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"Un Political Affairs: Chalenges and Opportunities in the 21st Century in the Face of Increasing Diffusion of Power", Lecture by Dr Danilo Türk, Former President of the Republic of Slovenia at the Suffolk University

Boston, 24. 9. 2013 | govori

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It is a great privilege and honour to be invited to offer a Distinguished UN Senior lecture here, at the Suffolk University in Boston. You have hosted speakers of great political importance, prestige and, above all, coherence of thought. The history of your University and the location in this historic city convey an additional sense of importance - and responsibility to a speaker invited to address you. Moreover, the title of my lecture you have suggested conveys great sensitivity to the contemporary problems of the international society and commitment to serious search of good answers. Let me try to make a contribution in this search.

I was asked to speak about "UN political affairs". The choice of words is interesting in itself because it conveys two meanings. The narrow one relates to the work of a specific UN department dealing with political analysis and advice and helping the UN Secretary-General in fulfilling his mandate of good offices and preventive diplomacy. In the years 2000 -2005, I had the privilege to work with Kofi Annan, the seventh UN Secretary - General as his assistant for political affairs.

The broader and the one more generally known relates to the very purpose of the UN, an organization of collective security preoccupied with the maintenance of international peace and security, with global development and human rights. All these major areas of work are interrelated and have a variety of political dimensions.

Today, I wish to share with you some of my thoughts about these two fundamental meanings.

The Secretary-General's good offices relate mostly to situations of political tensions and incipient conflicts. Sometimes he is expected to exercise, in a very discreet manner, his authority to initiate negotiated settlement of armed conflicts.

Let me mention a few examples. In Myanmar, the Secretary General has worked for about a decade in an effort to convince the military government to pursue the path of democracy. Together with other international efforts: human rights critique, sanctions and various forms of regional persuasion, this effort produced a result. Today Myanmar is already on its way towards democracy and full integration into the international community.

In Africa there are several situations where the Secretary-General's good offices helped diffusing the tensions or making peace. A classical example was the successful assistance in the implementation of the judgment of the International Court of Justice regarding the border dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon in the Bakassi peninsula.

In Latin America, the Secretary- General has helped, on request of the government of Colombia, to facilitate the talks with the two guerilla movements - FARC and ELN, unfortunately without definitive success.

The list of cases could go on. The important thing to keep in mind is that Secretary-General's good offices are always available to states and that he can exercise a proactive role in this regard, without invoking his formal powers under Article 99 of the UN Charter. The level of his proactivity depends on his political judgment and that of the UN's Department of Political Affairs.

Coming to the second and broader meaning of the UN's political affairs, it is worth recalling the fundamental determinants of international politics, most of which have not substantially changed over time.

The first is the fact that international politics has always been a rough place, dominated by struggle for power. This has been the case since the time of the Peloponesian war to our era, currently preoccupied with the war in Syria and with the instability of the Middle East. History is a constant reminder of the decisive importance of power in international politics. The somber message of the "Melian dialogue", articulated masterfully by Thucydides, still resonates in many situations of modern international politics: "The strong do as they can and the weak suffer as they must." Thucydides, History of the Peloponesian War, Book Five, at 89. Far too often power prevails over the moral argument.

However, power does not always operate in the form of military might or the actual use of armed force by nation states. In an era of diffusion of power, like ours, it takes diverse forms. It is increasingly used by non-state actors such as various militias and terrorist groups. Military response of nation states has to be carefully supplemented by their non-military cooperation, in particular through sharing of intelligence and non-military action such as law enforcement.

Diplomacy has new tasks in such circumstances. In addition to guiding the inter state cooperation and the efforts of states to preserve or restore peace it has to include a good analytical capacity, the ability to recognize potential threats to peace early and to propose action preventively.

And then there is the world of norms. Niccolo Macchiavelli, the father of political realism, reminded his readers that there are two ways of contesting - either by force or by law - and force must be resorted to because law is not always sufficient. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter XVIII, opening paragraph. As a cultured man, Machiavelli gave a clear preference to the legal ways. At the same time, as a practitioner of politics, he was sufficiently realistic to understand the limits of law as an instrument of statecraft and of international politics. Force is an ever present - if only potentially used - ingredient of international relations.

However, there are moments in international politics when the use of force becomes so counterproductive that the softer aspects of human nature prevail. Human values gain ground and law becomes the chosen way towards durable solutions. People wary of war invariably start searching for the way out of the war and the path leads them into the world of norms and institutions.

