PROFESSOR S JAYAKUMAR
MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS OF THE REPUBLIC OF SINGAPORE
58TH SESSION OF THE UNITED NATIONS GENERAL
NEW YORK, 29 SEPTEMBER 2003
EXAGGERATED FEARS -TOWARDS A BALANCED VIEW OF THE UNITED NATIONS
1 I congratulate
His Excellency Julian Hunte, Foreign Minister of St Lucia, on his election
as the new President of the General Assembly. Singapore is delighted
that a fellow small island state and member of the Forum of Small States
holds this office. Mr President, you can count on our whole-hearted
2 I also join others
in paying a tribute to UN personnel who have fallen victim to violence
or attacks, including a special tribute to the late Sergio Vieira de
Mello. The terrorist attack which caused his death has outraged the
entire civilised world. Sergio dedicated his life, and ultimately gave
his life, in the service of the UN. He is mourned and missed by his
many friends around the world. We can best honour his memory by reaffirming
our commitment to the ideals that he served.
3 Sergio had no illusions about the difficulties he faced in Iraq. In
a press interview in June, he said "it is not easy to strike a
balance between the coalition's preponderance here and an emerging role
for the United Nations ". Still, he believed that striking such
a balance was possible; indeed necessary and vital. I would therefore
urge the members of the Security Council to redouble their efforts to
arrive at an acceptable balance.
Reality and Myth
4 The run up to the war in Iraq saw a heated debate about the role of
the UN. The UN is, of course, no stranger to controversy. But this debate
was notable for being framed in particularly stark terms. The rhetoric
was inflamed and inflated.
5 It has been variously
asserted with glee or gloom that the UN was:
· a threat to national sovereignty or the sole source of international
· merely a tool of the remaining superpower or the only way to
6 There are indeed
serious issues that require debate. But the simplistic manner in which
this debate was framed, in particular, the portrayal of a struggle between
unilateralism and multilateralism is unhelpful.
7 Unfortunately, this rhetoric has obscured rather than clarified issues.
It had over-simplified the debate and glossed over the more complex
reality. The danger is that we may believe in the rhetoric and arrive
at wrong conclusions about the UN's relevance or irrelevance. The Secretary-General
Kofi Annan has raised several difficult questions in his report on the
implementation of the Millennium Declaration. He said, "The war
in Iraq brought to the fore a host of questions of principle and practice
that challenge the United Nations and the international community as
a whole" and added that "The very relevance of current multilateral
rules and institutions has come into question". I am therefore
joining this debate with some trepidation. I do so only to highlight
some of the complexities in the hope that it would contribute to a more
balanced appraisal of the UN.
An Appraisal of the UN
8 I start by restating some basics. In the fifty eight years since its
formation, the UN's influence and role in world affairs has always flowed
and ebbed in accordance with shifting geopolitical tides. On some crucial
international issues, the UN's role has been indispensable. On other
occasions, the UN had no role or only a marginal one.
9 If this meant
that the UN was irrelevant, then it was irrelevant long before the recent
war in Iraq. The UN's ability to act and the kinds of actions it took
has always been contingent on how states, in particular, the Permanent
Members of the Security Council, perceive whether the UN served their
interests. But the UN and the UN system have always endured.
10 Neither the UN's
variable fortunes nor its survival should surprise anyone. The UN functions
in an international system consisting of sovereign states. Multilateralism
and unilateralism were never mutually exclusive alternatives. They are
different options in every state's menu of policy choices.
11 Few states, large
or small, would agree to entrust their security or other vital national
interests entirely to a multilateral institution. No state, however
powerful, can always succeed in achieving its objectives without the
help of others. Every state will choose the option that serves its interest
12 Furthermore, the UN, as a total system, is bigger than the General
Assembly and the Security Council. As we debate the future of international
organisations, we should not forget that the world has never been more
interdependent and therefore more in need of global governance.
13 The UN now has one hundred and ninety one members and has never been
closer to the ideal of universal participation. There has never been
a period in world history when there have been more international legal
regimes and norms regulating state behaviour. The UN Secretariat is
the depository for over five hundred international treaties covering
the entire spectrum of global activities.
legal regimes and norms are imperfect in their efficiency and observance.
Some international norms are hotly contested. Still, the conduct of
international relations today does not take place in a vacuum but within
this framework of laws, rules, standards and norms.
15 For example,
every time we board an aircraft for a trip abroad, we entrust our safety
to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Anytime we
call a friend or family in another country, we rely on the International
Telecommunications Union (ITU). The International Maritime Organisation
(IMO) ensures that the world's merchant fleet, which carries the bulk
of world trade, sails smoothly. Yet, how often does the work of the
ICAO, the ITU or the IMO get international recognition?
16 The World Food Programme, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees,
UNICEF and the UNDP, among others, perform unglamorous but essential
roles. The SARS epidemic earlier this year reminded us of WHO's unique
17 This is hardly the stuff of headline-grabbing debates in the General
Assembly or Security Council. But, international life, as we know it,
would not be possible without such activities overseen by the UN system.
The Inherent Dilemma
18 Still, there is no escaping the fact that the maintenance of international
peace and security is first among the UN's purposes and the most contested
and controversial of its roles. It is also the focus of the current
debate over Iraq. It is here that the rhetorical exaggerations I mentioned
earlier stand most in the way of clear and rational thinking on the
UN's strengths and limitations.
19 Traditional international law recognises only two grounds for the
use of force: self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter and authorisation
by the United Nations Security Council. This seeming clarity is deceptive.
