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Individualism vs collective action: is there a future for the United Nations?

By Kofi Annan - posted Friday, 15 August 2003

Many of us sense that we are living through a crisis of the international system, or - as some put it - of the "architecture" of international peace and security.

The war in Iraq, as well as crises such as those in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, force us to ask ourselves whether the institutions and methods we are accustomed to are really adequate to deal with all the stresses of the last couple of years - or whether, perhaps, they are in need of a radical reform.

But the threats we face are not confined to peace and security in the conventional sense. Indeed, one of the points most strongly made at our meeting was that our success in countering the more conventional threats may depend in large part on the progress we make in overcoming poverty and deprivation. These cannot be thought of as lesser priorities.


That is why I attach great importance to the current trade negotiations. This is a great opportunity that we should not miss. We shall reach a crunch point with the ministerial meeting at Cancun in September, which I intend to attend myself. Decisions taken there will tell us whether this is to be a real "development round" - in other words, whether poor countries will or will not, at last, be given a real chance to trade their way out of poverty.

There are two crucial issues in the talks. One is relatively narrow: the issue of intellectual property as it affects public health in developing countries. We must reach an agreement allowing those developing countries that cannot produce cheap generic drugs themselves to import them from other countries that can.

The other issue is very broad, and potentially decisive for the economic prospects of many developing countries. It is, of course, the issue of trade in agricultural products.

We must reach an agreement that allows farmers in poor countries a fair chance to compete, both in world markets and at home. They should no longer face exclusion from rich countries' markets by protective tariffs and quotas. Nor should they have to face unfair competition from heavily subsidised producers in those same rich countries.

Another non-conventional threat that we cannot afford to ignore is HIV/AIDS. Even though Africa is the hardest hit, the disease is spreading very fast in Asia, Eastern Europe and the Caribbean. It is truly a global crisis. The General Assembly will hold a one-day session on the AIDS epidemic on 22 September, the day before the General Debate, and I have just written to all heads of State and government, urging them to do their utmost to arrive here in time for that meeting.

Among other things, I hope this will result in increased support for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The Fund has made a good start. Money is being spent on the ground and is saving lives. But many more could be saved if the Fund receives enough money to fund the many excellent proposals it has received. It needs to spend $3 billion next year, and current pledges are well short of that.


Of course, not all funding for the fight against AIDS goes through the Global Fund. The total amount needed for this worldwide struggle is much greater.

But I believe all these crises can be solved, if the peoples and States of the world are really determined to work on them together, making good use of the United Nations and other multilateral institutions such as those whose leaders are here this week. But we must not underestimate the gravity or the urgency of the task. We have a real opportunity to make the world safer and fairer for all its inhabitants and I am sure history will not forgive us if we neglect them.

On Intervention

Obviously some of these decisions on whether to intervene or not are a sovereign decision that governments take with all sorts of factors involved, direct national interest or not. Of course, what I think is important, as we look around the world and live through these crises, is that we should, I believe, have a broader view of national interest. We have values to defend: we have values of human rights; we have been concerned about gross and systematic violations of human rights. I myself have said, from the General Assembly podium, that countries should not be allowed to use sovereignty as a shield to brutalise their people. I think out of that the Canadians did a very good report on the responsibility to protect.

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Article edited by Jenny Ostini.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This is an edited extract of a press conference held by Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the United Nations headquarters, 30 July 2003. The sections on Intervention, Reform, Multilateralism and Human Rights are extracts from Mr Annan's responses to questions from the press.

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Kofi Annan is Secretary-General of the united Nations.

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