The United Nations at a Crossroads
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 19 May 2005, p. 413-426
Rock, His Excellency Mr. Allan, Speaker
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Some personal reminiscences. Speaking today as Canada's ambassador to the United Nations. Anecdotes about the speaker's experience at the UN. The UN's shortcomings and how it happened - an explication. Why all of us can and must help the United Nations win the fight to save itself. Ways in which the UN is indispensible. Some successful UN efforts. The speaker's recent experiences in Africa. Canada's efforts on several key objectives. Becoming more involved..
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19 May 2005
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His Excellency Mr. Allan Rock
Ambassador and Permanent Representative, Permanent Mission to the United Nations
Chairman: Bart J. Mindszenthy
President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests

Rev. Dr. John Niles, Rector, St. Andrews United Church, Brampton and 2nd Vice-President, The Empire Club of Canada; Paula Nathwani. Grade 12 Student, North Toronto Collegiate Institute; Grant Kerr, Pastoral Staff, St. Paul's United Church, Brampton; Professor Janice Gross Stein, Director, Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto; Paul Heinbecker, Distinguished Fellow, The Centre for International Governance Innovation and Director, The Laurier Centre for Global Relations, Governance and Policy, Wilfrid Laurier University; The Hon. Frank Iaccobucci, Interim President, University of Toronto; Roxanna Benoit, President and CEO, Canadian Investor Relations Institute and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Giles Gherson, Editor-in-Chief, The Toronto Star; Jon Levin, Partner, Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP; Kathryn White, Executive Director, United Nations Association in Canada; and Louis P. Bernier, Firm Managing Partner, Fasken Martineau DuMoulin.

Introduction by Bart Mindszenthy

Ladies and gentlemen, I invite you to think back to near the end of the second decade of the past century.

Please think back to when the League of Nations was conceived as the most effective body to protect the world from future global wars after the absolute horrors of what we then called The Great War.

The intent was bold and beautiful, but the eventual outcome was disastrous and deadly.

These past weeks, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, we have just observed and reflected upon, and shared again, the awfulness of what became the next and totally unwanted great war: World War II. And with it came all the new horrors we had to understand to endure.

And throughout this new and long global calamity we daily counted and registered and chronicled what would add up to be the millions of totally innocent victims who died for the sins of a greedy and inhumane few. Many, too many millions in fact; comprised of soldiers who had no options, and civilians of all ages, religious beliefs and cultures, who were ambushed by the course of events and deprived of hope and a future.

So wise leaders conceived the concept of a United Nations near the end of what our parents hoped would be the final, ultimate great global war. A United Nations directed and driven by a handful of leading, winning, and agenda-driven nations determined to define our earthly relationships for some four decades.

What they built was good while a cold war paradigm prevailed.

But today there is a United Nations embroiled in controversy; a world body bloated by membership and bureaucracy; a UN with many member nations displaying a vociferous appetite for regional power and unilaterally acceptable ambitions of command and control.

It is a UN that tries valiantly to operate in a world of ongoing regionalized, tribal-like, vicious and deadly conflicts that sap the strength and goodwill of an already belaboured global community of conflicted nations.

Now, today, we are at a decisive worldly crossroad--an intersection where at the moment all roads seem to lead to nowhere we should want to go. Yet billions of people and dozens upon dozens of nations small and large want to find a path to reason, a road to peace and a highway to personal and national prosperity.

A vibrant and healthy and meaningful UN can help make that happen.

And it's at this critical crossroad--making the UN we have more vibrant, healthy, meaningful, and relevant--that we welcome Canada's Ambassador to the United Nations, the Honourable Allan Rock.

It's his responsibility to be the voice of Canadians to the General Assembly and the Security Council. He promotes Canada's global priorities through diplomacy and multilateral co-operation.

Ambassador Rock has a decade of experience in government and policymaking. He was a Member of Parliament from 1993 to 2003. During that period, he served in the federal cabinet as Minister of Justice and Attorney General, as Minister of Health, and most latterly, as Minister of Industry Canada.

