15 September 1999


15 September 1999

Press Release



Following is the address of the Secretary-General Kofi Annan entitled "The Meaning of International Community”, as delivered to the fifty-second DPI/NGO Conference in New York on 15 September:

It is a pleasure to see you all here for this annual event. Let me begin with some special words of welcome. First, to Her Majesty Queen Noor al Hussein of Jordan. Second, to the Nobel Peace Laureate Oscar Arias. And finally to all the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), including those in Geneva and San Francisco who are joining us by teleconference, and especially those who have come from long distances, gone to great expense or otherwise made arduous efforts to be here. Welcome once again to the United Nations. I am also happy to see more than 100 Ghanaians, the largest developing-country contingent. I am glad that my compatriots have come in such numbers and are taking this issue so seriously.

A scholar said recently that the growth of NGOs and civil society groups was "as important a development to the latter part of the 20th century" as the rise of the nation State itself had been in earlier centuries. This house is your house, too. We need your contributions and I join you in looking forward to the day when you feel even more at home here at the United Nations.

If the NGO revolution is one phenomenon that defines our times, another, of course, is the subject you will examine over the next few days: globalization. Ours is a world in which no individual, and no country, exists in isolation. All of us live simultaneously in our own communities and in the world at large. Whatever separation there once was between the two realms is shrinking as fast as one can say fax, e- mail or CNN.

We are all consumers in the same global economy. We are all influenced by the same tides of political, social and technological change. The ill winds and fouled waters of the earth's environment likewise show no regard for the niceties of borders. Pollution is our common enemy. Peoples and cultures are increasingly hybrid. The same icons, whether on a movie

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screen or a computer screen, are recognized from Berlin to Bangalore. We are connected, wired, interdependent.

Much of this is nothing new. Humans have interacted across the planet for centuries. What distinguishes globalization in our era is the speed with which it is occurring; the tools that are driving it forward; the rules that exist -- or do not exist -- to manage it; and the actors who will determine its course and our fate.

Globalization has become the essence of modern life. It must become second nature in our thinking. But as we have seen, this is not an easy task. Many experience globalization not as an agent of progress, but as a disruptive force, almost hurricane-like in its ability to destroy lives, jobs and traditions in the blink of an eye. For many there is an urge to resist the process and take refuge in the comforts of the local. Globalization may be exacerbating inequality. It may also be disturbing cultural traditions and increasing our sense of spiritual disorientation.

It gives me no pleasure, I can assure you, to recite this litany, because globalization is undeniably improving standards of living and creating more opportunity. It is making us more familiar with diversity. I believe that on the whole, over the long term, globalization has been positive.

For the moment, however, we are face to face with the need to do better. We need to find more common ground, and act with greater determination to further our shared interests. We need, in a word, to give concrete meaning to a phrase that has become very fashionable, "the international community".

What makes a community? What binds it together? For some it is faith. For others it is the defence of an idea, such as democracy or the fight against poverty. Some communities are homogeneous, others multicultural. Some are as small as schools and villages; others as large as continents. Today, of course, more and more communities are "virtual", discovering and promoting their shared values through the Internet.

What binds us into an international community? In the broadest sense there is a shared vision of a better world for all people, as set out, for example in the United Nations Charter. There is our sense of common vulnerability in the face of climate change and weapons of mass destruction. There is the framework of international law. There is equally our sense of shared opportunity, which is why we build common markets and, yes, institutions -- such as the United Nations. Together, we are stronger.

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Some people say the international community is only a fiction. Others say it is too elastic a concept to have any real meaning. Still others say it is a mere vehicle of convenience, to be trotted out only in emergencies or when a scapegoat for inaction is needed. Some say there are no internationally recognized norms, goals or fears on which to base such a community. Op-ed pages refer routinely to the "so- called" international community. And news reports often put the term in quotation marks, as if it does not yet have the solidity of actual fact.

I believe these sceptics are wrong. The international community does exist. It has an address. It has achievements to its credit. And it is the only way forward.

When governments, urged along by civil society, come together to create the International Criminal Court, that is the international community at work for the rule of law.

When we see an outpouring of international aid to the victims of recent earthquakes in Turkey and Greece -- a great deal of it from those having no apparent link with Turkey and Greece except for a sense of common humanity -- that is the international community following its humanitarian impulse.

When people come together to press governments to relieve the world's poorest countries from crushing debt burdens -- I refer here to the Jubilee 2000 campaign -- that is the international community throwing its weight behind the cause of development.

When the popular conscience, outraged at the carnage caused by landmines, succeeds in banning these deadly weapons, that is the international community at work for collective security.

There are many more examples of the international community at work, from peacekeeping to human rights to disarmament and development. At the same time there are important caveats. The idea of the international community is under perfectly legitimate attack because of its own frequent failings.

The international community did not do enough to prevent the genocide in Rwanda. We may ask whether it has yet done enough to help the people of East Timor, but we all saw what the Security Council did at 2:30 this morning, approving a force to go into East Timor and restore order. Certainly, it has not done enough to help Africa at a time when Africa needs it most and most stands to benefit. The international community allows 3 billion people -- half of all humanity -- in a world of unprecedented wealth, to subsist on $3 or less a day. In short, the international community, today, can be as uncaring as it is high-minded.

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I do not mean to suggest that an era of total harmony is within our reach. Interests and ideas will always clash. But we can improve on our century, and we can do so peacefully, with the resources and institutions we have at our disposal today. Until we summon that political will, and until we show ourselves more ready to define national interest in a way that better responds to global imperatives, the international community will remain, at best, a disappointing "work in progress".

As we become more and more aware of our interdependence, we are rewriting the rules, reframing our debates and reshaping our work. It is at times such as these that people are most ready for new ideas and new policies. The international system for much of our century has been based on division. We must now stitch together the strands of cooperation into a strong fabric of community for the new millennium.

In that spirit let me stress that I have high hopes for next year's events marking the millennium. We will not only be inviting the world's heads of State and government for the Millennium Summit. As you know, before that, in May 2000, we shall hold a Millennium Forum, to gather ideas from non-governmental organizations all over the world.

We are not going to tear up the Charter of the United Nations or write a new one. Nor will we produce a blueprint for utopia. What we can and must do is focus on some of the world's most pressing problems, and set ourselves a precise, achievable programme for dealing with them in a spirit of global solidarity.

I would be extremely disappointed if NGOs did not participate in this process with all their hearts and all their ideas and energies. As the new millennium arrives, you continue to be a crucial presence at the United Nations and a key force in the international community.

Governments need non-governmental partners. The private sector, as vital and dynamic as it is, cannot by itself give global markets a human face or reach the millions on the margins. The United Nations, for its part, is committed to deepening our alliance with you, and today we are launching an enhanced web site for civil society. I am glad to know that you have formed coalitions on the issues of small arms and child soldiers. I urge you to bring these and your other concerns to the Millennium Forum, and to focus your efforts in a way that can duplicate the success of your advocacy against landmines and for the International Criminal Court. Please, for all our sakes -- for the sake of the international community -- keep up the fight.

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For information media. Not an official record.