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"United Nations: Indispensable and Relevant?", Lecture by Dr Danilo Türk, Former President of the Republic of Slovenia at the Columbia University

New York, 19. 9. 2013 | govori

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Multilateralism came into being as a result of necessity. Necessity gave rise to a vision formulated by William Pitt (The Younger) reflected, in 1805, in his seminal memorandum »Deliverance and Security in Europe«, in which he reflected on the world to be reorganized after the Napoleonic wars. He proposed an arrangement which would enable »…a general and comprehensive system of Public Law in Europe, and provide, as far as possible, for repressing future attemptsto disturb the general Tranquility…«

This idea, expressed in a politically powerful document served as the point of departure for the creation of the Holy Alliance and to all subsequent multilateral arrangements designed to serve the »general Tranquility« - to borrow an apt term from the Pitt Memorandum, and to provide the basis of collective security.

Looking back at that old document one is struck by two concepts which remain central until today. The first is »a general and comprehensive system of Public Law« and the second to repress the attempt to disturb the general Tranquility »as far as possible«. These two concepts have represented the central challenge of the League of Nations and later of the United Nations and it continues to be the challenge today.

The modern international law developed by the United Nations or with its assistance has become a solid framework for international cooperation but is still not a »comprehensive system of public law« today. Public law remains, strictly speaking the domain of sovereign states. Norms and institutions of international law have to be strengthened further.

The practice of maintenance of peace in the framework of the United Nations can be described as going »as far as possible«. However, what is possible is usually much less than what is necessary or desirable. This is why the systems of collective security are bound to create high expectations and lead to deep disappointments. “The possible” and “the necessary” seldom match.

The UN is not World Government and neither can it be. Nevertheless it is a vital ingredient of contemporary global governance, meaning the system of existing norms, values and institutions which were created to help addressing the problems of our World.

The UN represents a valuable distillation of accumulated wisdom which can, wnenever taken seriously, help solving a variety of problems. However, the understanding, the readiness and the political will to do so are usually in short supply. This is so, most often because of diverging political and economic interests, but sometimes also because of the lack of the necessary political and diplomatic skills and, sometimes, because of sheer ignorance.

At the same time, it has to be recognized that the system of the UN Charter contains certain limitations which make the use of the UN more difficult.

The organization is based on the principle of »sovereign equality« of its member states. This is a necessary principle, a conditio sine qua non for the Organization's inclusiveness and universality.

On the other hand, in an icreasingly globalized world, sovereignty can be an obstacle to solution of the growing number of »poblems without passports« such as global warming, global pandemics, transnational organized crime and others. Coordination of national interests of sovereign states in these matters has proven to be very difficult.

A particular feature of the UN is the special status of the permanent members of the Security Council. Their power of the veto, realistic as it is, cerates a situation in which the most important decisions depend on the few. This represents an important exception to the principle of sovereign equality and creates special responsibilities that the permanent members are not always able or willing to carry.

In addition, the UN Charter is extremely difficult to revise. This creates a systemic rigidity which is a serious problem, in particular in the areas of cooperation where adaptation of the system is the most necessary, such as the econiomic and social development and human rights.

Having recalled these fundamental problems of the UN I wish to reiterate that nevertheless te organization proved its indispensability. Time and again states and people have turned to the UN when they needed it. Today no serious comentator advocates its abolition. Quite to the contrary, the continuous discusion on the UN reform, which has been going on since the early days of the organization, reaffirms the organization's indispensability.

This discussion points towards a different problem, that of relevance of the UN. While the indispensability of the organization cannot be questioned, its relevance is continuously subject to doubt. Relevance is a matter of degree. An organization can be less or more relevant depending on its internal strength and the circumstances in the environment in which it works. A quick look into the Organization's history, in particular of its role in the field of maintenance of peace and security shows the following picture: There was a long period of paralysis of the UN, essentially from the late 1940s to the end of the cold war in the late 80s, followed by a brief »post-cold-war honeymoon«, then a decade of soul searching and new initiatives from the mid 1990s to 2005, a partly successful attempt at reform of the UN at its 60th birthday and the subsequent period of attempts to find its proper definition of relevance in the contemporary, globalized and increasingly multipolar world.

