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Diplomacy in Action

Address by President Bill Clinton to the UN General Assembly


September 22, 1997

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Remarks to the 52d Session of the United Nations General Assembly 

Mr. President, Secretary-General, distinguished guests: Five years ago, when I first addressed this Assembly, the cold war had only just ended, and the transition to a new era was beginning. Now, together, we are making that historic transition.

Behind us we leave a century full of humanity's capacity for the worst and its genius for the best. Before us, at the dawn of a new millennium, we can envision a new era that escapes the 20th century's darkest moments, fulfills its most brilliant possibilities, and crosses frontiers yet unimagined.

We are off to a promising start. For the first time in history, more than half the people represented in this Assembly freely choose their own governments. Free markets are growing, spreading individual opportunity and national well-being. Early in the 21st century, more than 20 of this Assembly's members, home to half the Earth's population, will lift themselves from the ranks of low-income nations.

Powerful forces are bringing us closer together, profoundly changing the way we work and live and relate to each other. Every day millions of our citizens on every continent use laptops and satellites to send information, products, and money across the planet in seconds. Bit by bit, the information age is chipping away at the barriers, economic, political, and social, that once kept people locked in and ideas locked out. Science is unraveling mysteries in the tiniest of human genes and the vast cosmos.

Never in the course of human history have we had a greater opportunity to make our people healthier and wiser, to protect our planet from decay and abuse, to reap the benefits of free markets without abandoning the social contract and its concern for the common good. Yet today's possibilities are not tomorrow's guarantees. We have work to do.

The forces of global integration are a great tide, inexorably wearing away the established order of things. But we must decide what will be left in its wake. People fear change when they feel its burdens but not its benefits. They are susceptible to misguided protectionism, to the poisoned appeals of extreme nationalism, and ethnic, racial, and religious hatred. New global environmental challenges require us to find ways to work together without damaging legitimate aspirations for progress. We're all vulnerable to the reckless acts of rogue states and to an unholy axis of terrorists, drug traffickers, and international criminals. These 21st century predators feed on the very free flow of information and ideas and people we cherish. They abuse the vast power of technology to build black markets for weapons, to compromise law enforcement with huge bribes of illicit cash, to launder money with the keystroke of a computer. These forces are our enemies. We must face them together because no one can defeat them alone.

To seize the opportunities and move against the threats of this new global era, we need a new strategy of security. Over the past 5 years, nations have begun to put that strategy in place through a new network of institutions and arrangements with distinct missions but a common purpose: to secure and strengthen the gains of democracy and free markets while turning back their enemies.

We see this strategy taking place on every continent: expanded military alliances like NATO, its Partnership For Peace, its partnerships with a democratic Russia and a democratic Ukraine; free-trade arrangements like the WTO and the global information technology agreement and the move toward free-trade areas by nations in the Americas, the Asia-Pacific region, and elsewhere around the world; strong arms control regimes like the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Non-Proliferation Treaty; multinational coalitions with zero tolerance for terrorism, corruption, crime, and drug trafficking; binding international commitments to protect the environment and safeguard human rights.

Through this web of institutions and arrangements, nations are now setting the international ground rules for the 21st century, laying a foundation for security and prosperity for those who live within them, while isolating those who challenge them from the outside. This system will develop and endure only if those who follow the rules of peace and freedom fully reap their rewards. Only then will our people believe that they have a stake in supporting and shaping the emerging international system.

The United Nations must play a leading role in this effort, filling in the faultlines of the new global era. The core missions it has pursued during its first half-century will be just as relevant during the next half-century: the pursuit of peace and security, promoting human rights, and moving people from poverty to dignity and prosperity through sustainable development.

Conceived in the caldron of war, the United Nations' first task must remain the pursuit of peace and security. For 50 years, the U.N. has helped prevent world war and nuclear holocaust. Unfortunately, conflicts between nations and within nations has endured. From 1945 until today, they have cost 20 million lives. Just since the end of the cold war, each year there have been more than 30 armed conflicts in which more than a thousand people have lost their lives, including, of course, a quarter of a million killed in the former Yugoslavia and more than half a million in Rwanda.

Millions of personal tragedies the world over are a warning that we dare not be complacent or indifferent. Trouble in a far corner can become a plague on everyone's house.

