The United Nations General Debate (the traditional opening of the annual General Assembly session featuring speeches by heads of state) is very predictable. World leaders use their speeches to laud themselves, their countries, and praise the United Nations with assurances that the world body is indispensable amid calls for it to assume even more projects, initiatives and responsibilities. The predictability of the speeches by most world leaders serves to highlight the speeches that are bizarre and, sometimes, appalling. However, even these bizarre speeches have become troublesomely regular and sadly tolerated.

However, we saw a truly unusual speech before the United Nations on Saturday. Czech President Vaclav Klaus interrupted the rote calls for increased global governance – centered, of course on an expanded role for the United Nations – and instead called for the United Nations to be pared back and refocused on its founding principles and divested of the extravagant smorgasbord of its current agenda and budget:

I don’t think that the UN needs to search for a new mission. The goals of the United Nations should remain those defined in the original UN Charter (emphasis in original):

  • to maintain international peace and security;
  • to develop friendly relations among nations;
  • to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems.

The United Nations should not divert from these principles. It should not search for alternative or substitute projects to those which enhance peace, freedom and democracy. It should remain an intergovernmental platform, based on the plurality of views of its member states, and on our mutual respect towards their sometimes differing positions.

Let me briefly touch upon two issues which form part of the current UN agenda.

The first issue is the worldwide economic crisis and the methods to overcome it. I am afraid we are moving in the wrong direction….

The solution to this or any other crisis does not lie in rising protectionism and it is positive that most governments have behaved quite rationally in this respect. The solution doesn’t lie in “more bureaucracy” either, in creating new governmental and supranational agencies, or in aiming at global governance of the world economy. On the contrary, this is the time for international organizations, including the United Nations, to reduce their expenditure, make their administrations thinner and leave the solutions to the governments of the member states which are directly accountable to the citizens of their countries….

The UN should not have an all-encompassing agenda. It should not turn away from political topics towards “scientific” ones. The UN is not here to determine what science is but to engage its member states in a rational, reasoned debate about political issues. The most harmful political debate we have been witnessing in the last couple of years is about climate and global warming….

Instead of increasingly becoming a source of funds for various, sometimes very dubious non-governmental organizations which – without any accountability and control – seek to profit from the UN activities, the UN should strive to be an efficient body where states and their people are represented. The UN’s role is not to push for global governance and to play a central role in it. The UN exists primarily to enhance friendly relations among its members and to look for solutions to problems which can’t be confined to national boundaries.

President Klaus’s comments were a welcome insertion of clarity and perspective in a miasma of self congratulatory fog. The fact is that the U.N. has all too often failed to fulfill the tasks assigned it and ignored its founding principles, in part, because of the eagerness of many member states – with the willing assistance of UN bureaucrats – to have the U.N. take up disparate favored causes and agendas. As recommended in publications like ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives, we need the U.N. to demonstrate competence in its core tasks before entrusting it with additional responsibilities.