At all these stages, the spirit of the time affected the three main areas of activity of the organization: security, development and human rights. Let me make some brief remarks on the paths travelled in these thre key areas of UN work.


This area of work is vital for the UN as a whole. The UN is, in its essence, an organization of collective security and as such indispensable. The aspiration formulated two centuries ago by William Pitt continues to be valid. Pitt's careful choice of words regarding the task to provide peace »as far as possible« was wise and carries a message that still resonates. Dag Hammarskold gave it a modern expression in his famous remark that the UN is not there to take the world to heaven but to prevent it from descending into hell.

In this preventive role, the UN has been instrumental. It contributed its own share in the prevention of a World War III and in addressing a wide variety of threats to the peace. Moreover, the UN has demonstrated its ability to innovate. Peacekeeping, a technique not envisaged in the UN Charter, has become a trademark activity of the UN. Over time and in particular in the past two decades the peacekeping has grown both in terms of its size and its diversity. Since 1948 there were 68 peacekeping operations. UN peacekeeprs have made a historically important contribution to international peace and deservedly received the Nobel Peace Prize. Today there are more than 110.000 peacekeeping personnel (90.000 uniformed) deployed in 15 operations. Peacekeeping, as an instrument of maintenance of peace and security is effective both politically and financially. Deployment of peacekeepers – wherever it is possible and necessary – costs considerably less than any other military deployment. The annual budget for the 15 operations and more than 100.000 peacekeepers is $ 7,3 billion

Admittedly, this process of growth brought with it serious problems many of which have not yet been overcome. The quick growth of peacekeeping in early 1990s made the management of large numbers of peacekeepers and their different mandates excrutiatingly difficult. Unclear mandates, inadequate numbers and operational capbility, ambiguities with respect to use of force by the peacekeepers and, above all, the political divergencies within the Security Council, all this led to a serious crisis of peacekeeping in the mid 1990s and to a comprehensive review reflected in the much quoted Brahimi report of 2000.

Since then the situation improved gradually and today peacekkepers are better prepared for a variety of their tasks which include such difficult mandates as protection of humanitarian assistance and building safe environment for economic recovery and political transitions. Often the success of the operations depends on the cooperation with regional organizations and regional forces, in particular in Africa.

The purpose of peacekeeping in its original meaning has been to prevent resumption of hostilities. This fundamental purpose has not changed. What has changed, however, is the nature of armed conflicts, the fact that they in most cases take place within states rather than between states and that often they are part of disintegration of states. Preservation of peace in such circumstances requires not only the cessation of hostilities and keeping the level of peace thus achieved, but also humanitarian, economic and political assitance.

This year two innovations were introduced: The Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and an international intervention brigade in the DRC within the UN Organization Stabilization Mission (MONUSCO). The intervention brigade is mandated to conduct targeted offensive operations with the aim of disarming and neutralizing armed groups. The important premise for the Congo intervention brigade is the understanding – possibly a future principle of peacekeeping – that impartiality of the peacekeeping does not mean neutrality in the face of atrocities and that maintaining consent with the parties to a conflict does not mean that spoilers can prevent UN missions to accomplish their mandates.

These innovations are important not only for success of the peacekeeping missions but also for an effective »post conflict peacebuilding«. Peacekeeping and peacebuilding are increasingly merged in a broad variety of specific, sensitive and time consuming tasks. Over time, the UN has, in cooperation with other international organizations and donor states, developed considerable experience and expertise in this domain. However, the practical performance still offers a mixed picture. One has to appreciate the depth of endemic problems in some post conflict situations, the adverse effects of the regional actors in others and the perennial problems of organization of international assitnce in all situations. This was the reason for the establishment of the Peacebuilding commission which aimed at taking the UN action in post conflict peace building to new levels. More time is needed to achieve the desired levels of success and more specialized experience will have to be developed for effective assistance to war torn countries in their effrt to build normal economies of peace.

