In the nearly 75 years since its founding after World War II, the United Nations has adapted to changing politics and priorities, but its multilateral mission to promote international peace, protect human rights and uphold international law must remain intact and be carried into the future, said Louise Fréchette, former U.N. deputy secretary-general, in a keynote address at Arizona State University.
Fréchette’s talk was the third annual Distinguished Global Leaders Series Lecture presented by Barrett, The Honors College at ASU on Oct. 23.
Fréchette served as U.N. deputy secretary-general from 1998 to 2006. A native of Canada, she served as that country’s ambassador to Argentina and Uruguay from 1985 to 1988. She also was Canada’s associate deputy minister of finance in 1995 and deputy minister of national defense from 1995 to 1998. She was ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations from 1992 to 1994.
Fréchette is a board member of the Global Leadership Foundation, an organization focused on transformational leadership. In June, she completed a three-year mandate as chair of the Supervisory Board and of the Council of CARE International after serving as chair of CARE Canada for several years. CARE International is a humanitarian organization that fights poverty in 95 countries.
The U.N. is an intergovernmental organization with 193 member states responsible for maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations, achieving international cooperation and being a center for harmonizing the actions of nations.
“The U.N. and its multiple agencies, funds and programs provide various services that the world will continue to need no matter what happens on the geopolitical front. The U.N. is a forum for discussion, a neutral space for negotiations of international norms, a tool for the harmonization and coordination of international action, an authoritative source of information and statistics. It provides direct assistance to countries and people in need and is a strong advocate for the poor and the vulnerable,” Fréchette said.
Fréchette’s association with the U.N. began in the early 1970s, when, as a junior diplomat, she was sent to assist the Canadian delegation for the duration of the annual session of the General Assembly in New York. She also was assigned to the Canadian delegation in Geneva, Switzerland.
The Cold War, a period of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union with its satellite states, and the United States with its allies after World War II, was in full effect during her early service at the U.N., Fréchette said.
“Being a diplomat in those days seems, in retrospect, somewhat less complicated than it is today. The world was divided into two blocs, and we all knew to which side we belonged,” she said.
While agreement on many issues seemed impossible and the Security Council, charged with maintaining peace and security, was impotent and met only occasionally, many global treaties were negotiated and entered into during the Cold War, Fréchette said.
“New legal instruments set out rules, norms, and standards for relations among states in matters such as arms control, air transport, the environment and many more. The 'rules of the road' helped make the world a little more predictable, a little safer for everybody,” Fréchette said.
The end of the Cold War in the late 1980s marked a turning point for the U.N., and when Fréchette returned to the U.N. as Canada’s new ambassador and permanent representative in 1992, she found a “transformed institution.”
“My fellow ambassadors were in high spirits, and the place was buzzing with bold ambitions and new initiatives. Gone were the old cleavages. Countries on all continents were embracing democracy, the rule of law and human rights as well as market-based economic strategies,” she said.
“We were all convinced then that we could collectively make the world a better place; that the U.N. was finally in a position to fulfill the vision of its founders and bring peace and prosperity to the farthest corners of the planet.”
The Security Council became a quasi-permanent session and took on more than simply observing peace accords. It now oversaw peacekeeping missions to states emerging from wars to help organize elections, disarm ex-combatants and resettle refugees. In areas of continuing conflict, the Security Council deployed missions to deliver humanitarian relief and protect civilians.
“The end of the Cold War opened the way to a significant strengthening of the U.N. machinery to promote and support human rights,” Frechette said.
The post of U.N. high commissioner for human rights was created in 1993, tribunals to judge perpetrators of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda were created, and the Permanent International Criminal Court was established in 2002, she said.
The U.N.’s Millennium Summit in 2000 brought forward a commitment to reduce by half the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015.
All of this was happening amid the backdrop of weakening Russian influence and a China that was preoccupied with building its economy, she added.
In 2019, the picture is significantly different. The U.N. — an intergovernmental organization with 193 member states — is operating in an ever-changing and challenging political landscape, Fréchette said.
According to Fréchette, among the many challenges are these:
Russia has returned to the front pages, and China’s political and economic weight is being felt. Countries that progressed economically are less dependent on foreign aid. Democracy is being challenged. Religious extremism has led to violence and destruction in the Middle East. Enthusiasm for economic globalization has waned.
“In many societies nowadays, powerful forces are promoting barely concealed racist and xenophobic positions in the name of protecting national identities and values. They reject the open and tolerant worldview that was the hallmark of the immediate post-Cold War period,” Fréchette said.
In addition, “the risks of an increasingly fractured world are compounded by the rapid emergence of new realities — new powerful unmanned weapons, cybercrime, wide dissemination of false and harmful information, massive population movements, evidence of accelerating climate change — all of which would require coordinated and coherent responses on a global basis.”
Frechette acknowledged that “the gradual erosion of the current multilateral system may actually be welcome by those who see the U.N. as a would-be world government.”
However, “countries do not leave their national interest at the door when they enter U.N. premises,” she said.
“To advance their national interests individual governments must be prepared to contribute to the common good and often to sign onto a common rule book. Very little can be accomplished if every country on Earth insists on serving only its own immediate interests.”
Story by Nicole Greason, Barrett Honors College marketing and public relations manager, and Ranjani Venkatakrishnan, a Barrett student majoring in journalism
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