22 April 1999


22 April 1999

Press Release


19990422 Louise Fréchette Cites Human Rights, Woman's Rights and Environment as Key Areas of UN Accomplishment

Following is the text of an address delivered today at Headquarters by Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette to the Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) programme:

It is a great pleasure to join you today on this happy occasion. I must admit that I learned only recently about the LEAD programme, and it is a truly brilliant idea. Human resources, more than any other kind, are the key to human progress. So my congratulations go to all of you for being selected. I wish such a programme had existed when I was first starting out in the public service, and that I could have had the good fortune to become part of what I understand is a very lively LEAD community. I hope you will consider me an honorary member.

I am very pleased that LEAD chose to bring you to New York and to acquaint you with the United Nations. It is not only extremists who hold wild misconceptions about our role, and it is not only the general public that lacks basic information. Officials, academics and other supposedly well- informed individuals fall prey to the many myths that are heard about the Organization.

Those myths say that the United Nations is sclerotic, and incapable of change; that we are a "talk shop" and "paper tiger" rolled into one; and that we are just a big bureaucracy, impervious to the forces of the "real world". If this is the image you had of the United Nations when you started this programme -- even in part -- I hope you see it differently now.

The United Nations is not a perfect organization, and does not claim to be. I have little hesitancy in saying that its history has seen all too many sterile debates and missed opportunities. At the same time, the United Nations is continuing to play a central role on many of the issues that dominate the international agenda at the end of the twentieth century. And contrary to

- 2 - Press Release DSG/SM/46 22 April 1999

popular belief, we are not only changing with the times, we are, in many cases, in the forefront of change.

The issue of human rights offers a good example. The international community has come a long way from the day, 50 years ago, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. We have developed legally binding conventions covering all aspects of human rights. We have put in place a range of mechanisms to promote and monitor compliance with those standards: committees to review reports that countries are obligated to file; experts -- our special rapporteurs -- who investigate specific countries or themes; and technical assistance programmes for nations hoping to build human rights institutions. Our human rights programme also has more and more of a field orientation, with a presence extending to more than 20 countries, including situations of internal armed conflict. There is far to go, of course. But human rights have become a global concern in a way unimaginable a few decades ago, when concerns for sovereignty predominated.

A similar transformation has occurred with respect to women's rights and the advancement of women. This issue did not top anyone's priority list when I started my professional life, and I'm not all that old! As a woman delegate at the United Nations in 1972, I was almost a curiosity. The senior ranks of the Secretariat were an exclusively male preserve. Today, several of the best known and most effective heads of United Nations programmes are women. And the role of women is viewed -- quite rightly -- as being the core of any viable plans for economic and social development.

I had a revealing conversation not long ago with Costa Rica's Minister for Women. She recalled that the institutional framework for dealing with women's issues in her country had evolved in tandem with major United Nations conferences on women. At the time of the Mexico conference in 1975, the Government of Costa Rica created a small office to deal with women's issues. Following the conference in Nairobi in 1985, this office grew in importance and influence. Since the Beijing conference four years ago, there is now a full Cabinet Minister responsible for women's affairs. She is in a position to influence her fellow ministers and urge them to incorporate the gender perspective in all that they do. Such gains are by no means isolated. And while women's rights are far from being fully implemented in most parts of the world, very few governments any longer contest them in principle.

The environment is a third realm in which the United Nations can claim to have been in the vanguard. The Stockholm Conference of 1972 signalled the arrival of the environment -- the quintessential global issue -- as a subject of international debate and cooperation. It led directly to the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. In the space of those 20 years, United Nations understanding of the environment evolved dramatically, from a narrow, piece-by-piece focus, to a more holistic approach, uniting environment and development, ecology and economy into the conceptual breakthrough of sustainable development.

- 3 - Press Release DSG/SM/46 22 April 1999

Such changes -- whether in our thinking or on the ground, in peoples' lives -- do not happen by themselves. They happen because many, many individuals care enough about an issue to invest their time, their energy and their creativity. Whatever progress humanity manages to make in resolving problems, in making life on this earth a little bit better or more just, is always the result of a multitude of initiatives -- often modest in and of themselves but which, combined with others, end up making an enormous difference.

Influencing the course of events at the international level may seem a domain reserved for senior officials in governments or international organizations. And indeed, governmental leaders like President Nelson Mandela or Mrs. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Prime Minister of Norway and now head of the World Health Organization, have left an indelible mark on international affairs.

The United Nations has its own gallery of heroes, individuals who had a tremendous impact. People like Jim Grant, the former head of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), whose commitment to the cause of children was an inspiration to us all. Or Jonathan Mann, the architect of the global fight against AIDS as an issue of both health and human rights. Or Mahbub ul-Haq, who shed new light on development issues by creating the human development index, a measure of progress that goes beyond cruder yardsticks such as gross domestic product.

But you do not have to be a head of State or a senior United Nations official to make a difference. Far from it. Think of Jodi Williams, who led the international campaign for a treaty to ban anti-personnel mines. She and her colleagues -- 1,000 non-governmental organizations linked together by emotion and e-mail -- started with enormous odds against them, yet achieved their goal in record time. Think of Rachel Carson, who was a biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service when she wrote her classic book, Silent Spring. Or Chico Mendes, who gave his life for the cause of the world's tropical forests. Or Stephen Schmidheiny, who founded the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and has been a leader in getting business and industry to "go green" and do their part for conservation and environmental protection.

And then of course there are the many -- the thousands -- who made a difference but whose names will not make it into any history book or newspaper. All of these individuals, renowned or anonymous, had one thing in common: a real passion and interest for a subject or a theme. They changed lives by believing that something was possible, and then pursuing that goal with faith, conviction, and enthusiasm. They were not cynics. Leadership certainly calls for some degree of healthy scepticism. But outright cynics rarely have the capacity to inspire others -- and that is the essence of leadership.

- 4 - Press Release DSG/SM/46 22 April 1999

And now a final word: be prudent, but only in moderation. When I look back at my career, my only regret is that I was too timid, never too bold. All too often, passion and a zeal for change are met with a barrage of resistance. There are words in every language for "The roof will cave in!" More often than not, the roof does not cave in and the edifice might actually be strengthened. Most of all, the people of the world, whom you are privileged to serve, will thank you for your courage.

Good luck to you all and I look forward to seeing you back at United Nations Headquarters soon. Thank you.

* *** *

For information media. Not an official record.