Welcome to the United Nations

Cyril Foster Lecture at Oxford University: "Human Protection and the 21st Century United Nations"

2 Feb 2011
Cyril Foster

Mr. Vice-Chancellor, Excellencies and distinguished guests, Dear faculty members, dear students, Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you, Mr. Vice-Chancellor, for your very kind introduction and for this invitation.

I am honored to have this opportunity after my distinguished predecessors, as fourth United Nations Secretary-General to speak before you in this very esteemed and one of the oldest universities. It is an honor to be part of the Oxford community, if only for a day.

Few universities have produced so much scholarship on the United Nations, or so many dedicated international civil servants. Among those have been the late Marrack Goulding, the legendary Brian Urquhart, Kieran Prendergast and John Holmes, with who I have worked when he served as UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs our Special Envoys Prime Minister Tony Blair and former U.S President Bill Clinton. 

The task of human protection is neither simple nor easy. We don't always succeed. But we must keep trying to make a difference. That is our individual and collective responsibility.

My talk tonight has long been advertised as one devoted to the subject of human protection. And indeed, I will speak to you at length on that very important challenge.

But of course, our attention continues to be riveted on the events unfolding in Egypt. So let me say in just a few words how I assess the situation in Egypt. In fact, this afternoon I had a very good discussion in a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron and again we discussed at length this situation. I have been closely following the reports from Egypt.

The protests reflect the great frustration of the Egyptian people about the lack of change over the past few decades. This discontent calls for bold reforms, not repression.

The United Nations has been warning about the democracy deficit and other challenges in the Arab world through successive Human Development Reports dating back to 2002.

I am concerned at the growing violence in Egypt. I once again urge all sides to exercise restraint. I condemn any attack against peaceful protest. Such acts are unacceptable.

It is important at this important juncture to ensure an orderly and peaceful transition. I urge all parties to engage in such a process without delay, with full respect for human rights, in particular the freedoms of expression, association and information. 

We should not underestimate the danger of instability across the Middle East. The United Nations stands ready to support reform efforts aimed at meeting the people's aspirations.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Cyril Foster lecture has become a rite of passage at the United Nations. Three of my distinguished predecessors have made the pilgrimage - Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan.

Secretaries-General are often better advised to listen than to lecture. Yet there are times when we should use our “bully pulpit” to address the peoples' concerns, particularly when it comes to this important pillar of the United Nations: human rights.

That is why I would like to talk to you tonight about human protection and the UN.

In addressing this very broad topic, let me begin with a few distinctions.

Human protection is a subset of the more encompassing concept of human security. The latter reminds us that the security of “we the peoples” matters every bit as much as the security of states. Human protection addresses more immediate threats to the survival of individuals and groups.

Even with these distinctions, I will have to be selective in citing examples of our human protection endeavors. I do so without diminishing what the broad UN family achieves on a daily basis in protecting people.

Indeed almost all our major initiatives, from climate change to food security, from the activities of the World Health Organization to UNICEF, are concerned with human security in the fullest sense. As I will argue, the founders of the United Nations understood that sovereignty confers responsibility, a responsibility to ensure protection of human beings from want, from war, and from repression.

When that responsibility is not discharged, the international community is morally obliged to consider its duty to act in the service of human protection.

This evening, I will concentrate on those issues related to human protection that have been developed under my watch.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Cyril Foster was a simple man, an ordinary man, by his own modest account. Yet he possessed an extraordinary faith in humanity's capacity to promote peace, prevent war and better the human condition.

The United Nations was born of just such an aspiration. Sixty-five years after the Member States first assembled in Westminster, we are still striving “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

I was born during the last part of Second World War. As a child, I witnessed the ravages of the Korean War and the promise of peace. I learned about hunger, poverty and displacement in the ultimate classroom, personal experience. While everybody was studying in a classroom I had to study outside, under a tree. When it rained we had to wait until it [turned] sunny to resume class under the tree.

