2007/03/15 - Discours d’ouverture de la troisième conférence annuelle du SiMUN
Remarks by Mr. Pierre Buhler, Ambassador of France to Singapore
Opening Ceremony of the « SingaporeModel United Nations »
Third Annual Conference
Lycée Français de Singapour
March 15, 2007
I’m happy to be here, in front of such a numerous gathering, which shows your enthusiasm for the UN. For a diplomat, this is truly heartening.
Since you are well apprised with every twist of the Charter, every nuance of the Chapter VII, with the whereabouts of the UNSC, the UNGA and all the UN’s specialized organizations, since you have been practising it for several weeks, I’ll refrain from trying to teach you anything about the UN. So let me just share with you a few ideas about the meaning of the United Nations today, after over 60 years of existence.
My country, France, holds a permanent seat at the SC and is a staunch supporter of the UN and of multilateralism. So don’t expect me to lash out at this organization. But you must also be aware that this has not always been the case, as de Gaulle, angry at the skirmishes conducted within UN fora against France as a colonial power, was far from enthusiastic about the organization. France even withheld payment of its dues in the early 60’s.
Having said that, to make long developments short, I’ll try to encapsulate my views of the meaning of the UN in four remarks.
The first comes in the form of a question : can we imagine a world without the UN ? The answer is yes, and there is no need to fantasize. Just look back a few decades and you might find such a world depicted at length in your history books. That was not such a long time ago : actually the whole pre-1945 period, replete with wars – 2 WWs, and a number of other wars, quite serious and deadly ones – replete with carnage, territory grabs, tens of millions of casualties…
One can, for sure, argue that wars have gone on unabashedly since 1945 throughout the world – and sometimes very gruesome ones – but in all fairness, they pale in comparison with what had happened before. Sure, this relative calm can be ascribed to other factors than the existence of the UN, such as the balance of power, or the balance of terror. But in contrast with previous centuries or even previous decades, when weaker or smaller nations were gobbled up by mightier and bigger ones, nothing such has occurred since 1945. Right to the contrary, the number of countries has almost quadrupled since the inception of the UN, thanks to decolonization or to the breakup of communist regimes. The only attempt by one country to grab another country –namely the annexation of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990 – was duly sanctioned and the status quo ante reinstated.
Second observation : contrary to a commonly held and erroneous assumption, the UN has little standing of its own and is in no way anything close to a world government. Pastiching the name of a famous toy store, I’d even say “UN R us” : us, i.e. all its members, i.e. all countries of the world. As you know, the UN has no standing forces and whatever power and authority vested in it proceeds from the collective will of these nations. The same holds true for the Secretary General, whose authority is mainly conferred upon him in order to carry out decisions made by nations or policies approved by them, be it within the UNSC or within other UN bodies.
Therefore, when nations are able to reach agreement, the UN works and it even works well. When they clash, when they are divided, as was the case during the run up towards the Iraq war in 2003, the UN is sidelined. And the arguments you may hear in some quarters about the inefficiency of the UN need to be taken for what they are : not serious political analysis, but scrambling by national politicians to find a scapegoat, to blame someone else for their failure to build a broad consensus on this or that issue.
Third observation : true, UN-bashers have it right (sometimes…). The system put in place in 1945 is far from perfect, despite many improvements.
One of the most common shots fired at it is that it reflects the world order of 1945, which has changed significantly in the meantime. This is a very valid point, and for example the composition of the UNSC is clearly outdated, with no seats for big powers such as Japan or Germany, India or Brazil. An expansion of the SC is in order to encompass such big players on the world stage is overdue. But all attempts have so far failed.
The decisions of the UN(SC) depend, for their enforcement, on the goodwill of the nations. Especially if they entail coercion by military means. Therefore they have often been ignored, trampled, violated, cheated. And the paralysis of the SC when the interests of a great power are in play is often bitterly resented by smaller countries. A number of conflicts, or threats on the worlds’ peace, have been lingering on since decades, especially in the Middle East.
I don’t even mention the bureaucracy which has been growing and prospering on all the complex issues which have fallen over the years into the hands of the UN, and have bred the usual flaws associated with bureaucracies : overlapping, opacity, dubious dealings such as the handling of the “oil for food” program with Iraq…
Fourth observation : let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
For all its imperfections, the UN represents a huge step forward in the political organization of the world. The principles enshrined in its Charter have in many respects inspired the conduct of nations, have mitigated the most aggressive impulsions of these nations, they have given each country a number of basic rights, at the bedrock of which lies the right to equal sovereignty. The UN has thus given a voice to the voiceless, it has been the cradle of decolonization. And it has also become an incubator for international law, such as several treaties on the law of the sea, the creation of the International Criminal Court or the 1997 Treaty to ban anti-personnel mines, to name just a few. France has called for the UN to take up the huge challenges of ecological threats and has, a few weeks ago, spearheaded a movement to create a UN organization of the environment.
The UN has also succeeded, sometimes in association with other organization, in brokering peace in conflict-ridden areas such as Cambodia or Guatemala, it has stewarded the pacification in the Balkans, and it has currently about 15 peace-keeping or monitoring missions deployed– and badly needed indeed - in troubled areas.
Last but not least, it would be tedious to do an inventory of all the fields where UN agencies operate and are quite often the main operator, hand in hand with the world’s civil society, in the form of NGO’s : it goes from refugees to health, from human rights to disaster relief, form fighting hunger to the protection of the environment… there is barely a field of human activity uncovered by the world organization.
To conclude, let me add that while those who have placed high expectations and idealistic hopes in the UN system have often times hit the hard rocks of reality, they have also learned how to navigate around those rocks and managed to make the world a better place to live in.
In other words, if the UN didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Fortunately, it does exist, but it certainly needs to be constantly reinvented to meet the new challenges of our times. A task which is for the next generation, your generation, to take up. Therefore I can only commend the organizers of this event for this idea, for its impressive implementation and for getting you apprised with the essentials of an organization the world so desperately needs.