Peacekeeping and post conflict peacebuilding belong to typical UN activities in the field of maintenance of peace and security. In addition, there are situations in which the UN can help as convenor of peace processes and facilitator of peace agreements. In 2001, following the UN authorized military action in Afghanistan, the UN convened the Bonn Conference and facilitated agreements necessary for the post conflict period. Today, the sitation in Syria calls for an approach which will enable a political solution, establishment of peace and return of refugees. The war must be stopped and a political solution achieved.

The role of diplomacz itself is being tested. Development of the the past decade have given greater prominence to military means and diplomacz was sometimes put in a subordinate postion. However, the war in Syria and the exercise of power around it clearly suggests that an effort for a negotiated solution is the only way forrward. This gives diplomacy a paarticular role and a special responsibility.

A final thought on the maintenance of peace nd security. Recent history has shown that the role of the Secretary – General and his good offices in matters of peace and security continue to grow. While the Secretary-General only seldom invokes his powers under Article 99 directly and formally, he can achieve much in the informal communication with the members of the Security Council, with other members of the UN and above all with the countries involved in crisis situations. The Secretary General should be encouraged in this role and should try to exerise his unique potential frequently, early and courageously.


The UN Charter contains extensive provisons on the international economic and social cooperation. Solving economic and social problems was recognized as an important element of peace and included among the purposess of the UN. However, the institutional evolution and the long-term vsions of economic cooperation and development have been far from coherent. The UN was not given tools of real economic and financial decision-making. They belong to IMF, the World Bank and later GATT, today the WTO. On the other hand, UN has, from its early days he UN, had established various funds »for the improvement and growth in the underdeveloped areas«. In 1949 president Truman initiated the Expanded Programme of Technical Assistance (EPTA) which was followed by the subsequent Special UN Fund for Economic Development (SUNFED). In 1965 the two funds merged into what became the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

In addition to the UN funding capacity - the total budget of UNDP's projects and program is about $5 billion - UN played an important role in conceptualizing development and by providing a forum for several generations of ideas in this domain.

In 1960s and 1970s The General Assembly adopted two UN development strategies which emphasized the needs of the newly independent countries which became UN member states in the process of decolonization. In the mid 1970s a »New International Economic order« was proposed as an attempt to focus development debate and practice on policy ideas of the needs of the global South and to change the international economic relations in the direction of redistributing the benefits of growth. However, the effort of the developing world to put forward a workable agenda of international economic restructuring did not and could not succeed. Instead, the main economic powers strengthened the instruments of the global market model of development and many of the countries of the global south ended in 1980s with adjustment programmes imposed by the IMF.

Towards the end of the cold war era the hardships posed by policies of austerity and structural adjustment generated critique based on mainly ethical grounds. The exampes of this ethically based approach include the concept of »adjustment with a human face,« proposed by UNICEF, human rights based concept of the right to development and UNDP's work on human development reports were the most visible expressions of this reaction and typical for the UN at the end of 1980s annd the beginning of 1990s.

The post cold war period openeda new chapter in the efforts to conceptualize the idea of development in a globalizing world. The UN organized a series of global conferences on various aspects of development which defined the problems and set the goals of international cooperation as well as programmes of action in such areas as environment, social development, the role of women, human settlemenst, population and human rights. The importance of these conferences, which took place in the first part of 1990s, cannot be overemphasized. The end of cold war and the earlier demise of the idea of the New International Economic Order created a vacuum which could easily lead to collapse of international development cooperation. The UN conferences gave a new impetus and substance to the international development which enabled a fresh start in the new millenium.