Against all odds, the United Nations came to our rescue. It fed my family and my people it helped rebuild our country. And it has given us hope. It continues to offer hope to our troubled peninsula.

That quest, like many others, remains unfulfilled. Korea is still divided.

But I often wonder how many children, in similar straits, ask the same questions today that I did more than sixty years ago:

Is the world listening? Will help arrive in time? Who will be there for me and my family?

This is exactly the experience I am having these days as Secretary-General of the United Nations.

I am just back from Africa. At least in the past five times when I traveled to Africa or many other developing countries, I met many young people and children and helpless people, who are very poor and very sick, who try get help, and hope, from me and from the United Nations. So the United Nations is still a beacon of hope for millions of children. So I feel very much humbled whenever I meet them. I wonder, what can I do, how can I bring a sense of hope to them?

The task of human protection is neither simple nor easy. We don't always succeed. But we must keep trying to make a difference. That is our individual and collective responsibility. People like myself, as Secretary-General, and the leaders of the world have a moral and political responsibility to protect populations.

Indeed, the struggle to fulfill the Charter's promise of protection demands the best that this and other world-class universities have to offer.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The world and its conflicts have changed significantly since the founding of the United Nations.

And as the world has changed, so too must its institutions. The most enduring bend without breaking. They adjust to changing circumstances and opportunities, trimming their sails in shifting winds, knowing that the quickest route to their destination is rarely a straight line. Their pace varies, but never their guiding principles.

The challenges facing us have changed, but our core responsibility to maintain international peace and security has not.

Slowly but surely, sometimes by trial and error, we have learned to use the instruments available under the Charter in new ways, adapting to evolving circumstances.

Through this evolution, the need to operationalize a concept of human protection has emerged.

Gaining momentum, it is reshaping our work. It is entrenched in our operational practice. It is finding expression in the development of doctrine and in new international legal institutions. It is reflected in bolder Security Council resolutions and progressively broader mandates, and in the General Assembly's continuing consideration of the concept of Responsibility to Protect.

This evening, I will focus on three areas.

First, I will address human protection in the context of conflict and complex emergencies where the UN serves as a firefighter. We are now trying to change this, by trying to prevent the fire in the first place. This encompasses our initiatives in peacekeeping and emergency interventions in the context of disaster relief. I will also deal here with peacebuilding and peace consolidation.

Second, I will deal with prevention, so that fires do not happen in the first place.

And third, human protection and the development of legal institutions promoting accountability.

Human Protection in the Context of Conflict and Complex Emergencies

First, let's look first at peacekeeping, one of our core tools for human protection.

At the turn of the century, the Brahimi Report called on the UN to retool itself operationally. It identified gaps in the practice and policy of UN peacekeeping, including the need to devote resources to conflict prevention.

The search for an improved UN response to conflict has continued unabated since then, including the recent New Horizon review of practice and policy. The expansion of peacekeeping operations throughout the world we are now considering what the optimal size of the UN Peacekeeping should be. That is the concept we call New Horizon and about which I have reported to the Security Council.

Peacekeepers have been entrusted with growing responsibilities not only to keep armies at bay, but to protect civilians who are prey to militias and other combatants. This, in itself, involved very different methods of work, rules of engagement and capacities.

For example, protecting civilians necessarily implies mobility and, in difficult terrain, that means air mobility. As we repeatedly pointed out in Sudan, if we do not have helicopters, we are only able to field a static force. We would not have been able to assist with the referendum in Southern Sudan, transporting ballots and other necessities in a region the size of eastern Europe. If we are not [properly] equipped, that would radically undermine our capacity to protect civilians.

Acting by consensus, the Security Council has repeatedly placed civilian protection at the operational centre of the United Nations' peace and security agenda.

Darfur is just one recent example where the Council stressed this objective. Securing the required resources and troops has consumed much of my energy. I have been begging leaders to make resources available to us. That experience underscores what can happen when Member States fail to provide the resources necessary to carry out the Council's mandates.