At the United Nations, he is an advocate of human rights, human security and UN reform. He has consistently called for more vigorous international action to address humanitarian needs and foster development, particularly in Africa.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the podium of the Empire Club of Canada our voice and conscience at the United Nations, Ambassador Allan Rock.

Allan Rock

They say that you can't go home again.

But they're wrong.

When I return to certain special places, places that shaped my dreams when I was younger, that made me the man I am today, then I feel something beyond mere nostalgia. I feel like I'm coming home. And that's very much the way I feel today--here in a familiar place, in the company of so many friends.

I practised law at King and Bay for 22 years. Those were good years, fulfilling years. I made many lasting friendships. Those friendships sustained me during the 10 years that I spent in elected office.

It was a sense of service that took me from here to Ottawa. I regarded those years as a tour of duty, a chance to advocate for ideas I believed in. A chance to give something back to a country that has been so good to me.

But today my message is not political. My message is anything but partisan. Today I want to speak to subjects that engage our common humanity. I want to speak to choices that will have a profound effect on this world that we all share. And I want to speak about global issues that will help to put into perspective the domestic political differences that preoccupy us so.

I speak to you today as Canada's ambassador to the United Nations. It fills me with pride to be able to sit behind our country's nameplate at the very epicentre of multilateralism. There I represent Canadian values, and this country's respect for diversity--which not only defines our self-image, but defines the way the world sees us.

And it's because of our international reputation for balanced and humanistic leadership, our willingness to make peace in the midst of conflict, that Canada has the respect and the credibility to play a vital role in the process of renewing the United Nations. It's plainly in all of our interests to see the UN resolve its current problems: to see that the UN is strengthened and renewed, to deal effectively with the challenging times we confront now, and those that surely lie ahead.

Now, over the years, I've been to New York on countless occasions, but the day I presented my credentials as ambassador was really very different. As I walked into the United Nations building that day, I looked at that distinctive emblem which hangs so prominently over the podium in the General Assembly and, again, I had a powerful feeling of a personal homecoming. And in a real sense, I had come home.

That UN emblem had been emblazoned into my memory as a young boy from all the times I'd seen it on the front of my father's blue beret. You see, my Dad served in the very first UN peacekeeping mission, set up by Lester Pearson to stabilize the Middle East after the Suez crisis of 1956. As a result, he later received the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to humanity. Pearson that is, not my father! Although I must say that, in a son's eyes, my Dad should have as well. To me, he was a hero: making sacrifices, risking his life to bring peace to people who were struggling to cope in a highly volatile situation.

His was not the only sacrifice. My mother had to contend with four rambunctious children all by herself, and everyone missed my father during the years he spent in the Middle East. But the letters that he sent home fired my young imagination. Letters from exotic places like Cairo and Port Said and Haifa that we ran to look up on the map. He spoke of the hardships that he endured. He spoke of the ancient sites that he'd patrolled. He spoke of the tense atmosphere among the peacekeepers.

His example taught me a lot about commitment, about duty. Clearly he had done something very important. He had participated in a world effort to step in and help when vulnerable people were in peril. When they confronted conflict and loss. It was only when he returned and I saw him standing in formation at the airport for inspection in his blue beret, and then come and embrace my mother, and I saw tears in his eyes, that I realized how important an experience, how meaningful an experience, it had been for him as well.

So when I arrived at the UN many years later, I was determined to live up to the values that I had seen my father putting into action. Well, I didn't have to wait long. My very first day on the job in January of last year, in fact the very first hour I spent in my new office, I was introduced to Angeline. She had come from Africa to tell me why she and other mothers in Uganda desperately needed our help. Twenty years of war had seen 20,000 children kidnapped, forced into sexual slavery or become child soldiers in a rebel militia. One of these children was Angeline's 14-year-old daughter, Charlotte.

This innocent girl was abducted with 10 of her classmates from a place that should have been a haven from hate: their own classroom. Her whereabouts and her fate were unknown.

Angeline wanted to know what I could do for her and how the UN could help rescue her daughter from the rebel forces.

Those are good questions but questions to which I had no ready answers. At the United Nations, finding answers for humanity's questions has become much harder than it should be. And that's a problem we must all try to solve together.

