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Speech by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the annual dinner of the United Nations Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 20 July 1971

Speeches and statements

Speech by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the annual dinner of the United Nations Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 20 July 1971

20 July 1971

Mr. Chairman, My Lord Bishop, Your Excellencies,

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I deem it a privilege and a pleasure to be given this opportunity of addressing the United Nations Association of Great Britain. The positive and constructive role that your Association has long played in support of the United Nations is very well known, not only in the United Kingdom but also abroad. The cooperation which my Office has received from your Association throughout the years has been a source of encouragement for my colleagues in the United Nations and myself. Your Association is one of the few representing a cross-section of British population. I know that this rare and useful asset enables you to reach the public and to build up support for the United Nations. No one today can deny the important influence of the mass media on individual thinking as well as on public policy, and I have no doubt that the United Nations Association of Great Britain will continue to play its part in an increasingly effective manner.

I propose to speak to you this evening about the United Nations, its role, its scope and its limits, in the context of the world of today.

One often hears it said that the United Nations is at the cross-roads. Although it has come a long way during the last 26 years, there is no doubt that in a number of domains, the Organization may well be at cross-roads. And as the credibility gap widens, so the predicament of the United Nations deepens. Taking of cross-roads, I am reminded of the predicament of Alice, when she was in Wonderland and had to choose a path to follow. On her way, Alice met the Cheshire Cat and asked:

- "Cheshire Puss, would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

- "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to", said the Cat.

- "I don't much care where" said Alice.

- "Then it doesn't matter which way you go", said the Cat.

- "So long as I get somewhere", Alice added as an explanation.

- "Oh, you're sure to do that", said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough".

The United Nations Organization not only has to "walk long enough", it must also know where it wants to get to. 'Somewhere' can be anywhere. It is the responsibility of all of us together to chose our path and then to pursue it, long though it may be, with patience and perseverance. We have eyes if we want to see; we have ears if we want to hear and, thorough mass media and thanks to associations such as the UNA, our awareness increases and as it increases, so does our responsibility - our responsibility towards ourselves, - and towards all that surrounds us.

In post-war days, we have grown accustomed to hearing about a divided world. The division between East and West; between North and South' a world divided between the black and the white; the brown and the yellow. Colour dominates conversations, whether it be colour of skin or colour of the younger generation's psychedelic experience. I should tell you that for us in the United Nations the world is of one colour only, and, unfortunately, that colour is grey. Whether this greyness comes from the pollution of the environment with which the United Nations is now dealing, whether it comes from the crisis situation that have become a permanent feature of the United Nations, or whether it comes from the conflict of interests which man has not yet learnt to resolve, the fact is that this greyness hangs heavy on all of us.

The clouds are, however, not always s heavy as not to let in some light. I am thinking of what we have been reading in the press during the last few days. We have been hearing a great deal about people meeting people, about secret pleasures of a secret meeting and about public pleasures of a public meeting yet to take place. I must admit that I am reminded again of Lewis Carrol and his "Through the Looking Glass" so full of delightful adventures of Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps you will remember that Alice had never met a unicorn and when she saw one she said: "Do you know, I always thought unicorns were fabulous monsters? I never saw one alive before!" And the unicorn replied: "Well, now that we have seen each other, of you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you. Is that a bargain?". I believe that any bargain that is based upon mutual good faith is a good bargain and any meeting that enhances the cause of peace and human understanding is a good meeting.

The question before us today is whether man can believe in man, whether out of this belief a better world can be born, whether we can all work together for the cause of peace in good faith and with confidence in the future of mankind. I firmly believe we can, if we wish.

During the last two decades, we have learned about curtains - first, that there was an Iron Curtain, and then that there was a Bamboo Curtain. And as we became increasingly aware that we all lived in glass-houses, our preoccupation with curtains became greater and deeper. What is strange is that we never thought of a Nylon Curtain, nylon represents technological advancement of the West. But as you know, if you look through nylon, the view is somewhat blurred. It is my belief that time may have come for us to do away with blurred views and to do way with curtains - whether they be of iron, of bamboo or of nylon.