Today, more than 120,000 soldiers, police and civilians serve under the United Nations flag in fifteen theatres around the world. Support services have dramatically improved by the reorganizations undertaken at the beginning of my term.

More and more frequently, peacekeepers are subject to contradictory pressures within countries. They often face perilous challenges that strain the very credibility of the mission.

For example, our mandate may provide for civilian protection yet a host government may interpret its terms differently, as we have seen recently in Sudan, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Today, we face another challenge in Côte d'Ivoire, where the former leader clings to power despite the united demand of the international community and the democratic will of the people. This is just an unacceptable.

I arrived this morning from the African Union Summit. I am pleased to report that the United Nations has taken a strong and unequivocal stand, in step with the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States. The rule of law, human rights and the future of democracy are at stake, as well as the integrity of the African Union and to some extent that of the United Nations.

Our mandate encompasses both guaranteeing the electoral process and protecting recently elected officials and vulnerable populations throughout the country. It is a task that must be performed in the face of direct attacks, harassment and provocation.

The final chapter of this saga has yet to be written, but this we know: the growing international solidarity on protection principles gives us better tools and better chances than ever before.

From Civilian Protection to Peacebuilding

Ladies and gentlemen,

Our experience has taught us that to keep the peace in volatile situations, we have to build the peace at the same time. Countries that have recently come out of conflict are the most vulnerable to suffering new ones.

So the 2005 World Summit established the Peacebuilding Commission and its Support Office. They are helping us to address peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding as simultaneous and mutually reinforcing undertakings.

Protection is more than standing guard over vulnerable communities.

We have learned this most painfully in trying to combat unimaginable sexual violence in armed conflict, most notably in the DRC. This has been of great concern to me personally.

Undoubtedly, the UN needs to perform its protection duties more effectively. Our peacekeepers are upgrading their methods of patrolling and systems of communication to cover vulnerable communities more adequately in the most difficult terrain.

Again, the United Nations has been the subject of criticism. [We have been asked], How come, when you have more than 10,000 soldiers, that you're not able to protect women and girls from sexual violence? But now we're talking about sometimes vast lands [such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo] where there is not much transportation, not much communications. This is quite a challenge.

Of course, we strengthen our patrol, we try to establish communications with the village community leaders. But it's quite difficult but we have been trying to keep all these situations from happening.

The authority of the state, I believe is the most important, and the institution with highest responsibility. Through the rule of law, through strengthening their institutional capacity, they have to carry out their primary responsibility. But we have seen in many countries, because of the weak institutional capacity, they cannot address all these very appalling situations.

That is why I established the [Office of Rule of Law and Security Institutions] to help rebuild legal institutions and train police, prison and judicial officers in countries recovering from conflict. Without security sector reform, sustainable peace is often elusive.

At the United Nations, we need to bolster our capacities as well.

We are monitoring, reporting and combating the recruitment and exploitation of children in armed conflict.

On sexual violence, I have appointed, last year, a Special Representative who is devoted to and focusing in preventing, stopping this Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict by employing training, advocacy, sanctions and sometimes naming and shaming to combat sexual violence and the impunity that allows it.

There is a very important Security Council resolution, 1325, which was adopted 11 years ago. The Security Council called for the empowerment of women as a crucial protection tool. Our newest agency – UN Women, headed by former President of Chile Michelle Bachelet – will help sharpen this important element of peacekeeping and peacebuilding.

Humanitarian Relief as Human Protection

Human protection, 'fire fighting,' also extends to our responses to natural and manmade disasters.

As well-established UN principles underscore, the safety and access of humanitarian actors responding to vulnerable communities must be assured.

In conflict or disaster settings, the guarantee of humanitarian access serves to limit the political manipulation of hunger and disease.

In 2008, for example, when Myanmar was hit by Cyclone Nargis, because of these authorities just closing their borders to international humanitarian assistance, I was compelled to press Myanmar authorities to respect the principle of humanitarian access.

This served the human protection imperatives even if it fell outside a strict application of the Responsibility to Protect.

