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Security in a Changing World

Buenos Aires Argentina
University of Buenos Aires

I am greatly honoured to receive this Honoris Causa degree from the University of Buenos Aires, an institution that enjoys a world-wide reputation for academic excellence. It has produced no fewer than four Nobel Prize winners. One of these was Carlos Saavedra Lamas.

Saavedra Lamas won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1936 for his tireless efforts as Argentinian Foreign Minister to end the so-called Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia. They were fighting over disputed territory which was thought - wrongly, as it turned out - to be rich in oil. Saavedra Lamas condemned all forms of aggressive war and insisted that territorial changes brought about by force should never be recognised by other countries. This laid the foundation of a new basic principle of international law, that of the unlawful acquisition of territory by force. This principle found its first expression in the Rio de Janeiro Treaty on Non-Aggression and Conciliation of 1933, sometimes known as the Saavedra Lamas Treaty. As a lawyer, I have great respect for the lasting contribution made by this great alumnus of your university.

As in the 1930s, the search for security remains the overriding concern for many peoples and nations in the 21st century. But people and nations vary greatly in the way they perceive what aspect of security is lacking and in their strategies for attaining security. For billions of people, the priority is to "secure" the basic needs for survival: food, water, shelter and health care - in other words, freedom from want. For others, it is to "secure" other fundamental freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom from fear. Even among States, security has different meanings and priorities. For some, it is the achievement of economic or military parity or superiority, for others the projection of power and influence, and for still others the resolution of grievances and disputes.

Regardless of which aspect of security we consider, the current global picture is one of failure on many fronts.

If we look at the quest to secure basic needs, we are struck by the persistent inequity in the global distribution of wealth. The contrasts are stark. Twenty percent of the world´s population consumes 80 percent of its resources. Two out of every five people are forced to live on less than $2 per day. Another Argentinian Nobel Peace prizewinner, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, rightly described the fact that so many men, women and children live in poverty in a world rich in resources as "an affront to God."

The Challenges

US President Franklin Roosevelt once said, "The test of progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

If we look at the quest for other fundamental freedoms, the picture is also grim in many regions, with problems ranging from religious intolerance and the lack of political freedom to systematic oppression and torture. Most South American countries have put decades of authoritarian rule behind them and enjoy a healthy dose of political and religious freedom. But poverty is still endemic in much of the region. Some 33 million people are under-nourished in South America - about nine percent of the population of the region - although fortunately the numbers are falling.

Perhaps the most severe critique of our global progress towards human dignity is reflected in our uneven approach to the value of human life. The recent wild fires in California, which destroyed thousands of homes, many of them in prosperous neighbourhoods, dominated global headlines. The pain and anguish of those who lost everything were deeply affecting.

But why does the world seem incapable of devoting more, or at least similar, attention, for example, to the vast human tragedy in the Darfur region of Sudan, where ethnic killings on an appalling scale and the mass displacement of civilians began to unfold four years ago? Despite 200,000 deaths and up to 4 million people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, it has taken years to generate sufficient concern to support effective international intervention. Even today, Darfur is still not commanding the attention it deserves, nor is it receiving the assistance its people so desperately need. The basic question that we should legitimately ask ourselves is: why do we grieve more for some lives than for others?

If we turn to the security of nation-states, our record is also poor, particularly as reflected in regional conflicts that have been allowed to fester for decades. In the Middle East, for example, the subjection of the Palestinian people to 40 years of occupation has led to increasing polarization and militancy in the Arab and Muslim world. Yet these and other conflicts could be solved. Carlos Saavedra Lamas provided an inspiring example of what dogged diplomacy can achieve 70 years ago. Having drafted the Non-Aggression and Conciliation Treaty in his first year as Foreign Minister in 1932, he won the backing of all American states - including the U.S. - in little over a year and the Treaty came into force in November 1935. By that time the war between Bolivia and Paraguay had been brought to an end, thanks in no small measure to his efforts.

We have more recent examples of seemingly intractable problems which we have managed to resolve. After nearly 40 years of bloodshed in Northern Ireland, once bitter enemies are now sharing power in a democratically elected government. It was an untidy, messy process that took years and there were many setbacks. But everyone stuck with the process and ultimately it worked.

To bring such conflicts to resolution requires more than intermittent effort on the part of the international community; it requires committed, sustained diplomacy. But the investment is clearly worth it. Too often, dialogue - the first tool of diplomacy - is perceived as a reward for good behaviour, rather than as a means to change behaviour and reconcile differences. The lesson should be obvious by now, especially when working across cultural divides: respect breeds respect; confrontation begets confrontation. Pressure that is not accompanied by dialogue and negotiation is like a pressure cooker without a relief valve. The odds are that, at some point, it will simply explode.

Against this backdrop of global insecurities, we should not be surprised that the effort to curtail nuclear threats is still a work in progress. Consider the events of just the past few years. The war in Iraq over suspicions that nuclear and other weapons programmes had been revived. North Korea´s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its subsequent test of a nuclear weapon. Libya´s relinquishment of a fledgling nuclear weapons programme. The discovery of A. Q. Khan´s illicit nuclear procurement and distribution network. The still ongoing investigation of Iran´s undeclared nuclear programme. And not least, a surge in the sophistication of extremist networks - underscoring the potential for nuclear and radiological terrorism.