It seems to me that a more positive approach to lifting curtains would be to concentrate upon points of convergence rather than to emphasize points of divergence. While great attention is paid to differences between nations and ideologies, very little is said about numerous areas where nations, big and small, co-operate to better the lot of mankind. While political differences continue to exist, states, whether they belong to the East or the West, to the North or the South, continue to meet in the United Nations to collaborate in the economic, social and humanitarian fields. In the field of decolonization, the United Nations has played a constructive role. The value of the United Nations in the field of economic development, and as an efficient channel for multilateral assistance, is becoming increasingly recognized. All nations unite their effort in the United Nations for the codification of international law and norms; whether it be the law of sea or the law of air; the use of sea-bed of the peaceful use of space; whether it be the law of treaties or the norms for the development of friendly relations among nations. The United Nations contribution in the field of science and technology, even though little known to general public, includes widespread action. Unfortunately, when the common man thinks of the United Nations he tends to see it only in the light of its political activities. The dynamic and versatile role that the United Nation plays through its specialized agencies and programmes and through its subsidiary organs is often ignored.

There are still further areas of concern to all mankind where the United Nations serves as the most appropriate forum for discussion and for the search for solutions. One only has to think of immense questions such as disarmament, scientific and technological development, the problems created by the population explosion, and those of the atmosphere and the environment to be convinced of the positive action being taken within the United Nations to make the world a better place in which to live.

Within the context of convergence, there are three main areas of United Nations activity on which I should like to comment briefly. In the first place, there is the political field. It is true that in this field the United Nations has not been able to meet the hopes of the common man. But it should be realized that the United Nations, as conceived in the shadow of a war, was not meant to represent the dialectics of supra-national unification. I remember that long before the United Nations came to being, in the summer of 1941, when the world was still in the throes of World War, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the President of the United States met at sea and agreed upon principles that came to be known as the Atlantic Charter. They declared that "they believed that all nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons must come to the abandonment of the use of force". Unfortunately, might is still right in many areas of the world and recourse is still made to force, although the nations declared at San Francisco their determination to save he succeeding generations from the scourge of war.

The need, now as before, is to influence the minds of men, for it is in the minds of men that peace must be built. The United Nations is an inter-governmental organization that can be no more effective than the sum total of the good will and support of its members. However, the United Nations offers terrain where nations can concert and consult and, although long speeches are made to blow off steam in public, I know of no corridors except those of the United Nations, whether it be in New York or in Geneva, where more compromises are reaches and more conflict of interest avoided.

Secondly, there is the field of economic and social development. Here, the United Nations, in a quiet but solid manner, is carrying out very useful work within the framework of the Economic and Social Council. More than a dozen specialized agencies fulfil functions ranging from meteorology to labour, from education to health, from telecommunications to maritime consultation, from civil aviation to atomic energy, from agriculture to child care.

Thirdly, there is the humanitarian field which is assuming increasingly important role within the United Nations. Greater attention is being paid to the rights of man possibly because they are so frequently threatened. While much has been achieved, much more remains to be done. It is ironic that while the role of the individual in international law and society is becoming more and more evident, the state structure of the body politic still ha the tendency to suffocate the individual and his legitimate hopes and aspirations. In the East, we have a saying: "When the buffaloes fight, the crops suffer".

