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Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Off-the-Cuff

Question and Answer session with the Secretary-General, following the Cyril Foster Lecture at Oxford University, (unofficial transcript)

United Kingdom, 19 June 2001

Q: Thank you very much for that presentation, Mr. Secretary-General. I have a simple question. Are there not circumstances when the people's will, if you will, might be wrong with regard to such values as peace or minority rights, and in such instances, in your view, would it be justifiable to constrain the democratic process in the service of these other values? Thank you.

SG: You said you were going to ask a simple question! [Laughter] Unfortunately, those are sometimes the vagaries of democracy and elections, that in some situations the people will elect the wrong people, sometimes nationalists who are determined to keep out other people. We have seen this in the Balkans and your question is: in those situations should other means be used to correct it or to stop the decline into possible disastrous directions? This is an issue I myself raised before the General Assembly two years ago, when I talked about humanitarian intervention, and posed the question that we at the UN belong to an Organization that gives primary importance to the sovereignty of independent States, but the same Charter also enjoins us to protect the individual and prevent them from the scourge of war, and our own instrument, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also talks to us about the rights and the human dignity of the individual: when the sovereignty of the state, in the question you've posed, and that of the individual are in conflict, which one prevails, and who decides, and who acts? These are very difficult questions and since the day I made that speech from the UN General Assembly, a lot of work is going on, research institutions are looking at this, we have universities working on it, and I hope towards the end of this year or early next year we will have some very useful thoughts and ideas which might help the members of the Security Council think through some of these problems when they have to take decisions. I'm not looking for guidelines or rigid rules, but at least a framework as to when they act and how they act. I think you would also agree with me that in today's world, those who would abuse and consistently abuse the rights of their people in a gross manner cannot do it and hide behind their boundaries and use them as a shield to carry on brutalising their people, and in most cases governments and outsiders -- civil society -- has intervened, not necessarily by force. I mean, when I raised the question of outside intervention in cases of gross and systematic abuse of human rights and some representatives at the UN questioned it and said the governments wouldn't be happy, or this country would not be happy, I referred to the case of South Africa - I said if I had made this speech at the height of South Africa, the South African Government would not have been happy, but what would have been the reaction of the people? Thank you.

Q: Mr. Annan, given the potentially destabilising effect of the process of democratisation, would you personally encourage the transition to democracy for countries which are presently non-democratic but are very stable?

SG: I think that change is always frightening, and change always entails some element of destabilisation at an initial stage, but I think if the people and the leaders concerned decide to go through the process and plan effectively for it, despite the difficulties they may encounter, I think in the end they will come out stronger, and better-off. You have referred to difficulties with such transitions, and I think you are referring to some - I don't want to name any countries, but I think we all have many examples. I think the process should be encouraged, and I believe that if the people are taken into confidence, and civil society are also brought in to work with the government, and there is public education and actual real debate you can get much more done. It is not something you can do from the top. You have to engage society, you have to open up, you have to encourage civil society to take part. You run into greater difficulty when this is done in a dirigiste manner from the top by the leaders, for the people, without consulting them and getting them engaged. So I think if it is done properly one can overcome the kinds of difficulties you refer to, and the society would be much better for it. Thank you.

Q: Mr. Annan, I wonder if you would talk for a minute about the process of getting consent to UN peace operations. I am thinking, in particular, of East Timor. What I am thinking about is, at the time following the violence in East Timor in September 1999, after the referendum, you made very strong statements about the effect of international criminal law in the process of trying to get President Habibi to consent to a UN peace operation going in. I wonder if you would just comment about that, given that it is in the realm of the normative, rather than military, or forceful persuasion.

