News Video | Policy | GPs | Hospitals | Medical | Mental Health | Welfare | Search


Kofi Annan Address On Shared Global Values And Law

11 February 2000

Press Release





Following is the text of the eighteenth Singapore Lecture, “Global Values -- The United Nations and the Rule of Law in the twenty-first Century”, which is to be delivered by Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the Westin Hotel in Singapore on 14 February:

Thank you, Professor Jayakumar, for that most generous introduction. You have raised expectations which I shall have difficulty living up to. Indeed, your dual credentials as scholar and policy maker make you a hard act for any lecturer to follow.

But one thing about those credentials does give me great encouragement for the topic I have chosen to speak about in front of this very distinguished audience. And that is the fact that you are both Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Law.

Off hand, I cannot think of any other Member State of the United Nations in which those two positions are combined. And I imagine that in some Member States the combination might even be thought eccentric. People still tend to see law as an almost exclusively domestic matter, while foreign policy is seen as the realm of pragmatism and even Realpolitik -- a domain where there is no law but the law of the jungle.

I am very glad to see that in Singapore you think differently. Not that you have a starry-eyed confidence in the eternally benign and law-abiding instincts of your neighbours. I know that you also set great store by being able to defend yourselves if need be, and that is certainly not something I would reproach you for. Every State enjoys the right of self-defence, under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. And, so long as its intentions are purely and unmistakably defensive -- as yours are -- the fact that a State is able and willing to defend itself reduces the risk that others will attack it.

In addition, a State with strong defence forces is better able to contribute to collective security operations when the need arises. Singapore, for example, was able to make a significant contribution to the collective action to uphold the sovereignty of Kuwait against aggression by Iraq in 1991, and -- more recently -- to the international force (INTERFET) which went to restore order and security in East Timor last year. Singapore has also contributed military observers to several United Nations peacekeeping operations, and you have now supplied the Deputy Chief of Staff, as well as a medical team, in the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor. We greatly value these contributions, and I hope that Singapore will feel able to contribute to other United Nations peacekeeping operations in the future.

So there is no contradiction at all between having the ability to defend yourself and having the determination to uphold international law. On the contrary, the two go hand in hand.

All States, but small States especially, have an interest in maintaining an international order based on something better than the grim maxim that “might is right” -- based, in fact, on general principles of law which give the same rights to the weak as to the strong. That point, I know, has never been lost on Singapore.

But there is a second reason why I believe Singapore has a strong and growing interest in the development of international law. Singapore may be a small State, but it is surely the least isolated State that anyone could ever imagine. Most countries trade a certain fraction of their gross national product overseas -- large or small according to the case. But your foreign trade is three times the size of your national product. That makes yours easily the most international national economy -- if I may put it like that -- of any Member State of the United Nations.

In other words, you have built your extraordinary success and prosperity on international trade and investment. When investors lose confidence in the international system -- as happened, briefly but dramatically, during the financial crisis two years ago -- Singapore's economy suffers, even though the source of the alarm may have nothing to do with Singapore itself. And if trade were interrupted, your economy would virtually disappear.

Yet, trade, services and investment can only cross national boundaries when law crosses them as well. The minimum condition for such transactions is that the trader and investor have confidence that their property rights will be respected, that contracts will be fulfilled, and that when disputes arise there is some agreed method of settling them.

Up to a point, such arrangements can be made on an ad hoc basis. But, we have long since moved beyond the stage where ad hoc arrangements are sufficient. Today, we live in a 24-hour trading universe, in which the markets never close because, as the hymn says,

“The sun that bids us rest is waking Our brethren 'neath the western sky.”

Traders in New York, or certainly in Los Angeles, are still in their offices when you in Singapore start work in the morning, and markets in Frankfurt or London are open before yours close. And we are all in constant touch with each other by telephone, e-mail and fax. In such a global economy, it is vital to have clear, simple rules that everyone knows and everyone applies. That is, by now, virtually a truism in the world of business.

What is not so widely appreciated is the extent to which such rules already exist, along with institutions to manage them. And still less widely known is the fact that many of these rules and institutions fall within the United Nations system. Let me give you some examples:

-- When ships sail freely across the seas and through international straits, they are protected by rules legitimized in United Nations conferences.

-- Commercial airlines have the right to fly across borders, and to land in case of emergency, thanks to agreements negotiated by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

-- Similarly, it is protocols of the Universal Postal Union which allow mail to move freely across borders.