In the year 2000 the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed a set of Millenium Development Goals. These goals were based on the extensive work done through the development conferences of the preceding decade. They are therefore beased on serious and solid work. In addition they are, in the words of Nittin Desai, a former UN USG on economic and social affairs »crisp enough to cope with the attention deficit disorder on development issues in the media ad in the higher reaches of government«. The tasks set out in the MDGs were devoted to the reducion of extreme poverty, improvement of basic conditions of health and education, improvement of matenal health and reduction of child mortality, as well as ensuring environmental sustainability. The Goalas also called for a new development partnership without defining it in detail.

As Kofi Annan explained in his recent book, the UN's project of Millenium Development Goals was helped by an »accident of calendar«. The beginning of the new millenium provided an opportunity to the UN to offer a new approach to development in our era. I would add, that the UN was also helped by such events as the »battle of Seattle«, a robust popular protest againts the conference of the World Trade Organization in November 1999. The protest against the holders of real economic power and profit based concept of development added to the sense of credibilty of the UN, which, while not a powerful economic player, was now perceived as credible source of creative ideas in the field of international development. Even the centers of economic power were prepared to listen.

The Millenium development goals led to the Monterrey consensus on financing for development, achieved in 2002, and generated a variety of useful activities by the governments, development agencies, private sector, NGOs, the academic institutions and, to a lesser extent, by the media. The strategies for the realization of the MDGs are being refined by a group of 250 leading experts coordinated by Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University.

It is important to understand the emergence of the millenium development goals in their historical perspective and in their potential for the future. They are not an arbitrary proposal but a result of distillation of severeal decades of development work and a realistic framework for both national policy making and the international development cooperation in the future.
The results achieved since the adoption of MDGs confirm this assessment. The High Level Panel for the Post 2015 Development Agenda which submitted its final report last June wrote that the last 13 years since the procalamation of the MDGs »have seen the fastest reduction of extreme poverty in human history: there are half a billion fewer people living below the international poverty line of 1,25 $ a day.« Substantial improvement is reported in such areas as reduction of the levels of child mortality and death of malaria.

Based on such encouraging assessments of the progress so far, the Panel recommended an ambitious program for the implementation of millenium development goals in the future with the central objective of eradicating extreme poverty from the face of earth by 2030. It is worth noting that unlike many UN reports, the report of the High Level Panel does not suggest a pessimistic picture or a doomsday scenario but rather tries to propose a realistic and ambitious vision of development together with an array of policy choices which should help in the decision-making.

An important innovation proposed in the report is a radical improvement of monitoring »by an independent and rigorous monitoring system with regular opportunities to report on progress and shortcomings at a high political level«. The panel also called for a »data revolution« for sustainable development.

The latter emphasis contains an important potential. The information revolution has generated an enormous quantity of data which could be put to a good use of decision-makers and authors of development projects. It enables a better use of statistics as we know it and the evolving indicators to measure social and economic progress, as well as a vast quantity of data from social networks, blogs, on line commerce and cell phone messages. This is an area for Internet innovators and Internet entrepreneurs. Mining the variety of existing data and developing adequate methods of linking information to decision makers in a timely and usable manner should be of great help. It is understood that data mining must be conducted in accordance with the existing norms of protection of privacy and methodological standards which guarantee soundness of the process of data gathering and analysis. The experience of the initiatiive called Global Pulse demonstrates that data mining for development purposes can be useful. It needs to be expanded and hat its increasing effectiveness can reduce the otherwise expected levels of mistrust.

The optimistic outlook suggested by the High Level Panel is welcome and, will, hopoefully have the necessary inspirational and mobilizing effects. However there are three areas in which the UN has to help achieving significant change.

