Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

"Does the United Nations deserve our trust?" - Transcript of oral statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Institut universitaire de hautes études internationales, Geneva, 14 December 1970

Speeches and statements

"Does the United Nations deserve our trust?" - Transcript of oral statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Institut universitaire de hautes études internationales, Geneva, 14 December 1970

14 December 1970

A great many statements have been made about the United Nations today as compared with the ideal concept in the minds of those who brought about its establishment twenty-five years ago, and a certain saturation point has now probably been reached. It seems inevitable that the United Nations should reflect the sick world in which we live. However, I have accepted to speak on this subject and will do so quite frankly. I have just returned from New York where the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Organization was being celebrated, but the anniversary has come and gone. Many speeches have been made but nothing has changes fundamentally. Words seem to have lost their meaning, so have United Nations resolutions, and there is what might be called a credibility gap. Once again the United Nations is being used as a scapegoat, especially in the apocalyptic atmosphere which prevailed in New York during the General Assembly. Many people are wondering therefore whether they can place their trust in the United Nations.

But what exactly is meant by the United Nations? The Secretary-General and his staff, the Security Council and the peacekeeping machinery, the General Assembly, the International Court of Justice or the whole apparatus, which concerns itself also with economic and social development and human rights? There is a need for definition if criticism is to be constructive.

It seems clear that the United Nations ha not lived up to expectations and this prompts us to seek reasons for the present crisis and to determine where the responsibility lies. We no doubt live in a world divided between the great powers. In a world which is reverting to power politics, bilateralism, isolationism and nationalism - which seems paradoxical at a time when the international community comprises more member states than ever before and when communications media, both physical and intellectual, have reached a degree never equalled before. Another paradox in today's world of increasing inter-dependance is that major military conflicts are dealt with outside the United Nations context, partly because of the lack of universality of United Nations membership - i.e. because these conflicts involve states which have not been admitted as members of the organization - partly, also, because in any case the United Nations peace-keeping machine is not in a strong enough position to deal with them. All of these factors spring from a basic common source which is the inability of governments to give up even a small part of their national sovereignty and their tendency to concentrate on their own problems and maintain a short-sighted view by ignoring the general interest of the community of nations which is also in their own best interest. And indeed, the world is not only divided between men of different ideologies, between rich and poor, and the corresponding racial blueprint, between East and West or North and South, between the old and the young, it is essentially divided between on the one hand men motivated by blind self-interest that can only lead to destruction, and those, on the other hand, who are aware of the need, now more than ever before, to bear in mind and pursue those objectives that are in the overall interest of mankind.

The United Nations no doubt is in the best position to remind the international community - governments and people alike - of this basic fact. It is very difficult however for the organization to achieve rapid breakthrough in areas where states exercise their sovereignty to such an extent that they constitute a monolythic obstacle. The evil consequences of what might be called an abuse of the concept of national sovereignty cannot be under-estimated. Not only are many crimes and other injustices committed daily within national boundaries in the name of this concept but on many occasions it has precipitated military action and affected many countries and peoples as for instance in the Middle East, where the withdrawal of United Nations forces was carried out in the name of national sovereignty and where a latent state of war is maintained daily because the parties concerned have never been prepared to give up, at least some of their national sovereignty in the interest of world peace. There are other examples of this: Vietnam, where United Nations actions for peace is precluded by the involvement of several countries which are not members of the Organizations, and are kept out by the exercise of sovereignty, the Kashmir conflict, where the population concerned did not get an opportunity to choose its destiny, Cyprus, where excessive emphasis on national sovereignty inflamed a situation where tensions might have been appeased from the outset through a more flexible attitude. There are too many examples for me to list them all here.

The inevitable arms race goes on and governments boast of "overkill" at the expense of more productive investments. A third world war would almost unavoidably provoke the destruction of the world in which we live. Is it not symptomatic that the huge resources required for armaments can always be found, whereas the much more modest financing of United Nations peace-keeping forces brought about a financial crisis which has not yet been overcome.

