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Association holds conference on strengthening the United Nations

Fergus Watt — December 1984

Is there life after forty? Or, more pointedly, can the United Nations fulfill the aims and purposes laid out in its charter some four decades ago?

This question was the focus of a conference held in Ottawa on October 26, and entitled The United nations at Forty: Crisis and Opportunity. Thirty-five of Canada’s leading diplomats, academics, disarmament experts and UN officials attended this day-long brainstorming session on the prospects for strengthening the world body.

The presence of Canada’s new UN Ambassador, Stephen Lewis, added a special significance to the event, which was sponsored by the United Nations Association in Canada. Many speakers used the occasion to propose specific ideas which could be incorporated in Canadian policy.

The conference was shaped by Douglas Roche, Canada’s newly appointed Disarmament Ambassador and president of the United Nations Association in Canada. The conference underlined the Conservative government’s commitment to improving the UN as a cornerstone of what Brian Mulroney has called “the central issue confronting our generatton — the prevention of nuclear war.”

The discussion began with a lengthy address from a special guest at the roundtable, UN Assistant Secretary General Robert Muller, who offered a list of suggestions for strengthening the UN’s ability to maintain peace and security. These included:

  1. increased communication between heads of state and between military leaders (regular consultations among military chiefs of state are written into the UN Charter but were abandoned during the cold war);
  2. a strengthened role for the Secretary-General, including “n information system which would alert him to impending conflict, greater scope for UN Observer teams and greater use of the. UN’s peacekeeping capabilities; and
  3. global education, at all levels of schooling in order to promote greater understanding of international systems and greater tolerance of people from other cultures.

Muller also remarked on the need for more balanced news coverage of the UN and its 32 organizations, so that the UN’s successes, and not just its failures, are brought to public attention.

Muller’s comments on the need for global education were echoed by other panelists. For example, Margaret Catley-Carlson, President of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA, the Canadian government’s primary aid-giving body), called for “a major campaign to emphasize the UN’s many glorious successes.” And John Sigler, Political Science Professor at Carleton University and a Director of the new Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security, suggested that Canadian communities could hold special ceremonies during the UN’s 40th anniversary to commemorate those military personnel who died while serving in UN peacekeeping missions.

Sigler also proposed a UN conference on peacekeeping. The last such conference, held in 1970, was “very successful,” he said. Furthermore, “Canada has something to say to the US on this subject.” This proposal was seconded by Dr. George Ignatieff, Chancellor of the University of Toronto and a former UN Ambassador. Ignatieff added that an I nternational Peacekeeping CoriJerence should place ISMA — an International Satellite Monitoring Agency — high on its agenda.

Ignatieff also suggested that the UN hold an International Conference on Peace and Security, a suggestion which was taken up by many of the experts present. Robert Muller suggested that such a conference, if proposed by Canada, should be a UN Continuing Conference modelled after the successful Law of the Sea Conference.

David Lee, Canada’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, said that Canada could mobilize a coalition of `friends of the UN.’ This notion was also mentioned in Joe Clark’s address to the General Assembly and is, therefore, likely to be followed up by Stephen Lewis and his UN team.

Another forceful speaker at the roundtable was Maxwell Cohen who, until recently, served as a Judge Ad Hoc of the International Court of Justice in the Gulf of Maine Boundary Dispute (between Canada and the US). Cohen noted the growing body of international law which could be used by nations to settle disputes peacefully. Yet most nations still do not submit to the authority of the World Court. At a time when so many pressing problems are multilateral, our interdependence forces a tribal retreat to a nation-state mode of thinking.” Thus we are confronted with a paradox, says Cohen, “Never has there been such a multiplicity of international law which could be used by nations to settle disputes; yet, never has there been so many intrusions and violations of international law.”

At the end of the deliberations Stephen Lewis was asked to comment on the day’s “harvest of ideas.’” Although he was unable to give direct comments on each proposal, he did offer a few general observations. He assured the panel that Canada’s new entente with the United ,States would not restrict the government’s efforts to improve the UN and other multilateral institutions. He also reported that Joe Clark has directed him to tell UN Secretary General Perez de Cuellar that Canada will work actively to increase the power of the Secretary-General’s Office. And Lewis also warmed to the idea of a UN Conference on International Security, saying “It may just be one of those initiatives that Canada could take — a sort of elixir for the UN, to give it a shot in the arm and to give the people of the world some hope.”

In holding this conference on the eve of the UN’s 40th anniversary, Canada became the first country to respond to the Secretary-General’s challenge to use the occasion to “… undertake a review and propose concrete programmes of action in order to strengthen commitment to the aims and purposes of the Organization.”

Perhaps Canada will also be a leader in transforming the present `crisis’ into an `opportunity’ to strengthen the UN.

Fergus Watt is editor of the Canadian World Federalists.