First, it has to be realized that sustainable development which, as the Panel rightly suggested, has to be at the core of development agenda for the future, vitally depends on success to mitigate the effects of global warming. Here, the UN has not been sufficiently successful. In fact, The Copehagen Conference on global warming in 2009 was a step backward. Last year's Rio plus 20 meeting produced a number of aspirational conclusions formulated in terms of “goals” and “targets”instead of binding obligations and committments. There is nothing wrong with goals and targets (such as ustainable energy for all or resource efficiency) if they serve as a real guide to policy making and not as a mere restatement of already existing aspirations. But it is difficult to know which of the two interpretations is more correct. Additionally, the UN has to be sensitive to the needs of the business sector which requires greater clarity with regard to environmental standards in order to make an optimal contribution to sustainable development.

Second, t is also necessary to recognize, as the High Level panel did, that private investment in developing countries now dwarfs aid flows. Nevertheless official development assistance still critical in the least developed countries and the areas suffering the extreme poverty. The Panel reiterated that promises made by developed world regarding development financing must be kept and proposed an international conference on financing development. These references are not among the strongest aspect of the report. The debate on Millenium goals after 2015 should provide a clearer direction for the future ODA.

Third, the UN development system will have to think hard about its roles in development. The proportion of UN based development assistance is shrinking – even at the time of diminishing general ODA: According to OECD, the total development and humanitarian assistance amounts to between 6 and 7 billion $ annually, equivalent to about 5 per cent of total official development assistance flow from developed countries. Clearly, the role of development assistance in matters like infrastructure and job creation is diminishing. There is also a need for greater coordination and efficiency in organizing assistance in priority sectors such as child nutrition, health and education.

The changing general circumstances cal for constant examination of the role of the UN system at the country level. The needs of the least developed countries and those emerging from armed conflict have to enjoy priority attention and strengthening.

Finally, the role of ECOSOC has to be developed further as well. Monitoring progress and compliance and specific policy recommendations in cooperation between the ECOSOC and individual governments could be the objective to aim at. Since the activities relating to MDGs after 2015 are expected to strengthen the monitoring role of the UN, it seems naturala that ECOSOC is considered as the principal body of monitoring progress, review the levels of achievement and making policy recommendations.


Unlike economic and social cooperation, human rights are only scarcely mentioned in the UN Charter. The proposals made in San Francisco to include an international bill of rights did not succeed. However, the void was filled soon after, by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the most important and most ambitious pronouncements ever made by the UN-

Let me remind you of the following provision in the Declaration, its Article 28:

«Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Dcelaration can be fully realized«

There are two key elements here. First, the entitlemnt to a social and international order and second, the aspiration at the full realization of rights, as opposed to mere recogniton or formal enactment. Thus the platform was set for a significant development – first standard setting, which dominated the first two decades of action, and later a gradual strengthening of the implementation of human rights – a more difficult and more conflictual aspect human rights work which dominates the agenda to date.

The development of the UN human rights action since early 1970s could be described as a three stage development:
The first was the period until the end of cold war and its immediate aftermath, a period that I would describe as the »age of human rights«. In that period the implementation mechanisms expanded in their variety and scope and contributed very significantly in the political transformation of Latin America and, indirectly, also in East Europe. Human rights became the slogan of a major political and social change. Military dictatorships in Latin America were defeated and communism in East Europe and Soviet Union collapsed. Human rights triumphed. At the UN this period ended with the establishment of the office of the High Commissioner on Human rights.

However, the age of human rights did not produce the end of history. Human rights continued to be violated in many countries, the persistence of poverty continued to represent a major obstacle to human rights and new problems emerged. The question of accountability was as serious as ever. Moreover, in one of the bitter ironies of history, the second period brought armed conflicts characterized by massive violations of human rights and humanitarian law. These violations were unexpected in their scope and tragic consequences. Crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide became part of the picture of the post cold war world. Human rights activism concentrated on prosecution and punishment of these crimes. Accountability and rejection of impunity became the main concerns of human rights. UN created a number of international criminal tribunals and the International Criminal Court with a general jurisdiction.

