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Remarks by Kofi Annan

Speaker: Kofi Annan, Secretary-General, United Nations
January 19, 1999
Foreign Affairs

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Note: Remarks as prepared for delivery

Chairman Peterson (Pete),

Mr. Rockefeller (David),

Mr. Gelb (Les),

Secretary Vance, Dr. Kissinger (Henry),

Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you, Pete, for those generous words of introduction. I am delighted to join you tonight to inaugurate the Peter G. Peterson Center for International Studies here at the Council on Foreign Relations. Allow me to begin by paying tribute to everything Pete has done to strengthen your mission. The Council’s work is vital not only to this audience and to your many members. It has far greater implications.

The Council has over time become an indispensable source of reflection and renewal in foreign affairs. It has helped us all to understand better the global challenges that lie ahead; it has advocated the engagement of the United States in international affairs, and always stood fast against the dangers of American isolationism.

This is of particular value to the institution I represent.

The United Nations needs the United States to achieve our goals, and I believe the United States needs the United Nations no less. I also believe that this audience appreciates the importance of this bond, and I hope that together we can ensure an ever closer relationship in the years ahead.

For the United Nations, the challenges that lie ahead are humanity’s challenges—to secure peace, to defeat poverty, to protect human rights, and to widen the circle of freedom so that no one - regardless of colour, nationality or belief - is denied the chance to lead a life of their own choice.

These are challenges with distant prospects and uneven results, fought against imponderable odds, and rewarded only rarely with laurels or lasting progress. They are, however, the challenges we were founded to meet, and as we begin a new century, the United Nations must seek and find new ways to defeat the age-old enemies of peace and prosperity. In fulfilling this task, the Secretary-General himself is accorded a central role - by Charter, by history, and by the trust placed in him by the Member States.

Tonight, I wish, therefore. to reflect with you on the role of the Secretary-General - its promise, its limitations, its responsibilities, and its realities. I do this not out of pride, but out of obligation, not because I wish to add further focus to my own role, but because I believe it is important for our friends and critics alike to judge the United Nations and this office with what Isaiah Berlin called a “sense of reality.”

By this I mean a sense of the history of the United Nations no less than its present state; a sense of what the Secretary-General of a multilateral institution can do to advance peace, and what he cannot do. Above all, this means acknowledging that the Secretary-General’s office will have the potential to achieve the interests of all states only so long as it does not appear to serve the narrow interests of any one state or group of states. This is the precarious balance to which any Secretary-General owes his office, his strength, his effectiveness and his moral authority.

Every Secretary-General before me has had to maintain this balance, through more than fifty years of geo-political change and transformation. Every one of them has sought to fill two roles at once: the role of chief administrative officer of the organization, and the far less defined, and far more contentious role of political instrument of the Security Council. This lack of definition has proved as much an asset as a liability, as much a window of opportunity as a source of frustration. But throughout the history of the United Nations, it has allowed the Secretary-General to assume yet a third role: to be an instrument of the larger interest, beyond national rivalries and regional concerts.

Without a doubt, it is sometimes tempting to give in to one’s feelings of personal outrage at a specific transgression, especially when doing so would win political popularity in some quarters. But it would betray the larger obligation to prevent aggression and preserve the peace. It is a 1uxury I cannot afford. The integrity, impartiality and independence of the office of Secretary-General are too important to be so easily sacrificed.

One of the reasons, perhaps, that past Secretaries-General have been misjudged or misunderstood is that the office is as unique as the institution it leads. With no enforcement capacity and no executive power beyond the Organization, a Secretary-General is armed only with tools of his own making. He is invested only with the power that a united Security Council may wish to bestow, and the moral authority entrusted to him by the Charter.

By what standard, then, does one measure the words or deeds of a Secretary-General? By that of a head of government or a minister of foreign affairs? Surely not, for their duty is prescribed by the interest of their state, and their state alone. By that of a private group or non-governmental organization dedicated to ending land-mines or tending to the wounded in war? No, for they are the servants only of their cause, and not of the 185 Member States that make up the United Nations.

A Secretary-General must be judged by his fidelity to the principles of the Charter, and his advancement of the ideals they embody.

The end of the Cold War ushered in a new era for the United Nations’ work for peace. Suddenly, one could witness a united Security Council speaking with one voice against the crimes of aggressors and violations of the Charter. It also meant that the automatic restraints on where a Secretary-General could go to pursue peace were removed, inviting new responsibilities and greater risks.

It allowed the Secretary-General to place the United Nations at the service of peace in the forgotten corners of the world, whose wars and struggles no longer merited the interest or involvement of great powers. Now more than ever, the tools of quiet diplomacy, discreet negotiation, and third-party mediation could be employed not only to halt wars, but to prevent them.

Above all, the end of the Cold War transformed the moral promise of the role of the Secretary-General. It allowed him to place the United Nations at the service of the universal values of the Charter, without the constraints of ideology or particular interests.

In my two years as Secretary-General, I have sought to pursue this role in two distinct ways.

First, by speaking out in favour of universal human rights and in defense of the victims of aggression or abuse, wherever they may be. For Americans, the Presidency has been seen as a “bully pulpit”, at least since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. I have sought to make the Office of Secretary-General a pulpit, too. I have sought to use it as a vehicle for the promotion of the values of tolerance, democracy, human rights and good governance that I believe are universal.

