudice.”)

Australia in fact punched well above its weight during our 2013-14 occupancy of a non-permanent  Security Council seat, as indeed we have in the past, though we had to wait an unconscionable 27 years for this latest opportunity. While not every position taken on the instructions of the Australian Government was universally admired – especially on Israel-Palestine issues –  among the many plaudits justly won by Ambassador Gary Quinlan and his team, both for up-front and highly productive behind-the-scenes work, were for the roles we played in winning support for the path-breaking resolution on humanitarian access in Syria, facilitating the destruction of that country’s chemical weapons stockpile, updating and strengthening the Council’s anti-terrorism response framework, securing its first comprehensive resolution on small arms and light weapons, resetting the approach to sanctions implementation, and playing a leading role in bringing the North Korea situation on to the Council’s agenda.

This year’s 70th anniversary of the UN is a great opportunity to paint the good news story on a broader canvas, and those of us who are passionate about the organization should be doing just that.

One of the things we should be telling  people for a start, 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.

Most people don't begin to appreciate just how many of these agencies have performed outstandingly well for many decades. Take, for example, the World Food Programme, which feeds now in war zones, natural disasters, health emergencies and chronically poor regions  over 100 million people in 80 countries; UNICEF, which has played a central role in more than halving deaths of children under 5 over the last 25 years; UNHCR, which has helped over 50 million refugees restart their lives since 1951, and continues to care for more than 20 million of the world’s most vulnerable people in 116 countries; WHO, UNAIDS and the Global Fund who have played the central role in fighting and winning the worldwide battle against HIV/AIDS; and the much more prosaic, but critical, work of multiple agencies from ICAO to ITU to WIPO in providing the “soft infrastructure” of the global economy by negotiating universally accepted technical standards in areas such as statistics, trade law, customs procedures, intellectual property protection, aviation, shipping and telecommunications.

The other big story we should be telling is how really very little, comparatively, it all costs. Let me give you some figures which put the whole UN enterprise in context and which you might find helpful in silencing 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 some 41,000 people at a regular budget cost of US $2 ¾ 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 nearly as much as that each year, the Australian Department of Human Services (with fewer staff) about  $3.5 billion more, and New York City about US$75 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  over 120,000 international military, police, and civilian peacekeepers) the total UN system cost is still just around US$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 236,000 people worldwide – not a small number, but maybe one that is better put in context when you know that it’s not many more than the 191,000 people now selling Starbucks coffee around the world, and just 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 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”.

It’s up to all of us – not only government policymakers around the world but the grassroots citizens organizations like UNAA around the world that exist to keep them honest and engaged – to ensure that the UN never flags in its mission. And that, at its core, is to save the world’s most vulnerable people from hell – and in the process, with its constant attention to cooperative efforts to solve the world’s most intractable problems, to bring us all at least just a little bit closer to heaven.