Friday December 03, 2021

United Nations Structure And Function Must Change: Downer

September 24, 2003

This is the text of the speech to the United Nations General Assembly by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer.

Alexander Downer, Minister for Foreign Affairs Mr President,

To stand again at this podium today, representing Australia as its Foreign Minister, entering into the great conversation of the nations, is an unsettling experience.

Seldom has this forum been confronted with so many dimensions of uncertainty: so many challenges to global peace, security and orderly economic reform.  Seldom has its own capacity for regeneration to deal with them been so insistently put to the test.

Conor Cruise O'Brien, one of Ireland's finest writers, an official and later ambassador here famously remarked: “The cynicism necessary in the approach to the United Nations must at some point be made to yield to reverence: the reverence which is appropriate to… an institution which is humanity's prayer to itself to be saved from itself…”

Recently one of Australia's foremost novelists, Frank Moorhouse, wrote a meditative essay on this theme. In it he discerned a new pair of parallel world orders: “For the first time in our lives, there are two very powerful agents in world affairs… the UN Security Council… and the US”.   He notes that “for all the cynicism about the futility of international intervention, pragmatically, people are being helped daily by the UN” and that “visionary and innovative international missions” continue to be conceived and achieved within it. Moorhouse's estimation of the UN's significance is debatable.

But a combination of pragmatism, vision and reforming innovation is necessary if, as I've already warned, this organisation is to avoid frittering away its credibility and influence by failing to exercise its power effectively.

In the words of Secretary-General Annan, we “should not shy away from the need to improve and, where necessary, change the structure and function of the United Nations and other international institutions” to make sure they remain effective in promoting security and peace.

Mr President,  I alluded to the global challenges which confront us. First among them is the emergence of “the age of terror”.  Where once it was possible to view terrorism as the lamentable legacy of a few unsafe regions, today almost no country has been left untouched.

Despite the war on terror—a war we are winning—terrorism continues to be a scourge to which neither age, nationality, religion, or political affiliation provides immunity. It takes a considerable act of imaginative engagement to see these new forms of nihilism for what they really are. They are a negation of civilisation and the discourse that sustains it. I referred earlier to the visionary and innovative work which sometimes only the UN can do.

In that context I want to pause to pay tribute to the Secretary-General's senior representative in Baghdad, Sergio Vieira De Mello, well known to many of you here. That such a man, engaged in such vital tasks -along with so many of his colleagues—should have been swept by a terrorist bomb into the silent democracy of death epitomizes the struggle between civilisation and the unthinkable alternative.

We cannot allow terrorists to succeed in determining the course of world events. We must overwhelm their efforts to disrupt global security and prosperity, to undermine democratic countries or destabilise nation-building.

Mr President, Terrorism has also created a new urgency in solving a more familiar problem—the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Efforts by rogue states to develop and traffic in WMD materials underpin the priority we give to non-proliferation. The possibility that WMD might fall into the hands of terrorists makes it an absolute imperative.

Terrorism and proliferation do not occur in a vacuum, except of course a moral vacuum. It is no longer open to us to ignore the failed states which have become their incubators or the trans-national crime on which they depend.

The promotion of good governance and democratisation are imperatives both morally and pragmatically. They have become preconditions for international security.

Mr President, Good governance serves both global and national interests, as improved governance will fortify the UN itself. Without it, developing states will never be able fully to realise the opportunities that globalisation presents: chiefly the potential to erase divisions between themselves and the developed world.

This can only occur if we are all prepared to accept the disciplines that global trade liberalisation imposes. While the prospects, post-Cancun, don't seem particularly favourable, pursuing the Doha objectives remains the best way of alleviating poverty and its attendant ills in the developing world.

Mr President,  In confronting these challenges - such as security, governance, poverty, terrorism and pandemics - collective action is likely to yield the best results, since not even the most powerful among us can bear the burden alone.

