10 January 1996


10 January 1996

Press Release


19960110 ADVANCE TEXT Following is the text of the address of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to a meeting commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the first session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, held in Central Hall, Westminster, London:

On 10 January 1946, the General Assembly of the United Nations -- the "town meeting of the world" -- met for the first time in this Hall. It was a truly historic act, the culmination of several years' hard work and the product of a united political will.

It was the first session of the first of the six principal organs of the United Nations. Agendas and programmes of work were established. Officers, including the first Secretary-General, were appointed. The first elections to the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council were held. A budget was adopted. The work of the United Nations had begun.

Fifty-one united nations were represented. Paul-Henri Spaak of Belgium, a former Prime Minister, was elected President of the Council. Clement Attlee, Britain's newly elected Prime Minister, opened the meeting.

Crucial were the efforts of officials who worked behind the scenes to develop procedures and practices. I must single out Gladwyn Jebb. He and his team formed the provisional Secretariat of the United Nations. They put down the foundations of the international civil service.

We honour the pioneering efforts of those who made history here on this day 50 years ago.

Tonight, I should like to look back to that first meeting of the United Nations system, to examine the lessons for us today.

In his opening address to the delegates here in 1946, Prime Minister Attlee stated that "the United Nations Charter does not deal only with governments and States, but with the simple, elemental needs of human beings, whatever be their race, their colour, or their creed".

But this was not a vague or utopian project. It was, first and foremost, a project to prevent further conflagrations like the First and Second World Wars. Where aggression did break out, it was to be met with a decisive, united response. Like-minded, peace-loving States would work together through the United Nations organization. This would be multilateralism at work.

Secondly, it was to be an attack on the underlying causes of war; it was to be a comprehensive project.

Today, if that meeting 50 year ago could be miraculously re-convened with us tonight, what sort of report on progress would we present to them? What would we have to say of our achievements, our setback, and our future?

I believe that we can report that multilateralism is alive and well. Very recently, Member States have re-affirmed their faith in the United Nations and its Charter. Multilateralism through the United Nations received a resounding endorsement at the special commemorative session of the General Assembly, held last October in New York to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary. Heads of States called for the United Nations to be improved and strengthened as an instrument of international cooperation.

The need for a comprehensive approach has also been reaffirmed in the past year. At the World Summit for Social Development, held last March, 117 heads of States and government shared the conviction that "social development and social justice are indispensable for the achievement and maintenance of peace and security within and among our nations".

The United Nations project has advanced immeasurably. A great deal has been achieved. This great and historically unique experiment is succeeding. No State has repudiated, or seeks to repudiate, the notion that there are certain issues and questions best settled by States acting together.

One hundred and eighty-five Member States -- representing the vast majority of the world's population -- belong to the United Nations. The League of Nations was riven by the division of Europe into pro-and anti-Axis powers. It was never universal. Major powers either did not belong, or resigned, or were expelled form, the League. The United Nations, on the other hand, has steadily strengthened and reinforced its own universality -- and, therefore, its authority and its legitimacy as a world forum.

And the United Nations is no longer a front in the cold war. For many years, the use of the veto in the Security Council virtually paralyzed its activities. But since 1992, the major powers have been cooperating in the Council.

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Much has been achieved in the course of the past half-century. The United Nations oversaw, successfully and with relatively little bloodshed, the decolonization agenda. The United Nations has solved disputes, and helped to bring peace, development and democracy, in every continent.

United Nations peace-keeping has had a distinguished record. Recent peace-keeping operations, in such countries as Cambodia, El Salvador, Mozambique, and Angola, have successfully carried out multidimensional mandates.

The protection of human rights has been immeasurably enhanced through the United Nations. The struggle against apartheid, the case for the Palestinians, and the debate about development, have been forcefully articulated, and accepted by the world, in the halls of the United Nations.

Today, we have a working machinery for international cooperation, deliberation, and the solution of differences. A cycle of global conferences is establishing approaches to the major issues of our time: the environment and sustainable development, social development, human rights, population, women's rights, housing, international crime, and other issues.

Those are great achievements. But today there are grave problems. The United Nations is weakened by its Member States' apparent inability to follow through their own decisions. On the one hand, there is a clear commitment from Member States; on the other, there is a failure to provide the means to make those commitments real.

For example, I have had great difficulty in obtaining military, police, and civilian personnel for peace-keeping operations, despite resolutions of the Security Council.

The failure to mobilize and use collective force effectively has caused grave setbacks in Somalia, in Rwanda, and in the former Yugoslavia. The Organization has shown that it has limited capacity to manage large-scale operational -- especially those established under Chapter VII of the Charter, with a potential enforcement role. Experience in the former Yugoslavia has shown the difficulty of coordinating the operations of military personnel and civilian personnel with different mandates and different chains of command.

The Organization is affected by a serious financial crisis. It is undermining its effectiveness. Many Member States are not paying their assessed contributions in full or on time, despite their Treaty obligations. The Organization has no reserves, and cannot borrow. This lack of funds is being felt now, throughout the Organization. It is sapping the morale of its more precious asset, its staff.

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For all these reasons, I felt impelled to tell the Security Council, in a letter to its President on 18 September, that the United Nations was not in a position to take on responsibility for the implementation of the peace agreement in the former Yugoslavia. I recommended that it should become the responsibility of an ad hoc coalition of Member States, acting as appropriate with regional organizations or arrangements.

The Dayton Accords, and the arrangements for their implementation discussed in London last month and agreed in Paris, have my full support. I would have preferred to recommend that the United Nations should take on the responsibility for the implementation of the accords. But, given the financial and political state of the Organization, I felt that I could not, in all conscience, make such a recommendation.

The balance sheet is clear. There is, on the one side, strong political support for the Charter of the United Nations, for multilateralism, and for the comprehensive approach outlined in the Charter. On the negative side, the effectiveness of the United Nations is being corroded from within, because it is being denied the means to do its job properly.

There is a certain dishonesty here. Those who, by denying funding, make the United Nations ineffective, then say that they are withholding funding because the United Nations is ineffective. There is a need for greater frankness about the current situation.

Obviously, the challenges of today are not as clear-cut, as obvious, as the challenges, like Nazi aggression and militarism, which the world faced 50 years ago. Some threats, like the threat of environmental catastrophe, or the dangers of pandemics like AIDS, or international terrorism or criminal mafias, are global and affect all States. But many other threats, like ethnic cleansing, affect only one State.

The world asked the United Nations to handle these problems, without giving it the means to do so, be they military, political, or financial. A multiplicity of parties on the ground, many of them non-State parties, has made political progress difficult. The distinction between peace-keeping and peace enforcement has become blurred. And there have been divisions among the major powers on the Security Council.

Yet we need to mobilize against the new threats, as we did against the old. We must make genocide and ethnic cleansing as unthinkable tomorrow as Nazi-type State aggression is today. We must apply the will and determination of those early days, with imagination and flexibility, to the problems of the 1990s.

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Today, in this culmination of the anniversary process, we recall the historic day when, in this Hall, the machinery of the United Nations began to turn. As we pay tribute to acts to extraordinary unanimity, creativity and foresight by nations and their leaders: as well reflect on past achievements; consider work in progress; and contemplate tasks still to be performed; so we must resolve to re-kindle the spirit, idealism and political will of those early days in the life of our Organization.

The balance sheet is overwhelming positive. But we must learn from the experience of the first half-century, in order to ensure that, in the changing conditions of our second half-century, our effectiveness is undiminished.

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For information media. Not an official record.