In the United Nations, the alleviation of human suffering is and should be our principal preoccupation. In this context, the Organization is, at this every moment, facing one of the greatest challenges of its whole history; namely, the situation in India and Pakistan. Although the dangers of the highly explosive situation in that area cannot be underestimated, the stark fact remains that millions of suffering human beings are in need of assistance from the international community. Having been designated by the Secretary-General as focal point for assistance to refugees from East Pakistan, I am closely associated with the efforts of the international community to alleviate human suffering in that area. Although the response to the appeal for assistance has been most encouraging and although my Office within a few months received a hundred million dollars, i.e. some forty million pounds sterling, in cash and kind for this operation, there is need for much more. For this humanitarian work, the United Nations has received the full support of all member states, whatever their ideology or political stand. This is an encouraging example of the world's faith in the work of the United Nations. Similarly, I am heartened to note that within the United Nations system, interagency cooperation is taking place in a most efficient and effective manner. The help and support of my colleagues, heads of other United Nations agencies, and particularly WHO, UNICEF, FAO and WFP remain for me a source of encouragement. Soon after the Secretary-General designated the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as the Focal Point of humanitarian assistance from and through the UN system, a coordinating mechanism was set up so that the United Nations agencies and programmes can ensure that there is not duplication or overlapping in the relief work. An Inter-Agency Consultation Unit where all agencies directly involved are represented, holds regular weekly meetings at Geneva. This Unit's function is to mobilize and secure international support and contributions; to arrange for the procurement of relief supplies in a coordinated manner and to maintain close liaison with the Government of India. I am pleased to say that the present coordination effort within the United Nations system is yielding real and positive results. Indeed, it is the first time that the joint efforts in United Nations agencies have shown in such clear and convincing manner that the United Nations system possesses the necessary mechanism to meet emergencies however gigantic in magnitude and can rise to the occasion with the support of the international community.

I should stress here that although the situation in the sub-continent remains highly explosive in the political field, the efforts of the United Nations in the humanitarian field are a matter of gratification for all concerned. The confidence of governments in this effort is amply demonstrated by their generous contributions and support of the Focal Point. It seems very important to met that the humanitarian role of the United Nations is kept separate and distinct from the political role. Great care should be taken that the efforts of the United Nations system to alleviate human suffering are not endangered or jeopardized by political considerations.

Britain which has a special knowledge of the area and has historical ties with the sub-continent, has a particularly important role to play. As you know, the British Government has already pledged over two million pounds to the Focal Point for relief and assistance work in favour of East Pakistani refugees in India. The efforts of the British voluntary agencies also deserve special mention. They have, as always, spared no efforts to mobilize support and raise funds for helping refugees in all fields of emergency relief assistance.

I would like to point out, that in spite of all the positive things I have said this evening, I would not like to appear utopian with regard to the United Nations. More than idealistic ideas, there is need, I am convinced, for total and absolute realism. There is a lot of room for improvement within the United Nations and member states work hard so that these improvements take place if they want the United Nations to be effective. There is, in the first place, need for people of extreme diplomatic skill who can serve as go-betweens, as intermediaries of good will who have the confidence of parties concerned and who can prepare, with patience and perseverance, the common ground for constructive negotiations. Secondly, there is need for stream-lining of the Secretariat so that more efficiency and expert knowledge of various areas of activity, even from outside, is injected into the United Nations. Thus, the United Nations should make greater use of expert knowledge in the economic, social and political fields. The Organization should employ from private or public sectors men with financial expertise, with professional knowledge and experience of mass media techniques and with special scientific knowledge of various technical fields. International civil servants should represent elite - not mediocrity. This is of utmost importance and urgency if the United Nations if to avoid the blame for being a huge bureaucracy resembling a big machine of which every part moves but the machine itself does not. Further there is need for improving internal coordination within the system in order the ensure rapid action and quick results. Similarly, governments must associate themselves in their own planning more closely with the efforts of the United Nations channel and be prepared to accept the findings of the world bodies at least in the technical fields. More than all this, it is important that public opinion be more closely involved. While more information should be fed into the United Nations by governments. Indeed, it is only on accurate information that well-balanced action can be based.

Permit me to emphasize in conclusion that although I should like to appear a realist, it should to be forgotten that realism does not exclude optimism. For demonstrating this, I should like to take you back to some ancient Chinese philosophy of which I happen to be very fond. The Taoists of yore saw the world as a circle which is always in a state of flux and is divided into two opposing forces, the Yin and the Yang, while opposing each other, do not divide the world into warring forces but unite it. And in the Taoist circle-symbol. Yin and Yang, although opposed, mean completion in the sense that a coin must have two sides to be a coin; that there is no right without left and no heaven without earth.