The United Nations and the Fork in the Road

Author: Mr Hans Dahlgren

Period: January 2005 - March 2005

The United Nations and the Fork in the Road

Mr Hans Dahlgren


Today 10 December 2004 is the Nobel Day, when the Nobel Prizes are given out in Stockholm and in Oslo. The day before yesterday, I had the honour to hand over the Swedish Nobel Committee’s copy of the Medal of Shri Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize for Literature to the Visva-Bharati Rabindra Memorial Museum, through the Honourable Minister of External Affairs, Shri Natwar Singh. I hope this will close the chapter of the shameful theft of the original. I am most grateful to the Nobel Committee and the Embassy of Sweden in New Delhi who have together with the Indian authorities made this possible.

Tagore’s wisdom and influence stretches across the globe. I remember hearing of the following words of his, in the General Assembly three years ago, then read by Prime Minister Vajpayee:

From now onward, any nation that takes an isolated view of its own interests will run contrary to the spirit of the New Age, and will know no peace. From now onward, the anxiety that each country has for its own safety must embrace the welfare of the whole world.

It feels like it was written today, amidst a new era of new threats. But it was written six decades ago.

Sweden and India share a strong commitment to sustainable development, democracy, human rights and international law. Our fight against apartheid during the Cold War was an expression of these common values. Our strong support today for the United Nations (UN) is another expression of our common values. That brings me to today’s topic, “The United Nations and the Fork in the Road”. In 2003 the Secretary-General made an unusually strong statement on the need to reform and revitalisation of the UN. That was also when he read his famous line, “We have reached a fork in the road”. He talked about a fork where one direction leads to an improved capacity for finding common solutions to common problems, while the other direction leads back to a world of unilateral decision making. 

He suggested to us that we must make this choice now, decide in which direction we want to go. And try to identify what is best for our common security, and for the future of our children. To better address the challenges facing the world, the Secretary-General stressed that the UN must not be afraid of “radical change” to improve the adequacy and effectiveness of the tools the institution has at its disposal.
Sweden could only but concur. We as a collective could either continue to muddle through, or we can set a new direction with a new and more effective UN. Sadly, the euphoria at the end of the Cold War brought us only partial change. We failed to reach a decision on a comprehensive reform package. 10 years later, that project is still an open question. The main reason for our indecision, I believe, is that we have for too long allowed our national interests to overshadow our global interests, what we have in common.

The UN needs to be modern and relevant. It must face the challenges of the 21st Century more comprehensively and more effectively; from HIV, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Aids) and environmental degradation to terrorism, organised crime and weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, the UN must be able to act early and quickly, in an integrated, sustainable and legitimate manner.

A strong UN also safeguards our collective security system. We are all aware that global threats require global solutions. Only the UN offers a structure for comprehensive action. Only the UN provides legitimacy for necessary, coercive measures.

But the Secretary General’s statement on “a fork in the road” did signal a significant change. It gave the Secretary General the opportunity to establish the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. This has, in turn, created this momentum for reform and revitalisation of the UN. The High Level Panel, of which of course General Satish Nambiar is an eminent member, circulated its report in the first week of December 2004. While the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs is still analysing all the 101 recommendations, I will say that it is a very good report and that Sweden stands ready to support its main conclusions. It takes a comprehensive approach to collective security as never before. It deals with terrorism, organised crime, weapons of mass destruction as well as environmental degradation and HIV / Aids. It contains bold and forward looking recommendations on institutional reforms. 

There will be a crucial High Level Summit in New York in September 2005. Besides addressing the follow-up to the Millennium Declaration, it should also deal with and take a decision on the UN reforms. In preparing for that summit, I hope that we will now use the recommendations from the High-Level Panel and with them move towards a decision during the summit.

Prospects of a Successful Reform

Before I turn to some of the specifics, let me first offer you some personal thoughts on conceptions and misconceptions that may affect the prospects for successful reforms.
First, it must be stressed that the core principles of the Charter of the UN remain as valid as ever. Threats to international peace and security must be met collectively – even if we talk about new threats. Some of the central institutions that are needed to deal successfully also with new threats basically already exist.

