UN is failing the poor: Mbeki

23 September 2004

President Thabo Mbeki stated a strong case for the world’s poor at the 59th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Wednesday, saying that world leaders had failed in their Millennium Declaration goals of helping to rid the world of war, poverty and underdevelopment.

Mbeki said there would be those who said that “a good beginning has been made, and therefore that it is too early to say we have failed.

“But I am certain that if we say to those affected by violence and war that we have made a good beginning towards the establishment of a just and lasting peace all over the world, they will not believe us”, Mbeki said.

“I am equally certain that if we say to those who, every day, go to bed hungry, that we have made a good beginning towards freeing the entire human race from want, they will also not believe us.”

Mbeki said that for the billions of the planet’s poor and powerless people, the description of the UN in the Millennium Declaration of 2000 as “the most universal and most representative organisation in the world” was a mockery, adding that “the vision of human dignity, equality and equity at the global level we enunciated in this imposing forum four years ago resonates among the ordinary people who are victims of hunger and war as a beautiful dream that will inevitably be deferred”.

Mbeki underscored the gulf between “the grandeur of our words, and the vision they paint of a world of peace, free of war, a world characterised by shared prosperity, free of poverty” – and the paltry results achieved in the last four years.

Mbeki attributed this failure to “the fact that we have, as yet, not seriously confronted the difficult issues that relate to the uses, and perhaps the abuses, of power.”

Later this year, Mbeki said, the UN would table a report by its High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, which was constituted by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Mbeki predicted that, “depending on where we stand relative to the power equation, we will hold radically different views about what constitutes humanity’s most serious threats and challenges, and therefore what must be changed to respond to that perceived reality”.

Powerful nations, he said, would make the determination that because, almost by definition, terrorists targeted them because they were powerful, they had no choice but to identify terrorism as the central threat facing humanity.

Being the most powerful nations, Mbeki said, their decision would “necessarily constitute the global decision” of what constituted the central, most urgent challenge to humanity, “necessitating changes in the global system of governance effectively to respond to this reality”.

“What they will decide will translate into a set of obligatory injunctions, issued by this organisation, which all member nations will have to accept and implement.”

On the other hand, the disempowered, who are also the poor of the world, would identify poverty and underdevelopment at the principal threat to human civilisation.

“But because they are powerless, these billions, the overwhelming majority of the same humanity that needs to eat, to drink water, to be protected from the elements, to dream, to love, to laugh, to play, to live, will have no possibility to persuade this organisation … to translate what they have concluded into obligatory injunctions … which all member nations will have to accept and implement.”

In the Millennium Declaration, Mbeki said, “we spoke of the need to implement ‘policies and measures, at the global level, which correspond to the needs of developing countries and economies in transition and are formulated and implemented with their effective participation’.

“Perhaps the mistake we made was to assume that the contemporary distribution of power in human society would permit of this outcome, such that … it would be possible for the concerns of the poor to take precedence on the global agenda and the global programme of action.

“We comforted or perhaps deluded ourselves with the thought that this organisation is ‘the most universal and most representative organisation in the world’, afraid to ask the question – is it?

“As an Israeli said to us at our own headquarters in Pretoria a fortnight ago, it is perhaps time that we the poor and powerless abandon our wheelchairs and begin to walk unaided. Perhaps this will help to build [a] social order … in which right would make might and not might, right.”

SouthAfrica.info reporter