General Assembly President Defends UN against Bush Administration Criticisms
UN General Assembly President Jan Kavan declares United Nations "not an instrument of U.S. foreign policy." Reminds audience of the world body's far flung operations in development, health, and peacekeeping.
Published: Friday, June 13, 2003
Jan Kavan, president of the fifty-seventh session of the United Nations General Assembly, made a vigorous defense of the continued viability of the UN in a May 1 address at the UCLA Faculty Center. Responding to disparaging comments on the world body by the Bush administration because of the Security Council's unwillingness to endorse the U.S. war on Iraq, Kavan pointed to the many international programs in which only the UN has a true global presence, and insisted that even on security matters the UN has not yet become irrelevant.
"If you can only view the work of the United Nations through the Iraq conflict you would be ignoring all the multitudes of the mandates the UN was involved in. Development programs, education…. If the United Nations would succeed in implementing only half of them, it would make the world safer and saner with less tensions emanating from extreme poverty, lack of health, lack of education…. I think the United Nations would, in fact, more than be proved relevant."
Jan Kavan's talk was sponsored by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations. Kavan is Former Deputy Prime Minister and former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. The fifty-seventh session of the UN General Assembly runs from September 2002 to September 2003.
Jan Kavan was born in London in 1946 to an English mother and a Czech father. His father, a diplomat, was arrested at the time of the Slansky trial in 1952 and served four years in prison on trumped-up charges. He died at the age of 46 in 1960. Jan Kavan was a student activist during the Prague Spring of 1968 and was hunted by the communist authorities after the Soviet invasion in the summer of that year. He fled to Great Britain in 1969 where he founded and ran the Jan Palach Press Agency. He returned to Czechoslovakia in 1989 following two decades in exile and became a prominent figure in the post-Soviet Czech government.
The UN Charter
Kavan reminded his hearers that the central purpose in founding the United Nations was to fend off new wars:
"To go back to the origins of the United Nations, it was really created on the ruins of the Second World War. The victorious powers established the UN with one predominant objective in mind. That is, and I am quoting the Charter, 'to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.' And to this end, the states are supposed to practice tolerance, good neighborliness, and cooperation."
While attention has been focused on the Security Council in the recent disputes between the United States and its erstwhile allies France, Germany, and Russia, Kavan noted that the General Assembly has assumed many peacekeeping functions over the years that were not envisaged for it in the founding documents of the institution. This occurred because the veto right of the five permanent members of the Security Council has often paralyzed that body.
While the General Assembly has no clear mandate in security issues, Kavan said that it "can discuss and make recommendations on any matter that is not for the Security Council clearly defined in Article XXII." This shift of military responsibilities to the General Assembly began during the Korean War in 1950. The Security Council had authorized the use of UN troops in Korea during a brief boycott by the Soviet Union, which would otherwise have vetoed the action. When the Soviets returned, Kavan said, "The Security Council was no longer capable of upholding a unified stance, and basically handed over a lot of the decision-making to the General Assembly."
This little noticed derogation of authority has continued in recent years, he added, inasmuch as "Today, the maintenance of peace and security is interrelated with social and economic strategy, and with respect for human rights and democratic values, which the General Assembly has taken upon itself to promote."
What the UN-U.S. Disagreement on Iraq Means
Kavan bristled at the notion that the United Nations has become irrelevant following the crisis in the Security Council over Iraq. Its ability to reach agreement on large-scale security situations may have been compromised, he said, but the principal effect of this will be that the United States will be unable to enlist the world body to carry out its aims. "The United Nations as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy may become irrelevant." Kavan pointed to the crucial humanitarian, educational, health, and security programs in which the UN is engaged as ongoing evidence of its vitality in areas that no individual country is prepared to assume. He said that while the UN's role in security issues may be reduced, it will still be called on in areas where the United States does not wish to assume peacekeeping responsibilities.
Kavan expressed some hope for a reconciliation with Washington: "I am convinced that an agreement will be reached between the UN and the U.S., even the current administration." He pointed to the Bush administration's eager attempt to get the Security Council to approve the military action in Iraq. If the UN was irrelevant, why try so hard to win its endorsement? "They only gave up on it when it became clear that the resolution submitted by the U.S., UK, and Spain would not even get the moral majority."
Secretary General Kofi Annan, Kavan added, "observed that in 40 years of his standing in the United Nations… this is the first time that there were so many meetings of the Security Council - so many countries so actively involved and such high expectations attached to the United Nations." Kavan insisted that the United Nations "is still the most legitimate multilateral organization."
Jan Kavan reminded the audience of the broad range of the UN and the General Assembly's involvement in world affairs: "The agenda of the Assembly is wide. Among those [issues] which are considered to be relative to international peace and security are human rights, humanitarian assistance, environmental degradation, terrorism, HIV-AIDS, and international law. On an annual basis we discuss and review political and security situations in the regions, like Afghanistan, Central America, the Balkans, the Middle East, and certain agenda items concerning Africa."
The U.S. Occupation of Iraq
Jan Kavan expressed skepticism that the United States acting alone will be effective in restoring a representative government and civil society in Iraq. "How will you repair the past for a genuinely free and democratic Iraq? I don't think the best armies in the world are very equipped for that. Here, I think, the military authorities can do well [to act] in cooperation with the UN, which does have experience in post-conflict reconstruction, both economic reconstruction and political transformation from totalitarian systems to democratic systems."
Kavan pointed to United Nations experience in Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan.
"The United Nations is still the most appropriate instrument for enabling an environment to be created in place of conflict, to prepare conditions for people to shape their own future, determine their own destiny, and not be seen as an illegitimate occupation."
A key task for the world's future, Kavan said, is intervention to halt conflicts before they turn to ethnic violence and genocide. There have been failures here by the United Nations, he conceded, but no individual nation including the United States has proven that it can do better.
"There were early attempts to develop preventative capacities by the Assembly, but not until 1998 did the concept of conflict prevention start to gain a certain predominance. It was with the painfully lingering shadows of Rwanda and Srebrenica that the Secretary General Kofi Annan declared his aim to replace the culture of reaction with the culture of prevention.
"In this context, he [Kofi Annan] observes that a more systematic attention by the Assembly to conflict prevention would be instrumental in creating a kind of global culture of conflict prevention, thus setting standards of accountability of member states, and contributing to the establishment of preventative practices at local, national, regional, and global levels. These are aspects which I think can add to the effectiveness of the General Assembly."