20 Even before the latest Iraq war, traditional interpretations of the
UN Charter have been questioned. The doctrine of self-defence has long
been the subject of learned debate. The current controversy over the
right to preemption is only the latest manifestation. The doctrine of
humanitarian intervention or "responsibility to protect",
so boldly brought to the fore by the
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, has, for several decades challenged
the conventional concepts of non-intervention and the sovereign equality
21 Another challenge
to traditional approaches has been the threat posed by non-state actors,
especially the contemporary menace posed by perpetrators of international
terrorism. The problem posed by rebel groups in civil conflicts is another
22 In its efforts
to respond to egregious violations of human rights, starvation, anarchy
and chaos, the Security Council had already stretched both the UN's
authority to intervene and the definition of "threats to peace"
and "aggression ". The unprecedented demands placed on the
UN exposed the harsh truth that not every member state has an equal
interest in opposing a specific aggression or rescuing a specific situation
from anarchy. This went as far back as 1950 when the UN General Assembly
adopted the "Uniting for Peace" resolution when the Security
Council, because of a lack of unanimity of its permanent members, fails
to act in a case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach
of the peace or acts of aggression.
Iraq - Galvanised and Divided the UN
23 The war in Iraq was not the first time and will not be the last time
that the Security Council will be unable to act. The hope of the late
1980s and early 1990s - that the end of the Cold War would, at last,
enable the Security Council to discharge its `primary responsibility
for the maintenance of international peace and security " - has
long been shattered.
24 In retrospect, Iraq's invasion and annexation of Kuwait in 1990 represented
an unusually clear-cut violation of fundamental Charter principles.
This greatly eased the task of securing Security Council authorisation
for military action.
25 But, the consensus on Iraq was short-lived. By 1994, Russia and France
began to call for a "road map " for the lifting of sanctions.
By 1998, the withdrawal of UNSCOM and Operation Desert Fox marked the
end of the
Security Council's consensus on Iraq. Thereafter, the Security Council
acted in accordance with a complex balance of principles and national
interests, resulting in inconsistent and incoherent decisions. In the
"Oil for Food" debates, humanitarian concerns about the consequences
of sanctions were mixed with the commercial and business interests of
some of the Permanent Members.
26 This did not, however, make the Security Council irrelevant. It merely
meant that the Security Council served as a forum for managing competing
interests, an important role that it has played for all its history.
Afterall, while Security Council resolutions have the force of law,
they are at the end of the day first and foremost political documents,
indicating the degree of consensus that can be achieved among its most
powerful members at any one time.
27 I do not think that it is self-evident that the 2002-2003 clash of
interests over Iraq was qualitatively different from the differences
between the Permanent Members during the previous decade. I do not think
that the disagreement over Iraq has permanently damaged the UN.
28 The 2002-2003 crisis over Iraq in the Security Council only underscored
what we have known all along: the Security Council can only authorise
intervention when the Permanent Members are in agreement and that all
states, big and small, will do what they must to protect their vital
29 This is not the occasion to revisit old debates over whether the
war in Iraq was authorised on the basis of a continuity of authority
from 1990 to 2003. Certainly, as Resolution 1441 recognised, Iraq had
been in material breach of several resolutions. My point is that the
intense diplomatic effort to secure another explicit authorisation for
the use of force, whatever its eventual outcome, was itself testimony
to the importance attached by all to the Security Council's legitimising
role. In May, only weeks after a formal end to major combat operations
was declared, Resolution 1483, adopted without any dissenting vote,
recognised that the UN had a significant role in post-war Iraq.
30 More balanced
views are now beginning to emerge, albeit still tainted by the bitterness
of the debates in the run-up to war. It will be sometime before consensus
can be reached on the UN's role in post-war Iraq. Some are loath to
grant ex post facto legitimisation of military action. At the same time,
there is reluctance to cede power won with blood. But the legitimacy
the UN brings is unique.
Towards a Realistic Future
31 The debate on UN's role will continue. It can and should go on. That
does not mean that the UN should be in paralysis. We must at the same
time press on with our commitment to fulfil the fundamental purpose
of the UN, which, as stated in the Charter, is "to maintain international
peace and security", "to develop friendly relations among
nations", and "to achieve international cooperation".
32 The starting point for this effort must be acceptance that while
the UN stands for ideals that we must never relinquish, the reality
is that the UN both reflects geopolitics and shapes geopolitics. Underlying
the debates in the run up to the war and still infusing the controversies,
is acute uneasiness over the distribution of power in the post-Cold
War international system. But, can the UN escape this reality? The fact
is that the UN can only operate on the basis of a hard-headed appreciation
of the realities of power. If we allow exaggerated rhetoric about the
UN's role to obscure this fact, we do the UN a disservice.
33 The UN Charter has remained essentially unchanged since 1945. But
it has been continuously interpreted and re-interpreted to meet changing
geopolitical circumstances and new challenges, many unforeseen by the
34 Today, we are again faced with radically new threats, not least of
which is from global terrorist networks that respect neither national
boundaries nor traditional international law. Clearly, the UN needs
to fashion new and more flexible rules to deal with these new threats.
Yet at the same time, we must continue to ensure that there are adequate
safeguards to prevent abuse or a return to the law of the jungle.
35 Finding the right
balance between these equally urgent imperatives will not be easy. But
it is not impossible if we can find the discipline to debate the issues
openly and realistically, with a clear appreciation of both the UN's
limitation and potential.
36 Recent events in Iraq have shown that the United States needs the
UN. It is also a fact that the UN needs the United States. Since there
is a convergence of interests for the two to cooperate in order to achieve
our shared interests and objectives, it is surely not impossible for
us to negotiate and agree upon a new paradigm of cooperation between
the world's sole superpower and the world's only and indispensable United
37 The UN is not the panacea for all the world's ills. Neither is the
UN a global villain. The UN is a political institution. Politics, as
is often said, is the art of the possible. There is no need therefore
to succumb to despair or cynicism. We should turn the page and move
on. Thank you.