2017 Leadership Summit of the United Nations Association of the United States of America
12 June 2017
Teta Banks, National Chair of the United Nations Association – USA
Chris Whatley, Executive Director of the United Nations Association of the United States of America
Ladies and Gentlemen
It is great pleasure to be with you all today here in Washington. Thank you for inviting me to make this keynote address.
And thank you, from the outset, to the United Nations Association of the United States of America for its abiding commitment to the United Nations. Never underestimate the importance of your work in promoting better understanding of the role of the United Nations in the stewardship of our most beautiful though often troubled planet.
I would also like to take this moment to acknowledge the leadership the United States has long-played in building and shaping the international organisation I am representing today. You all know that the United Nations rose from the ashes of World War Two. I am a child of that dreadful war and coming from the South Pacific, I have never forgotten the debt I owe to the American servicemen and women who risked and gave their lives for my freedom. Home of the brave and land of the free.
From humanity’s deeply wounded psyche, out of the vast devastation of that war, emerge the opening lines of the Charter of the United Nations:
“We the Peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”
And of course it goes on from there to describe the kind of world that those who have lived through that scourge, that untold sorrow, wish for their children and those that come after them: a world of justice in which we all respect our obligations arising from international treaties and international law; a world in which we practise tolerance and live together in peace; in which we employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples.
I started working in the field of rural development in my home country, Fiji, in 1972. In the decades of public service that have ensued, like most I’ve had my share of doubts, cynicism and set-backs, and like most I’ve experienced those wonderful moments of inspiration and fulfilment. The passing parade never ending, great and lesser leaders making their entrances and exits, governments come, governments gone, times of peace, times when local and regional wars raised their ugliness again.
But in all that time, one institution stood constant, an institution bound by its founding document to defend the best of humanity; an institution embodying the logic for the survival of “We the Peoples” in our diverse and at times bewildering community of nations on this one blue planet spinning in the black void of space. The United Nations exists for the good of all.
Whatever special interests might say to the contrary, the good of all most surely includes the United States of America. Having served in the trenches and of late in the command posts of multilateralism, I make that assertion with complete and utter conviction. A world without a strongly functioning United Nations, overseeing progress towards the better world envisaged by the UN Charter, would soon decline into the dystopias of the first half of the twentieth century. And that would be a betrayal of everything our fathers and mothers suffered for in the World War Two. They prevailed over darkness, our task is to hold high the flame of freedom in these stormy times.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The United Nations Association of the United States of America has a proud history of protecting that flame. I know that you are championing the cause and that you are serving as faithful advocates of the fundamental truth that the United Nations represents great value for the United States.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is true the record of the United Nations reveals mixed results in maintaining peace and security. But as Secretary-General Hammarskold famously said, “the United Nations was not created to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell.”
For all the reports of deadlocks, missteps and missed opportunities that at times dominate coverage and public discourse around the UN, the balance of good done by our organization far outweighs the negative.
Each year, the United Nations feeds around 80 million people in 80 countries – facing down famine and extreme poverty.
We keep the peace in places plagued by forces in favour of war. 117,000 UN peacekeepers are deployed to 16 Security Council-sanctioned operations across four continents of our world.
We supply vaccines to 45 percent of the world’s children, and help more than 1 million women each month to overcome pregnancy risks.
We work to coordinate humanitarian aid, peacefully resolve conflicts, counter nuclear proliferation, support free elections, protect human rights, alleviate poverty, address global inequality, and combat the existential threat posed to our planet and species by climate change.
We have adopted and are now working to support the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, humanity’s universally adopted plan to give our species a sustainable place on Planet Earth.
Each of these interventions serve all of our interests, by addressing situations of instability and preventing the breakdown of societies that open the door to radicalisation and conflict.
In our interconnected and rapidly-changing world, the scale, cost and complexity of the global challenges we face simply cannot be solved alone. The rise of non-State actors, and the spread of terrorism and violent extremism leave no nation immune to global security threats.
Desperate families and individuals fleeing life-threatening conflict, famine, poverty and climate change have put us into the largest refugee and humanitarian crisis since World War II. Such shifting global dynamics affect us all wherever we live.
