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I never had the privilege of knowing Erskine Childers. To my mind he represents a significant part of the rich Irish contribution to international peace and security in general and the United Nations (UN) in particular together with Frederick Boland, Connor Cruise O’Brien and others. It was the famous Irish UN General Assembly Resolution that formed the genesis of the Treaty for the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The reputation of Childers both within the United Nations (UN) system and in the sphere of international relations was formidable enough for me to follow his writings with close interest -- especially on the UN. In view of my own commitment to multilateralism and deep convictions on the need to strengthen the UN, I had avidly read the report on “Renewing the United Nations System” which he had co-authored with another redoubtable UN veteran -- the distinguished Sir Brian Urquhart. Its remarkable clarity, the holistic scope of the recommendations and the fusion of idealism and practicality stood out. On the eve of the report of the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on “Threats, challenges and Change” and our celebration of the 60th anniversary of the UN it is appropriate for us all to revisit the Childers/Urquhart report.

An Ethical Foundation for the UN

It is in this context that we must reflect on how our world body can be reformed to face the challenges of the future based on the experience of the past. We must begin with a foundation of ethical values that we can share. The use of the term “Ethics” for a set of moral principles presupposes that we are all bound by a common understanding of what we mean. In a very broad sense, we are talking about the absolutely irreducible minimum of humankind’s cultural, moral and spiritual achievement over centuries of civilization. It is not only what distinguishes the human species from other living beings, but also the soul of humankind. It is the quintessence of all religious philosophies and the highest common factor among all cultures. 
Ethics per se would be of little value if it did not have a practical propensity to be applied to human affairs and the improvement of the human condition. It is widely, but wrongly, assumed that the realm of ethical values and the world of pragmatic politics are wide apart and that never the twain shall meet. The achievements of the UN illustrate that there can be a fusion between ethics and policy, and it is this fusion that contributes to the betterment of mankind and to peace.  
We are still in the early years of the first century of a new millennium in the human saga leaving behind the bloodiest century of all time. There is a unique opportunity for us to use the indisputable authority that the UN wields to shape a world order that is built more solidly on ethics than on the pursuit of individual profit or national self-interest. In the year 2000 the largest ever gathering of Heads of State and Government met at the United Nations in New York and issued the historic Millennium Declaration. Significantly, before the Declaration embarks on setting objectives in respect of the different areas of peace, security and disarmament including the elimination of weapons of mass destruction especially nuclear weapons; development and poverty eradication; human rights, democracy and good governance including the Millennium Development Goals; protecting the vulnerable and meeting the special needs of Africa, it addresses the issue of fundamental values underpinning international relations in the twenty-first century. That demonstrates a remarkably sound judgment of priorities. If the leaders of the world cannot agree on the ethical values that bind them together, they are unlikely to agree on common goals and common strategies to overcome what Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called “problems without passports”. 
   It is relevant for us therefore to review these shared values set out in the United Nations Millennium Declaration as a common ethical base. They comprise six of the most basic aspirations of humankind -- freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect for nature, and shared responsibility. From each of these fundamental values we draw our guidance for the specific action plans that the international community committed itself to in the Millennium Declaration. It is a moral compass for us all. Individually these values represent powerful forces that have inspired and motivated humankind throughout millennia of history. They have been accelerators of human progress. Collectively they represent the benchmark against which we must judge our performance as individual nations and as the world community in taking humankind forward to a better and safer world. 