Let me make this distinction clear: To me, there is a moral imperative to help a child trapped in a collapsed building in Port au Prince or to assist women and children fleeing conflict.

Let me draw your attention to the Central Emergency Relief Fund, abbreviated as CERF. This was created by John Holmes as Under-Secretary-General in the United Nations, which helps speed our initial response to disasters.

When people are dying from earthquakes we have no time to lose. This CERF is the best, most effective, efficient way of delivering aid. Within 24 hours – or a maximum of 48 hours –urgent first aid assistance can be dispatched to the disaster areas. This, I believe, is one of the most successful mechanisms the UN introduced five years ago.

Remember, we relied on CERF for our early response in Myanmar, Haiti, and Pakistan, to name just a few.

A core challenge for human protection is assisting those displaced by natural and manmade disasters. Our refugee agencies are helping 34 million people a day, every day. The United Nations is feeding 100 million people a day. We are working to improve protection efforts to keep the vulnerable from double jeopardy.

Human Protection and Prevention

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The best form of protection is prevention.

Prevention saves lives as well as resources.

When you have to deploy 10,000 soldiers, it costs billions of dollars.

But if you can prevent through mediation or preventive diplomacy, you may do it, even with a few million dollars.

Prevention is not a one-off affair. Article 34 of the Charter authorizes the Security Council to investigate any situation that might lead to a dispute or threat to international peace and security. Fact-finding and mediation should not wait for conflicts to erupt.

Our renewed focus on prevention is a recognition that all conflicts are ultimately political.

So we have strengthened the UN's capacities for preventive diplomacy and mediation, and to support viable peace processes that produce durable agreements.

In 2010 alone, last year, we supported 34 different mediation, facilitation and dialogue efforts. The persistent work of UN envoys helped to ease the situation in Kyrgyzstan and Guinea and keep the transition to democracy.

We are adapting our doctrines, capacities and training, working with our partners and regional organizations. We have a group of mediation experts who are on standby, who can be deployed within 72 hours to any place around the world. That is what we have established: a Mediation Support Unit within the Department of Political Affairs.

Nowhere is prevention needed more than during elections, especially in societies divided by or recovering from conflict. We have already experienced many such unfortunate tragedies and violence because of elections. Elections are a democratic system. It can be a rallying force, it can be a force of unity and solidarity, but sometimes it can also be a source of division and violence.

There will be at least 20 elections in Africa this year alone. We have seen still issues pending in Côte d'Ivoire.

Properly managed, transparent elections can ease tensions and build transparent and accountable institutions. But they also entail risks.

Sudan is a case in point. We have been pleased to assist the successful conduct of the referendum in Sudan. Engagement by the United Nations and its regional partners was a key element in that referendum's success – a process that could have gone dangerously wrong.

This was also the case in Guinea, where our regional office continuously engaged the parties when the election process threatened to break down.

These situation-specific efforts have been reinforced by more generic and thematic ones. They include our efforts to limit small arms, light weapons and anti-personnel mines, as well as to eliminate nuclear weapons.

What is true for preventing manmade threats, such as armed conflict, is also true for natural disasters. The UN is looking to enhance its ability to respond immediately to disasters and to assist countries at disaster preparedness.

I have fully backed this campaign. By having good preparedness against disaster, we can save a lot of human lives. Consider two cyclones in Bangladesh, 16 years apart: the first killed 150,000 people in Bangladesh. After 16 years, with all these preparations, the number of dead was just over 4,000. That's a huge, huge difference. The difference was a considered investment in disaster risk reduction. Had Myanmar been able to do the same as Bangladesh for Cyclone Nargis, a storm of similar force, many of the 191,000 who died might still be alive today.

Human Protection and Accountability

Ladies and gentlemen,

A proper treatment of the centrality of human rights as one of the United Nations' three pillars would require maybe a separate, long lecture. But tonight let me simply say that human rights are an essential component of human protection.

