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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

The 54th Session of the United Nations General Assembly

The 54th Session of the United Nations General Assembly
Speech by Mr. Halldór Ásgrímsson, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland
September 24, 1999


Mr. President,

Allow me at the outset to congratulate you heartily on your election to the Presidency of this General Assembly. The post that you hold is a challenging one and I am particularly pleased that this Assembly is being chaired by a colleague from Namibia, a country which is an important partner for Iceland.

The crucial role of the United Nations in the global community can never be overstated. As this millennium draws to a close it is natural to take stock of the past and try to foresee what the future holds in store.

The Organization}s reform measures have included an inward look at the organizational structure and personnel matters, and last but not least its financial make-up. In this respect many feel that more needs to be done. We must have the courage to scrutinize not only the organization itself but also the manner in which Member States conduct their business within these walls. While going through this process utmost care should be taken to prevent the discussion from negatively affecting the public image of the organization. Moreover, we should make sure that it does not have detrimental effects on the moral of the UN international staff whom we depend upon for the smooth operation of the difficult and often dangerous tasks we assign to them. A constructive approach towards reforms is vital for the future of the United Nations.

There is a real need to strengthen the United Nations ability to tackle the complex challenges of the modern world. A case in point is the working group on the reform of the Security Council which has deliberated for years without tangible results and no end in sight. This constant repetition can only serve to weaken the United Nations, which has proved itself on many occasions to be of fundamental importance to mankind. But it is not only the organizational structures that need to be adapted. We also need to look at the substance. In this regard I would like to welcome the Secretary General}s emphasis in his recent report on creating a culture of prevention. As he correctly points out our political and organizational cultures and practices remain oriented far more towards reaction than prevention. This needs to be changed and thus the efficiency of the UN might be greatly enhanced.

Mr. President,
During a recent meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the five Nordic countries in Iceland we issued a joint declaration against the use of child soldiers. In the declaration it is noted that the current protection of children in armed conflicts is insufficient and that international standards must be raised. On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child this year, the Nordic Ministers support the urgent finalization of an optional protocol to ensure that persons below the age of 18 years are neither recruited into armed forces nor armed groups distinct from governmental forces. Children should not be forced to take part in hostilities under any circumstances.

In this regard I would like to express my satisfaction with the work carried out by the Secretary-General}s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, especially for his efforts to make non-governmental forces around the world refrain from using child soldiers.

The vast majority of UN member states have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Accordingly we have committed ourselves to certain actions to promote childrens rights. Having children taking part in armed conflicts or otherwise putting them at risk of becoming victims of such hostilities is clearly against the best interests of the child which should always be our primary consideration. There is another powerful reason to protect children, - they are our future. Protecting today}s children is in itself an important contribution towards peace and creating a culture of prevention. We should also strive to secure that children are able to enjoy their rights, during transitional periods, between armed conflicts or other emergency situations and until enough stability has been reached to start reconstruction.

Mr. President,
It seems, in our world, that not a week goes by without countries and indeed the international community having to look upon in horror as terrorists cowardly target people going about their everyday lives. The murdering of innocents will never further any cause or put an end to a specific conflict, it will only add names to the roster of the dead. We urge states to sign and ratify counter-terrorism conventions.

In this connection I would further like to reiterate our resolve in combatting the international trade in drugs and transnational crime. No country is immune from these modern evils. Given their global scope and resources available to criminals, governments the world over must work together to put and end to these activities.

Mr. President.
This year we have recognised the importance and contributions of the elderly to our lives and society by proclaiming the year 1999 as the international year of older persons. The Icelandic authorities have done their utmost to enhance the visibility of the issues facing the elderly in today's society. This has been done through a number of projects, including projects designed to bridge the generation gap by encouraging interaction between age groups.

Mr. President,
In a time of unparalleled economic growth spurred on by globalization of the world}s economy, its fruits are unfortunately not evenly distributed. We are witnessing a growing gap in the distribution of wealth within societies as well as between the North and the South. Moreover we have been witnessing an appaling trend whereby the curse of poverty has increasingly been falling upon the shoulders of women. There are no easy answers on how to tackle this problem in the short term but two long term approaches stand out regarding the empowerment and advancement of women. They are education and respect for human rights.

An educated woman passes knowledge to her children, which is not as often the case with men. It is universaly accepted that education and social development go hand in hand and are conditions for a peaceful and prosperous world. In this age of globalization and technology it becomes ever more important to ensure universal education. Therefore it is crucial to incorporate education into development projects. For the past few years we have been doing that through training in the fisheries sector as well as by conducting adult literacy programmes for women in Namibia. Similar programmes are being prepared for Malawi and Mozambique.

