21 November 2002


Press Release



University Degree Ceremony Address in Netherlands Calls

For Attack on Root Causes, New Vision of International Security

This is the text of a statement by Secretary-General Kofi Annan today upon receiving an honorary degree at Tilburg University in the Netherlands:

I am deeply honoured to receive an honorary degree from this distinguished university, and I congratulate you on your seventy-fifth anniversary as a leading institution of higher learning. 

You are part of a broad and rich tradition in this country, one which I am confident you will further develop and deepen in the years to come.  Ever since the time of Grotius, the people of the Netherlands have made immensely valuable contributions to international law and international order.  There is a thread running through this characteristically Dutch argument in support of a world based on principles of law and order that leads inexorably to the founding of the United Nations.

Few periods in history have brought a greater sense of a seismic shift in the workings of international relations than the present one, in the way in which States and peoples interact with one another.  Globalization, the increasing recognition of the universality of human rights, and the spectre of international terrorism are all part of this shift -– as is the end of the cold war and the emergence of new unions of States, including the European Union.

We need a new vision of global security for this new period in international relations -– a vision that can help bring about a new equilibrium.  This vision must simultaneously respect human rights, confront the asymmetric threat of terrorism, and draw, as never before, upon the resources and legitimacy of multilateral cooperation.

The issues are many and complex.  One significant debate surrounds the competing claims of sovereignty and intervention, and the balance between the rights of States and the rights of individuals -– not least when these appear to compete, or even clash, in dramatic ways.  I had the opportunity to address this question here in the Netherlands in 1999 at the Centenary of the Hague Peace Conference.  My emphasis then was on the need for the international community to unite in defence of universal human rights, making clear that sovereignty must

never be a shield behind which States can commit gross and systematic abuses of human rights.

This question goes to the very heart of the credibility and authority of the international community.  It centres on our collective ability to prevent large-scale losses of innocent civilian life.  After Srebrenica, after Rwanda, after genocide, all of us need to affirm that sovereignty means responsibilities as well as powers; and that among those responsibilities, none is more important than protecting citizens from violence in war. 

I have proposed that we think about two notions of sovereignty:  one for States, another for individuals, and that whenever the two come into conflict, we as an international community think hard about whether –- and how far -- it is right to give primacy to the former over the latter.  Human rights, and the evolving nature of humanitarian law, will be unacceptably limited if the principle of State sovereignty is always allowed to trump the protection of citizens within those States. 

But let us be clear that sovereignty, improperly exercised, is not the only barrier to the protection of human life.  Lack of political will, national interest narrowly defined, and simple indifference, too often combine to ensure that nothing is done, or that what is done is too little and too late.  We still have a long way to go.

This challenge confronts us all anew in the post-September 11th environment, where an understandable focus on preventing still more terrible terrorist acts has increased concerns about the price we must pay in terms of cherished rights and liberties.  We face a nearly unsolvable conflict between two imperatives of modern life -- protecting the traditional civil liberties of our citizens and, at the same time, ensuring their safety from terrorist attacks with catastrophic consequences. 

The attacks that struck the United States on 11 September 2001 shifted the global debate –- and action -– away from military intervention on behalf of others, to intervention in self-defence; from a Kosovo-like debate about how far

-– and under what conditions -– the international community would act against a State perceived to be abusing its own citizens in gross and systematic ways, to considering how far -– and under what conditions – individual States, alone and in concert, would act to halt terrorism and root out its cells in dozens of countries.

Terrorism is one of the threats against which States must protect their citizens.  States have not only the right but also the duty to do so.  But States must also take the greatest care to ensure that counter-terrorism measures do not mutate into measures used to cloak, or justify, violations of human rights.  Terrorism has a nasty habit of causing the whole spectrum of opinion in a society to lurch in a repressive direction. 

Even as many are rightly praising the unity and resolve of the international community in this crucial struggle, important and urgent questions are being asked about what might be called the “collateral damage” of the war of terrorism -–

damage to the presumption of innocence, to precious human rights, to the rule of law, and to the very fabric of democratic governance.

Domestically, the danger is that in pursuit of security, we end up sacrificing crucial liberties, thereby weakening our common security, not strengthening it –- and thereby corroding the vessel of democratic government from within.  Whether the question involves the treatment of minorities here in the West, or the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, or the presumption of innocence or the right to due process under the law -- vigilance must be exercised by all thoughtful citizens to ensure that entire groups in our societies are not tarred with one broad brush and punished for the reprehensible behaviour of a few.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides an eloquent framework for the consideration of these vital measures.

Internationally, we are beginning to see the increasing use of what I call the “T-word” –- terrorism –- to demonize political opponents, to throttle freedom of speech and the press, and to delegitimize legitimate political grievances.  We are seeing too many cases where States living in tension with their neighbours make opportunistic use of the fight against terrorism to threaten or justify new military action on long-running disputes. 

Similarly, States fighting various forms of unrest or insurgency are finding it tempting to abandon the slow, difficult, but sometimes necessary processes of political negotiation, for the deceptively easy option of military action.

Just as terrorism must never be excused, so must genuine grievances never be ignored.  True, it tarnishes a cause when a few wicked men commit murder in its name.  But it does not make it any less urgent that the cause be addressed, the grievance heard, the wrong put right.  Otherwise, we risk losing the contest for the hearts and minds of much of mankind. 

We must act with determination to address, indeed solve, the political disputes and long-standing conflicts which underlie, fuel, and generate support for terrorism.  To do so is not to reward terrorism or its perpetrators; it is to diminish their ability to find refuge or recruits, in any cause, any country.  Only then can we truly know that the war on terrorism has been won -– and the world made a safer, better, more just place.

I am not arguing -– and let me underline this –- that we do not face a grave threat from international terrorism.  We certainly do.  Terrorism is a global threat with global effects; its methods are murder and mayhem, but its consequences affect every aspect of the United Nations agenda –- from development to peace to human rights and the rule of law.  No part of the United Nations mission is safe from the effects of terrorism; and no part of the world is immune from this scourge. 

The United Nations has a clear obligation to deal with this global threat.  The United Nations has an indispensable role to play in providing the legal and organizational framework within which the international campaign against terrorism

can unfold.  But our unrelenting position must be that any sacrifice of freedom or the rule of law within States, or any generation of new disputes between States in the name of anti-terrorism, is to hand the terrorists a victory that no act of theirs alone could possibly bring. 

I thank you again for this honour, and commend you for the vital work you do to make the world and more just, a more orderly, and more safe place.

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For information media. Not an official record.