The abuse of the concept of national sovereignty is also proving to be a great handicap to the fulfilment of other major objectives of the United Nations in the economic and social and human rights field. It is certainly slowing down the granting of independence to countries which are still under foreign administration and it is hampering the implementation of the numerous legal instruments adopted in respect of human rights - to which only lip-service is paid by many governments. As some you will have heard, no decision has been taken on the establishment of a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, after another controversial debate which has, if anything, weakened rather than strengthened the cause of human rights in the United Nations. Meanwhile oligarchies remain in power and many governments do not represent their peoples, many of whom continue to be the victims of discrimination and injustice. The question arises as to what should be done in such a situation, since the United Nations must respect the sovereignty of governments. Would revolution be the only way out in such a case? Or could the United Nations do something in order to enable people to obtain recognition of their rights?

National sovereignty, when practiced excessively, also adversely affects development. Experience gained in the economic and social development activities of the United Nations goes to show that the present emphasis on sovereignty through bilateralism should at least partly be given up not only in order to strengthen the multilateral non-political approach to development but also ultimately in the donor countries' best interest - which is, after all, the strongest incentive for any government. To strengthen the United Nations, is to build peace and this is clearly in the interest of all nations. The failure of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development held in New Delhi to achieve the goals which it had set for itself goes to show that far-sighted views in the interest of the world community as a whole are still overshadowed by selfish and short-term national considerations.

If we want to be realistic we must, in he light of the global picture I have just outlined, assess what the United Nations, and in particular the Secretariat, itself can or cannot do to remedy at least some of the shortcomings so that we can determine the extent to which we can place our trust in the Organization.

There are a number of objective where the United Nations cannot achieve instant success such as: universality of membership, immediate peace and security in conflict areas as for example the Middle East, stopping or considerably limiting the arms race, covering its financial deficit, and achieving a solution to the present problem of voting in the organizations' main organs. The reform required to attain these fundamental targets depend on a number of factors which are beyond and outside the scope of the United Nations itself, such as, for example, the world balance of power, the relationship between the super-powers, and other factors of this nature on which the United Nations can have no direct determining influence.

What could be done however is to effect internal reforms in many areas of the United Nations system. At the same time as the standard of representation of governments should be raised, the quality of the United Nations Secretariat should be improved. The age limit might be enforce so as to facilitate the recruitment of younger staff with new ideas, who are in contact with the realities of today's world, and are capable of dynamic initiatives. In order to form a "meritocracy", criteria for the appointment of staff should be their professional qualifications and devotion to the cause and selection should not be overshadowed by geographical distribution. With the above purposes in view the number of non-permanent staff members seconded by governments might be increased. Better arrangements should be made to ensure that staff members can be easily transferred from one agency to another. There would also be room for improvement in the staffing of offices in the field, where resident representatives and experts of much higher calibre must be recruited. In the course of a recent journey to Africa I had occasion to see a considerable number of experts from the Peoples' Republic of China at work on various technical assistance projects benefiting from China's bilateral support. I was impressed by their efficiency and it occurred to me that their methods of work and their way of life among the local population might be of considerable interest United Nations staff.

It would be in the interest of the quality of the work if more use was made of high level scientists and technicians outside the United Nations system. The United Nations could also have recourse to private organizations for the implementation of some of their projects where operational partnerships are needed as has been successfully done by UNICEF and UNHCR. Whereas in the economic and social field the implementation of projects should be decentralized to every possible extent, the policy-making should be strengthened, centralized and unified. The coordination machinery set up under the aegis of the Secretary-General's Administrative Committee on Co-ordination is insufficient for this purpose and cannot always prevent the various United Nations agencies concerned from out-competing each other, the more so because there is no clear-cut dividing line between their respective spheres of activities. The study of the United Nations Development System by Sir Robert Jackson and the follow-up on its recommendations have shown that if reforms are to be effected in basic structures more is needed than recommendations or guidelines from legislative bodies alone, for these often tend to be overshadowed by self-interest and questions of personalities. The Specialized Agencies and Programmes of the United Nations - which could be compared to the technical ministries in a national government - have a great deal of independence which does not always lead to increased productivity. There must be strong leadership from the top and the brains-trust must be imaginative or the ministries will outgrow the Prime Minister. While the United Nations agencies carry out the projects, the decisions on policy and planning should be taken with the help of regional expertise, at the top echelon of the United Nations system. I might add that a considerable lack of coordination also prevails in a number of national governments whose representatives do not always speak with one voice in various United Nations governing bodies. For the United Nations Secretariat, however, this should not be an excuse and coordination should remain a primary duty. Lack of it has given the contributing governments perfectly good arguments to impose a ceiling on the financing of United Nations programmes.

