Podium: Impartiality does not mean neutrality

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Kofi Annan

From a speech by the Secretary-General of the United Nations to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York

TONIGHT, I wish to reflect on the role of the Secretary-General. A Secretary-General must be judged by his fidelity to the principles of the Charter and his advancement of the ideals they embody. In my two years as Secretary-General, I have sought to pursue this role in two distinct ways.

First, by speaking out in favour of universal human rights and in defence of the victims of aggression or abuse, wherever they may be. For Americans, the presidency has been seen as a "bully pulpit", at least since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. I have sought to make the office of Secretary-General a pulpit, too. I have sought to use it as a vehicle for the promotion of the values of tolerance, of democracy, of human rights and of good governance that I believe are universal.

In Tehran, I have paid tribute to the great faith of Islam, while denouncing the terrorism so unjustly carried out in its name. In Harare, I have called on Africans to recognise human rights as their rights as much as anyone else's. In Shanghai, I have spoken out for freedom as the catalyst for China's prosperity. And in the Balkans, I have condemned early and repeatedly the crimes committed in Kosovo, calling on every concerned party to apply the lessons of Bosnia.

Second, I have used my office as a bridge between two or more parties, wherever I believed an opportunity for the peaceful resolution of disputes could be found. To do so, I have travelled many miles and embarked on many missions, confronting not only the doubts of others but my own as well. I have, at times, been as sceptical about a leader's true intentions as anyone, and I have entered every war-zone without any illusions about the prospects for peace or the price of misrule.

But I have persisted, because I must deal with the world not as I would wish it to be, but as it is. I must confront it with a sense of reality about how far a leader can be pushed by peaceful means and how long it will take to bring peace to a state of war. Does this make me, or anyone in my position, by definition morally blind? Can a Secretary-General not therefore tell good from evil or victim from aggressor?

Of course he can, and precisely for that reason he must persist, for it is ultimately the aggressor more often than the victim who will benefit from isolation and abandonment by the international community. Impartiality does not - and must not - mean neutrality in the face of evil; it means strict and unbiased adherence to the principles of the Charter - nothing more, and nothing less.

If I say that I can "do business" with one leader or other, I am not passing moral or any other kind of judgment. Nor am I guaranteeing the future behaviour of any leader or state with regard to their relations with the international community. I am simply carrying out the task that I have been given by the United Nations to seek peaceful resolution to a dispute.

When I went to Nigeria, in July, to advance the process of democratisation, that great nation was undergoing a dramatic period of change. Uncertainty and unease were everywhere, with few able to discern a way out. The death of General Abacha opened a new chapter, and today General Abubakar appears determined to honour his pledge to allow popular sovereignty. If only as a bridge, my presence may have served to support a democratic transition at a perilous moment, and in so doing will have advanced not only Nigeria's prospects, but also the aims of the Charter.

When I went to Libya, in December, I went at a critical time to place my service in the cause of securing justice for the victims of Lockerbie. I went also in the hope of closing the widening gap between Africa and the West in their treatment of that country. There, our prospects may be less favourable, and certainly no one can predict the time or content of Libya's decision. But if my visit speeded up, even by one day, the closing of this tragic chapter, I believe it will have been worth it - to me and to the United Nations.

Of the missions I embarked on last year, none was fraught with as much risk to my office and to the United Nations as Iraq. The peace we seek in Iraq, as everywhere, is one that reflects the lessons of our terrible century: that peace is not true or lasting if it is bought at any cost; that only peace with justice can honour the victims of war and violence; and that, without democracy, tolerance and human rights for all, no peace is truly safe.

To apply those lessons wherever and whenever possible is a Secretary- General's highest calling and foremost duty - to himself, to his office and to the United Nations.