People the world over cheer the hopeful developments in Northern Ireland, grieve over the innocent loss of life and the stalling of the peace process in the Middle East, and long for a resolution of the differences on the Korean Peninsula or between Greece and Turkey or between the great nations of India and Pakistan as they celebrate the 50th anniversaries of their birth.

The United Nations continues to keep many nations away from bloodshed, in El Salvador and Mozambique, in Haiti and Namibia, in Cyprus and in Bosnia, where so much remains to be done but can still be done because the bloodshed has ended.

The record of service of the United Nations has left a legacy of sacrifice. Just last week, we lost some of our finest sons and daughters in a crash of a U.N. helicopter in Bosnia. Five were Americans, five were Germans, one Polish, and one British, all citizens of the world we are trying to make, each a selfless servant of peace. And the world is poorer for their passing.

At this very moment, the United Nations is keeping the peace in 16 countries, often in partnership with regional organizations like NATO, the OAS, ASEAN, and ECOWAS, avoiding wider conflicts and even greater suffering. Our shared commitment to more realistic peacekeeping training for U.N. troops, a stronger role for civilian police, better integration between military and civilian agencies, all these will help the United Nations to meet these missions in the years ahead.

At the same time, we must improve the U.N.'s capabilities after a conflict ends to help peace become self-sustaining. The U.N. cannot build nations, but it can help nations to build themselves by fostering legitimate institutions of government, monitoring elections, and laying a strong foundation for economic reconstruction.

This week the Security Council will hold an unprecedented ministerial meeting on African security, which our Secretary of State is proud to chair and which President Mugabe, chairman of the Organization of African Unity, will address. It will highlight the role the United Nations can and should play in preventing conflict on a continent where amazing progress toward democracy and development is occurring alongside still too much discord, disease, and distress.

In the 21st century, our security will be challenged increasingly by interconnected groups that traffic in terror, organized crime, and drug smuggling. Already these international crime and drug syndicates drain up to $750 billion a year from legitimate economies. That sum exceeds the combined GNP of more than half the nations in this room. These groups threaten to undermine confidence in fragile new democracies and market economies that so many of you are working so hard to see endure.

Two years ago, I called upon all the members of this Assembly to join in the fight against these forces. I applaud the U.N.'s recent resolution calling on its members to join the major international antiterrorism conventions, making clear the emerging international consensus that terrorism is always a crime and never a justifiable political act. As more countries sign on, terrorists will have fewer places to run or hide.

I also applaud the steps that members are taking to implement the declaration on crime and public security that the United States proposed 2 years ago, calling for increased cooperation to strengthen every citizen's right to basic safety through cooperation on extradition and asset forfeiture, shutting down gray markets for guns and false documents, attacking corruption, and bringing higher standards to law enforcement in new democracies.

The spread of these global criminal syndicates also has made all the more urgent our common quest to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. We cannot allow them to fall or to remain in the wrong hands. Here, too, the United Nations must lead, and it has, from UNSCOM in Iraq to the International Atomic Energy Agency, now the most expansive global system ever devised to police arms control agreements.

When we met here last year, I was honored to be the first of 146 leaders to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, our commitment to end all nuclear tests for all time, the longest sought, hardest fought prize in the history of arms control. It will help to prevent the nuclear powers from developing more advanced and more dangerous weapons. It will limit the possibilities for other states to acquire such devices. I am pleased to announce that today I am sending this crucial treaty to the United States Senate for ratification. Our common goal should be to enter the CTBT into force as soon as possible, and I ask for all of you to support that goal.

The United Nations' second core mission must be to defend and extend universal human rights and to help democracy's remarkable gains endure. Fifty years ago, the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated the international community's conviction that people everywhere have the right to be treated with dignity, to give voice to their opinions, to choose their leaders; that these rights are universal, not American rights, not Western rights, not rights for the developed world only but rights inherent in the humanity of people everywhere. Over the past decade, these rights have become a reality for more people than ever, from Asia to Africa, from Europe to the Americas. In a world that links rich and poor, north and south, city and countryside in an electronic network of shared images in real time, the more these universal rights take hold, the more people who do not enjoy them will demand them. Armed with photocopiers and fax machines, E-mail and the Internet, supported by an increasingly important community of nongovernmental organizations, they will make their demands known, spreading the spirit of freedom which, as the history of the last 10 years has shown us, ultimately will prevail.