SG: Are we using Chatham House rules? [Laughter] Let me say that normally, before we deploy peacekeeping operations we require the consent of the government or governments on whose territory these troops will be deployed. Because usually these operations are under Chapter VI and you require their consent and cooperation. In Chapter VII operations you can theoretically go in without their consent or approval, determined to enforce Security Council resolutions. But if you are going to do that, you must be sure that you have the forces and the means to carry out your mandate and protect your troops. In the particular case of East Timor, the violence broke out immediately after the elections. Prior to the elections we had asked the Indonesian authorities to allow us to bring some military observers and help organize security. They said no, they could do it themselves, they had the means and they had the capacity: as an independent country they would do it. Things remained fairly quiet, because I also believe that they thought the East Timorese would opt to stay Indonesian; that was one option. And the other option was for independence. When the results came out, the East Timorese had voted overwhelmingly for the option of transition to independence. And of course things fell apart and there was absolute violence. I then engaged the leaders, at that time it was President Habibi, requesting that they should control the situation since they said they had the capacity and they were the government and they should stop the killing and the carnage. I wasn't sure how much he himself was being misled, because obviously it was the military who were in charge in East Timor, and some of the reports he was getting I wasn't sure reflected the reality on the ground. When the question of sending in troops was raised, almost every government that had the capacity and was prepared to consider contributing to the force was not prepared to go in unless Indonesia gave its consent or invited us to come in. And so we had to mount an incredible diplomatic campaign to convince the Indonesians that it was in their interest to allow the international force to come in to help them. I was on the phone almost day and night with President Habibi. Yes, you are right that I did make a statement that if the government did not take its responsibility and stop the violence, they would be made accountable for the crime against humanity and would be brought to the dock. In the end he conceded and agreed that we should go in and governments began to provide troops, and the operation was led by Australia and we were able to go in and eventually calm the situation after much damage had been done. But let's assume for a moment that the Indonesians would not have acquiesced or invited us in. Would any government have been prepared to send in their troops? Or we will sit back and allow the carnage to continue. Luckily, in this case it ended the right way, but where the government says no, what happens? Thank you.

Q: Mr. Annan, ...

SG: Are you from Ghana?

Q: Yes, I am from Ghana [Laughter]. I actually wanted to ask, in light of your Ghanaian nationality, you mentioned the inequality of poor and developing member states, and I wanted to ask how much you think your Ghanaian nationality has helped to raise the profile of West African countries in the international community.

SG: I think being a Ghanaian and an African, as Secretary-General it has had an impact and raised the profile of the continent, and from the reactions I get from black peoples everywhere and I think, I hope it has inspired some of them to work harder, and to reach out and live their dreams. I am often reminded of something that Eleanor Roosevelt said, advising a group of young women, but I think it also applies to other minority situations, she said, 'No one can make you feel inferior, unless you give your consent.' And I hope what I have achieved and done is an inspiration for others. Thank you. [Applause]

Q: The United Nations continues to receive more negative publicity than positive. How can we reverse that situation?

SG: Let me start by conceding that, like all institutions, we are not perfect. And we are working on it. But let me say that there is quite a bit of misperception as to what the UN can do and cannot do, and what the UN is expected to do. I think there are very high expectations from the peoples of the world, which is wonderful for the Organization, but the downside is that they always feel disappointed. We also have a problem in that we, ourselves, are not very good at telling our story, even the successful ones, and we need to do a better job at getting the message out. The other thing I should say, my own title 'SG' - I often say that it stands for ScapeGoat, because when things go wrong and things are terribly complicated and the governments don't know what to do with it, they dump it on the United Nations and tell their public: 'We have acted - we have given it to the United Nations, we have sent it to the Security Council'. But the resources do not follow - material, financial and otherwise - and they don't support the operations. But they do dump on us and I think we should also learn to say 'No: we cannot take this on, we don't have the means, and we are not going to be set up.' And we should be able also to engage the governments and the public in all the operations we undertake, to tell them what we are there to do, and what we cannot do. And I think, generally, the UN should - and I think we are beginning to do more and more of it - recognising and letting the public know what we can do, what we have to do with others, and what we need to leave others to do. And I think, by limiting our efforts and focussing on what we can do and rather than pretending to be everything to all peoples, we would also be able to deliver more, and perhaps in the process also improve our own image. But I think we do sometimes get a bum rap, we are doing much, much more than we are given credit for. [Applause]

Q: There is a contentious discourse in Western theory of weak, failed, collapsed, states which is applied particularly to Africa. Is democratisation the only solution to such states? Is the answer a sovereign, Westphalian state at all?