This fall the United Nations will turn 60. All the promise of 1945 seems to have faded. These days the UN's shortcomings seem far more evident than its strengths.

Just how did that happen? Well, of course, the UN was created in the shadow of World War II, the worst conflict the world had seen. So its old and its tired structure represents a sort of freeze-frame of the post-war world. But that timeworn set-up no longer responds to the challenging needs of a changed world.

We have an unrepresentative Security Council dominated by five permanent members who too often allow their own national interests to get in the way of their international responsibilities. An all-but-irrelevant General Assembly usually engaged in sterile debate, wasting time, passing pointless resolutions on an agenda that just doesn't relate to the problems of the millions of real people with urgent needs thousands of miles away from the comforts of the General Assembly and New York City.

Oil-for-Food has become a catch phrase. It conjures in the public mind an image of scandal, lack of accountability, of a bureaucracy run amuck. It has gravely shaken the UN's credibility and weakened its leadership at a time when strength is most needed.

Allegations of sexual misconduct by peacekeeping troops strike at the very heart of the institution's integrity as we struggle to try to understand how men in a position of trust could have betrayed that trust so profoundly.

And perhaps most damaging is the UN's repeated failure to act decisively to intervene and to stop mass atrocity and human cruelty. Whether it's called war crimes or crimes against humanity or genocide, whether it's in Rwanda or the Balkans or now Darfur, the UN's faltering response is a moral failure that betrays its noble purpose.

Add to that sorry list the current estrangement between the UN and the American administration, the deep divide of mistrust and resentment between the developing and the developed countries, and it should be clear to anyone that the United Nations has never seen such challenging times. That as a moral and political force it's fighting for its life.

I believe that all of us can and must help the United Nations win that fight. Why? Because while the UN's flaws may be troubling, its loss would be worse. Because its potential for good far outweighs the sum of its faults.

Sometimes I think that there are two UNs. There's the political one that I inhabit on First Avenue in New York City. And then there's another one that I've come to know which is the UN in action. That action-delivering aid, providing services, protecting some of the globe's most threatened places--makes the UN indispensable.

Last year, the UN's World Food Programme provided basic food--the very stuff of life--to over 100 million people. That's three times as many people as live in our own prosperous country. How many of those 100 million souls would have been lost without the UN's initiatives? What about the three million children saved last year by the UN's immunization programs? Would smallpox have been eradicated without the commitment of the UN's World Health Organization?

Without the UN, who would direct the billions of dollars in aid from donor countries like Canada marshalled every year in the United Nations Development Program? A program that runs 5,000 projects in 160 desperately needy countries. Programs that develop human skills, the capacity to govern, and infrastructure like roads, bridges and water projects.

Without the United Nations, who would direct the $800 million annually spent by UNICEF on health care, nutrition and education for children? They spend it in 140 developing countries around the world.

And those are just some of the continuous UN efforts designed to address the chronic problems in the developing world.

And what about the human tragedies that no one can predict? December's tsunami struck an empathetic chord which reverberated in compassionate people around the world. People wanted to help and they wanted to help with an intense urgency that matched the intense need of the victims. A cumbersome or politicized relief mechanism would have compounded the disaster. There was only one international organization with the scope, the experience and (in spite of current difficulties) the credibility to handle the largest humanitarian effort in history. And that was the United Nations.

And when it comes to peacekeeping, who but the UN, drawing on five decades of experience, could mount 17 complex missions on four continents with over 77,000 skilled soldiers, people who have the dangerous but noble mission to separate hostile factions and to protect civilians?

Diplomatic debate in New York can often seem to reduce human suffering to factoids--sterile graphs on pie charts. But I'll never look at one of those PowerPoint presentations in the same way again. Because, well, because of what I've seen in the course of my work. What I've seen has not only moved me, but it's changed very profoundly the way in which I perceive the world.

Last month, I visited a school in one of the most violent neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince, Haiti where each day 800 children aged four to 17 have perfect attendance. And why? Because they're fed a nutritious meal every morning by the World Food Programme run by the UN.

