The first briefing of our Study Tour was about the United Nations in the New Millennium. Ms. Patricia Seghers, who works for the Department of Public Information of the UN Secretariat, gave us a comprehensive overview on this crucial topic.
First, Ms. Seghers focused on the outcome of the World Summit in September 2005. This important summit marked the 60th anniversary of the United Nations and was a follow-up to previous conferences such as the 2000 Millennium Summit. The World Summit analyzed the progress made in the last five years concerning the Millennium Development Goals that tackle topics like gender, health, education, sustainable development and the eradication of poverty. It redefined the strategy to achieve the goals on time and underlined the need to adapt and reform the UN to the priorities and challenges of today’s world.
Ms. Seghers mentioned several important aspects that were dealt with at the Summit and which identified the main challenges for the UN today. She also described the way in which the UN had to change in order to meet those challenges. The lack of consensus in defining the UN’s priorities had been criticized: Developed countries saw the fight against terrorism and the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as top priorities, whereas developing countries considered the improvement of health conditions and the fight against poverty more important. The Summit’s conclusion was that all these challenges were deeply interlinked and could therefore not be addressed separately. Kofi Annan had drawn the same conclusion in his report “In Larger Freedom” of 2005 which again recognized the impossibility of achieving goals such as development without achieving others such as peace and security.
Overall, Ms. Seghers regretted that the news reaching the public had been describing the Summit outcome as disappointing and negative. In her opinion, the fact that some issues had been left unsolved (such as, for example, the definition of terrorism) did not turn the Summit into a failure. In fact, very important and concrete commitments had been made in different areas: Concerning poverty and development a global consensus on the eradication of poverty had been reached. All UN Member States had again committed themselves to spend 0.7% of their GDP on development aid; and developing countries had obligated themselves to ensure the protection of the environment. In the field of health, the Member States had agreed to implement health quick-impact projects as a practical and efficient strategy to address problems such as malaria and HIV/AIDS. With regard to peace and security, terrorism had been condemned unanimously; furthermore a working group had been created to elaborate a comprehensive convention against terrorism. All UN Member States had decided to establish a Peacebuilding Commission. This Commission will assist the international community in post-conflict regions by giving assistance in the fields of post-conflict recovery, reconstruction, institution-building and sustainable development.
In the field of Human Rights, the past failure of the international community to prevent the violation of Human Rights had been recognized. The establishment of a Human Rights Council had been agreed upon, completed only days before the briefing by resolution A/RES 60/251 of 3 April 2006. The UN Member States decided that the task of the Council was to “address situations of violations of Human Rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon”. Furthermore, the resolution comprised the distribution of membership.
At the 2005 Summit, all UN Member States endorsed the concept of “responsibility to protect”, an emerging international norm, meaning that the international community has the obligation to protect the civilian population in intrastate conflicts or crises in case the government is not able or willing to take up its responsibility. Ms. Seghers underlined that although this was a political commitment, it already represented a significant first step. Finally, the international community acknowledged that the concept of sovereignty in the past had been sometimes used as a barrier to comply with Human Rights principles and it was recommended that the states should not use it to allow violations of Human Rights.
Ms Seghers finished her speech by once more stressing the positive outcome of the World Summit. Afterwards, answering one of our many questions, she explained that the main problem of the Commission on Human Rights had been its lack of legitimacy as its members were sometimes violators of Human Rights themselves. Our speaker expressed her belief that the lack of consensus in the creation of the new Human Rights Council was a minor problem that would neither affect its legitimacy nor its efficiency. In response to a question concerning the lacking contributions to the UN Budget, Ms. Seghers concluded that the scale of assessments was already in discussion. She emphasized the importance of keeping the public informed, especially concerning the UN’s work and its effect on everyone’s daily lives.
Finally, Ms. Seghers stressed that the UN had become more operational by helping countries to effectively implement their commitments and by making sure that “the story gets told” as a means of ensuring the achievement of the goals of the international community.