Address at the 58th session of the United
Nations General Assembly
23 September 2003
President of the General Assembly, Mr. Julian Hunte,
Secretary-General of the UN, Mr. Kofi Annan,
Ladies and Gentlemen:
May I congratulate you, Mr. President for assuming
the mantle of the Presidency of this Session of the
General Assembly and also thank the out-going President,
Mr. Jan Kavan.
I would also like to echo what other speakers have
said about the deaths of the dedicated UN workers who
died in the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad
last month, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, an outstanding
international civil servant. When we met here last year,
we were all concerned about what would happen to Iraq.
At the same time, we were concerned about what role
this organisation, the United Nations, would play in
the resolution of the Iraq affair. Dramatic events since
then have provided answers to these questions.
However, these dramatic events have raised important
and disturbing questions about the very future of the
United Nations. Central among these is the question
- does the United Nations have a future as a strong
and effective multi-lateral organisation, enjoying the
confidence of the peoples of the world, and capable
of addressing the matters that are of concern to all
humanity! Quite correctly, as we meet here, this time,
we are still preoccupied with the issue of the future
of Iraq. I am certain that, in this regard, none of
us wants to rehash the debate that took place on this
matter in the period after the last General Assembly.
If for some time after that General Assembly we were
concerned to provide answers to questions about the
role of the United Nations on Iraq, today we have to
answer questions about the impact of the Iraq affair
on the future of the United Nations.
Matters have evolved in such a manner that, to our
limited understanding, it seems extremely difficult
to resolve the issue of the role of the United Nations
in Iraq, unless we answer the question about the future
of the UN as the legitimate expression of the collective
will of the peoples of the world, the principal guarantor
of international peace and security, among other global
Put differently, we could say that what is decided
about the role of the UN in Iraq will, at the same time,
decide what will become of the UN in the context of
its Charter, and the important global objectives that
have been taken since the Charter was adopted.
This is not a case of the tail wagging the dog. Rather,
history has placed at our feet an urgent and practical
test case that obliges us to answer the question - what
do we, collectively, want the United Nations to be!
What do we do to distinguish the trees from the woods!
In this regard, we must make the point directly that,
as South Africans, we are partisan activists who campaign
in favour of such a strong and effective United Nations.
We do so because of the place our country and people
occupy in the contemporary world. That place is defined
by the fact that we are a developing country, whose
central challenge is the eradication of poverty and
underdevelopment, a challenge we share with the rest
of the African continent of which we are an integral
Mr President, we believe that everything that has happened
places an obligation on the United Nations to reflect
on a number of fundamental issues that are of critical
importance to the evolution of human society. We are
convinced that this General Assembly would disappoint
the expectations of the peoples of the world, and put
itself in jeopardy if, for any reason whatsoever, it
does not address these issues.
Accordingly what I might say, Mr President and Your
Excellencies, might not constitute what is considered
normal discourse in terms of the work that the General
Assembly has to do, consistent with its rights and duties
as defined by the UN Charter, and the conventions that
have emerged since the Charter was adopted.
However, I trust that what I will say will not fall
on deaf ears. But I must also make the point that everything
I will say is not intended to attack or praise any particular
country or group of countries. We speak as we do because
we represent a people who are most sensitive to the
imperatives of what the world decides, given our experience
during a period when apartheid South Africa was, correctly,
a matter of focused and sustained interest by the United
Nations and the peoples of the world, including ordinary
folk even in the most marginalized areas of our globe.
This organisation, and all of us, singly and collectively,
has spoken and speaks frequently about the phenomenon
of globalisation. Correctly, we talk of a global village,
driven by recognition of the fact of the integration
of all peoples within a common and interdependent global
society. Certainly, humanity is more integrated today
than it was when the United Nations was established
more than fifty years ago.
I believe that there is no need for me to present any
information to substantiate this commonly accepted and
However, many have drawn attention to the fact that
whereas objective social processes have led to the emergence
of the global village, all our political collectives
have not yet succeeded to design the institutions of
governance made necessary by the reality of the birth
of this global village.
Correct observations have also been made that the use
of the image and concept of a village does not imply
that the residents of this village are equal.
The reality is that the same processes that bring all
us closer together in a global village, are simultaneously
placing the residents of the global village in different
positions. Some have emerged as the dominant, and the
rest as the dominated, with the dominant being the decision
makers, and the dominated being the recipients and implementers
of these decisions.
To the same extent that our political collectives have
not designed the institutions responsive to the evolution
of the global village, so have they failed to respond
to the imbalance in the distribution of power inherent
in contemporary global human society.
We speak here of power in all fields of human activity,
including the political, economic, military, technological,
social, intellectual, and so on.