In a country where only 35 per cent of children complete primary school, in a country where half the population is malnourished, the food serves two purposes. For most, it will be all they will eat that day. But the food also draws them to a place where they can learn. Maybe they are "accidental students," more interested in sustenance than in studies, but in Haiti, where half the population is illiterate, being able to read and write is a tremendous personal advantage that will transform those children's lives.

Three months ago, I stood on a dusty plain in central Africa surrounded by tens of thousands of displaced men and women and children in Uganda. They'd been forced from their homes by a long and dreadful conflict. They were seeking protection in the appalling conditions of an overcrowded camp. Many had been there for 10 years. The camp council had called a town hall meeting in honour of my visit.

A 70-year-old man took the floor. He told me he'd arrived in the camp on October 25, 1996 and that he had watched nine members of his family die, including three grandchildren. He asked me why the world had forgotten the 1.5 million Ugandans living in camps just like that one. People left to lose their lives to bad water, insufficient food, preventable disease or random violence. In response, I could only muster a pledge to tell the world his story and to continue our efforts to put that war on the world's agenda.

At least some people in the camp that day were not entirely ignored. As we met, all around us there were UN workers drilling wells, distributing food and mosquito netting, and supervising the construction of a small clinic that was intended to provide medical attention for the youngest and most vulnerable of the children.

In February, I was in a town in Eastern Congo. Just weeks before, it had been destroyed by an armed militia who had raped and brutalized and killed many of the 10,000 inhabitants. The survivors had fled into the bush to survive as best they could, until something happened that would change their world. One hundred and twenty-five UN peacekeepers, troops from Pakistan, from Bangladesh, had come to reclaim their town from the rebels. They set up their compound just outside the town. And when the people saw that it was safe again, they found the confidence to come back and to start their lives anew. They began to come home again.

This is the real vision, the real vision of humanity that the United Nations represents. This is the UN as it was imagined in 1945. This is the UN that we must re-imagine for tomorrow.

But of course even the most noble of intentions, even the most sincere of motivations, must eventually meet the gritty reality of global politics. And when there are 191 nations trying to reach consensus, even on the most obvious of truths, then things can get, well to put it diplomatically, complicated.

But will decades of those kinds of complications prove fatal? I don't think so. And why not? Because I believe we have consensus on at least one thing in New York, perhaps the most important thing. We seem to be able to agree on the urgent need for change, for renewal. Right now, sweeping proposals for change that have been years in the making are being debated by all 191 member-states whose leaders will gather in New York in September to consider major reforms.

Canada is focusing our efforts on several key objectives. Major structural change to the UN's Secretariat is fundamental to the success of all other reform initiatives. We're aggressively pursuing a process of modernizing--streamlining UN management to bring trust and efficiency and transparency, to bring a culture of merit to the way the UN is run.

Security Council membership must be broadened to make it more representative.

There must also be recognition that state sovereignty cannot shield atrocity or genocide and that the Security Council has not only the right, but the moral responsibility to authorize, if need be, military intervention to stop crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, or genocide.

Abolition of the discredited Human Rights Commission is imperative to make way for the creation of a Human Rights Council with a stronger mandate, and with greater status, within the United Nations. A council composed of countries that are sincerely committed to human rights; that will not embarrass or set back the very process they're intended to advance.

And crucially, we, the wealthy nations, must increase dramatically our development assistance and our debt relief for the poorest countries. If they are to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, it will take a sustained and significant contribution from the rest of us. The Millennium Development Goals would, among other things, reduce by half by 2015 the billions of people around the world now living in a grinding cycle of hunger and of poverty.

And we must add to that list the creation of a global convention against terrorism, and a worldwide system of public health surveillance to warn of potential pandemics like SARS.

Is it possible to accomplish all of this? Well, what I know is that there are a lot of people hard at work in an effort to make it happen--thousands of people in New York, and in capitals around the world.

Two weeks ago, I took part in a negotiating session in Santiago Chile, where many countries were represented and we made encouraging progress on many of these issues. Getting agreement between now and September is going to take patience, good faith and fair-minded compromise.