  • Freedom -- was the spur that rid the world of slavery, colonialism and apartheid: it is the ethical value that protects men, women and children from fear, exploitation and abuse, from injustice and deprivation and from want and hunger.
  • Equality -- is what drove societies to abolish discrimination on the basis of colour, creed, wealth, ethnicity, aristocratic origin and gender: it is the ethical value that empowers individuals in society and nations in the international community whether big or small, rich or poor, mighty or meek.
  • Solidarity -- is the sense of a common identity as one human family with reciprocal duties and obligations that has led to social contracts and social security within countries and to the aid and assistance of the wealthy and developed countries to those who are stricken with disease, disaster and endemic poverty: it is the ethical value that must ensure the elimination of injustices, asymmetries in globalised development and absolute poverty.
  • Tolerance -- is the glue that has bonded us together as human beings with mutual respect for each other despite our astonishing diversity both within nations and the international community: it is the ethical value that will prevent ethnic and religious conflict within nations and the ‘clash of civilizations’ on a global scale ensuring instead a ‘dialogue among civilizations’ and the celebration of human diversity as an endowment. 
  • Respect for nature -- is what has preserved the available and potential natural resources of our planet Earth and our ecological system as our common heritage to serve the genuine needs and not the greedy wants of humankind: it is the ethical value that will guide us to sustainable development managing our consumption of resources equitably and wisely so that we pass on the world which we occupy as a trust, to generations to come in at least as healthy and wholesome a state as we received it from preceding generations. Finally, 
  • Shared responsibility -- is the common realization that we are one brotherhood and sisterhood placed together in a world that is more integrated than ever before through the processes of globalization and that the management of public goods has to be achieved optimally through  participatory,  people-centred endeavours and good democratic governance at the national level and through multilateralism and international organizations - with the United Nations at its apex - in the collective response to global challenges to international peace and human security: it is the ethical value that will prevent humankind from anarchy and self-destruction through selfishness and profligacy and the insurance policy to achieve a rule based international order founded on the bedrock of international law, human rights, equity and justice.

The translation of these ethical values in the daily world of human interaction -- to do the right thing for the right reason -- presents all of us with an enormous challenge. No Government or group can claim a monopoly over wisdom. Nor can they claim to be the sole interpreters of the national or global interest. Those with experience of working in the UN, as Erskine Childers and Sir Brian Urquhart were richly endowed with, can contribute towards the public discourse on national and international policy by emphasizing the ethical dimension. Already there are danger signals that illustrate an erosion of the ethical base we have in the world. Terrorism, nihilism and anarchism are ominous symptoms. Are they the result of perceptions that the policies pursued in the past have been divorced from ethics? Or are they the emergence of a new threat for which our collective response must not be militarism but a return to implementing our shared value base of ethics --  honestly, transparently and consistently?  
It would help our task if we had a barometer to measure the performance of all our leaders in the achievement of implementing ethics as policy. The world has seen the evolution of numerous indices for human progress. We have economic and social indicators ranging from Gross National Product in quantitative terms to the Human Development Index in qualitative terms. There are other more specific indices such as a Corruption Index from Transparency International, a Freedom Index from Freedom House and there is even a Happiness Index! I would hope that research organizations, think tanks and NGOs would combine their efforts to devise an Ethical Policy Index ranking countries in accordance with their adherence to a commonly accepted set of ethical values such as those enshrined in the Millennium Declaration of the United Nations. That will contribute to some pressure on Governments to be accountable to their people in adopting policies that will be of widespread and durable benefit. It is but one of many tools we can propose in the quest for a greater role for ethics in the formulation of policy to respond to the new threats to security and to the other challenges facing humankind today. It is an urgent task to preserve and develop the mainsprings of our common humanity for a new and glorious chapter of human history.

