The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Mr. President, we congratulate you on your election to the presidency of the 58th session of the United Nations general assembly...

As we gather here, in the wake of many momentous events over the past year, it is inevitable that we ponder on some fundamental questions about the role and the relevance of the UN.

The UN was charged by its charter “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. The charter also speaks of our collective determination “to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security”. There was an implicit conviction that the UN would be stronger than the sum of its constituent member-states. Its unique legitimacy flows from a universal perception that it pursues a larger purpose than the interests of one country or a small group of countries.

The vision of an enlightened multilateralism has not materialized. There have been difficulties and deficiencies in ensuring a world free from strife, a world without war. The UN has not always been successful in preventing conflicts or in resolving them.

During the past year, the UN encountered further new challenges. We saw the extraordinary inability of the five permanent members of the security council to agree on action in respect of Iraq, in spite of complete agreement on basic objectives. Most recently, the brutal terrorist attack on the UN office in Baghdad struck a body blow to the UN’s humanitarian efforts there.

Looking back at events over recent years, we can analyse the successes and failures of the UN in this or that crisis. But it would be more purposeful to reflect on our own commitment to multilateralism, the extent of its applicability in the real world of today, and the manner in which it can be exercised through the UN. The reality is that international institutions like the UN can only be as effective as its members allow it to be.

Our reflections on the UN should focus on three key aspects: First, we need to introspect on some of the assumptions that have been made over the years on the will and reach of the UN. In the euphoria after the Cold War, there was a misplaced notion that the UN could solve every problem anywhere. Its enthusiasm and proactive stance on many issues reflected laudable intentions. But we soon realized that the UN does not possess magical powers to solve every crisis in all parts of the globe, or to change overnight the motivation of leaders and communities around the world. We need to clearly recognize, with a sense of realism, the limits to what the UN can achieve, and the changes of form and function required for it to play an optimal role in today’s world.

Second, the Iraq issue has inevitably generated a debate on the functioning and the efficacy of the security council and of the UN itself. Over the decades, the UN membership has grown enormously. The scope of its activities has expanded greatly, with new specialized agencies and new programmes.

But in the political and security dimensions of its activities, the UN has not kept pace with the changes in the world. For the security council to represent genuine multilateralism in its decisions and actions, its membership must reflect current world realities. Most UN members today recognize the need for an enlarged and restructured security council, with more developing countries as permanent and non-permanent members. The permanent members guard their exclusivity. Some states with weak claims want to ensure that others do not enter the council as permanent members.

This combination of complacency and negativism has to be countered with a strong political will. The recent crises warn us that until the UN security council is reformed and restructured, its decisions cannot reflect truly the collective will of the community of nations.

Third, even after such reform, the security council would have to evolve suitable decision-making mechanisms, which ensure better representation of the collective will of the international community. How can multilateralism be genuinely implemented' A single veto is an anachronism in today’s world. On the other hand, the requirement of unanimity can sabotage imperative actions. A simple majority vote may not be sufficiently representative for major issues of gravity.

Should we aim for the highest common factor, or should we settle for the lowest common denominator' National experiences in democratic countries provide usable models of mechanisms, which could specify the extent of support required, depending on the impact of action to be taken.

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