An important example of the search for solutions in the world of norms and institutions can be found in the thinking during the Napoleonic wars. The statesmen of that era had to devise a new system which would provide stability in the post war Europe. They searched for values, norms and institutions that would make this possible. A promising approach was developed in the memorandum written in 1805 by the British Prime Minister William Pitt (the Younger). The memorandum had an apt and ambitious title: "Deliverance and Security in Europe". The innovative idea expressed in that document was that post war arrangements cannot be built solely on border changes and balance of power among the European empires. What was needed, according to Pitt, was an arrangement which would enable "…. a general and comprehensive system of Public Law in Europe, and provide, as far as possible, for repressing future attempts to disturb the general Tranquility…." Quoted from: Douglas Hurd, Choose Your Weapons, The British Foreign Secretary, 200 Years of Argument, Success and Failure, London 2010, p. 24

The Pitt memorandum became the blueprint for the British diplomatic strategy at the Congress of Vienna and helped in the creation of the Holy Alliance. The normative focus of his approach, "the Public Law of Europe" element, was the key to the concept of the modern collective security that was developed much further in the 20th century. Today, two centuries later, we cannot imagine the existence of Europe without its tightly knit web of legal arrangements, "a comprehensive system of public law of Europe" as the modern version of a reliable guarantee of European peace and tranquility.

The same normative idea inspired the global system of collective security of the 20th century. The immense suffering of the two world wars convinced the political leaders to make the idea of collective security the centerpiece of the construction of peace and to expand the scope of international law as the "way of contesting". The Covenant of the League of Nations in 1919 brought a host of new norms and institutions. The new system put arbitration and adjudication at the centre of the effort to resolve the international differences peacefully. The whole design was a product of the legal mind. This is not surprising, given the fact that its chief architect, American president Woodrow Wilson, was a distinguished professor of constitutional law. It is entirely appropriate, especially here in the historic city of Boston, to pay tribute to this great leader and to his achievements.

At the same time, however, it is necessary to understand the lesson of history relating to the limits of normative ideas and legal solutions in international politics. The League of Nations relied too heavily on the legal norms and institutions and, critically, did not and, given the historic circumstances, probably could not incorporate two other key elements which are essential for success of an international institution aiming at the preservation of peace - the balance of power and a platform of common values. The demise of the League of Nations has made this lesson painfully clear.

The League's successor, the United Nations, did better, in fact, much better. The Charter of the UN incorporated the balance of power quite successfully. The design of UN Security Council and the status of its five permanent members by and large proved to be historically adequate. The UN also offered a broad platform of common values: It developed a comprehensive legal system of promotion and protection of human rights, imperfect, yes, but still much more developed than anything known in the earlier periods of human history.

The process of construction of the UN has been long and arduous. During the four decades of the cold war the Security Council appeared paralysed and there were doubts about the adequacy of the Charter design itself. However, since late 1980s the Council functions broadly as the authors of the UN Charter had expected. This should be considered as a success of historic proportions.

The same can be said about the platform of common values expressed in UN instruments of human rights. The UN system of promotion and protection of human rights which was developed gradually, proceeding from the embryonic provisons on human rights in the Charter of the UN. The key development in this construction was the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 "…as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations…" An ambitious statement, typical for the immediate post-World- War II period.

It is sometimes suggested that human rights cannot, in fact, be a universal platform of shared values, given the differences among the world's many cultures and the diversity of paths of human development. Moreover, some critics maintain that human rights are a product of the Western civilization and imposed on others who were not, at the time of adoption, yet in a position to make a genuine contribution to the content of the Universal Declaration.

It is only natural that such criticism exists, inviting a continuous discussion on human rights. However, it should be understood that the original aim of the Universal declaration of Human Rights was not domination, but the wish to create a strong firewall against re-emergence of oppression, which had been among the primary causes of the World War II.
It was entirely logical for the war-weary generation to start building a system that would help preventing a relapse into a situation of oppression and war, which gave rise to so much suffering. Moreover, in the subsequent process of construction of the human rights system, many voices were heard and many new ideas were included, among them the right of peoples to self determination and the human right to development.

And the debate continues. The universality of human rights is being strengthened - gradually, steadily and in a sustainable manner. The work of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights provides a major and continuous contribution in that regard. Her critical voice is heard in all major situations of massive human right violations. While the impact of this critical voice is not immediate it represents an invaluable contribution of the UN in showing the direction in the search for just and durable solutions. It is not an exaggeration to say that today the international politics must always take into account the requirements of universal human rights. In addition, diffusion of power calls for constant improvement of understanding among nations. Human rights policies ought to be developed so that thez trengthen the international undestanding and make the needed cooperation more effective.

We live in a world characterized with a very high level of global interdependence, growing multipolarity and diffusion of power. This is a world in which inter-state conflicts are rare and where intra- state conflicts create new challenges for which there are no clear answers as yet. All this makes the international decision making more complex and the need for new techniques and institutions ever more important. The UN has developed several innovations.

The peacekeeping operations have cecome more diverse and the mandates more robust. Often they include military enforcement as well as a variety of specific tasks such as creation of secure conditions for state building. Earlier this year the UN Security Council established an intervention brigade as a part of the peacekeeping force in the DR Congo. A robust mandate was given also to the peacekeeping operation in Mali. These two exemples show the will of the UN to strengthen the peacekeeper and make their missions more effective.

Post conflict peace building involves creation of conditions for the "economy of peace", something of vital importance for transitions from prolonged periods of armed conflict to sustainable peace.

International criminal tribunals are trying many among the perpetrators of crimes against humanity, war crimes and massive violations of human rights.