Add to this the 27,000 nuclear warheads that still exist in the arsenals of nine countries, and the fact that some of these weapons are deployed on hair trigger alert - meaning that the leaders of these countries have only 15 to 30 minutes to decide whether they are under nuclear attack and, if so, whether to launch a counter-attack. What is disconcerting is that some of these countries continue to repeat two inherently contradictory mantras: first, that they need nuclear weapons for their security; and second, that no one else should have them. "Do as I say, not as I do."

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter warned recently: "A global holocaust is just as possible now, through mistakes or misjudgments, as it was during the depths of the Cold War." He urged the nuclear weapons states to show leadership by restraining themselves and ensuring that the Non-Proliferation Treaty is adhered to. "One-by-one, the choices they make today will create a legacy - deadly or peaceful - for the future," President Carter concluded.

The Crossroads

The insecurities we face are all interconnected. Poverty is frequently coupled with human rights abuses and a lack of good governance - which result in a deep sense of injustice, anger and humiliation. This in turn provides an ideal environment for breeding violence of all types, including extremism, civil strife and interstate wars. And it is in regions of longstanding conflict where countries are most frequently driven to bolster their standing or seek greater security through the pursuit of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

Latin America is a refreshing exception. Argentina is a party to the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which came into force in 1969. It established the world´s first nuclear-weapon-free zone in a densely populated area (the first ever such treaty covered the Antarctic). The Tlatelolco Treaty, now signed and ratified by all 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, set an important precedent and was an inspiration for four similar treaties in Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Today, these nuclear-weapon-free zones cover nearly two-thirds of the countries of the world - so we have already taken a large first step in the direction of a nuclear-weapon-free world.

As this region knows from experience, nuclear-weapon-free zones help to strengthen the security of the States that belong to them. Latin Americans showed commendable foresight in recognizing this years ago. But it is gratifying to see veteran statesmen such as Henry Kissinger now reaching similar conclusions. Kissinger and some prominent colleagues - George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn - recently described nuclear weapons as "increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective" and urged the United States to take the lead in abandoning them. Latin America has demonstrated that countries can ensure their security without nuclear weapons. Everybody benefits. Nobody loses.

Our current major insecurities are also all "threats without borders," whether we are talking about HIV/AIDS, arms control or global warming or efforts to achieve development through trade. These issues cannot be solved by any one country alone; by their nature, they demand global responses and multinational cooperation.

Taking together all these aspects of global insecurity, it should be clear that our society is at a crossroads. If we hope to achieve progress, it is time for a new beginning.

The Opportunities

What is to be done? Complex as these insecurities may be, there are nonetheless obvious steps that could be taken to address them. We must share the wealth of the planet more equitably - recognizing that poverty, too, is a weapon of mass destruction. Jose Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, has described the main challenges to Latin America in particular as: inequality, crime, good governance and sustainable growth.

We must invest in more advanced science and technology to meet development needs - seeking to do more than create more wealth for the wealthy. Investments in technology are invariably profit-driven; more emphasis, therefore, should be placed on innovation to address problems of hunger and disease. We must engage in the sustained diplomacy necessary to resolve longstanding conflicts. And we must reach out across cultural divides, understanding that we are one human family, whatever our ethnicity, skin colour or faith.

The international community must also deal with symptoms of insecurity at the State level, including nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. On the nuclear front, we must enhance the security of existing stocks of nuclear and radiological material, and tighten controls over sensitive nuclear operations that produce such material. The IAEA must receive the support it needs to carry out effective, independent verification of States´ non-proliferation commitments. World leaders must be persuaded to acknowledge the inextricable linkage between non-proliferation and disarmament - and therefore the critical need for accelerated efforts towards a nuclear-weapons-free world. It is clear that the current system is not sustainable: it needs to be strengthened, and it needs to be universal.

Ultimately, we will only succeed if we have the foresight to develop an alternative system of collective security. A system in which no country could rely, or would need to rely, on nuclear weapons for its security. A system with effective global mechanisms for conflict resolution. A system in which security is not perceived as a zero sum game, but rather a system that is equitable, inclusive and effective. And above all, a system that places human security at its centre; the right of every human being to live in peace, freedom and dignity.


While I have been speaking to you, more than 200 of our fellow human beings have died of starvation. An additional 125 have died of waterborne diseases. Another 85 have died from HIV/AIDS. Most of these deaths could have been avoided by a more rational and humane distribution of resources.

In this same short time, governments have spent $30 million on armaments - approximately ten times the amount provided as development assistance for the poor.

This is our world. It is our great privilege to live in an age where we are witnessing incredible advances in science and technology, with discovery and innovation at an accelerated pace in areas like nanotechnology, bioengineering and information technology - in which many of you are undoubtedly making major contributions. But it is also our great shame to tolerate, in parallel, a set of primitive ethical and social values hailing back to the caveman, always in search of a bigger club with which to protect our privileges and settle our differences.

I have already quoted your distinguished fellow-countryman Adolfo Perez Esquivel. While he has a clear-eyed understanding of all the ills of the age, he still believes - and I fully share his conviction - that creating a more just and humane world is possible.

"To create this new society, we must reach out our hands, fraternally, without hatred and rancour, for reconciliation and peace, with unfaltering determination in the defence of truth and justice," Esquivel said in his Nobel acceptance speech in Oslo, 27 years ago next month. "We know we cannot plant seeds with closed fists. To sow we must open our hands."


Last update: 26 July 2017