Those are all virtues that we exhibit as a nation. That's why this reform package is, in essence, a Canadian agenda. It reflects our policy, our priorities and our values. Prime Minister Martin is a strong and effective advocate of UN reform who has been especially vigorous in urging proactive intervention to stop mass killing, for example in Darfur.

You know, multilateralism is more than just our style. It's the cornerstone of our foreign policy because it's also in our strategic interest. It enables us to buffer the influence of the biggest powers by creating networks of states that share our objectives. Alliances of the like-minded that give weight to alternative approaches. Multilateralism gives us leverage so that our voice is clearly heard in a strong chorus of others.

And that's what everyone in this room, and I think everyone in Canada, should want and expect from Canada's presence at the United Nations. And that's what I'm passionately committed to try to achieve. I will continue our relentless pursuit of UN reform, one that will achieve the promise of the institution's original ideals.

What's at stake? Everything. Everything for those tens of millions of people whose survival and whose safety very much depends on the hope that the UN offers.

You know, in some quarters, even in parts of the American Congress, there seems to be a readiness, even an eagerness to write the United Nations' obituary. But if we let that happen, then I'm afraid we'll be writing a much larger and tragic chapter in the history of humanity. And we cannot let that happen. Not for Angeline's sake. Or her daughter's.

Angeline was not defeated by the dark forces that kidnapped Charlotte. She wasn't silenced. She spoke out. She identified the evil. Angeline would not let world leaders ignore the horrors that her family and her people were enduring. She petitioned the United Nations. By shining the light of her convictions to bring the world's attention to the horrors in her homeland, she did the impossible. She scared the rebels into submission. They offered to release her daughter Charlotte but only if she would stay quiet and let the gaze of the world drift away from their barbarity.

But in an act of courage that, as a parent, I can hardly imagine, Angeline refused. She refused to buy the release of her own daughter with her silence unless the rebels would agree to release all of Charlotte's classmates at the same time. That didn't happen. And that's when I met Angeline in my office on my first day as Canada's ambassador to the UN. It was my own baptism of fire. And since then, I've been doing all that I can to put that war in Uganda on the world's agenda. To work with others towards solutions that will bring the release of kidnapped children trapped in that awful conflict.

But this is a mission that will require much more than just my efforts. We're going to have to do it together.

And what part can you play? Well there's the obvious: you can give money. Support responsible agencies that do essential work often on a shoestring budget: UNICEF Canada, the World Food Programme. In fact, I challenge you to make a generous contribution today. Do it now when you return to work or to your home before the image of Angeline fades from your mind in the demands of our busy daily lives.

Get more involved with organizations like Amnesty International, the UN Association, or Human Rights Watch, or CARE.

And you could also get more informed. I hope I've started you on that road today. Share what you've learned. Tell your Member of Parliament. If they know it's important to you, they will respond. Share information with your friends, particularly American friends or American business partners. Talk to them because their nation's involvement and commitment is crucial if UN reform is going to succeed.

In this 60th anniversary year, as we prepare for a summit meeting at the UN in September, we have this chance, this one extraordinary chance, to keep faith with the ideals that Lester Pearson and that my father believed would bring order and hope to a difficult world. Sixty years later, let's use those same ideals to bring order and hope to the United Nations--to keep faith with the future.

Oh, and by the way, Angeline and her daughter have been reunited. Charlotte escaped from the rebel army. She hid in the bush with her two-year-old child, and then she ran the many miles to freedom and her mother. So there's proof that, even after the most harrowing of experiences, it is possible to go home again.

Please help the United Nations to do everything it can to make sure that all the world's Charlottes have a safe, welcoming and humane place to go home to.

Thank you very much.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Roxanna Benoit, President and CEO, Canadian Investor Relations Institute and Director, The Empire Club of Canada.

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The United Nations at a Crossroads

Some personal reminiscences. Speaking today as Canada's ambassador to the United Nations. Anecdotes about the speaker's experience at the UN. The UN's shortcomings and how it happened - an explication. Why all of us can and must help the United Nations win the fight to save itself. Ways in which the UN is indispensible. Some successful UN efforts. The speaker's recent experiences in Africa. Canada's efforts on several key objectives. Becoming more involved..