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Phil Goff speech: United Nations Day speech

Hon Phil Goff speech: United Nations Day speech

Address to the UN Youth Assoc of NZ, Auckland Region Waipuna Conference Centre Auckland

Karen Chung, President of the Auckland region of the United Nations Youth Association of New Zealand; members of the Association, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you for your invitation to address you on this occasion, which celebrates United Nations Day. I am particularly pleased to be here with the United Nations Youth Association because the focus of the United Nations is on creating a better world for the future. Indeed the preamble of the charter of the UN states expressly the determination of the new organisation to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.

The United Nations was born out of the destruction and death of the Second World War. It was the second time that such a holocaust had devastated Europe and much of the world within 25 years.

The founders of the United Nations, including our own Prime Minister Peter Fraser, hoped that by creating an organisation through which the nations of the world could talk with each other, work together and resolve disputes without conflict, we could create a better world.

Their vision was for a peaceful, prosperous, fairer and more just world. It is a vision we have yet to achieve 58 years on, but it is a vision no less relevant and one just as important to strive for today.

Since 1945 we have indeed avoided further world wars but we cannot forget that more than 27 million people have nevertheless died in conflicts since that time.

We cannot ignore that the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, in particular nuclear weapons, has increased since 1945. As Einstein commented:

"Splitting the atom changed everything but the way we think. Hence we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe."

We have the capacity for the first time in history to self-destruct.

We also cannot ignore the 20 million refugees who live as displaced persons because of war or persecution in their homelands.

Our environment is at risk and continues to be damaged by unsustainable activities. We may be more environmentally aware, scientifically informed and better resourced today but too often the international political will to change course away from environmental damage has been lacking. We are still unable to find consensus on critical issues, such as reversing the process of global warming through agreement to implement the Kyoto Protocol.

We have achieved huge advances in health. On average each of us will live years longer than our grandparents’ generation. But still diseases like HIV/AIDs devastate Africa and may in future threaten our Asia-Pacific region. It has to be of concern that it has taken until now for the international community to agree that drugs vital for treatment should be made available to developing countries at a price they can afford.

People still die of malnutrition in many countries of the world while the developed world considers how it should cope with the growing problem of obesity.

I raise these issues not to create despondency and depression, but to remind us that there is an enormous job still to do.

That job cannot be done unilaterally, bilaterally or even regionally. It requires a multilateral response. The organisation best placed, indeed the only organisation, with the ability to undertake this task is the United Nations.

It is a human characteristic that we tend to focus on our shortcomings. There is an abundance of these in the way in which the United Nations operates. Yet we should not overlook the enormous achievements and the vital importance of the work the UN has done and continues to do.

Its work in the human rights area has been hugely important. It has established critical benchmarks through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It continues with new initiatives such as the Protocol against Torture, which I signed in New York last month on behalf of New Zealand, making us one of the first countries to do so.

I think as New Zealanders we can be proud of the fact that earlier this year New Zealand was singled out by the Human Rights Watch Group as being "among the few to hold a firm and principled line on key human rights issues".

In the area of disarmament, the doomsday clock may well have reached midnight but for UN efforts towards reducing the threat of nuclear war through agreements such as the Non Proliferation Treaty.

UN Conventions against Chemical and Biological Warfare and the work done by the United Nations Mine Action Service are similarly important.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development, and a range of UN conventions aimed at protecting and enhancing the environment, have been critical to investigating and repairing the damage that human beings have unthinkingly done to the world that sustains us.

I should note, too, how pleased I was to see New Zealand elected last week as the top-polling country, and by a record margin, to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, the fist time we have been represented on this important body.

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees has done vitally important work in easing the suffering, preserving the lives and successfully settling millions made homeless by war and brutal regimes.

And in peacekeeping, while failures have been all too obvious, we should not overlook the enormous success.

Closest to home is the work done by the United Nations in East Timor, which has turned an occupied and oppressed country into a free and independent nation, albeit one with enormous challenges still ahead of it.

I pay tribute to the work done by the UN Secretary General's Special Representative in East Timor, Sergio de Mello, who was tragically killed in the recent bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad.

UN peacekeepers and UN-mandated peacekeepers across the world have prevented conflicts taking a much greater toll on people and communities than would have been the case had they not intervened.

Most recently, of course, we saw the failure of multilateralism and of the UN to avoid the conflict in Iraq.

The Security Council agreed unanimously on the goal of disarmament for Saddam's Iraq. There was, however, a failure of international consensus on how that goal might have been achieved by peaceful means. The coalition forces bypassed the UN process and took military action unilaterally.

Iraq demonstrated both the importance of the United Nations and its limitations.

The very fact that a year ago President Bush took the issue of Iraq to the United Nations General Assembly, and the strong push the US to win Security Council endorsement of military action, was recognition of the importance of a UN mandate.

At the popular level, opinion polls showed far less support for action without a UN mandate than with it.

Acting without this mandate has contributed to the difficulties that Tony Blair has had in winning the support of his party and country for the UK's involvement in Iraq.

While its critics slated the UN for irrelevance in respect to the Iraq conflict, the coalition forces quickly sought a mandate from the UN to determine Iraq's future. The need for legitimacy and for greater international support for the enormous task of rebuilding and creating a stable and democratic Iraq in the wake of the war has brought the situation back to the UN Security Council.

Winning the peace was always going to be more difficult than winning the war.

The complexity of the problem, and the fact that violence begets violence, has demonstrated clearly that unilateralism itself has severe limitations in the process of problem solving.

The reconstruction of Iraq and establishing a legitimate successor to the Saddam regime requires the support and the endorsement of the international community through the United Nations.

The UN is for this reason a key forum for determining the ultimate resolution of events in Iraq. All countries on the Security Council made a big effort to find consensus and unanimously supported Resolution 1511 for this reason, not withstanding continuing differences about the best way forward.

The UN is not a perfect organisation. It never will be.

As Shashi Tharoor, UN Undersecretary for Communications and Public Information, has aptly put it:

"The UN at its best is a mirror of the world. It reflects our divisions and disagreements as well as our hopes and convictions."

It has survived and it will survive, because the world does need a multilateral forum and a framework of international rules to create order and assist security.

Reform of the organs of the UN to reflect the realities of the 21st century, and to provide greater focus and relevance to the work of the United Nations and its debates is vital to its future performance. Kofi Annan, in establishing an eminent persons group to consider reform proposals, made this point strongly at this year's general assembly debate.

As a small country, New Zealand relies on multilateralism and the rule of international law to protect its interests and to achieve its own international goals of promoting security, stability and prosperity, and a just world.

We will continue in our efforts to promote the work and the role of the United Nations.

We are proud of the description Kofi Annan gave New Zealand, in saying that it was “a model international citizen”.

Young people have a special role to paly in pursuing the principles enshrined in the UN, and it is encouraging to see the UN youth movement in New Zealand continuing to grow stronger. We have been seeking to increase involvement of young people in our work at the UN, with the Permanent Mission in New York now offering regular internships to young New Zealanders during the UN General Assembly and other UN meetings.

You have had to adapt to globalisation and to technological change more than any earlier generation has. You will be the future drivers of change at home and internationally.

You have as a proud tradition to build on this country's reputation for thinking independently and standing up for what we believe in.

I hope that your idealism, energy and commitment will succeed in building the peaceful, harmonious and fair world that my generation continues to strive for but has not yet achieved.

Thank you.

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