The concept of Collective Security
In his statement to the United Nations General Assembly on 23 September 2003 Secretary General Kofi Annan described the situation of the UN following the controversy over the invasion of Iraq as " a fork in the road ... no less decisive than 1945 itself when the United Nations was founded." While some may disagree with this over dramatization of where the world body is today, the Secretary-General used the opportunity to appoint a sixteen member High Level Panel of eminent personalities to examine current challenges to peace and security; identify the contribution collective action can make in addressing these challenges; and recommend changes in the principal organs of the UN and elsewhere to ensure effective collective action. [Note:  this report was published as a UN document in December 2004.1] 
The concept of collective security forms the bedrock of the United Nations Charter and has served the international community well for several decades. However all concepts and systems must be re-appraised from time to time and adapted to serve new realities.  
Secretary-General Kofi Annan's primary rationale for the appointment of the High Level Panel is that the consensus underpinning collective security, which had been recently restated in the Millennium Declaration, had broken down in the wake of sharp disagreement over military intervention in Iraq last year. Unilateral military intervention is not new in the post World War II history of global events. What is new is that, after the events of September 11, 2001 and the alarming revelations of clandestine weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation to states that had legally renounced such weapons as well as to non-state actors, pre-emptive unilateral action even with WMD is being asserted as justifiable -- ostensibly in the exercise of the right of self-defense. The legitimacy conferred on armed intervention by the Security Council and, consequently, the universal support that such action enjoys is thus sacrificed for the freedom of unilateral action in pursuit of individual national interest. In the pre-UN era nations waged wars self-righteously claiming their justness whatever the circumstances. To do so today without Security Council authority undermines international law and the unity of the UN system and opens the way to an anarchic global society with no internationally accepted norms. 
The problem lies perhaps in the evolution of the global system from a bipolar one to a unipolar system and the exceptionalism demanded for some forms of unilateral action. It also arises from the inroads being made into the theory of state sovereignty as an absolute. The controversial 'humanitarian intervention' speech of Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 1999 led to the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty whose report was published at the end of 2001. It asserted that state sovereignty implied a responsibility to protect its citizens and that where a state was unwilling or unable to provide that protection the principle of non-intervention yielded to the international responsibility to protect. However guiding principles and criteria were carefully described in terms of international law and the circumstances warranting action and the procedure for obtaining authority set out. The obvious limitation of this approach is that in the selective application of new principles the powerful states will ensure that their state sovereignty will not be compromised thus provoking the charge of double standards.  
Any changes that we propose must discourage unilateral action and seek to facilitate multilateral consensus through UN mechanisms that are palpably effective. No one seriously questions the virtue of co-operative action in the defense of collective security. Empowering one state or a group of states to be the global gendarme without Security Council authority undermines this. How do we therefore strengthen UN institutions to serve collective security in the current context? 
I believe it is essential that we agree on three basic principles before we proceed to consider specific institutional reforms. 

  • Firstly it is my deep conviction that the founders of the UN intended that there should be equilibrium among the principal organs of the UN for the purposes and principles of the world body to be implemented. Admittedly the Security Council is vested with the primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security but that is a task performed on behalf of the entire membership of the UN, all of whom have citizens with equal human rights even if the principle of the sovereign equality of all its member states (laid down in Article 2:1 of the UN Charter) has become one of the more glorious myths of the UN today. Today the system is in disequilibrium not only because of the Security Council is the overwhelmingly dominant organ but also because of disequilibrium within the Council. How do we restore equilibrium within the system while accepting the realities of power asymmetry in the world?
  • Secondly, in the functioning of the UN system for over six decades there has been an unhealthy compartmentalization of programmes and a lack of co-ordination even after two waves of well-intentioned reforms launched by the present Secretary General. This arises partly from major powers and major contributors to the UN budget demanding that their nationals be placed in positions of authority and that their agendas be implemented if not through the regular budget then through tied extra-budgetary resources (which are actually more than regular budget resources and finance the larger percentage of UN Secretariat posts). It also arises from the bureaucratic corrosion that accumulates in any large organization. Thus the principal organs of the UN are not adequately linked depriving the organization of valuable cross-fertilization of ideas and sharing of information that could lead to collective action. Cross cutting issues appear to be dealt with on a system wide basis through inputs from the various departments, agencies and programmes which focus on demonstrating what has been achieved individually and not on synergetic action. 
  • Finally, we are all aware that the concept of security has expanded vastly. It is no longer possible to regard national or international security in purely military terms. We have a wider view which embraces political elements, economic and environmental factors and social and cultural aspects. The Security Council has recognized this by considering women's rights, AIDS and other non-conventional issues as security issues. Clearly more needs to be done to link the Security Council more closely with the Economic and Social Council and other principal organs, with the work of the specialized agencies and regional economic commissions and by calling for action oriented reports on particular aspects of security related issues where the authority of the Security Council could ensure the attainment of goals such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). […]
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