In Tehran, I have paid tribute to the great faith of Islam, while denouncing the terrorism so unjustly committed in its name. In Harare, I have called on Africans to recognize human rights as their rights as much as anyone else’s. In Shanghai, I have spoken out for freedom as the catalyst for China’s future prosperity. And in the Balkans, have condemned early and repeatedly the crimes committed in Kosovo, calling on every concerned party to apply the lessons of Bosnia.

Second, I have used my office as a bridge between two or more parties, wherever I believed an opportunity for the peaceful resolution of disputes could be found. To do so, I have traveled many miles, and embarked on many missions, confronting not only the doubts of others but my own as well. I have, at times, been as skeptical about a leader’s true intentions as anyone, and I-have entered every war-zone without any illusions about the prospects for peace, or the price of misrule.

But I have persisted, because I must deal with the world, not as I would wish it to be, but as it is. I must confront it with a sense of reality about how far a leader can be pushed by peaceful means, and how long it will take to bring peace to a state of war. Does this make me, or anyone in my position, by definition morally blind? Can a Secretary-General not therefore tell good from evil, or victim from aggressor?

Of course he can, and precisely for that reason he must persist, for it is ultimately the aggressor more often than the victim who will benefit from isolation and abandonment by the international community. Impartiality does not—and must not—mean neutrality in the face of evil; it means strict and unbiased adherence to the principles of the Charter—nothing more, and nothing less.

If I say that I can “do business” with one leader or other, I am not passing moral or any other kind of judgment. Nor am I guaranteeing the future behavior of any leader or state with regard to their relations with the international community. I am simply carrying out the task that I have been given by the United Nations to seek peaceful resolution to a dispute.

When I went to Nigeria, in July, to advance the process of democratization, that great nation was undergoing a dramatic period of change. Uncertainty and unease was everywhere, with few able to discern a way out. The death of General Abacha opened a new chapter, and today General Abubakar appears determined to honour his pledge to allow popular sovereignty. If only as a bridge, my presence may have served to support a democratic transition at a perilous moment, and in so doing will have advanced not only Nigeria’s prospects, but also the aims of the Charter.

When I went to Libya, in December, I went at a critical time to place my service in the cause of securing justice for the victims of Lockerbie. I went also in the hope of closing the widening gap between Africa and the West in their treatment of that country. There, our prospects may be less favorable, and certainly no one can predict the time or content of Libya’s decision. But if my visit speeded up, even by one day, the closing of this tragic chapter, I believe it will have been worth it—to me and to the United Nations.

Of the missions I embarked on last year, none was fraught with as much risk to my office and to the United Nations as Iraq. Confronted with a crisis in the relations between Iraq and the Security Council, I went to Baghdad! in order to break an impasse, and to return UNSCOM to its vital work of disarming Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Briefly, but significantly, Iraq returned to compliance and UNSCOM was able to enter sites to which it had been denied access for over seven years.

I say “briefly” because Iraq subsequently decided to place new obstacles in UNSCOM’s way—a flagrant and deeply troubling violation of both the Memorandum of Understanding that I secured, and Iraq’s long-standing obligations to the Security Council.

Since then, we have gone from crisis to crisis, punctuated by fleeting moments of cooperation between UNSCOM and the Government of Iraq, culminating with the airstrikes of last month. Clearly, we stand at a critical juncture now—between the use of force and the peaceful compliance I have always sought; between securing the disarmament of Iraq and the threat it would otherwise pose to the region; between looking to a future when Iraq’s long-suffering people can live free and unhindered lives, and continued isolation and impoverishment for civilians who bear no responsibility for their country’s calamities.

Friends,

As we meet tonight, members of the Security Council are actively engaged in seeking a way forward, a way that can restore the Council’s unity while maintaining the disarmament of Iraq and alleviating the suffering of the Iraqi people. For those who still remember the days of the Cold War, the unity of the Council in such an important matter will be recognized as a signal accomplishment.

It is also what makes Iraq such a priority for me as Secretary-General. A divided Council can, and has in the past, paralyzed the United Nations. I must and will do all in my power to avoid such a fate, on this or any other matter before us.

Whatever means I have employed in my efforts in dealing with Iraq, my ends have never been in question: Iraq’s full compliance with all relevant Security Council resolutions; the disarmament of Iraq; reintegrating its people into the international community; securing the stability of the Gulf region; and ensuring the effectiveness of the United Nations as a guarantor of international peace and security.

By precedent, by principle, by Charter and by duty I am bound to seek these ends through peaceful diplomacy.

Ultimately, however, the peace we seek, in Iraq, as everywhere, is one that reflects the lessons of our terrible century: that peace is not true or lasting if it is bought at any cost; that only peace with justice can honour the victims of war and violence; and that without democracy, tolerance and human rights for all, no peace is truly safe.

To apply those lessons wherever and whenever possible is a Secretary-General’s highest calling and foremost July—to himself, to his office and to the United Nations. My great predecessor Dag Hammarskjold once said that it “is a question not of a man, but of an institution.” It is, therefore, for the United Nations itself, and the hopes and aspirations that it has embodied for over half a century, that we must succeed.

Thank you.

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