Jack Straw – 2006 Speech at the United Nations General Assembly

The text of the speech made by Jack Straw, the then Foreign Secretary, on 1 February 2006.

Let me first thank Lord Hannay for his introduction and say how delighted I was to hear he has been appointed as Chairman of the UNA. It is difficult to think of anyone more suited for the position. His skill as a diplomat and advocate is matched only by his profound knowledge of and commitment to the United Nations.

And may I also extend a welcome to everyone here tonight – and in particular to the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan.

As Lord Hannay has said, tonight we are marking the 60th anniversary of the first plenary session of the United Nations General Assembly – though as you probably know, that first gathering, which the newspapers of the time affectionately referred to as “the town meeting of the world”, actually took place a little earlier in the month – January 10th to be precise.

When that first General Assembly gathered here in Methodist Central Hall it was, I understand, rather to the annoyance of the congregation who were forced to decamp to the London Coliseum and who expressed deep disquiet at the idea of gin-swilling diplomats being allowed on the premises.

Indeed, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that this would be the venue. Many of the officials in the Preparatory Commission advocated holding the meeting on the other side of Parliament Square in the great medieval chamber of Westminster Hall. In the end, this building won out for the rather prosaic reasons of heating and acoustics.

It was, though, rather an apt venue for the United Nations – an organisation committed to freedom, peace and equality. The Suffragettes met here in 1914; Mahatma Gandhi spoke here in 1931; it was in this building, in 1940, that General de Gaulle announced the foundation of the Free French movement. And throughout the war, the basement served as one of the biggest air raid shelters in London, providing safety for hundreds of people.

The minutes of that first meeting of the United Nations are fascinating. They reverberate with a real sense of the optimism and idealism. Much of what was said still resonates today. The British Prime Minster Clement Atlee spoke eloquently of how the welfare of each nation was bound up with the welfare of the world as a whole; how, in his words, “we are truly all members one of another”. If that was true in 1946 – and it was – it is even more true in today’s interconnected world.

There are even some early examples of the pitfalls which can befall those of us who appear at the United Nations; the British Foreign Secretary, Ernie Bevin, didn’t realise his microphone was on and the entire Security Council heard him mutter: “..the bloody Chairman has double-crossed me again”.

There is one thing which stands out from the minutes of those early meetings. Many of the people in this room that day were veterans of the League of Nations. Aware of the tragic consequences of that organisation’s failings they were absolutely determined that the United Nations would be new and different; it must not repeat the mistakes of the past.

So the recognition of the need to change and adapt in the face of each new challenge has always been vital to the success of the United Nations. And no-one has shown more commitment to this task than tonight’s guest of honour, Kofi Annan.

As Secretary General, he has not been afraid to engender debate on questions which are as sensitive as they are important. For example, he has forcefully challenged the idea that states can hide behind their sovereignty to defend human rights abuse. He used his voice to urge the international community to agree upon its collective responsibility to protect vulnerable populations from the worst atrocities: genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Similarly, Kofi has worked to cut through the ambiguity and equivocation which has surrounded the definition of terrorism. And in the fractious aftermath to the war in Iraq, it was he who spoke of a fork in the road and who helped to heal divisions.

His long career in the United Nations, at the World Health Organisation and UNHCR in Geneva, at the Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, in the Secretariat in New York and on various special assignments equipped him to drive reform of the United Nations machinery itself. His important reports in 1997 and 2002 on UN reform showed how the organisation could be made much more efficient. Making good the Charter’s “We the peoples”, under his stewardship the UN is more open than ever before, with wider access for civil society and more participation by the private sector through initiatives such as the Global Compact. Last year, his report “In larger freedom” set out a vision for a United Nations better able to bring development, security and human rights for all.

No-one – least of all Kofi – underestimates the scale of the challenges ahead both for the United Nations and for its member states. Take a quick glance at the headlines on any given day in the past week – worries over climate change, uncertainty in the Palestinian Authority, concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the complex dispute in Cyprus. If we are to meet these challenges – and many others besides – the international community will need a strong United Nations.

At the World Summit last year we agreed a programme of reform at the United Nations that will make it a more effective organisation. We must maintain that momentum. This means ensuring that the recently created Peacebuilding Commission becomes an effective body and it means establishing a Human Rights Council which avoids the weaknesses of the existing Commission. Modernising the administration will dominate the agenda for the first half of 2006. In particular, we look forward to the Secretary General’s imminent recommendations on how we should reprioritise programme activity across the organisation.

At the same time, we need to strengthen the international consensus in support of the non-proliferation regime and against the threat of global terrorism. There is still a lot more we must do if we are to meet the Millennium Development Goals; and in Africa progress is further threatened by ongoing conflicts such as those in Darfur and the Great Lakes and worsening situations like those on the borders of Eritrea and Ethiopia and the Ivory Coast.

Earlier today, Kofi co-chaired – with the Afghan and British governments – the London Conference on Afghanistan. The United Nations has done great work there and has a key role in co-ordinating international support. The same is true in Iraq, where it played a vital role in the three sets of elections last year. I know the United Nations has some very legitimate security and other concerns but I hope that over the coming year we will be able to see the Iraqi people – particularly those outside Baghdad – benefiting even more from the organisation’s immense expertise and experience.

So there is some tough work ahead – work which I am sure that Kofi will go into in much more detail.

In this his final year of office, he can be sure of the support of the United Kingdom and of our continuing commitment to the United Nations. It is support which can be measured in the levels of our assessed and voluntary contributions to the UN budget – significantly more than any other European country and double what we were contributing a decade ago. But it can also be measured in our constructive engagement with the United Nations agenda across the board. We act as strong advocates for reform precisely because we know that the world needs a robust and effective United Nations. In the foundations which he has laid over the past nine years, Kofi Annan has given us good reason for confidence in the future.

It is then my great pleasure and privilege to introduce the Secretary General of the United Nations.