Left to its internal and autonomous impulses, the process
of globalisation will inevitably result in the further
enhancement of the domination of the dominant and the
entrenchment of the subservience of the dominated, however
much the latter might resent such domination.
Among other things, this paradigm means that, naturally,
the powerful will set the agenda for all residents of
the global village. Again naturally, they will do this
to advance their own interests. This will include the
perpetuation of their dominant positions, to ensure
the sustenance of their capacity to set the agenda of
the global village, in the interest of their own neighbourhoods
within this global village.
Inherent within this is, necessarily, reliance on the
use of the superior power of which the dominant dispose,
to achieve the objective of the perpetuation of the
situation of the unequal distribution of power. In this
situation, it is inevitable that the pursuit of power
in itself, will assert itself as a unique legitimate
objective, apparently detached from any need to define
the uses of such power. This also signifies the deification
of force in all its forms, as the final arbiter in the
ordering of human affairs. However, from the point of
view of the disempowered, the struggle to ensure the
use of such power to address their own interests becomes
a strategic objective they cannot avoid. Necessarily
this means that power would have to be redistributed.
This would be done to empower the disempowered, and
to regulate the use of power by those who are powerful.
And yet, by definition, the disempowered should not
reasonably expect that their disempowerment gives them
any possibility to have a decisive influence over the
powerful. Logically, they should not entertain any dreams
that they have the means to oblige the powerful to regulate
the use of their power to achieve results that benefit
all humanity, regardless of the impact of this on what
the powerful might define as their national interest.
Thus we come back to what I said earlier. Because we
are poor, we are partisan activists for a strong, effective
and popularly accepted United Nations.
We take these positions because there is no way in
which we could advance the interests of our people,
the majority of whom are poor, outside the context of
a strong, effective and popularly accepted United Nations.
An autonomous process of globalisation, driven by its
own internal regularities, can only result in the determination
of our future within the parameters set by those who
enjoy the superiority of power. The powerful will do
this in their interest, which might not coincide with
When this organisation was established fifty-eight
years ago, necessarily, its objectives and institutions
reflected both the collective global concerns as then
perceived, and the then balance of power. Among other
things, our esteemed Secretary General, Mr Kofi Annan,
has drawn attention to the fact that the UN started
off as an organisation of 51 states and is now composed
of 191 states. Undoubtedly, the perceived and real collective
global concerns of our day are, to some extent at least,
different from those that prevailed more than fifty
years ago, when this organisation was about a quarter
of its present size.
For more than a decade, this organisation has been
involved in discussions about its transformation. Once
more, the Secretary General has reflected on this challenge.
The truth is that our discussion has gone nowhere. Earlier
this morning the Secretary General announced steps he
will take to facilitate the adoption of decisions that
will help all of us to effect the necessary and inevitable
transformation of the United Nations. We support the
decisions he announced.
One of the matters that must be addressed is the issue
of the accepted national right to self-defence, and
the implications of the exercise of this right in the
light of the historic responsibilities of the United
Nations to guarantee international peace and security.
In this regard, all of us face a challenge specific
to our times. It arises out of the process of globalisation
and the emergence of a global village. These phenomena
have, among other things, resulted in the globalisation
of the threat to the peace and security of all our states,
not necessarily emanating from states that are bound
by the rules we must all observe as members of the United
The global resolve to defeat such organisations as
Al Qaeda has emerged out of our understanding that international
aggression should not necessarily be expected to emanate
from formal and recognised state institutions. We have
all come to understand that, emanating from non-state
institutions, such threat, as was most painfully demonstrated
on September 11, 2001, would express itself as the most
inhumane and despicable terrorism. Our collective experience,
stretching from New York and elsewhere in the United
States on September 11, 2001, reaching back to Nairobi
and Dar-es-Salaam in Africa earlier still and more recently
to Bali in Indonesia, to Morocco, to the conflict between
Israel and Palestine, to Algeria, India, Russia and
elsewhere, and even our own country, this experience
tells us that this organisation, the UN, working in
defence of the collective interest of the peoples of
the world, must ensure that we act together to defeat
the threat of terrorism, collectively defined.
At the same time, we have to take on board the conviction
among some of our member states that they constitute
special and particular targets of this global terrorism.
Understandably, the argument is advanced that it would
be unreasonable and irrational to expect such states
not to act to deter such terrorist actions against themselves.
None of us can defend international rules that prescribe
that anyone of us should wait to be attacked, knowing,
in specific ways, that we were going to be attacked
by identified terrorists, and then act against those
who had attacked us, with such horrendous cost as was
experienced by the United States during the September
I do not imagine that anyone of us would seek to impose
such a costly and unsustainable burden on any of our
member states, which would also violate the self-defence
provisions of Article 51 of the UN Charter, to which
our Secretary General has correctly drawn our attention.