Vigorous efforts also have to be made to end other discrimination against women. This applies not only at the national level but also at the international level where actions of international organizations are increasingly having a direct impact on peoples} lives, for example through crisis management. When carrying out such tasks it is the duty of the organizations concerned to ensure that women and their interests are represented at the negotiating table.

During the high-level segment of the meeting of the Economic and Social Council this year the Icelandic delegation paid special attention to the plight of the urban poor who inhabit coastal regions around the world. Iceland has today a thriving economy based on our fishing industry. The development of a viable fishing industry strengthened the economy by creating employment opportunities and prosperity which in turn benefitted the population at large.

It is self evident that a developed fisheries sector can be a crucial factor in enhancing the food security of developing countries. The Icelandic authorities have urged private companies to invest in the fisheries sectors in developing countries, such as in Namibia, Mozambique and Malawi. Partnerships forged in this manner between firms in Iceland and developing countries have led to transfer of technology in this field thereby spurring economic growth and development in the coastal regions in question.

We believe that many of the developing countries can benefit much more from rational utilization of the resources of the oceans. Therefore approximately half of Icelandic development cooperation has been concentrated on research and training in the fisheries sector, putting emphasis on sustainable utilization of natural resources.

Mr. President,

Iceland has through the years placed particular importance on the work of the Commission on Sustainable Development. During its 7th session earlier this year the Icelandic government noted the necessity of abolishing state subsidies that contribute to overcapacity in the fisheries sector world wide and participated actively in discussions on the need for improved coordination within the UN system in the field of ocean affairs. It is our view that the genaral debate on the oceans can be improved. It is, however, our firm belief that efforts to improve the handling of ocean issues should draw upon existing institutional resources. These efforts should also carefully take into account that global bodies should not try to solve local or regional problems of fisheries management.

The management of living marine resources is a very complex and sensitive task that has to be dealt with by using the most advanced available scientific knowledge and in harmony with local socio-economic and environmental circumstances.

Mr. President.
Conflicts where the civilian population is expressely targeted are abhorrent and leave scars that take generations to heal. Once again we have witnessed the emergence of the dark and evil side of human nature in the horrible ethnic cleansing which took place in the recent conflict in Kosovo. It would have been desirable if the United Nations could have played an all encompassing role in the settlement of this conflict. In this regard I would like to endorse the position put forward by the Secretary General on humanitarian intervention. When a state not only stops protecting the rights of its citizens but turns against them through gross violations of human rights, the international community can not and should not stand idly by.

Mr. President,
Iceland currently holds the chair of the Council of Europe which encompasses forty-one European countries. I would like to use this opportunity to stress the value and importance of close cooperation between the Council and the United Nations in the field of human rights. We have recent examples of such practical co-operation from Kosovo, where the Council of Europe is working together with the UN and other organisations in fulfillment of UN Security Council resolution 1244 and the EU-led Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe. Referring again to the benefits of prevention, I should say, prevention is at the very center of the Council of Europe}s work on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Mr. President,
The agreement between Portugal and Indonesia on the future of East-Timor was historic as well as the referendum which took place. The appalling violence that followed is a cause of great concern. Every effort has to be made to halt it and punish those responsible. My Government fully supports the Security Council}s resolution 1264 and welcomes the speedy deployment of the multinational force. Nothing should be allowed to delay the process towards the independence of East Timor.

Mr. President,
We welcome the change of pace in the Middle-East peace process. The positive developments in the last few months between the Israelis and the Palestinians, have been very encouraging and we sincerely hope that this renewed momentum will carry us towards a lasting peace in the region. We urge other countries in the region to seize this particular moment and start the healing of wounds that have been festering for so long.

Mr. President.
Icelanders are no strangers to natural disasters and we know the devastation they can unleash upon countries and peoples. Our hearts and sympathy go out to our friends in Turkey, Greece and now most recently on the island of Taiwan, who face the aftermath of earthquakes that claimed the lives of a great number of people. We have now decided to join the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team (UNDAC) because we believe we can make a contribution.

Mr. President,
During this century we have witnessed mankind}s greatest achievements as well as its greatest failures. While many countries have gone from war to peace and from poverty to prosperity others have been unable to grasp these often elusive goals of humanity. It is clear that we will be entering the new millennium with unsolved problems and challenges of such a magnitude that they will continue to confront us into an unforseen future.

I would like in closing to stress what I said in the beginning that only with a renewed and revitalized United Nations can we hope to solve the threats and challanges that lie ahead. If we, the member states, shoulder our responsiblities and implement the changes necessary, then the United Nations will always be in the forefront of the quest for peace and prosperity. If we don}t have the courage to adopt the necessary changes, we can not expect our children to do so.


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