Furthermore United Nations action needs to be intensified in the humanitarian field. Since the Organization is not n a position to play its role fully in respect of the maintenance of peace and security, more should at least be done to provide the necessary assistance to victims of both natural and man-made disasters. This should be done in close partnership with the Red Cross, which has already done so much in this filed and whose most fruitful cooperation with UNICEF and UNHCR should in particular be highlighted.

Another sector where United Nations action needs to be thoroughly reviewed is that of public information. The image of the world organization needs to be revitalized among the public at large and this calls for a complete overhauling of the public information techniques at present used in the United Nations system. It is unfortunate indeed that many of the most productive efforts of the United Nations agencies have remained by and large unknown by sheer lack of adequate mass media.

The unimaginative language used in press releases and the lack of striking power of the visual material tends to discourage the most United Nations minded editor. Public information activities in my opinion should be centralized to a much greater extent and the number of United Nations Information Centres should be greatly reduced. Top level correspondents might be appointed to carry out close public relations liaison for the Secretary-General. Real professionals outside the Office of Public Information could advise on sensitive areas where United Nations news would make the maximum impact and, of course, the fullest use should be made of the most recent systems of telecommunications, including satellites. The views of the International Telecommunications Union on this subject could be sought.

In this field, as in others, the Secretariat should also enlist more support from the private sector and obtain the suggestions and cooperation of high level personalities. Bureaucratic routine is not the way to project a good United Nations image.

It seems to me altogether necessary t rejuvenate the Organization and its activities and to give young people an opportunity to serve a good start was made by the organizing of a World Youth Assembly under the sponsorship of the United Nations early this year. Young people are now also getting more opportunities to participate in the work of the United Nations as volunteers, but this is only a beginning. It is important that the participation of young people be considerably extended, for they constitute the world of tomorrow and represent the living force amongst the peoples referred to in the Preamble of the Charter which starts with the words "We, the peoples of the United Nations, determined etc ... " It is indeed essential to get the fullest participation of the public at large which has always shown itself ready to respond to a worthwhile cause. In this way governments could be influenced and thereby strengthen the role of the Organization particularly in respect of the maintenance of peace and security. A way must be found to prevent the United Nations from becoming part of the establishment.

To sum up, the United Nations should not be viewed as a future world government - this would be utopian - but as an essential instrument of peace and economic and social development in an increasingly interdependent world. The Organization, however, should not be allowed to carry on in the lethargy of its present routine even if some governments find no cause to complain. As United Nations membership grows towards universality - and the day approaches when the Peoples' Republic of China will become a member - stereotype action and clichés will need to be abandoned and replaced by a more dynamic and constructive approach.

The United Nations system has a good framework which must be maintained but which needs to be strengthened and streamlined. The cost involved is not considerable compared with the resulted that could be achieve. To abandon our trust in the United Nations would be to dash the hopes of millions of people who look to the World Organization as their last resort, especially when they have good reasons not to be too happy with their own governments. To relinquish our trust in the United Nations would be to condone international anarchy and abandon all hope for the human race.

Everything must be done to strengthen the United Nations system so we can place even greater trust in its future. In this challenging task, the role of Geneva, as a United Nations centre, which in addition has witnessed the consequences of previous failures of the international concept, is bound to be of continuing major importance.