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"The United Nations: A Challenge"

Speeches and statements

"The United Nations: A Challenge"

24 October 1952
Address given by Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the occasion of the United Nations Day celebrations in the Assembly Hall, Palais des Nations, Geneva.
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Those who have been to America will tell you that a first visit to the United States is a tremendous adventure of exploration and discovery. The size of the land, the distances, the height of its buildings and the pace of life make such an impression on you that you begin to feel like a grain of sand on the shore. And yet - when the mind has adjusted itself to the pounding rhythm of that land of undaunted energy, ceaseless enterprise and fierce competition, the picture which emerges is surprisingly softened by little humane touches. On your first free day you leave New York in a little train for the country, there to roam the peaceful and friendly villages of Westchester or Long Island. And there suddenly you find along the road signposts the like of which you may never have seen anywhere else in the world. They say "Watch out, Children at play!"

In the midst of this society where life seems to rush to its selfish ends it is refreshing to find the businessman's attention drawn to the young ones who still live in a friendly, peaceful and hospitable world. I have often been tempted to introduce in my speeches to the political committee of the United Nations, the suggestion that signboards should be put up at the entrances leading to the Committee rooms of the Security Council and the General Assembly, saying, "Watch out, children at play!". For it seems to me that there are as many good reasons to remind politicians that the children of this world are absorbed in their games, as there are to warn the drivers of powerful cars. Trains and traffic are not more dangerous to the lives of the little ones than the irresponsibility of some whose task it is to maintain peace. There is no saying what different kind of world ours would be if all the delegations of all the nations were to act and speak in the full consciousness that the fact of a growing generation is in their hands. Many words would remain unspoken, many proposals would be left in their drafting stage, much lack of cooperation would be replaced by genuine attempts to find compromise solutions.

"There is no saying what different kind of world ours would be if all the delegations of all the nations were to act and speak in the full consciousness that the fact of a growing generation is in their hands."

But before you fell tempted to agree too readily, remember your own responsibilities! The delegates in the United Nations speak in your name! Before condemning the lack of cooperation in the United Nations, search your own conscience! The United Nations belongs to you and me, it is our creation, it can be no better than any country of any people forming part of it!

My tutor at the University of Leyden, Cornelis van Vollenhoven, once wrote a little book in which he called on his fellow countrymen to make a great gesture in 1913 to ease the rising international tension. In this booklet he said "No Government can act without the support of a powerful public opinion".

Public opinion is the opinion of men and women, the baker and the butcher, the postman and the student, the farmer and the worker, the professor and the chimney sweep, it is your opinion. No delegate can have a voice more powerful than that of public opinion, the United Nations cannot do more than what is acceptable to the member people.

"Watch out, children at play". Christianity teaches that we must become like children, "for theirs is the Kingdom". We have perhaps been given this teaching because honesty, spontaneity, a sense of what is right and just and a clear mind are the gifts given our children at birth. We have perhaps been given this teaching because our children have not yet been given over to those evils which Sophocles explained in his play "Antigone" when King Kreon of Thebes warns his son Hainon against the corrupting in fluences of wealth and power. He wishes to see his son grow into a man fully conscious that all worldly possessions are only entrusted to man "on loan" and that right greatly exceeds might in moral value. And yet how deeply disappointing is the sequence of the story as the future unfolds itself to us!

The new generation has no good example of its elders before it, and without further thinking follows the disastrous path of its predecessors.

The older generation forgets so lightly that its task in this world is not to govern for its own pleasures and use, but to hand over society, improved by toil and thinking, to the next generation.

It is only when man thinks and acts as one who is part of history and sees himself as he is, a link in the long chain of passing generations, that he can discharge his infinite responsibilities towards a developing world. Such a man who knows that his "present" is the fruit of the past and the germ of the future, will welcome this sign post with "Watch out, children at play!"