The Security Council still carries the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security and has proved to be quite able to adapt to new agendas. The latest war in Iraq was seen by many as a failure of the Council. I hold the opposite view. The Security Council did not endorse or mandate a military operation in Iraq in 2003, because that was not the right thing to do. The arms inspectors should have been given more time, they had an ongoing project that had to be abandoned because of the unilateral action that was taken. And now, after the war, even the United States understands the need for a central role for the UN in the efforts to help rebuild Iraq into a prosperous and democratic country. It was possible for the US to go into Iraq without the UN. But I doubt that it will be possible for the United States to leave Iraq without the UN.

Second, let us not forget what we have achieved. The ban on the use of military force in the UN Charter nearly 60 years ago remains valid. There is no established right to armed aggression, and there is no established right to engage in preventive or pre-emptive warfare. Peace is not just an ideal. It is the legal norm. Of course, the use of force is still from a legal standpoint permitted. But only as a last resort, and only when authorised by the Security Council, unless it is an act of self-defence. I believe that it will be useful to constantly assert the normative force for peaceful resolution of conflict that international law provides. If we do not, we risk ourselves to contribute to weakening that norm.

My third observation is regarding the new threats and new challenges. But let us not lose sight of the fact that international law and the institutions created by the UN Charter do remain generally applicable also to modern day armed conflict.

Most of these conflicts are now intra-state rather than inter-state. But that does not lead to a need for any fundamental rewriting of international law. Guerrilla warfare, insurgencies, terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and small arms and violence against civilians are not new phenomena. There are various expressions of international law to deal with all of them.

Armed groups that are not affiliated with any particular state are subjects of international law in armed conflict, just as states are. Many UN peace-support missions do cover intra-state conflicts, like the major missions that are operating right now in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia. 

Let me turn to some of Sweden’s views on how to adapt our common efforts and our common institutions to the new threats and challenges.

Security Council

The Security Council has the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. I hold it as one of the most respectable and central institutions in the world. This is also why it is so difficult to reform. 10 years of discussions has brought us precious little result. I myself co-chaired the UN Working Group on Security Council reform for two long years, and frankly speaking, I am not sure we advanced a bit during those years. But this year, the debate has moved. Much credit should be given to the Secretary General himself for establishing the High Level Panel, and for instructing it to be bold and innovative. The Panel’s recommendations were released only last week. But already now the Panel’s discussions have created a strong political momentum. There seems indeed to be a consensus in support of an enlargement of the Security Council for it to remain legitimate, relevant and more efficient.

Sweden strongly backs the view that the Security Council should be enlarged with new members so that it becomes more representative. Its composition must reflect today’s world, not the world at the end of the Second World War. While Sweden has chosen, at this stage, not to give explicit support to any country, we do recognise that there are countries that have emerged as key political and economic powers since the Charter was written. These countries should be given a role in the work of the Council, which is commensurate to their importance. It is of course entirely logical to include India in that small number of countries. As for Europe, we believe that the European Union should as a long-term vision strive for a joint seat in the Security Council. This vision should be seen as a part of the European Union’s journey towards a more articulate common foreign and security policy. We are building up that common policy, step by step, but there is indeed a long way to go.

It is true also that we have to tread carefully so that an expansion of the Security Council does not leave us with a less efficient Council. That would bring us back to where we started in the early nineties. One way to safeguard the Council’s efficiency would be to limit the use of veto power. That power could be limited in scope. It could, for example, be followed by a requirement in which a member state had to explain the reasons behind its use of the veto power. Many other ideas for reducing the effect of the present veto right have been put forward. And one clear conclusion, on our part, is that we cannot accept extending the veto to any new permanent or semi-permanent member of the Council.

Conflict Prevention

In the second reform area the UN must pay more attention to conflict prevention. The Security Council needs to intensify its focus on potential crises, not just on those that are going on. To achieve such a shift, the UN must develop its early warning capacities and its readiness to act on such early warning signals. As a consequence, and as suggested in the Brahimi report, the Secretary General must be given resources to enhance his ability to provide for such early warning. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has successfully developed such an early warning mechanism. I see no reason why the UN could not do the same.

