Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech at 40th Anniversary Session of UN General Assembly

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: UN, New York
Source: Thatcher Archive: speaking text
Editorial comments: MT was due to speak at 1145.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1714
Themes: Civil liberties, Foreign policy (Africa), Foreign policy (development, aid, etc), Foreign policy (International organizations), Law & order, Terrorism

Mr. President, on this celebration of the fortieth Anniversary of the United Nations, I should like to start with the words of someone who was present at its creation, Winston Churchill. In his Fulton speech in 1946 he said: “We must make sure that the United Nations work is fruitful, —that it is a reality and not a sham, —that it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words, —that it is a true temple of peace in which the shields of many nations can some day be hung, and not merely a cockpit in the Tower of Babel” . And so, Mr. President, it is about the work of the United Nation that I shall speak [end p1]


The United Nations' work has been fruitful over those 40 years. It has acted as a court of world opinion. And now no Government can afford to neglect or ignore its views.

The Security Council has given us a forum for managing both the unexpected crisis and the stubborn problem.

The General Assembly provides a setting where the voice of any member country, however small, can be heard. In Perez de Cuellarthe Secretary General we have an impartial and skilled negotiator in whom we have total confidence and trust. [end p2]

The United Nations has also shown that it is a force for action. It can help to keep the peace in three vital ways.

First, setting the stage for negotiation, as it did with the famous Resolution 242 on the Middle East.

Second by acting as the catalyst which persuades those in dispute to prefer negotiation to confrontation. [end p3]

And third by pursuing its peace-keeping role. Had it not been for the blue helmets and blue berets of the United Nations—guided by a great British servant of the United Nations, Brian Urquhart—local conflicts would have spread, and the toll of death and the flood of homeless would have been even greater. [end p4]

But there are those, Mr. President, who refuse to make their fair contribution to these vital peace-keeping operations. I believe they are failing in their duty to the United Nations, to mankind and to peace. It's about time they felt guilty that they leave others to bear an unfair share of the burden.


I pay tribute to those specialised agencies, which have concentrated on their appointed task: for instance eliminating disease, caring for the needs of children, feeding and sheltering refugees. [end p5] They and the men and women who serve them, deserve all our thanks.

In these ways the United Nations has shown that it is a reality not a sham; it is a force for action not a mere frothing of words; it is a temple of peace not just a Tower of Babel.

For all its dangers, our world is safer and more orderly thanks to the United Nations.

Mr. President, it would be easy on this Anniversary simply to praise and to express support. But if we really mind about the United Nations—and I am one of those who do—then we must make it more effective by recognising its shortcomings and putting them right. [end p6]


We have to admit to many disappointments.

1. True, we have been spared the ultimate horror of another world war. But that's little consolation to the many millions of people who have been maimed or made homeless in over one hundred and forty lesser conflicts.

2. We still cannot say that basic human rights—freedom of speech and opinion, freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom from torture—are observed across the world. [end p7]

The problem is not a lack of rules and standards. They are all there—in the United Nations Charter and in the universal declaration on human rights. The problem is that some Governments blatantly disregard these standards because human rights have no place in their political system. 3. And resolutions of the United Nations have not always been objective!

Some have been guilty of double standards. Judgement has been passed on countries not on the merits of the case but because it was easy to find a majority against them.

Other countries who deserved censure have been protected through sheer political expediency. South Africa is properly condemned for its degrading refusal of basic human rights to black people. [end p8]

Yet where are the resolutions on the treatment of Soviet Jewry?

4. Nor has the United Nations yet shown the capacity to deal effectively with terrorism. The terrorist is callously prepared to kill, cripple and wound to get his own way.

He speaks the language of human rights even as he extinguishes them by his deeds.

Mr. President, at the United Nations we have spoken out against terrorism often enough.

Yet there are countries represented among us, which harbour and train terrorists; and others who seem ready to support terrorism in preference to peaceful negotiation.

This is an utter betrayal of our Charter. [end p9]

5. Order and an effective rule of law are as important to justice between nations as they are to justice within nations.

But alas in 40 years, although we have created a corpus of public international law, we have not been able to make it effective and enforceable.