The children worry not, their confidence has been given to us without afterthought, and they leave us to our freedom to do with the world what we like - improve it or undo it. The children play, and while they run behind a ball or amuse themselves like geldings in the open field, we, the reigning generation, sit solemnly behind committee tables and talk - we talk about this world which is after all, the world also of our children.

Are we going to make of it a place where it is good to live, where we have peace, which the human heart so ardently desires? Or are we going to fail and thrust the broken pieces at them, wishing them well and leaving it to them to make a better success of it?

Not very long ago, a burgomaster of a small town in my country was asked to take the chair at an official gathering. He thought it wise to refuse because, he said, "It was all so useless, the speakers say things they do not believe, and the audience does not believe the things it hears!"

I am afraid that it is only too true that some official ceremonies are like that. People try to deceive others who refuse to be deceived. I should not be surprised if some people attended the celebrations of the United Nations Day with, in their mental make up, a great deal of sarcasm and pessimism. Yet to them I would like to say "if you cannot believe in ideals, you will not be able to serve these ideals, if you have no genuine desire to reach the height of human endeavour, you will hamper the others in their task and you will render more difficult still Mankind's uneasy pilgrimage".

I, on my part, stand here because I consider it a privilege to give witness of my unfailing belief in the United Nations, because I claim to be an idealist - even if some people consider that word to be a synonym for well-intentioned fool. But the idealists, the believers, have brought mankind nearer to its ultimate destination. They were the people who would agree with the words of one of the great statesmen in the history of my country: "Nul n'est besoin d'espérer pour entreprendre, ni de réussir pour perséverer".

It is much more difficult to be an idealist than a doubter. I know. Every day the great and the little worries of millions of people are brought to my attention. Sometimes I cannot sleep at night because in my mind I can see people die in Korea and hear the thunder of the guns. I know that nothing in this world will ever be perfect and that our United Nations will never be better than we are ourselves. And because of that I know that the United nations will suffer from egoism, weakness, lack of integrity, and lack of honesty, for we too are plagued by egoism, weakness, lack of integrity and lack of honesty.

Let me therefore not pretend that the United Nations has very nearly become the ideal instrument we want it to be, nor that I will be the ultimate answer to the prayer for peace of playing children. But I do insist that it is better to have consultation, discussion and even quarrels at the conference tables than the language of the guns and the ruling of war. And I add that our United Nations with all its shortcomings has done much more than keep the tongues of the delegates wagging! I maintain that hundreds of thousands of men and women and children would have died from starvation and misery but for the work of the United Nations and its specialized agencies. I maintain that the growth of the world towards better social conditions and greater wealth and the chances for peace would have been less without the United Nations (and) I put it to you that we would have less hope and confidence and that there would be less understanding than there is today in this world of ours.

When in 1880 the Finnish Col. Becker, who had found refuge in Paris, wrote his book "I accuse" addressed to the Russian Government, he said: "to understand the present and to avoid surprises in the future, we must study the past". We should not see the events of our time as incidental happenings, but consider them as the visible part of a chain which starts in the distant unknown and ends in the distant infinite. And looking at our time in this way it seems less difficult to discover what remains so easily hidden from the human eye. Take the United Nations. At first sight, its history starts with the League of Nations set up after the first World War at the initiative of Woodrow Wilson who will be so well remembered here in Geneva. And yet Woodrow Wilson could do no more than help in giving shape to an idea which grew during the preceding centuries. The United Nations form a new phase in the eternal struggle of Mankind between Right and Might. I wonder whether this struggle started between Cain and Abel. Probably earlier. And you can follow the pilgrimage of the Human Race tracing a winding path along various mileposts - each being a new development in the relationship between people. Cain did not bring his differences with Abel. But in the next stage we see that the "Pater Familias" has firmly established his position as judge of all differences in the family and his word has all the power of justice and law. But the rule of his law remains within a well-defined and limited circle. Quarrels between families are settled by the use of force. It is only later when families have formed villages, clans and cities that the rule of law replaces the rule of force. But city fights city, village fights village, clan fights clan until - next stage - cantons, départements, dukedoms, provinces have united many cities within one community. But duke continues to fight duke, court against court, and yet the development towards a greater unit can no longer be stopped, and when we reach the next milestone we find that nations have risen within which no show of force is tolerated except the rule of law. Citizens as well as cities, villages and provinces turn to the law court. The small states federate, law replaces force. The big states cover whole continents or great parts of them.