International criminal justice is still work in progress. I agree with Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-general of the UN who recently wrote: »In the face of the war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, the default position of the international community is now accountability, not impunity«. (K. Annan, Interventions, 2012, p. 151). However, it needs to be added that for accountability to become real, it will require serious efforts to strenthen its effectiveness.

The third period of development of the UN's human rights action started in 2005, with the creation of the Council for Human Rights and the evolution of its practice. The change became necessary. The Counci's predecessor, the Commission of Human Rights has largely fulfilled its historic mission and has become a victim of an unacceptable level of politicization. Over time the practice of frequent reelection of the same member states, and in particular election of notorious violators of human rights, trensformed the commission into a political arena in which violators of human rights tended to dominate. This had to be changed.

I vividly remember the discussion on how to design the succession to the Commission on Human Rights. It proceeded in two phasis. Among the possible answers to the question what the sucessor body should be the eventual proposal of the Secratary General revived the old idea of the Human Rights Council. The original idea, floated decades ago to design the Council as a new principal organ of the UN. Expecteddly, this proved to be politically impossible. Instead, it was agrred that the new Huma Rights Council should be a body directly responsible to the General Assembly and that it should be smaller in size than the discredited Commission on human rights. It was also agreed that the Council should meet several times a year so as to be able to react to human rights issues more quicly and that it should review the human rights performance of all UN member states. The idea of the universal periodic review was an intrinsic part of the Secretary General’s proposal.

Answering the second question, the question of how this new body should work, opened a possibility for procedural innovation. I proposed two ideas which eventually found their way into the system of the Human Rights Council: The first was to ensure that the members of the Council do not develop a habit of quasi permanence, a political feature which has contributed to the deep politicization of the predecessor Commission. Hence the idea of no immediate reelection. In the subsequent negotiations it was agreed that a member of the Human Rights Council could serve two consecutive terms at most.

The second idea was that in review process the reviewers, i.e. the members of the Council must be reviewed first, in the first year of their tenure. This idea was accepted with relative ease and is the practice today. It represents a fair and useful arrangement with an additional implicit effect: a candidate for the membership should present its own human rights record in the electoral process as it is expected that this record will be considered by the Council at an early stage.

Today, seven years after the creation of the Human Rights Council it is possible to say that it represents an improvement. Its frequent meetings and reactions to human rights violations, its universal periodic review and a variety of its other activities bear wittness to that. They also demonstrate that it is possible to improve the UN by instituttional change and procedural refinement. The subsequent strengthening of the office of the High Commissioner for human rights and its resources added its part to progress.

While an improvement, this progress is not ideal. Better arrangements are necessary to integrate, more fully, the contribution of NGOs. The UN has to understand that human rights are vitally dependent on the support of civil society groups and intellectual leaders who, together with the human rights mehanism form what can be called a global human rights movement. UN has to see itself as a part of that movement.


Even a brief review of the evolution of the UN in the past decades shows that the organization is not only indispensable but also practically relevant to a wide variety of needs of the international community.

Obviously there are needs for improvement.

In the peacekeeping the numbers of peacekeeping personnel and the fact that they remain under the national disciplinary and criminal jurisdiction has made the task of preventing and suppressing the incidence of sexual abuse and other misconduct difficult to maintain. It is encouraging that the Security Council has expressed its commitment to the principle of zero tolerace for this unacceptable behaviour of peacekeepers. Now, the Council should develop methods to ensure that this principle is implemented.

In the UN development system much innovation is needed to take full advantage of the data revolution, to improve monitoring and and develop capacities for sophisticated and policy advice. This will require ever greater attention to the UN activities in the field and a more ambitious approach at the level of the principal organs. The experience of the Human Right Council and its universal periodic review could be inspirational for the future policy advice.

Finally, the human rights segment has to continue to improve its monitoring and implementation capacity as well as think about the transformational potential of human rights. In fact, the language of Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sould be the guiding principle of the human rights bodies and of the UN system as a whole.