Global pandemics such as Ebola and Zika respect no boundaries. Neither do the impacts of pollution, environmental degradation, and extreme weather fuelled by climate change. Every country on earth will ultimately suffer from the damage being done to our global ecosystem, risking the futures of all of our children, grandchildren and those that come thereafter.
In this challenging global environment, the world more than ever needs a strong and robust United Nations.
And it is critical that the United States – as host country to United Nations Headquarters, the world’s largest economy and largest assessed contributor to the UN budget is deeply engaged with the future of our organisation at this time. As a permanent member of the Security Council and a hugely influential member of the United Nations, this engagement is essential to the stability and progress of humankind.
In recent years we have seen the United Nations’ enormous potential for global good fulfilled time and again. One need think only of world leaders coming together at the UN in 2015 to commit to unprecedented collective action to secure humanity’s place on this planet through the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
And just last week, we saw it once again during The Ocean Conference with the adoption by consensus of an ambitious Call for Action to restore the health of life in the Ocean.
The Ocean Conference brought together leaders of Government, science, the private sector, local communities, and civil society to pledge to take comprehensive action to reverse the cycle of decline humanity has inflicted upon the Ocean. It was gratifying to see the major role played by the United States in the success of the conference.
With over 1300 voluntary commitments registered, and unparalleled momentum generated, the measures emanating from the Conference are set to turn the tide on the degradation of biodiversity and marine ecosystems across our world.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The machinery of the United Nations might not be perfect. But it is difficult to imagine effective world governance without it. The United Nations is the prime international body with universal membership and a comprehensive mandate to improve life for all. It is uniquely positioned to shape global norms, coordinate the behaviour of States, and catalyse action on the scale necessary to face up to global challenges.
The new UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has announced plans to revitalise the United Nations’ approach to fulfilling its core mandate, by bringing greater focus to conflict prevention and sustaining peace.
He has commissioned major reviews of the UN’s peace and security architecture, and its development system, aimed at ensuring that the organisation is fit-for-purpose.
The Secretary-General’s commitment to reforming the UN and to bringing greater integration, coherence, efficiency and effectiveness to its work is central to his mandate. We are reshaping the organisation to create a United Nations best equipped for the future – one that combines principles with pragmatism, discourse with results; one that leverages the opportunities of technology and innovation to build a stable and sustainable world.
It is hardly necessary for me to say that it is in the best interests of both the United States and the United Nations, for the US to be fully engaged in the reform process. There can be little logical doubt, that sustained commitment and investment in the United Nations is smart for the US.
The US General Accounting Office has determined that deploying UN peacekeepers is only one-eighth of the cost of sending US troops to the world’s trouble spots; while independent studies such as RAND Corporation show that deploying UN peacekeepers is far cheaper and more cost-effective than any other actors.
With the total amount of the US contribution to the UN representing only 0.2 percent of the US’s annual budget, the impact and influence that comes from this investment cannot be overstated.
I was delighted to see that a poll conducted by a bipartisan research team in January revealed an overwhelming majority of US citizens – some 88 percent in fact – believe that it is important for the US to maintain an active role in the work of the United Nations.
Indeed, as we saw at The Ocean Conference last week, US officials, scientists, philanthropists, academics, and civil society representatives were major contributors guiding the discourse and ensuring the success of the conference.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In our intimately interconnected world where political, social, economic, and environmental actions have repercussions extending far beyond national borders, the United Nations represents our best option for the securing of stability, progress and balance on Planet Earth.
With the great diversity of leadership responsibilities involved, the work of the United Nations proceeds in tandem with that of the United States. Thus the strong partnership between the US and the UN has proved to be an essential element in the management of global affairs.
It is vital therefore to our communal well-being that an engaged US continue to support the activities and ethos of the United Nations to prevent and end wars; to stem refugee flows; to establish conditions that make it possible for displaced people to return home; to help countries develop sustainably, so their people are not drawn to migrate; and to protect religious and other minorities so they are not forced to flee. In all these things it is as much in the US’s interests as it is to the rest of the world that the United Nations is robust and best-equipped to carry out what is required for the common good.
I thank you for your attention.