"The United Nations form a new phase in the eternal struggle of Mankind between Right and Might"

Is there any reason to believe the this now is the final development and that the sovereign state is the last milepost Mankind will ever reach in its march from use of force to rule of law?

This cannot be and will not be.

A big idea is growing - and the conception that Right is higher than Might is a big idea. And this growth will continue with you or without you! The only difference is that your help speeds up this growing process and the absence of help retards it - a thought worth considering on United Nations Day. If it is true that the United Nations cannot be better than the people who elect the delegates - and those are all of us - then it is also true that the warmth of our feelings, the strength of our idealism are of tremendous importance to the success of the United Nations. If such is the case we must realize that we have it within our power to hand over to our children a world better than the one we knew, and that we owe this success to our children who have given us their confidence and expect us not to fail them.

"Watch out! Children at play!" the doubter among us, the sceptic, the sanest may perhaps have reasons to think that a notice of this kind might reflect upon the representatives of the nations who in their debates might appear to be "playing". Why deny that in our international relations we very often remain below par, that our exchanges of ideas often resemble duels with words, idle words not followed by deeds? Why deny it? But what can be done about it? Must we turn our backs to the United Nations to discover that the atomic bomb was the only alternative? Or must we ponder over our own shortcomings and seek to know how each of us failed as ambassadors of the United Nations, and be ready to accept to play a bigger part in our attempts to make a better world?

If we fail, be sure that future wars will be followed by yet deeper yearnings for peace, that the more "total" wars will become, the stronger the desire will grow for permanent peace. On the ruins and miseries of material and human destruction new milestones would be built - other United Nations, on and on, until the stage is reached when wars are outlawed for ever and the rule of law be accepted by all nations.

On this 24th October the children are playing. They do not know what we are discussing here, they may at the most have an inkling that we are making their world less secure than certain streets where the hasty drivers are reminded of the world of little mankind.

Yet many benefited by our good intentions. They were brought with their parents by the United Nations to new countries of reception, they received eggs and milk at school from the United Nations, they saw new bridges rise, new waterways be erected, and new factories give work to their parents without knowing that these would never exist without the United Nations.

If the international press devoted as much space to the positive work of the United Nations as to the use made of the right of veto, the world would have a more balanced opinion of success and failure. This does not mean that the children at play today ought to be pleased with things as we have made them! They have the right to expect from us that we leave nothing undone to give them a world in peace, a stable world in which it is good to live.

May I end by reminding you of these words from the great French philosopher Pascal, which seem to be so appropriate to our situation and to the decisions which we have to take: "There is a moment," said Pascal, "when one has to see things as a whole and when one has to hold on very firmly to the idea from which salvation may come". For us idealists who have made our choice, this moment is here and we should not let ourselves be diverted from our ideas, which are rooted in the lessons of history and derive strength from our faith.

Let us then make up our minds to follow this hard road which knows no short cuts, let us be prepared to rise after every fall and to recommence where we have come to fail. The United Nations is a challenge! What we have achieved is of less importance than what we have still to perform. We cannot work for victory without running certain risks - but we know also that these risks cannot be greater than the dangers of war. And each of us must make it his battle, his struggle, his fight for victory, that victory which is the triumph of Right over Might, the final milestone on the long road of Mankind.

"What we have achieved is of less importance than what we have still to perform."

This is the promise I want to exert from each of you, this United Nations Day 1952. When you return to your homes tonight with this promise given to yourselves, you will be faithful to your calling - your calling which is to make a world in which the children can play without care and danger.