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 cooperation.

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:

· irrelevant or irreplaceable;
· a threat to national sovereignty or the sole source of international legitimacy; and
· merely a tool of the remaining superpower or the only way to restrain it.

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 best.

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.

14 International 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 role.

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 of states.

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 example.

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 national interests.

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 UN's founders.

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 Nations.

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.