Introduction to the Book Launch

The United Nations and Its Future in the 21st Century

Friends House, London, 19 July 2005

Vijay Mehta


To celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the UN, Action for UN Renewal published the Erskine Childers lectures in a book form called ‘The United Nations and Its Future in the 21st Century.’ The sixtieth year of its creation presents a historic opportunity to assess aspects of the Organisation’s history and what might lie ahead.

The United Nations is at once the symbol of humanity’s collective aspirations for a better life in a safer world for all, and a forum for negotiating the terms of converting these collective aspirations into a common program of action. Realising these goals is ever more significant at a time when the UN is facing pressures to reorganise itself.

Action for UN Renewal hosts two very important events annually. These are the lobby of Parliament and the Erskine Childer’s lecture.

The lobby of Parliament, which is jointly organised with UNA-UK is the largest annual parliamentary lobby on the UN in the UK which deals with the important issues of the world agenda.

The other event is the annual Erskine Childers lectures which is given in honour of the UN ‘freethinker, critic and constructive analyst’, Erskine Childers. The eight lectures in the book have been given by Razali Ismail, Patricia McKenna, Rosalyn Higgins, Margaret Anstee, Paul Rogers, Denis Halliday, Caroline Lucas, and Jenny Tonge. Contributions were also made by Jayantha Dhanapala (Foreward), Richard Jolly (biography, Erskine Childers) and Ramesh Thakur (the United Nations at the Crossroad of Ideals and Reality).

All of the contributors are prominent academics, diplomats, politicians and UN professionals. They cover a wide range of global issues and suggest possible reforms for the United Nations for its effective working and continued primacy in international peace and security in the 21st century. The contributors emphasise that the UN is the only body through which respect for the rule of law and adherence to multilateral treaties can be achieved.

The United Nations is still the symbol of our dreams for a better world, where weakness can be compensated by justice and fairness, and the law of the jungle replaced by the rule of law, although the lion in the jungle may prefer otherwise. This was reminded by Rosalyn Higgins, in the third Erskine Childers Lecture in 1999, of the World Court’s role in keeping international peace and security. Three years later, Denis Halliday returned to the theme of a single standard of international law.

The challenge posed to the international organisation by the unilateralist impulse in Washington is discussed by Caroline Lucas in the 2003 Erskine Childers Lecture. Also Margaret Joan Anstee points out a major difficulty in operating in a world with only one superpower. The US acts unilaterally, rewrites the rules of international conduct and only goes to the UN when certain of victory. The UN will lose credibility, its very raison d’être, if it compromises core values. The United Nations is the repository of international idealism, and Utopia is fundamental to its identity. Even the sense of disenchantment and disillusionment on the part of some cannot be understood other than against this background.

Dr Jenny Tonge commented in her 2004 lecture that we live in a time when multilateralism is under unprecedented challenge, from arms control to climate change, international criminal justice and the use of military force overseas. At such a time, it becomes especially important to reaffirm, as Paul Rogers did in his 2001 lecture, the role of the United Nations as the principal embodiment of the principle of multilateralism, and the main forum for its pursuit. As Razali Ismail noted in his 1997 lecture, the causes and consequences of public policy challenges and decisions are international, but the authority for addressing them is still vested in states. The UN’s mandates are global, while its staffing and financial resources are less than that of major municipal authorities. Hence the dilemma confronting the United Nations of doing too little and too late, or being over-committed and over-stretched.

This years lecture was presented by Sam Daws (newly appointed executive director, UNA-UK) on the recently published UN Report ‘In Larger Freedom’ which has been produced for the forthcoming meeting of the Head of States in September this year. The Secretary-General’s report proposes an important global agenda to be taken up, and acted upon, at the summit in New York.

The publication of this book is well-timed as the UN is going through a crucial period of self examination and needs reforming to make itself more relevant to the challenges of the 21st century. The book includes important UN documents and the recommendations of the UN High Level Panel Report on Threats, Challenges and Change in relation to poverty, environmental degradation, terrorism, civil war, conflict between states, weapons of mass destruction, and organised crime.

After the failure to secure a second UN Security Council resolution authorising war agaist Iraq, the US-led intervention seriously undermined international law and thus sidelined the United Nations. In his address to the General Assembly in September 2003, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned Member States that the United Nations had reached a fork in the road. It could rise to the challenge of meeting new threats or it could risk erosion in the face of mounting discord between States and unilateral action by them.

To bring back the legitimacy of the UN, the Secretary-General set out a programme of development and radical reforms which culminated in three very relevant publications. These are: 1) The High-level Panel Report on Threats, Challenges and Change; 2) Investing in Development 3) In Larger Freedom: Towards, Security, Development and Human Rights for All.

Part of the radical reforms are focused on international peace and security, including terrorism. The barbaric attacks which took place in London and other parts of the world demonstrate its global reach. The question is how can we deal with the extremist and isolated elements of society who feel disengaged and become committed terrorists? The UN report deals with this aspect when it says all the challenges, including terrorism, poverty reduction, and the protection of human rights are interconnected. One cannot enjoy security without development, and one cannot enjoy either without the respect for human rights. This was the underlying message of the UN report, ‘In Larger Freedom.’ More then ever before, we need a collective and multilateral approach to address the modern challenges of terrorism, security and development.

Like many of you here, I believe passionately about the United Nations and its force for good. The criticism it has faced over the years resolved me to spread the positive news of the UN which is difficult to filter. Once I took the responsibility of being the editor of the book, I had not realised how onerous the task was and it took the best part of my year. It would not have been completed without the invaluable help of Mary and Douglas Holdstock who secured the license to publish the lectures, produced the index and gave advice on other matters. We are also grateful to Spokesman for publishing the book, especially Tony Simpson for his patience in dealing with our endless email correspondence and rising to the occasion by publishing the book before the 2005 Erskine Childers lecture. Abdul Muhib for spending many hours in researching the book. And last, but not least, the Institute for Law and Peace (INLAP) and Ted Dunn for providing financial contribution towards the book.

The book has been well received from the amount of orders and publicity it has received since its publication. One instance is noteworthy. People from all around the world who have been to the United Nations building in New York know about the UN bookshop in the basement which stocks all the latest books and literature on the UN. You will be pleased to know that out of the 10 books which they received, they have sold all and ordered more copies. Their sales and marketing department are enthusiastic about promoting the book in the US and we are awaiting to hear from them.

This year is a ‘make or break’ year for the United Nations reforms, especially regarding the enlargement of the Security Council and the completion of the MDGs. Let me finish by quoting the words of Kofi Annan in a recent address in St Paul’s Cathedral (London) where he asked the leaders of the world to lend their support for the historic summit in September in New York:

We have a once-in-a-generation chance to bring about historic, fundamental change. But it will depend on the will of Governments, and on the commitment of groups and individual such as you.

So between now and September, please keep making you voices heard loud and clear enough to lift the sky. And keep raising your voices after that, to hold Governments to their promises, and to help translate these promises into action.

Let history not say about our age that we were those who were rich in means but poor in will.

When historians write about our age, let them say we were the ones who made the United Nations more accountable, democratic, and transparent to meet the threats and challenges of the 21st century.

With these words, I commend you all the book and your continued support for the invaluable work of the UN, Action for UN Renewal and UNA-UK.

Thank you very much for listening.

Vijay Mehta

Vice chairman, Action for UN Renewal

3 Whitehall Court,