Address to the United Nations on Peace and Security

United Nations

1 October 2015

Mr President

Mr Secretary General

Distinguished representatives of these United Nations

I thank you Mr President for your invitation to participate in this debate.

I do not represent a member state.

Nor do I represent any institution of the United Nations.

Rather I speak purely as a private citizen.

But hopefully as a global citizen as well.

And certainly one long-committed to the centrality of this institution to the global order.

I now chair the Independent Commission on Multilateralism specifically convened by the International Peace Institute to reflect on the core question of whether the current institutional structure of our United Nations is fit for purpose to deal with the new challenges of the 21st century.

The importance of this debate

Mr President, it is good that you have convened this debate.

And that the resolution that underpins it calls on us to reflect on our successes and our failures in the maintenance of international peace and security.

There is a danger that after 70 years, these important words, “the maintenance of international peace and security” flow too easily, and perhaps even mechanically, off our lips.

And that our minds become numbed to the language of resolutions that deal with them.

That we have lost the urgency and cogency of what the charter simply but graphically names as ‘the scourge of war’. Scourge of war.

Whereas the truth is that the “maintenance of international peace and security” remains our core business.

It is the high purpose for which these United Nations were formed.

Mr President, it is therefore good that after the historic adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals that member states have also called on us to debate the future of peace and security.

To reflect on our successes and failures from decades past.

And to apply these lessons afresh to the decades to come.

For the sobering history of international relations is littered with the carcasses of institutions created to preserve the peace of their time.

Such institutions are hard to create.

They are, however, very easy to destroy.

And we should be mindful that 70 years—three score and ten—is indeed the biblical definition of the normal span of life.

Few, if any, global institutions have lasted as long as ours.

So to preserve these United Nations for the future, we will have to tend the garden carefully.

Because the new threats to peace and security are arguably greater than at any time in our history.

The deficit of global governance

Mr President, this debate on peace and security occurs within a wider debate on the state of global governance in the 21st century.

The demand for effective forms of global governance has never been greater.

Yet the supply of effective governance has probably never been weaker.

We see this in the new challenges to peace and security with the rise of a vast array of non-state actors.

We have seen this with the turmoil of global financial markets and the damage they have inflicted on the peoples of the world.

And we’ve seen this with the horrors of global pandemics.

Just as we are beginning to witness the impact of extreme weather events of unprecedented destructive power, as a consequence of climate change.

Despite the dimensions of these new global challenges, we seem to find ourselves marooned in an international “no man’s land”—isolated between weak global institutions on the one hand, and national institutions unable to cope on the other, neither being sufficient to the task at hand.

This lies at the core of our 21st century global dilemma—most acutely in the maintenance of peace and security.

So what then is to be done

So what then is to be done?

In the multiple consultations that we at the International Commission on Multilateralism have undertaken over the last 9 months, a number of striking themes have emerged.

And these, Secretary-General, mesh with many of your remarks here this morning.

First, across all policy domains, the absolute centrality of the concept and the praxis of prevention.

Second, across all policy domains, the priority of field operations over the centre.

Third, again in all policy domains, the fundamental importance of integrated field operations of all divisions of the UN under a single command, on the top of whose desk sits a sign, written in all 6 languages of the United Nations, stating clearly, “the buck stops with me”.

Fourth, the universal importance of a culture and praxis of implementation of the decisions taken by member states (rather than see them simply float off into space), and an effective system of performance auditing of this implementation.

And fifth and finally, sustainable financial capacity (both public and, where appropriate, private finance) to give effect to UN mandates across all policy domains.

The prevention of armed conflict

Mr President, for the purposes of this debate on the maintenance of international peace and security, I point in particular to the absolute centrality again of prevention.

Much has been written on the self-evident costs and benefits of conflict prevention, as opposed to armed intervention once conflict has begun.

There is a bitter list to remind us all: Cambodia, Rwanda, the Balkans, Iraq, and now the unspeakable tragedy that is Syria.