The current crisis in Darfur, Sudan underlines this point. The Council has indeed taken some resolute action, but once again too late and too little. For every week, as many people get killed in Darfur as there were victims of the 11 September 2001 in New York.

Non Proliferation

There is reason to focus more on non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The Panel’s report identifies nuclear proliferation as a particular danger. It says that “we are approaching a point at which the erosion of the nuclear regime could become irreversible and result in a cascade of proliferation”. Such a development would in my view be simply catastrophic. This is certainly not an issue of concern just to the declared nuclear weapon states, or to those who have recently acquired or tested such weapons. This is an issue that belongs to all people on this earth. As we said in the “Six Nation Initiative”, in the Delhi Declaration almost 20 years ago: “We, the non-nuclears, must also have a say”. There are several concrete proposals in the Panel’s report in these matters, directed towards different actors as under :-


(a) One is for the declared nuclear weapon states, that they must finally honour their commitments under article VI of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and move towards disarmament.


Another proposal is for India, Pakistan and Israel, even if not mentioned by name, to demonstrate their commitment to non-proliferation and disarmament by ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and support negotiations for a treaty to cut-off fissile material.


Another proposal is to use peace efforts in South Asia, and in the Middle East, as a starting point for talks aimed at establishing nuclear weapon free zones.


Yet another proposal is for the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva to start negotiations on a verifiable fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT).

I believe that these are all good ideas, well worthy of pursuing in preparations for high-level summit in 2005. And I have noticed that the Secretary General has put particular emphasis on this part of the Panel’s report, in his initial comments.


We need to do more to prevent recurrence of conflicts. There is an obvious gap between post-conflict management and long-term development. The UN peacekeeping missions sometimes leave too early and without linking up long-term development programmes.

One tragic example is Haiti. The international community in the mid-1990s flew in, enforced peace, and flew out. There was not much thought given to linking the efforts of the peacekeeping mission to long-term development. Not surprisingly, Haiti saw a resurgence of violence only a few years later, and again this year.

A more current example is Liberia. Almost 1,00,000 combatants have successfully been disarmed and demobilised. The UN Mission – now the largest in the world – has been very efficient at disarmament and demobilisation. But it has been much more difficult to provide alternative occupation for the combatants, like schooling, vocational training or, yet even better, jobs. Without sounding too sombre, where could they possibly go but back to their old occupation? And if they do, the unrest and the fighting may very well start again.

For the UN to better manage transition from conflict to peace, Sweden has suggested that a Standing Committee of the Security Council could be set up. It could advise the Council on transition issues, and better link the agenda of the Council with that of Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). In its report, the High Level Panel suggests that a peacebuilding commission be established to address these issues.


The UN needs more financial resources. True, one does not simply solve problems by adding more money or more staff. But when one contemplates that the regular budget of the UN equals the budget of the city of Stockholm, there is clearly a need for change of the international community’s priorities. At the end of the day, if we wish the UN to do more, we must also give more. The Secretary General and his staff need better instruments, to be better at preventive diplomacy. That does carry some costs – but of course the cost such as a war breaking out, if not prevented, is so much higher. But the follow up to disarmament and demobilisation, the reintegration and rehabilitation, like in Liberia right now, also needs much more money. May be we will have to consider new financial scales, so that some of the problems that we face today, with almost full reliance on voluntary contributions to regular programmes, can be addressed. 

Reform the Human Rights Commission

We need to reform the Human Rights Commission. To me, it is obscure that some of the worst human rights abusers are at the same time members of the Commission. It undermines the UN legitimacy and relevance, and its democratic values. Sweden has suggested for many years that the Commission’s work should be de-politicised by changing the membership to universal membership, and that member states should be represented by professional human rights experts – not governmental officials. I am happy to see that the High Level Panel’s report contains a proposal along the same lines. 

"All’s well that ends well" – that is what William Shakespeare wrote. I hope that we can be brave and optimistic about the process in front of us and that it will come to a positive conclusion at the High Level Summit in 2005. Let us hope that we can do now what we could not do in the early 1990s – change the UN so that it can better address today’s challenges.




His Excellency Mr Hans Dahlgren is the Foreign Secretary of Sweden.



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