SG: I think in today's world, in a world of interdependence and globalisation, where all states at least aspire to rule by democratic principles, where all states aspire to be part of the international market and the global system, there are certain things that each state will have to do if it doesn't want to be marginalized and bypassed. And I think this also goes for the poor African countries. In some cases, as you have indicated, one will have to help put a failed state together. In others, one will have to help poor states organize themselves better. Poor states can be well managed, can be well run, and there are examples. I think what is important is that one works with these countries and governments to strengthen their institutions and come up with a regulatory system and encourage them and help them to build the rule of law. They cannot do it alone: they need massive external support in terms of development assistance, in terms of debt relief, in terms of encouragement for investors to go in and invest, but they have to organize themselves and perhaps sometimes do regional projects which would give the economies of scale that would attract investors. But I do not think they have a choice but to try and develop their state in a manner so that they can cooperate, they can participate in the global market. In my discussions with quite a lot of these states, as poor as they are, most of them would much rather trade themselves out of poverty rather than continue to live on handouts. Thank you.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General, in the context of what you proposed here in terms of peacemaking and peacekeeping and peacebuilding, how do you see the role of regional actors, especially in view of the last decade's experience?

SG: I think the UN is very clear on this: we do not claim a monopoly over conflict resolution, and we do believe that regional organizations and arrangements have an important role to play. In some crises, a regional organization has taken the lead. We have a very good example here in the Balkans, in the crisis in FYROM: the lead is taken by the EU, supported by NATO, and the UN is giving them, we have given them support, but they are in the lead. We have had an example in West Africa, where ECOWAS was the first to send troops into Liberia and to Sierra Leone. Of course today, the UN has taken over the Sierra Leonean operation. We have the OSCE tackling some issues in Europe, and the Organization of American States active in Haiti. So we do recognize the role of regional organizations and we cooperate with them. I try to bring them together once a year for us to discuss regional and international issues and to pursue further cooperation between regional organisations and the UN. Thank you.

Q: Your Excellency, would you comment on the Arab phenomenon of dealing with democracy or rather the lack of democracy. Of 22 countries, all members of the Arab League, straddling a very strategic area, over 300 million people, heirs to one religion, one nationality, one culture. The question is: do you feel there is a common denominator why 22 countries have failed to adopt democracy which is universally accepted as the most successful form of government today in the Arab world?

SG: You are determined to get me into trouble! [Laughter] Let me say that, yes, they do share culture and language, but they also have a different historical and political development. I think some of them are monarchies, others have a political system where the leaders have been in power for a long time. But I think even in that region, I can sense that change is evolving. I can sense the people are anxious to participate in the decisions which affect them. I can sense that the people want to express their will, and I think we would all have been very encouraged, monitoring the elections in Iran, for example. The percentage of Iranians who went to the polls to vote, particularly young women. I think this is a sign, in my judgement, of things to come in the future. Perhaps, implied in your question is that change has not been as rapid in that region as in other regions. But change is coming.

Q: Mr. Annan, I agree with you of course that democracy is an international issue, but one can envisage, especially in a situation where the United Nations is recommending that nation states adopt this type of governance, especially some poorer governments which are dictatorial in nature, will move towards governments paying lip service towards democracy, whereas in reality this is not taking place. What would the role of the United Nations be, and indeed the world community, in ensuring that new democracies that are emerging are really democratic in their governance?

SG: Let me say that in the work we do with our own development organisation, the UN Development Programme, we are working a lot with governments on issues of democracy, good governance, institution-building, and we also recently have organized a series of meetings for new and emerging democracies. I think the first one was in Warsaw, another one was in Benin, and more than 120 governments came to talk about democracy, to share experiences, and that sharing of experiences, is I think very helpful for the new and emerging democracies. I think the other development which is very healthy and in the long run is going to strengthen democracy or help development of democracy in these countries is civil society, civil society within those countries and of course the emergence of a global civil society that is linked up by the internet and are sharing experiences, helping each other and supporting each other. So I think even when it is fragile, even whilst what I refer to as fig-leaf democracy, even if one has to go through that stage initially, to get a true democracy, I think one should not despair. When I go to Africa today, and I travel around the world, I hear leaders talk about democracy, talk about human rights and talk about the rule of law. Some of them, you know and I know, they don't believe it. But it doesn't matter. The fact that they are talking about human rights, the fact they are talking about democracy, the people begin to be aware of these rights, and in time they begin to press for it, and gradually we see change. Obviously, in some situations it will take longer than in others. But I don't think we should give up. In today's world also, people are aware of what is happening in neighbouring countries, what is happening in other parts of the world. They have noticed situations where the military have gone back to the barracks and there have been elections. It happened in Latin America, it's happening in Africa, and I think it's a good sign and I think these countries will make it. Thank you.

Q: I would like to raise an issue of democracy within the United Nations itself, vis-a-vis the Security Council. There seems to be a great emphasis on what the Permanent Members represent and not so much emphasis about other members. And also I would like that looked at in respect of the veto, what will be the future of the veto on Security Council issues?