The last decade of the twentieth century saw unprecedented progress in international law, humanitarian law and the establishment of international legal institutions. There also was increased acceptance of international norms by Member States, at least in principle.

These steps led to important human protection advances in the Outcome Document of the 2005 World Summit.

The Heads of State and Government embraced a responsibility to protect. You might have heard of “R2P,” the responsibility to protect – protecting populations by preventing genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

The Responsibility to Protect has undergone further doctrinal elaboration and institutional expression over the last five years.

When I was campaigning to become Secretary-General, I pledged that if and when I was elected as Secretary-General, I would do my best to operationalize it. This is what I have been doing for that last four years.

There are some states that are still feeling uncomfortable and who have skepticism of the concept of “R2P,” whether this is going to be used as a tool by the big powers to interfere in their domestic politics.

However, my doctrine envisages that our efforts to prevent these awful crimes rest on three pillars: first, state responsibility, first of all, the State should be responsible second, international responsibility to help states to succeed and third, timely and decisive response should national authorities manifestly fail to protect, including under Chapter VII, if the Security Council deems such steps necessary.

I am working with my two Special Advisors to prevent genocide and to promote the Responsibility to Protect.

Both in dangerous situations and among UN Member States as a whole, it has been standard operating procedure at the world body to take these perspectives into account in times of crisis.

This summer, the General Assembly is again going to address the regional and subregional aspects of my strategy. A similar effort is underway with respect to elaborating the concept of Human Security. These parallel efforts help expand common ground for placing human protection at the centre of the UN's doctrine and operational activities.

Alongside the development of norms and rules has come legal enforcement through the tribunals established by the United Nations to ensure accountability for gross human rights violations as we have seen in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. This trend towards accountability, albeit in hybrid institutions, can be seen in places like Cambodia and Sierra Leone, as well as with the Special Tribunal on Lebanon.

We have welcomed the parallel establishment of the International Criminal Court, a signal advance in the age-old struggle to overcome impunity.

Accountability is now an indispensable element of the framework of protection. It is a frontal challenge to impunity. And it also serves as a powerful deterrent against potential perpetrators.

As Secretary-General, I have insisted on standards of accountability, especially as they relate to conduct during conflict. This applies to our inquiry regarding the violent end to Sri Lanka's long internal war, and to the commission of inquiry in the case of the Middle East, most recently the flotilla case. We have also seen resistance to accountability efforts in Sudan and Kenya.

It is essential that we stand firm in support of the Special Tribunal in Lebanon in the name of accountability.

I have been stressing that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, being [part of the] international justice system, should not be the subject of political interference. The Tribunal's prosecutor and judges are independent professionals.

Here I want to note in particular the vital role of civil society in advancing contemporary standards of justice and accountability. Our valued partners have called national governments to account and mobilized international action. I think civil society, they can be the eyes, they can be the watchers, how governments are implementing all these principles of justice and accountability.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Has the Security Council gone too far in its insistence on human protection?

I think not.

Critics should recall that the emphasis on human protection is the legacy of tragic events and high aspirations of the last century. They are grounded in the UN's founding principles and purposes.

Article 2(7) of the Charter clearly contemplates that essentially domestic matters are the responsibility of the state, this will not preclude intervention when needed by the United Nations under Chapter VII.

The drafting committee in San Francisco underscored that if fundamental freedoms and rights are “grievously outraged so as to create conditions which threaten peace or to obstruct the application of the provisions of the Charter, then they cease to be the sole concern of each state.”

For some time, international protections for populations in situations of internal, transnational, or international conflict have grown. It has been almost a century and a half since the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the subsequent agreement on the first Geneva Convention on the treatment of combatants.

The subsequent Conventions of 1949, and the Additional Protocols of 1977, extended legal protections to civilians affected by conflict, including by conflicts of a non-international character.

Where do we go from here?

And so we must ask: Where do we go now, from here?

