Photo: The ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe - Photo: 2017

The Importance of the UN as a Moral Compass

By Jayantha Dhanapala*

COLOMBO (IDN) – Throughout my life I have had an abiding faith in the United Nations Organization which, three years hence, will celebrate its 75th anniversary. The foundation document of that unique world body – the Charter – is not only the bedrock of international law, but also the most inspiring document that can hold the international community together amidst its diversity and conflict.

Individual countries and Governments are dominated by their separate concepts of national security whereas the UN has to weave 193 of these national security concepts of member states into a tapestry that will serve the common security of the global community in a co-operative and credible manner.

As a new Secretary-General begins his term at the UN with rich experience, wise leadership qualities and unalloyed idealism, we have an opportunity to implement the principles of the Charter in an equitable manner. The first statement of Secretary General Antonio Guterres was simple and direct – “Peace must be our goal and our guide. All that we strive for as a human family – dignity and hope, progress and prosperity – depends on peace. But peace depends on us.”

The Intellectual History Project of the UN led by Sir Richard Jolly and others has documented the ideas launched by the UN system in the area of economic and social development alone. It is a glimpse of the remarkable vision and creativity of the founders of the UN, which must remain, unchanged to inspire us and guide us. It shows how the UN in its economic and social development work has often been significantly ahead of governments, academics and other international institutions that later adopted its ideas. The capacity to generate these ideas must continue.

As the Project stated in 2001, “Ideas matter. People matter” – and ideas that benefit the peoples of the United Nations matter the most. The UN is uniquely situated to be a vanguard of global public opinion. Transcending individual state-centred approaches, the UN can take a synoptic view of issues highlighting a multilateral perspective with global interdependencies clearly delineated. And because these synoptic views are based on consensus, broader public acceptance is made easier.

Over the seven decades of the UN’s existence we have seen many successes although major challenges remain. The achievement of the decolonization of scores of Asian and African countries; the focus on Human Rights and its mainstreaming in international relations; the emphasis on Environment and Sustainable Development; on Gender issues and the shaping of a co-ordinated response to globalization, to terrorism, and other global challenges like HIV/AIDS are some of them. At the same time the UN has been engaged in the prevention of conflict and, where conflict has broken out, in peacekeeping, peacemaking and peacebuilding.

It is in this context, that we must reflect on how our world body can be reformed to face the challenges of the future based on the experience of the past. We must begin with a foundation of ethical values that we can share.

The use of the term “Ethics” for a set of moral principles presupposes that we are all bound by a common understanding of what we mean. In a very broad sense, we are talking about the absolutely irreducible minimum of humankind’s cultural, moral and spiritual achievement over centuries of civilization. It is not only what distinguishes the human species from other living beings, but also the soul of humankind. It is the quintessence of all religious philosophies and the highest common factor among all cultures.

Ethics per se, would be of little value if it did not have a practical propensity to be applied to human affairs and the improvement of the human condition. It is widely, but wrongly, assumed that the realm of ethical values and the world of pragmatic politics are wide apart and that never the twain shall meet. The achievements of the UN illustrate that there can be a fusion between ethics and policy, and it is this fusion that contributes to the betterment of mankind and to peace.

We are still in the early years of the first century of a new millennium in the human saga leaving behind the bloodiest century of all time. There is a unique opportunity for us to use the indisputable authority that the UN wields to shape a world order that is built more solidly on ethics than on the pursuit of individual profit or national self-interest.

In the year 2000 the largest ever gathering of Heads of State and Government met at the United Nations in New York and issued the historic Millennium Declaration.

Significantly, before the Declaration embarked on setting objectives in respect of the different areas of peace, security and disarmament including the elimination of weapons of mass destruction especially nuclear weapons; development and poverty eradication; human rights, democracy and good governance including the Millennium Development Goals; protecting the vulnerable and meeting the special needs of Africa, it addressed the issue of fundamental values underpinning international relations in the twenty-first century. That demonstrates a remarkably sound judgment of priorities. If the leaders of the world cannot agree on the ethical values that bind them together, they are unlikely to agree on common goals and common strategies to overcome what former Secretary-General Kofi Annan called “problems without passports”.

It is relevant for us therefore, at this juncture to review these shared values set out in the United Nations Millennium Declaration as a common ethical base. They comprise six of the most basic aspirations of humankind — freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect for nature, and shared responsibility.

From each of these fundamental values we draw our guidance for the specific action plans that the international community committed itself to in the Millennium Declaration. It is a moral compass for us all. Individually these values represent powerful forces that have inspired and motivated humankind throughout millennia of history. They have been accelerators of human progress. Collectively they represent the benchmark against which we must judge our performance as individual nations and as the world community in taking humankind forward to a better and safer world.

The translation of these ethical values into the daily world of human interaction — to do the right thing for the right reason — presents all of us with an enormous challenge. No Government or group can claim a monopoly over wisdom. Nor can they claim to be the sole interpreters of the national or global interest. That task is essentially a multilateral task to be achieved by consensus. Let us translate that task to local needs and local challenges.

*Jayantha Dhanapala is a former Ambassador of Sri Lanka and a former UN Under-Secretary-General. This article is an excerpt from his Peradeniya University Diamond Jubilee Oration delivered in Sri Lanka on 10 January 2017. [IDN-InDepthNews – 23 January 2017]

Photo: The ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

IDN is flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

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