SG: I think we read a lot about the permanent members of the Security Council, but the other ten non-permanent members also have an influence and some power. I think we have to recognise that the veto is a negative power, you can use the veto to block a decision. But you cannot use it to force a positive decision and a decision cannot be taken by the permanent five without some votes at least from the ten non-permanent members. In other words you need nine to ten votes to get a decision. So the nonpermanent members are not as weak and helpless as they may initially seem, and I would urge them to use that trust, that power and use it effectively on behalf of the entire membership. Yes, sometimes there is pressure from the bigger countries but they do have power they can use. I referred earlier to Security Council reform, which I said almost every member state needs to be reformed, but they cannot agree on the details. I hope they may be able to make the change within the next two years. I may be proved wrong, but I think we need to look at it within a time frame. The question of the power of the permanent five is sometimes exaggerated. They do have it, they can block any decision that they believe is not in their national interest for one reason or another, but they cannot impose decisions. Sorry I forgot the second part of your question.

Q: What are your views about the use of the veto, it doesn't appear to be democratic?

SG: ...If they can limit the veto. That is one of the debates that have been going on for a long time. I think it was probably going on when Marrack Goulding came about fifteen years ago. There have been discussions about eliminating the veto, proscribing the use of the veto, or even being able to overturn the veto by, let's say, a two-thirds majority, and all these proposals have not been, how should I say, accepted. It would have come in as part of the Security Council reform; since the reform has not been concluded we still have this issue, but I am very doubtful that the permanent five would allow that sort of suggestion that the veto should either be removed or should be proscribed. So in fact, as one looks at reform in the Security Council, rather than removing the veto, the member states are now considering creation of additional vetoes, almost implying they have given up the hope of ever removing the existing five permanent seats. I think that is an indication of where it is likely to go.

Q: I know a country which is heavily populated - a billion people - unquestionably there have been ten years of fair and free elections, with an independent judiciary, with a free press -- thank God, if they criticise the government they are not put in prison -- they report every day levels of corruption which are unimaginable. Should the funds of the United Nations be utilised to help this country? What is the difference between liberal democracy and democracy? [Applause]

SG: I think as you gathered, the gentleman is from India, and is a very prominent lawyer from Madras, for those of you who don't know him. Good to see you Ram. [Laughter] I think on the questions you have raised about what is happening in India, the UN agencies are working with them on a very modest level. The UN Development Organisation is very active in India. But let me say that to help governments deal with some of the issues you have raised, particularly on the issue of corruption and that kind of thing, there must be receptivity and willingness to accept help from outside. And sometimes governments are not always prepared to do that. They find that they're sort of washing their dirty linen in public. As you say, these things are published in the papers, people talk about it, and governments are toppled for it. But it doesn't necessarily imply that they will take assistance from outside. But a lot is happening, the World Bank, the IMF, UNDP, all of us are working on transparency, they are insisting that corruption must be uprooted, because in fact it distorts development, it distorts assistance and really undermines all the efforts that are being made to assist the poor. And so it is becoming part of conditionality and part of their efforts, and I think in that sense we will be able to help steer things right. Your second question I think I will give to Professor O'Neill to answer! [Laughter]

Q: Thank you very much for an interesting talk. Could you say a few words on the issue of those who are fighting against Western-style democracy and yet represent large sections of their own populations. I am thinking in particular of Islamist movements. Obviously there are real areas of dispute between Islamists and democracy, yet there is also an overlap, more often than people imagine, if you study them closely. Sometimes these Islamists movements are more representative than their governments and very involved in civil society. There's a tension there. What is the way forward, according to your view?

SG: I don't want to create the impression that there is only one form of democracy and democracy is a system where only one shoe fits all. I think each society tries to organise itself in its own peculiar way. But I did indicate in my lecture the basic ingredients one would expect from democracy at its best. And not all states have attained it yet. I think you mentioned some of the Islamic states, I had mentioned Iran, for example, earlier. And when you look at the way the elections were organized, not only this time but also the previous time, everybody claimed it was free, open and fair. People were surprised that in a society where women presumably are deprived and restrained and have to walk around in veils that they would go in their thousands if not millions to vote and exercise their right and express themselves through the ballot box in a manner that people in the West had not imagined was possible. Obviously they have a different system, and I hope in time their democracy will be strengthened and the question that you posed may not become necessary. Thank you.*****