Recently, I set out five core challenges to the Security Council on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict:

The first one is enhancing compliance with international law second: engaging with non-State armed groups and rebel movements to seek their compliance on critical protection issues third: enhancing protection through more effective and better resourced peacekeeping and other relevant missions and fourth improving humanitarian access and five: ensuring accountability for violations.

Beyond the immediate protection agenda, the United Nations is addressing the “creeping vulnerabilities. ” They also put populations at risk and weaken societies, and also plant the seeds of violence and conflict: Water scarcity, food insecurity, corruption, transnational crimes, the effects of climate change. Often, this impact of climate change, water scarcity, has become the source of conflict, regional conflict, very serious regional conflict. So it is not surprising that these human security issues are finding their way onto our peacebuilding agenda, and specifically that of the Peacebuilding Commission.

It has also become clear that in line with our more complex mandates, we need to help governments and civil society to deliver tangible peace dividends in post-conflict situations and to help them rebuild their capacity to govern.

Peace will not last unless people see real benefits in real time: safety, justice, jobs, education and prospects for a better future. In general, our peace engagements are very often places with limited infrastructure. Such countries are highly vulnerable, for example, to epidemics, diseases, and infant mortality.

This means that an effective emergency civilian surge may be just as important as the deployment of peacekeeping troops.

Improving our civilian capacities is key to effective delivery at an early stage and we have a major project underway to see how we can do this better.

And clearly, the twenty-first century United Nations must continue to focus, sharpen, and extend its work. In this regard, global power shifts have brought new voices, new partners and new opportunities.

We are identifying synergies across the United Nations system, with the World Bank and other multilateral institutions.

In these efforts, we are finding ready partners in regional organizations, national governments and local actors.

Chapter VIII of the United Nations Charter provides a ready framework for deeper and closer, more innovative collaboration with regional organizations, such as the African Union, where we are working together from Sudan to Cote d'Ivoire, from Guinea to Somalia.

As the Secretary-General, I am often amazed by the foresight of the drafters of the United Nations Charter. At a time when there was not a single regional organization, the drafters had the foresight that one day the United Nations would have to work closely with regional organizations. So this is quite a visionary vision.

We are also promoting cross-cultural dialogue in situations of potential conflict through the UN's Alliance of Civilizations, and warning against rising intolerance and the politics of polarization.

An Ambitious Agenda

Ladies and gentlemen,

The United Nations was created to be an agent of change, not just an object of change. It has made history, even as it evolved with it. From its inception, the UN has been an incubator of ideas, a builder of norms, and an arbiter of standards. It remains so today.

Through its actions, as well as its words, the world body has helped transform the global agenda by embracing human protection as an essential component.

This evening, I have set out a big agenda with you.

So we must ask ourselves: Have our strategies and our operational practice on the ground kept pace with the ever-increasing demand for human protection?

We must concede that on many occasions, our words are ahead of our deeds.

But I am convinced this is a challenge we can meet. Momentum is on our side.

What is required is a shared responsibility. But this cannot be done alone, without the help of governments or the help of business communities, help of generous philanthropists, help of NGOs and students like yourselves. This is a shared responsibility. Together, we can answer the cry of that child I mentioned before, trapped under the rubble of an earthquake, and people caught in the crossfire and those who are wondering: Can the world hear my call? Who will help me and my family?

Ladies and gentlemen,

This brings us full circle.

The UN recognizes that human protection stands at the centre of both its purposes and principles.

As Dag Hammarskjöld said, the Secretary-General can be partisan in one case only, and that is precisely in the defense of the UN's own purposes and principles.

Whenever I see all these great challenges, global and local, I cannot but be humbled by how I can address these challenges as the Secretary-General.

The words of the framers of the UN Charter still ring true today. “The Secretary-General, more than anyone else, will stand for the United Nations as a whole. In the eyes of the world, he must embody the principles and ideals of the Charter.”

That is why human protection will remain a hallmark of my administration, continuously striving to make our deeds match our words.

“We the peoples” expect and deserve nothing less.

Thank you very much for your kind attention.