These are some of the key examples of practical and institutional innovation by which the UN attempts to addtress the challenges to peace and security today. In the domain of peaceful international cooperation innovation is expressed in the millennium development goals, in the efforts to promote sustainable development and address the problems of climate change.

In all these areas some results have been achieved but much more still needs to be done. The broad front of international cooperation has to be established to deal with the big challenges to our future such as those resulting from global warming and uneven development. At the same time, the UN has to keep its focus on the immediate challenges to international peace and security. One of the key tasks in this regard relates to prevention of armed conflicts and, when armed conflicts occur, their early resolution.
The important fact in this regards is that armed conflicts among states are less frequent now than they were in the past, a circumstance which is a result, partly at least, to the prohibition of the use of force by states - provided for by the UN Charter.

Intra-state conflicts - civil wars, ethnic and religious wars and violent disintegration of states were not in the focus of the authors of the UN Charter. Indirect and clandestine involvements of foreign actors in civil wars were not a specific subject of drafting in San Francisco in 1945. Nevertheless, the principle of prevention has to apply here as well: An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

How to deal with armed conflicts at the early stages so as to minimize destruction and human suffering? Conflict formation and dynamics, as well as conflict resolution take time, a lot of precious time, as the international community is tragically re-learning again today in Syria. Armed conflicts in our era exact a heavy toll on human life, in particular among civilian populations. The international community has every reason to strengthen its institutions and make them capable of acting as early as possible - by diplomatic means as a matter of course, and by military force when absolutely necessary and possible.

This moral imperative is expressed in a number of recent international pronouncements, in particular in the much discussed concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), and enjoys significant political support. Through General Assembly resolutions the R2P has gained a measure of normative underpinning as well as a degree of institutional backing.

One can already say that, at present, the concept of Responsibility to protect represents the most significant single expression of the will of the international community to engage values, norms and institutions to prevent horrible crimes against humanity and massive human rights violations. While the legal standing of this concept continues to be a matter of debate, its moral message is clear and largely accepted.

However, in addition to the moral imperative and to its normative and institutional backing it is necessary to to engage an adequate amount of political and when necessary and possible, military power. And, most important, it is vital to employ sound political judgment and responsible political guidance.

The latter requirement cannot be overemphasized. In matters of conflict prevention and conflict resolution there is no substitute for the sound political judgment and responsible political guidance directing all other factors, including especially the military force.

While this may sound axiomatic as an abstract principle, it is not easily realized in practice. The facts of any situation before and during an armed conflict are usually unclear, covered by the inevitable "fog of war". The political and military assessments of facts are most often divergent. This is so because of the complexity of the situation itself, or because of difference in perceptions generated by political interests of the players involved.

Moreover, the decision makers have to be careful in the conduct of their debate. They must not confuse rhetoric on the one hand and real thought on the other. They must also not allow prejudices to diminish their ability to listen to convincing, albeit unwelcome argument.

A particular set of criteria has to be taken into account in decision making regarding the use of military force. Here, rhetoric must not be allowed as a substitute for serious thought. It should be clear throughout that there is no such a thing as a "light military intervention". The use of force very often leads to new challanges which have to be, to the largest extent possible, anticipated by the decision makers.

Furthermore, any contemplation of the use of military force must include a vision of its ending - its exit strategy. This is very difficult given the usual unpredictability of the situations requiring deployment of military force. There is no strategy without an exit. But then again, there is also no exit without a strategy. Military experts, political decision makers and experienced diplomats are very well aware of that. The task is to devise a functioning formula early enough to enable success.

And then, the use of military force must be legitimized. A mandate from the Security Council can provide it. But there are grey areas and complicating factors which make this requirement difficult. Sometimes the Council is paralyzed by the disagreement among its permanent members. Sometimes, agreements are reached at the expense of clarity: Mandates agreed to by the Security Council can be ambiguous or unclear. Sometimes regional organizations work at a quicker pace than the UN and create additional difficulties to the process in the Security Council. And sometimes the Security Council finds itself in a situation of an "ex post facto legitimizer" of the use of force by regional organizations. All this makes the role of the Security Council less predictabile and less authoritative.

The experience of the last decades has - time and again - confirmed a simple and fundamental truth. When armed conflicts occur, ther are no "military-lite" or "diplomacy-lite" option available to the responsible decision makers. Military options, when deemed necessary and legitimate, must have clear objectives must be designed with the requisite level of engagement of military force, so as to ensure the achievement of their declared objectives. Diplomatic options have to include the will to engage diplomacy to the full, including the necessary diplomatic persistence and "heavy lifting".

Political and diplomatic efforts in situations of armed conflict achieve little if they are not supported by real power, including the military power. But the opposite is also true: Force and military power can achieve little if not used in the framework of values, norms and institutions. This lesson has been relearned many times in the past. Let it be the guide for the future. This is particularly necessary because in the past decade diplomacy has not always succeeded in playing the expected leading role in providing penetrating analysis, sound judgment and wise guidance.
The current situations in Syria and in the wider Middle East demonstrate the need and an opportunity for vigorous diplomacy and a collective effort in the framework of the UN. Diplomacy coulld and should take the driver s seat for the benefit of peace and our common security.

Thank you for your attention.