-- Trademarks and patents are registered throughout the world by the World Intellectual Property Organisation.

-- The United Nations Statistical Commission helps ensure that economic statistics, accounting standards and commodity descriptions, wherever they are produced, mean the same thing to people reading them in other countries.

-- The World Health Organisation sets quality criteria for the pharmaceutical industry worldwide, and standardizes the names of drugs.

-- The United Nations Conventions on Sales and on the Carriage of Goods by Sea help to establish rights and obligations for buyers and sellers in international commercial transactions.

-- The International Telecommunications Union, by allotting frequencies, keeps the airwaves from becoming hopelessly clogged; and its technical standards enable transmitters and receivers on opposite sides of the world to connect with each other.

-- The World Meteorological Organisation collects data from Member States and redistributes them, making it possible to forecast the weather both around the world and in specific countries.

These are all services that many of us take for granted in our daily lives. But it is only thanks to a carefully woven network of international rules and regulations that we are able to do so. And the more we find ourselves living in a single economic space, the more we shall depend on such rules.

But the case I want to make to you this afternoon is that technical standards are not sufficient. True, they help to reduce transaction costs and to make the risks and profits of business more predictable. But if we treat globalization as a purely economic phenomenon, and apply common rules only in the purely technical and commercial areas, we are running very high social and political risks. Why? Because market forces, especially when unleashed on a global scale, bring about enormous and very rapid changes in people's lives.

Societies and political systems have to adjust to those changes. Indeed, they should be able to manage them, so that the maximum number of people benefit, and those who suffer do not suffer unbearably.

At present, that is not happening. Social and political structures are falling far behind the spread of markets.

Let me give an example, which probably affects everyone in this audience quite directly. Three years ago, a health-threatening haze spread right across this region. It was caused mainly by forest fires in Indonesia. They in turn were caused mainly by plantation owners starting fires deliberately. For various reasons, mainly to do with the political system then prevailing in Indonesia, the authorities did little to stop this, although it was against the law.

In other words, a failure of governance in one country caused severe environmental problems for many of its neighbours. Not surprisingly, they protested. Last year, when there were fears that the same thing might be happening again, Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Environment Ministers met here in Singapore and issued a statement, in unusually tough words, urging Indonesia to enforce the “zero burning” policy which President Habibie had announced.

It would be hard to find an international organization that is more respectful of its members' sovereignty than ASEAN. But in this case, ASEAN ministers felt no compunction about “interfering” in Indonesia's domestic affairs, because what it was doing clearly affected the lives of people in the other Member States. Everyone understood, in a case like that, how important it is to have common standards, and for those standards to be enforced.

I think the protests we saw in Seattle two months ago, during the World Trade Organization conference, were symptoms of a similar malaise on the global level. The protest groups were giving voice to some very widely felt fears and anxieties about the effects of globalization.

Those groups are right to be concerned -- about jobs, about human rights, about child labour, about the environment, about the commercialization of scientific and medical research.

They are right, above all, to be concerned about the desperate poverty in which so many people in developing countries are condemned to live.

They were only wrong in seeking to solve these problems by forging new shackles for world trade. Such restrictions, if adopted, would make the problems even worse, by aggravating poverty and obstructing development.

If we want to preserve the benefits of the new global economy, and ensure that they are shared by a much larger number of the world's citizens, we must find a better way to address these problems. We must show greater determination to tackle social and political issues directly.

In many areas, the United Nations and its specialized agencies are mandated to do precisely that. We are charged with advancing the causes of development, the environment, human rights and labour. Given appropriate funds and support, we can be part of the solution.

So, too, can the private sector. Transnational companies, which are the prime beneficiaries of economic liberalization, must share some of the responsibility for dealing with its social and environmental consequences.

Economic rights and social responsibilities are two sides of the same coin. That is why, a year ago in Davos, I proposed a Global Compact between business and the United Nations. I asked them to act, within their sphere of influence, according to internationally accepted standards in the areas of human rights, labour standards and the environment -- and I offered the services of the relevant parts of the United Nations system to help them do so.

The response, so far, has been very encouraging. I believe we can achieve a great deal by working together more closely.

But business can only do so much. Most businessmen are understandably alarmed at the idea that they should have the responsibility of setting environmental standards, or of inventing health insurance on a company-by- company basis. And frankly, I think it would be an abdication of responsibility by States if they were left to do so. It is above all the job of the State to define and enforce standards in these areas. And where common standards are needed, as increasingly they are, it is the job of States working together, through multilateral institutions.