We also have no choice but to deal with the brute reality
that the reform process of the UN and all its organs,
and other multi-lateral organisations, has to recognise
the reality of the imbalance of power as represented
by different countries and regions.
At the same time, we must proceed from the position
that such distribution of power is not necessarily in
the interest of the peoples of the world, or even in
the interest of those who, today, have the power to
determine what happens to our common world.
This includes acceptance of the fact that, depending
on the place we occupy in the global community, we have
different priorities. Among other things, the rich are
concerned about ways and means to maintain the status
quo from which they benefit. Practically, this means
that all matters that threaten to destabilise this status
quo must, necessarily, be anathema to such people. Such
matters will therefore be an issue of principal concern
to them. Necessarily and understandably, they will then
seek to get the rest of the world to accept their assertion
that the maintenance of the status quo must be a universal
human preoccupation, precisely the kind of issue on
which the United Nations must take a united position.
On the other hand, the poor are interested to change
their condition for the better. Accordingly, they will
not accept the maintenance of the status quo, which
perpetuates their poverty. Accordingly, among other
things, the poor billions of the world will argue for
action by the UN to ensure the transfer of resources
to themselves, which will enable them to extricate themselves
from their condition of poverty and underdevelopment,
consistent with the implementation of the Millennium
Development Goals, the objectives of the Johannesburg
World Summit for Sustainable Development, and other
Inevitably, this will run counter to the propositions
of those who are more powerful than the poor, the governments,
peoples and countries that keep them afloat with development
assistance. These will require, whether this is stated
or not, that the recipients of this assistance should
understand that such assistance can dry up. This could
happen if the impoverished recipients do not accept
the outcomes prescribed by those who provide the means
for poor governments to discharge their responsibility
to provide the barest of normal services and goods expected
of any government everywhere in the world, provided
that they use the resources they have received to confirm
the priorities set by the donors.
Important shifts in the global balance of power and
global objectives have taken place since the United
Nations was established forty-eight years ago. This
organisation has not substantially changed in terms
of its structures and mode of functioning, to reflect
these changes. This has served as a recipe for an inevitable
crisis, a disaster waiting to occur.
And so as we meet today, we are confronted by global
challenges that this global organisation cannot solve.
Impelled by the urgent issues of the day, some of the
powerful will not wait for all of us to respond to the
problems we have raised, and which they face. They will
act to solve these problems. Their actions will make
the statement that they do not need the United Nations
to find solutions to these problems.
Simultaneously, this will make the practical statement
that the United Nations is irrelevant to the solution
of the most burning problems of our day.
The disempowered will continue to look to this organisation,
understanding, correctly, that they are too weak to
advance their interests singly, outside of the collective
voice of the United Nations. In this regard, they expect
that the UN will be informed by its founding documents
and other solemn decisions it has taken since it was
established, all of which have been approved by successive
sessions of the United Nations General Assembly, at
Global poverty and underdevelopment are the principal
problems that face the United Nations. Billions across
the globe expect that this General Assembly will address
this challenge in a meaningful manner. The masses of
people of our world expect that the statements we will
make at this Assembly, as representatives of various
governments, will indicate a serious commitment to implement
what we say.
The poor of the world expect an end to violence and
war everywhere. They want an end to the killing that
is taking too many Israeli and Palestinian lives. They
want the Africans to stop killing one another, continuing
to convey the message that we are incapable of living
at peace among ourselves. They desire the realisation
of the democratic objective, universally, that the people
shall govern. They believe that we are seriously committed
to the objective of the eradication of poverty and the
provision of a better life for all. They think that
we mean it when we say that we will not allow that the
process of globalisation results in the further enrichment
of the rich, and the impoverishment of the poor, within
and between countries.
They believe us when we say that our collective future
is one of hope, and not despair. They are keenly interested
to know whether our gathering, the UN General Assembly,
will produce these results. For us, collectively, to
meet these expectations, will require that each and
everyone of us, both rich and poor, both the powerful
and the disempowered, commit ourselves practically to
act, in all circumstances, in a manner that recognises
and respects the fact none of us is an island, sufficient
unto ourselves. This includes the most powerful. The
latter face the interesting challenge, important to
themselves in their national interest, that the poverty
and disempowerment of the billions will no longer serve
as a condition for their success and their possibility
to prosper in conditions of peace.
What we have said today, may not be heard because we
do not have the strength to have our voice heard. Tomorrow,
we may be obliged to say - no more water, the fire next
time! As the fires burn, the United Nations will die,
consumed by the flames. So will the hopes of the poor
of the world die, as they did at Cancun, Mexico, not
so long ago. We must act together to say in our words
and in our actions, as countries and as the United Nations,
there will be water next time, and not fire!
I thank you.