Effective regional action also remains important. Australia has built with its neighbours a network of bilateral counter-terrorism arrangements. These enhance practical, operational-level liaison between regional security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies that have seen terror attacks prevented, networks disrupted and terrorists arrested.

Similarly, we are developing regional approaches to confront the dangers of state-failure.

Together with our Pacific Islands Forum partners we are restoring hope for a better future to the people of the Solomon Islands. This Regional Assistance Mission has already made excellent progress in its efforts to restore law and order and to re-build the institutions of governance.  Requested by the Solomon's Government, supported and implemented by Pacific Forum nations, the mission is consistent with the UN Charter's original vision of strong regional efforts to maintain international peace and security.

Indeed we will continue to concentrate on improved standards of governance which are central in our assistance to our region. The Pacific Islands Forum leaders recently endorsed efforts to promote more effective regional institutions and, where appropriate, the pooling of resources, to ensure services are both deliverable and sustainable.

Mr President, The virtues of collective action are self-evident. But collectivity ought not serve as a mantra which is an obstacle to effective action.  Sometimes the most effective means of preserving security, and indeed international law, occur alongside the traditional mechanisms of multilateral diplomacy.

Australia is a strong supporter of multilateral institutions and processes, but only insofar as they are a means to an effective end. The major global disarmament and non-proliferation treaties remain critical to setting norms of international order. But ultimately those instruments must be enforced.

States are not merely entitled but obliged to take action to uphold those norms, especially when the transfer of WMD outside internationally agreed frameworks is involved. The conviction that States must uphold international norms, particularly in relation to WMD, led Australia to join the coalition to disarm Iraq, in the same way that we have recently joined with others in the Proliferation Security Initiative.

Mr President, Australia believes the UN has a critical role in promoting international peace and security.   First-hand experience in East Timor reminds us of that fact and we look to the UN for a continuing contribution to ensuring its stability.

Australia also appreciates the UN's work in rebuilding civil society in Iraq. Of the $100 million Australia has committed to humanitarian and reconstruction assistance in Iraq, much has been directed through UN agencies.  These are two examples where the UN is playing a positive role.

Nevertheless the role of the UN in international affairs is under critical scrutiny, and with good reason.  The UN, through its member states, needs to do much more to adapt to the evolving global environment.

Australia has long been an advocate of a more focused, efficient UN system. The Secretary-General's reforms to date, in particular the Brahimi peacekeeping changes, have been a valuable start. Radical and fundamental change is now needed. The Secretary-General rightly states that the General Assembly is bogged down with an unwieldy agenda and repetitive and sterile debates.  We need to ask ourselves, if much of the activity of the General Assembly - or indeed ECOSOC - did not occur, what practical difference would it make, and would anyone notice? 

Again, as Australia has long argued, the composition of the Security Council is out of step with geopolitical realities. The permanent membership of the Security Council should be expanded to reflect the current realities - with the addition of Japan, India, Brazil, Indonesia and an African nation.

We support an overhaul of the UN architecture, particularly in light of new security threats.

The functioning of all the major UN organs need to be reexamined - as does the interrelationship between them.

Old shibboleths - such as the excessive homage to sovereignty even at the expense of the preservation of humanity and human values - should not constrain us.

We must end absurd duplication of efforts. We should refocus the UN on areas where it can and should make a difference. We must be imaganitive and bold.

The group system also needs modernisation. For example, Australia could become part of an East Asia and Pacific grouping, and the old divide of East and West Europe should be dispensed with to reflect the new, converging European reality.

This would form the basis for greater regional co-operation within the UN system - for greater engagement and problem-solving on a regional scale.

Mr President, In short, we must work urgently on a bold blueprint for revitalisation which we should consider by the summer of next year.

That is why we welcome the Secretary-General's proposal for a high-level review panel.

Real commitment to change - which can be endorsed at a second San Francisco Coference - will be necessary if the UN is to rediscover its credibility and its promise.



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