And these standards have to be rooted in shared values. In the last resort, it is common values that hold every society together, and what we are talking about is really a global society. Moreover, every society must have a language; the language of global society is international law.

Of course, that society cannot and must not be completely uniform. The wonderful diversity of human cultures is something of inestimable value in itself, and also the main source of human dynamism. It must be preserved. But if different traditions are to coexist peacefully, they must do so within a framework of shared values -- a sense of our common humanity.

People must be able to follow their own traditions without making war on each other. They must have sufficient freedom to exchange ideas. They must be able to learn from each other.

And that means that each nation must not only respect the culture and traditions of others, but must also allow its own citizens the freedom to think for themselves. I am not sure that any culture has ever been successfully preserved by limiting the free thought and expression of the individuals who belonged to it, or by denying them free interaction with currents of thought from elsewhere. On the contrary, that tends to stifle their creativity, and thus, to sap the vigour and dynamism of a culture from within.

That is, perhaps, the greatest danger facing the cultures of today's developing countries. The greatest gap between them and the industrialized world is the “knowledge gap”. It can only be bridged by open-minded research and free, courageous thought.

The only tradition worth preserving is a living tradition. And traditions can only be kept alive by people whose minds are free to absorb and understand a world that is constantly changing. In short, we cannot build a global economy and society simply on the principle of “live and let live”, in the sense of letting each State enforce its own orthodoxy on all its citizens. Still, less can we do so by allowing one or two powerful “core States” in each region of the world to enforce their own will on others which are deemed to share their culture.

On the contrary, we must accept -- and even cultivate -- the presence of different traditions within each region, and indeed within each society.

All the great traditions and religions overlap when it comes to the fundamental principles of human conduct: charity, justice, compassion, mutual respect, the equality of human beings in the sight of God.

That is what has made it possible for States in all parts of the world, representing many different religious and cultural traditions, to espouse the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other more detailed agreements which flow from it. And those agreements, I submit to you, form a corpus of international law no less essential to the future health of our global society and economy than the more everyday ones I listed for you just now. Just as we scrupulously adhered to the latter, we must be equally firm in our commitment to these more fundamental agreements.

The Conventions against Genocide and Torture; the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the ones outlawing Discrimination whether on grounds of race or gender. These and others like them define the ground rules of a global civilization within which there will still room for the human spirit to express itself in many, many rich and diverse forms. In fact, there should be room for greater diversity than ever before, because the purpose of all these international instruments is to safeguard human freedom. The practices that they forbid are those, which cramp and oppress the human spirit, and prevent human beings from realizing their full potential.

I have yet to hear of a civilization, which claims torture or repression or discrimination as one of its positive values. I am convinced that all societies and cultures will blossom and flourish when international law, firmly rooted in the global values I have outlined, is fully implemented and enforced. It is only when coercive power is used to limit freedom of thought, out of exaggerated fear of external influences, that the vitality of a culture is really in danger.

Let me conclude then, Mr. Chairman, by borrowing a famous phrase from one of the founders of the United Nations: “We have nothing to fear, save fear itself.”


© Scoop Media

Culture Headlines | Health Headlines | Education Headlines


Howard Davis Review: Tarantino's Pitch-Perfect Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

Welcome back to the violent and misogynistic, yet always entertaining world of Quentin Tarantino, who this time around focuses his dyspeptic lens on Tinseltown's pimply backside. More>>

Westpac Exiting Cake Tin: Stadium Announces Naming Rights Agreement With Sky

Wellington Regional Stadium Trust (WRST) and Sky Network Television Ltd (Sky) have announced a new partnership that will see Sky secure the naming rights of the Stadium from 1 January 2020. More>>


ASB Classic: Serena Williams Confirmed For 2020

One of the biggest names in sport has confirmed she will be returning to the ASB Classic in 2020. Twenty-three time Grand Slam singles champion Serena Williams will return to Auckland’s ASB Tennis Arena to challenge for the ASB Classic title. More>>

Netball: Taurua To Coach Silver Ferns Through Two More Campaigns

Netball New Zealand has confirmed Taurua will guide the Silver Ferns as they take on the Australian Diamonds in October’s Cadbury Netball Series (Constellation Cup), along with the Northern Quad Series in late January. More>>




  • Wellington
  • Christchurch
  • Auckland