Keynote Address by Jonathan Fanton at the UNA-USA Model UN Conference
May 25, 2005 | Speech

It is my privilege to join you this morning for the opening of todays conference.

No organization is more critical to the fate of the worlds peoples than the United Nations. It is at the forefront of progress being made on the worlds most pressing challenges: world hunger; the environment; poverty alleviation; human rights; peacekeeping and conflict-resolution.

You are its future.

Whatever you choose to do in later life whether you go to work in the halls of the UN or remain in Chicago; whether you join government, business, or work for local, national, or international non-profit organizations by knowing about the UNs mission and its mandate, by explaining its importance to your family and friends, by supporting it in your community, you represent the future of the United Nations and the hope of a more just and humane world at peace.

You will spend today discussing and debating critical issues: the fate of refugees; the urgency of disarmament; the spread of AIDS and other diseases; the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians; the tragedy of ethnic cleansing in Darfur and the worlds overdue and understated reaction.

You will be taking on these issues at an important moment in the United Nations history. This September, an historic meeting of the General Assembly will debate reforms recently proposed by Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The proposals include an expansion of the Security Council the topic that has received the most publicity. But other reforms would put human rights and international justice at the center of the UN's mission, fundamentally changing how the United Nations acts as an institution in the world. The September session will determine how well the UN is positioned to meet the challenges of the 21st Century indeed, how relevant it will be.

It may come as a surprise to learn that the MacArthur Foundation has a deep interest in the issue of human rights and international justice, and therefore in the future of the United Nations. Most people know MacArthur through its Fellows Program the so-called genius awards or for our support of public radio and television.

In Chicago, you might recognize our work with 126 arts and cultural organizations places like the Field Museum, the Redmoon Theater, the Art Institute, or the Luna Negra Dance company. Perhaps you know us from our involvement with neighborhood organizations in Logan Square, Auburn Gresham, South Chicago, or Little Village. We do concentrated work in 16 communities across Chicago preserving affordable housing, improving public schools, and making neighborhoods safer.

We are a global institution located in Chicago, a global city of cosmopolitan sensibilities. We work all over the world, in 65 countries, and have other offices in Russia, Nigeria, India, and Mexico.  We focus on four themes: biodiversity conservation and sustainable development; international peace and security principally to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction; population and reproductive health; and human rights and the creation of an international system of justice.

Since 1978, the Foundation has made nearly six hundred grants in the human rights field, worth almost $120 million.  One of our aims is to advance the norms and institutions that are building an international system of criminal justice including the new International Criminal Court and the United Nations.

I am an historian by training and by temperament. To understand how the United Nations needs to change for the 21st century, I think it is helpful to think about its recent history.

A decade ago when most of you were quite young ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and genocide in Rwanda shocked the world.  In both cases, United Nations peacekeepers were brought in to be a neutral referee between warring parties. But there were not enough boots on the ground and the UN troops did not have the mandate to use force to protect innocent civilians. The result: more than a million people died in those conflicts while UN peacekeepers watched, helplessly.

That reality was brought home to me in the most chilling of ways. I visited Rwanda in 2002 and spent time at a genocide memorial in the small town of Gikongoro.  During July 1994, 50,000 Tutsis sought refuge at a Catholic boarding school there; almost all of them were killed during a two-night rampage.

I saw rooms that now house 27,000 skeletons exhumed from a mass grave, skeletons that reveal where a machete had cut a throat or sliced a skull, skeletons with clenched teeth showing the anguish of a painful death.  In one room, a tarpaulin bearing the U.N. insignia covered an open window, shielding their bones from rain.  One could not escape the irony of the United Nations providing protection in death, but not in life.

After the Rwandan genocide and at the encouragement of Secretary-General Annan, the MacArthur Foundation was privileged to support the International Commission on State Sovereignty and Humanitarian Intervention, organized by the Canadian government.  The commission asked the simple but profound question: when a state fails to protect its own people or worse, assaults them what is the international communitys obligation to act? What steps, including military intervention, might be justified? And how should these actions be conducted and coordinated by the United Nations?

The report laid the intellectual foundation for changing the world's sense of obligation. It articulated a primary duty for the international community in three areas: The first is to protect civilians at risk in these crises, using evidence of egregious human rights abuses as an early warning signal. A patient set of non-military steps was identified fact-finding missions, international appeals, political and economic sanctions, arms embargoes, seizure of assets. But if those options fail, the world has a duty to intervene with appropriate military means.

Last March, the Secretary General embraced The Responsibility to Protect in his proposals for reform. He has called for a new UN Convention recognizing the duty to protect civilian populations. It would give the United Nations unprecedented authority to act on behalf of international justice and avert human disasters like those now unfolding in Darfur.

The second obligation identified in the report is to try to prevent these crises from developing at all. To keep countries from erupting into mass violence against civilians, the world needs to be able to identify flashpoints of human rights abuse as an early warning of greater danger on the horizon.

To help, the Secretary General has proposed replacing the current Human Rights Commission with a permanent Human Rights Council. It would meet year-round. Membership would be dependent on a countrys own human rights record and its commitment to the rule of law. It would have a sizeable professional staff able to move quickly into human rights hot-spots to monitor abuses and sound the alarm by bringing evidence of torture, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and mass murders to the publics attention.

Whether tracking abuses committed by Maoists insurgents in Nepal, political killings in Afghanistan, or the use of force against peaceful demonstrators in Uzbekistan, the new UN Human Rights Council would represent a monumental step forward for the United Nations and its ability to protect people at risk.

The third and final pillar concerns bringing perpetrators to justice and rebuilding savaged societies.  The world has a test case before it now in Northern Uganda, where a vicious civil war has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced a million and a half civilians during 18 years of conflict.

The new International Criminal Court is about to indict the leaders of the rebel group, the Lords Resistance Army. But to keep the country from falling further into chaos, those indictments must be accompanied by a massive humanitarian effort to help the civilian populations that have been victimized and to reintegrate the child soldiers who have been kidnapped and forced into service by the LRA.

We are at a watershed moment in world history.  International treaties have created good rules to protect human security.  We have the architecture of enforcement in the UN and the ICC.  Now we have to make them work.

Some may be tempted to conclude that little progress is being made, but the direction of history is clear: there is a worldwide movement to prevent those abuses and bring perpetrators to justice. You can be a part of it.

Reform of the UN will allow it to do more to prevent human suffering in the 21st century. But institutions like the UN are only as powerful as popular will makes them. Only we can give the United Nations more power to do good in the world by supporting its missions and by showing our local, state, and national leaders that we stand behind it.

All of you will leave here today as ambassadors for the UN in your schools and communities. You have a vital role to play and the world needs your leadership. Thank you for being here.

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