The United Nations must be prepared to respond not only by setting standards but by implementing them. To deter abuses, we should strengthen the U.N.'s field operations and early warning systems. To strengthen democratic institutions, the best guarantors of human rights, we must pursue programs to help new legal, parliamentary, and electoral institutions get off the ground. To punish those responsible for crimes against humanity and to promote justice so that peace endures, we must maintain our strong support for the U.N.'s war crime tribunals and truth commissions. And before the century ends, we should establish a permanent international court to prosecute the most serious violations of humanitarian law.

The United States welcomes the Secretary-General's efforts to strengthen the role of human rights within the U.N. system and his splendid choice of Mary Robinson as the new High Commissioner. We will work hard to make sure that she has the support she needs to carry out her mandate.

Finally, the United Nations has a special responsibility to make sure that as the global economy creates greater wealth, it does not produce growing disparities between the haves and havenots or threaten the global environment, our common home. Progress is not yet everyone's partner. More than half the world's people are 2 days' walk from a telephone, literally disconnected from the global economy. Tens of millions lack the education, the training, the skills they need to make the most of their God-given abilities.

The men and women of the United Nations have expertise across the entire range of humanitarian and development activities. Every day they are making a difference. We see it in nourished bodies of once starving children, in the full lives of those immunized against disease, in the bright eyes of children exposed to education through the rich storehouse of human knowledge, in refugees cared for and returned to their homes, in the health of rivers and lakes restored.

The United Nations must focus even more on shifting resources from hand-outs to handups, on giving people the tools they need to make the most of their own destinies. Spreading ideas in education and technology, the true wealth of nations, is the best way to give people a chance to succeed.

And the U.N. must continue to lead in ensuring that today's progress does not come at tomorrow's expense. When the nations of the world gather again next December in Kyoto for the U.N. Climate Change Conference, all of us, developed and developing nations, must seize the opportunity to turn back the clock on greenhouse gas emissions so that we can leave a healthy planet to our children.

In these efforts, the U.N. no longer can and no longer need go it alone. Innovative partnerships with the private sector, NGO's, and the international financial institutions can leverage its effectiveness many times over. Last week, a truly visionary American, Ted Turner, made a remarkable donation to strengthen the U.N.'s development and humanitarian programs. His gesture highlights the potential for partnership between the U.N. and the private sector in contributions of time, resources, and expertise. And I hope more will follow his lead.

In this area and others, the Secretary-General is aggressively pursuing the most far-reaching reform of the United Nations in its history, not to make the U.N. smaller as an end in itself but to make it better. The United States strongly supports his leadership. We should pass the Secretary-General's reform agenda this session.

On every previous occasion I have addressed this Assembly, the issue of our country's dues has brought the commitment of the United States to the United Nations into question. The United States was a founder of the U.N. We are proud to be its host. We believe in its ideals. We continue to be, as we have been, its largest contributor. We are committed to seeing the United Nations succeed in the 21st century.

This year, for the first time since I have been President, we have an opportunity to put the questions of debts and dues behind us once and for all and to put the United Nations on a sounder financial footing for the future. I have made it a priority to work with our Congress on comprehensive legislation that would allow us to pay off the bulk of our arrears and assure full financing of America's assessment in the years ahead. Our Congress' actions to solve this problem reflects a strong bipartisan commitment to the United Nations and to America's role within it. At the same time, we look to member states to adopt a more equitable scale of assessment.

Let me say that we also strongly support expanding the Security Council to give more countries a voice in the most important work of the U.N. In more equitably sharing responsibility for its successes, we can make the U.N. stronger and more democratic than it is today. I ask the General Assembly to act on these proposals this year so that we can move forward together.

At the dawn of a new century, so full of hope but not free of peril, more than ever we need a United Nations where people of reason can work through shared problems and take action to combat them, where nations of good will can join in the struggle for freedom and prosperity, where we can shape a future of peace and progress and the preservation of our planet.

We have the knowledge, we have the intelligence, we have the energy, we have the resources for the work before us. We are building the necessary networks of cooperation. The great question remaining is whether we have the vision and the heart necessary to imagine a future that is different from the past, necessary to free ourselves from destructive patterns of relations with each other and within our own nations and live a future that is different.

A new century and a new millennium is upon us. We are literally present at the future, and it is the great gift, it is our obligation, to leave to our children. Thank you very much.



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