Syria, as I see it, is a sorry tale of cascading failures to prevent:

The failure to prevent civil war in the first place;

The failure to anticipate the emergence of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh out of the ashes of the invasion of Iraq;

Our failure—all of us, our failure—to anticipate the scale of humanitarian assistance required to deal with Syrian refugees within the country, as well as now in Jordan and Lebanon and Turkey;

The failure of all of us to build reception centres to manage humanely the inevitable outflow of refugees from the region once food supplies were cut and winter was approaching;

And the failure of all of us to agree as civilised members of the international community on how to globally, collectively burden-share, on an appropriate and proportional basis, when refugee crises arise in any particular part of the world.

Across the wider Middle East, across Africa, and in Asia as well.

The impact on innocent civilians, in particular women and girls, our sisters and our brothers, is before our eyes each day.

Women, peace and security must be central to our cause.

Mr President, I recognise that it is easy to say, with 20/20 hindsight, that each stage of the Syrian crisis was preventable. It was not.

But the uncomfortable truth for us is that many parts of it were.

Mr President, the same conceptual framework of “prevention” applies across practically all of the policy domains of which we the United Nations now work:

Preventative diplomacy through the effective deployment of our political missions;

Prevention of the re-emergence of conflict through the effective operation of peace-building commissions;

The prevention of war through arms control and disarmament;

Economic development as the best antidote to fragility, conflict and war;

Preventative actions by humanitarian agencies in the forward placement of supplies and logistics well before crises become full-blown;

And, of course, on a much grander scale, the prevention of irreversible climate change through the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, rather than the cost of prohibitively expensive, and potentially ineffective, adaptation strategies once the full effects of climate change have been meted out, affecting first the most vulnerable states, invariably our brothers and sisters in small island developing states.

The concept and praxis of “Prevention”, therefore, represents a core organising principle for much of the work of the United Nations system writ large.

Prevention and the UN charter

For these reasons, let us remind ourselves afresh that Article 33 of the charter is about the prevention of armed conflict.

The imperatives of Article 33 are further reflected by the recent report by the High Level panel on UN peace operations chaired by my friend and colleague, His Excellency José Ramos-Horta of Timor Leste.

The Ramos-Horta report deals with conflict prevention throughout the document.

Its central recommendation is clear:

“Conflict prevention and mediation must be brought back to the fore.”

I fully endorse the Ramos-Horta report and thank him for his contribution to this central part in the future operations of the United Nations in the maintenance of international peace and security.


Mr President, to conclude, sometimes I fear that we in the international system suffers from a form of “learned helplessness”.

That the global challenges we now face are now seen to be too great, or at least felt to be too great.

That the best we can hope for is simply to muddle through.

This in turn induces, I think, a deep cynicism on the part of many in the international community about further calls for reform.

Mr President, the importance of the debate you have convened today is that it calls on each of us to suspend our natural cynicism and to look afresh at the concrete task of how we can reshape our shared institution to meet the formidable challenges which lie before us.

Imagine the utter cynicism which many of the member states would have felt in 1945 emerging from the ashes of a world war and then the new member states in the 50’s and 60’s emerging from centuries of violent, colonial exploitation across Africa, across Asia and across Latin America when they were challenged together to build this new parliament of humankind.

Somehow our forebears managed to push through the cynicism barrier.

And 70 years later, so must we as well.

Mr President, I remain an optimist about the UN’s future.

But a realistic optimist.

Rather than being a believer in the magical perfectibility of human nature.

I, like so many others in this debate, am inspired by the extraordinary contribution of the women and men working in the field today who are dedicated to this institution’s future and to its values.

But I am also a political realist in how we might bend the arc of history.

Not in the fine words we speak, the elegant reports we produce, but in the practical actions we resolve to take together.

In this, none of us have a monopoly on global wisdom, least of all the global north.

Secretary-General, we thank you for your leadership in the continuing reform of this institution.

Let us use this high-level debate to re-imagine our future, re-capture something of the spirit of our founders, and apply that spirit to the great practical task, the challenges of peace and security that now lie before us all.

I thank you.