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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 38, June 1999

100th Anniversary of First International Peace Conference: Speech by UN Secretary-General

Speech by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, St. Petersburg, Russia, 22 June 1999

"It was the Government of Russia, on the instructions of Czar Nicholas II, which with prescience and concern for human well-being proposed the convening of the First International Peace Conference in The Hague.

Its purposes were to reduce excessive armaments, to bring order to the disorder of war and to find effective means by which all peoples could enjoy real and lasting peace. This was an ambitious agenda. Sadly, it is equally relevant and urgent today, a full century later.

In 1899, Russia asked the 26 governments meeting in The Hague to consider reducing their arms budgets. Today, world military spending is $750 billion annually, diverting precious resources from basic needs such as health and education, while feeding the global arms trade.

Russia also asked that governments prohibit their armies and navies from using any new kind of firearms or explosives. Today, too much human ingenuity is channelled into developing new weapons, and not enough into preventing disease, protecting the environment or eradicating poverty.

The face of contemporary warfare - largely internal conflicts in which civilians are the main targets - suggests that war is as brutal and chaotic as ever. And the recourse to force shows disturbing resilience: instead of resolving differences peacefully, the logic of war holds sway and the belligerents don't seem to realize what they've done until they see the ashes.

But if the First International Peace Conference did not succeed in some of its announced purposes, there can be no doubt that it was a major landmark: - in the evolution of the laws of war - in the development of modern international humanitarian law; - and in efforts to institutionalize the peaceful settlement of disputes.

In the broadest sense, the Conference can be counted among the birthplaces of multilateral diplomacy. The United Nations itself, including the International Court of Justice, is among its legacies.

Consider some of the achievements and contributions.

The Conference rejected the view of war as the ultimate, total and legitimate exercise of State force. Instead, the international community decided to introduce at least a measure of humanity into international armed conflict.

The Conference reaffirmed the basic distinction between combatants and civilians, and developed norms to ensure that the sick, wounded and civilians taking no active part in hostilities, were protected to the maximum extent possible.

The Conference adopted the Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes, which established the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Though under-utilized since then, the Court is modernizing itself so that States can make greater use of what might well be one of diplomacy's best kept secrets. The Convention also set out an array of methods for resolving conflicts through peaceful means, such as mediation, good offices, inquiry and conciliation. These were later incorporated into Article 33 of the United Nations Charter.

The United Nations has sought to carry forward these gains. Today, in each of The Hague conference's main areas of concern - the rules of war, the spread of arms and the peaceful settlement of disputes - the international community has important opportunities to make the progress we need.

The rules of war are among the many subjects falling ever further under the purview of international law. The 1949 Geneva Conventions are among the more than 500 multilateral treaties that have been deposited with the Secretary-General as part of the centuries-long development of rules, customs and judicial precedents affecting virtually every aspect of human endeavour.

These agreements provide the framework for an international society in which laws prevail over the arbitrary reliance on might. They are, in short, a template for a better world - but only if they are ratified and implemented; only if that framework is fully utilized.

Institutions are a key factor in transforming laws on the books into rules that are observed in daily life. Today we have an opportunity to create an institution - the International Criminal Court - that would strike a blow for international criminal justice; that would sharpen the fight against impunity; that would uphold the principle of individual criminal responsibility.

Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to call on all States which have not yet done so to sign and ratify the Rome Statute agreed one year ago.

When it comes to the spread of weapons, our opportunities come cloaked in deadly danger. The end of the Cold War allowed us to envisage a world moving irreversibly towards the ultimate goal of eliminating nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. And indeed, we have seen large-scale reductions in nuclear weapons by the two major nuclear Powers and the creation of nuclear-weapon-free zones covering vast areas of the world. We have seen, since 1996, the adoption of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty and the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Still, the nuclear tests last year by India and Pakistan, and the recent upsurge of fighting along the Line of Control between the two nations, are deeply troubling. It is time to heed the growing body of opinion, in nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon States alike, that even more rapid progress towards total nuclear disarmament is needed in the years to come.

The end of the Cold War also created new opportunities for peaceful conflict resolution.

In Central America, the United Nations helped nations that were exhausted and devastated by civil conflict to negotiate agreements that have transformed the region. Settlements to long-standing conflicts were also reached in Cambodia, Mozambique, Namibia and elsewhere. In Nigeria and South Africa, peaceful transfers of power were achieved - not without suffering, of course, but without the bloody cataclysms that many feared.

Today in East Timor, an impasse appears to be on its way to resolution through a popular consultation organized by the United Nations, made possible by an agreement which my personal representative helped the parties to achieve.

At the same time, I will be the first to admit that failure and delay have also been part of our recent record. It is those experiences, more than our successes, that lead me to urge the entire international community to continue strengthening the United Nations.

Unfettered by ideological conflict, empowered by technology, open to the progressive forces of civil society and reinvigorated by a process of comprehensive reform, the Organization remains a unique tool. It is the source of international legitimacy, a forum for multilateral decision-making, and an instrument for collective security and preventive diplomacy. But it needs more from the Member States - more resources and more political will - if it is to get the job done.

Our next test is already upon us. I am referring, of course, to the daunting responsibilities that the Security Council has assigned us in Kosovo.

Russia has played a crucial role in bringing the hostilities in the Balkans to an end, and in making possible the adoption of a Security Council resolution. There is now hope that the conflict in Kosovo can be solved in the only way acceptable to the international community: allowing all of the people of that unhappy region to return to their homes in safety and enjoy substantial autonomy and self-government. The world owes a considerable debt of gratitude to President Yeltsin, Foreign Minister Ivanov and Special Envoy Chernomyrdin for their respective roles in this achievement.

When I visited Moscow in April, I said to Russia's leaders that if the Security Council could restore its unity of purpose in dealing with this conflict, that could lead to the resolution of other issues where progress is desperately needed and where Russia also has an important role to play. Foremost among these is the situation in Iraq. There and in many other parts of the world you can play a central role in the United Nations in the work of conflict resolution. Russia's commitment to the integrity of the Organization, and to the primacy of the Security Council in the maintenance of international peace and security, is strong and clear.

As we move ahead, the world would do well to remember the words of The Hague preamble, drafted by the Russian jurist Fedor de Martens, who spoke movingly of the 'law of nations', the 'laws of humanity' and 'the dictates of the public conscience'.

The public conscience recoils at the prospect that this violent century could end as it began, with humanity no wiser in preventing conflict and no better at finding means to resolve it. Certainly, conflicts show little sign of abating, and their conduct has taken a course we had thought we had seen the last of.

Yet it remains my hope that the international community - which is being built through the interaction of individuals, institutions and laws - is beginning to learn the lessons from the past century's setbacks and tragedies.

Let us hope that with the new century, the agenda of hatred and despair that forms our backdrop, as it did for the First International Peace Conference, can be made a thing of the past."

Source: 'Secretary-General stresses crucial role of Russian Federation in ending hostilities in Balkans and in making possible adoption of Council resolution,' United Nations Press Release SG/SM/7039, 22 June 1999

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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