New York

23 February 2015

Secretary-General's remarks at Security Council open debate on "Maintaining International Peace and Security: Reflect on History, Reaffirm the Strong Commitment to the Purposes and the Principles of the Charter of the United Nations"

I thank the People’s Republic of China for organizing today’s discussion on reaffirming commitment to the Charter in this year in which the United Nations marks 70 years since its founding.

The 70th anniversary of the United Nations finds an organization with major achievements to its credit, multiple crises on its agenda, and tremendous opportunities ahead.

The United Nations was founded to prevent another world war, and it has succeeded in that. Despite the recurrence of genocide and repeated outbreaks of armed conflict, the past seven decades would surely have been even bloodier without the United Nations.

Peoples’ lives are better in other ways, too.  In most parts of the world, people are living longer, healthier lives.  The empowerment of women, the advance of international law and the spread of democratic governance have helped to improve our collective well-being. 

The world is starkly different than when the Charter’s drafters gathered in San Francisco in 1945.  The membership of the United Nations has nearly quadrupled. New powers have emerged. Globalization, urbanization, migration, demographic shifts, technological advances, climate change and other seismic developments continue to remake our societies and transform international relations.

Yet the aspirations of “we the peoples” enshrined in the Charter remain just as valid, valuable and vital.  The Charter is a living document, not a detailed roadmap.  It is our compass, enshrining principles that have stood the test of time.

At the heart of the Charter is a commitment to the prevention of armed conflict through the peaceful settlement of disputes and the protection of human rights.  Collective security is the core purpose of the Organization.  Unlike in 1945, however, we no longer have a full meeting of minds on what that means.  We need to reflect on what has changed -- and fortify our sense of unity.

Decades of preventive diplomacy, mediation, peacekeeping and peacebuilding – gains and setbacks alike -- have helped us to sharpen our efforts to promote peace and head off brewing crises before they become deadlier and costlier for all concerned.  The primary responsibility for preventing conflict lies with Member States.  The Charter is very clear on this point.  Yet in too many instances, Member States are still falling [short].

Our shared work is based on consent and respect for the sovereign equality of all members of the United Nations, which the Charter recognizes as a basic principle.

Early action to prevent conflict and protect human rights helps to strengthen sovereignty, rather than challenge or restrict it.

We must ask whether, for example, earlier efforts to address human rights violations and political grievances in Syria could have kept the situation from escalating so horrendously.

A major obstacle to United Nations human rights action has been a concern among Member States that such action may harm national sovereignty.  In reality, it is serious violations of human rights that weaken sovereignty.

Such abuses kill and displace people, divide communities, undermine economies and destroy cultural heritage.  They silence the government officials, parliamentarians, civil servants, judges and others who lead national institutions that are essential to sovereignty.

The primary goal of UN action on human rights is to support all these actors. Doing so is, most fundamentally, a support to national sovereignty. A conceptual shift in how we understand UN human rights action could have a positive and indeed transformational effect on the role of the Security Council in peace and security.

We must be willing to act before situations deteriorate.  This is both a moral responsibility and critical for the maintenance of international peace and security.  We cannot afford to be indifferent.

Let us also recognize that the exercise of sovereignty brings with it important responsibilities.  Governments earn, sustain and strengthen their sovereignty by being accountable to their people, upholding human rights, ensuring the rule of law and practicing inclusive governance.  Moreover, governing responsibly is not just a domestic challenge; it means recognizing our interconnectedness and being a good regional and global citizen.

On so many issues, from climate change to commerce and communications, from environmental degradation to public health, the distinctions between the national and the international are falling away.

Terrorism and extremism have emerged as serious transnational threats.  At last Thursday’s Washington, D.C. meeting on violent extremism, I highlighted the need to respond decisively, and to combat extremism without multiplying the problem and with full respect for human rights.

Sovereignty remains part of the bedrock of international order.  But in today’s world, the less sovereignty is viewed as a wall or a shield, the better our prospects will be for protecting people and solving our shared problems.

We should use this year’s observance of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations to seriously reflect on our common enterprise -- on peace operations, peacebuilding, women’s empowerment, disaster risk reduction and much else.  We should also seize this year’s opportunities to take transformative action on sustainable development and climate change.

In all these efforts, we should bear in mind that the three opening words of the Charter make clear who is the driving force behind the United Nations: “We the peoples”.  Let us reaffirm our duty to serve those peoples with all our creativity and will.  Let us reaffirm our commitment to each other in the great cause of living together with dignity and peace for all.

Thank you.