As that great classical historian, Thucydides, remarked many centuries ago: “The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must” . 6. In some nations, justice is still a remote ideal. [end p10]

If the majority in the United Nations wants to influence the government of a particular member, it must offer not rhetoric and abuse but encouragement when steps are taken in the right direction. I refer in particular to South Africa, where there is a sense that the time for change has come. [end p11]

Provided that negotiations are accompanied by a suspension of violence by all sides, I believe that there is a chance of progress—progress which will allow all the people of South Africa, of whatever colour or creed, to play their rightful part in the Government of their country in conditions of prosperity and peace.


What are the reasons for the disappointments and shortcomings of the United Nations? [end p12]

Why Mr President do we hear cynical assertions that the United Nations —has ceased to be relevant —that all it does is pass resolutions —that disputes brought before it are prolonged not resolved —that collective action by such a disparate body of nations will of necessity always be weak and ineffective.

The answer is two-fold.

Wishful thinking has led some people to believe that the United Nations was intended to be a kind of World Government! [end p13]

It may be a kind of Parliament of the world but it is not, and never can be, a Government of the world.

Its structure limits what it can do.

Secondly, when we ask about shortcomings we should start by looking at ourselves.

The United Nations is only a mirror held up to our own uneven, untidy and divided world. If we do not like what we see there's no point in cursing the mirror, we had better start by reforming ourselves.


Our task after 40 years is to rediscover both the hope and the resolve that characterised the founding of the United Nations. [end p14]


First we must recognise that in most circumstances the power of international organisations in today's world is the power of persuasion not coercion. The United Nations cannot and should not try to dictate detailed solutions to countries involved in disputes.

Only the parties themselves can reach agreements whether they be the Soviet Union and the United States, the Arabs and the Israelis, or white and black in Southern Africa.


We must also recognise that it is not enough to agree on words.

We must live up to them. [end p15]

Nor should we take refuge in deliberate ambiguity, in finding “a form of words” because that's easier than finding a solution.

No lasting solution will be achieved by saying one thing and meaning another. Or by getting a majority for a resolution only because the words are capable of meaning different things to different nations.

We must decide what we mean—and say so! [end p16]


As in our own nations, so with the United Nations, we have a duty to maintain the effectiveness and efficiency of the whole system and to get better value for the money we spend.

The work of agencies should not be side-tracked into political issues which are none of their business.

UNESCO is an example of this, which is one reason why we have given notice of our intention to withdraw. Political issues belong to this Assembly. Technical bodies are for technical issues. [end p17]


Mr President, we can't do without the United Nations. But we can do a lot more with it.

There are plenty of new areas where international action is required and where the United Nations can take a lead.

We have taken action on a global scale to deal with the famine in Africa—action led by the nations which run free enterprise economies. They are the ones able to provide food and help for the starving. [end p18]

We must take more action to end the international drugs trade, that traffic in death, which ruins so many young lives. We must try to stop the cultivation of plants from which these drugs are made. We must intercept the transport of them and catch and punish severely the criminals responsible for their sale. Governments—all governments—must co-operate wholeheartedly in this task.

We must be more resolute in our action to deal with international terrorism! The murders of an American and a Soviet Diplomat in the last month remind us that no country is immune. [end p19] We should all recognise that, in dealing with terrorism, weakness never pays.

These are problems against which national efforts alone are not enough.


Mr President, as the idealism and freshness which accompanied the United Nations' birth have been tested in the school of life, it was inevitable that we should suffer disappointments.

But let's not lament what has gone wrong. Let's learn from it. [end p20]

It was once again Winston Churchill who expressed so well the positive approach we need, in his description of the Journey of Life: “Let us be contented with what has happened to us and thankful for all we have been spared. Let us treasure our joys but not bewail our sorrows. The glory of light cannot exist without its shadows. Life is a whole, and good and ill must be accepted together” . Let us continue to work together until the U.N. is a true temple of peace in which the shields of many nations can be hung.

Thank you, Mr. President.

I wish you well.