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The true soul of the United Nations
by Carmen Font

An interview with Professor Frederico Mayor Zaragoza, a former director of UNESCO, and the founder of The Foundation for the Culture of Peace as well as The World Forum of Civil Society Networks. He answers questions about peace as a proactive energy, and the potential of the UN in securing the future of the world.

Professor Federico Mayor Zaragoza (born in Barcelona, Spain, in 1934) is a respected figure in Spain and abroad for his tireless work for peace and development. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Professor Mayor, a biochemist, held several senior ministerial posts in the Spanish transition governments and later as Member of the European Parliament. He gained widespread international recognition as director-general of UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation) from 1987 to 1999, when he gave new momentum to the organization’s mission and worked towards creating its Culture of Peace Program. Following his guidelines, the United Nations General Assembly approved the ‘Declaration and Programme for Action on a Culture of Peace’ (September 1999) which constitutes, from a conceptual and practical standpoint, his highest aspirations.

In 1999, he decided not to run for a third term with UNESCO and, on returning to Spain, created FundaciÛn Cultura de Paz (the Foundation for the Culture of Peace), of which he is chairman, and its sister organization UBUNTU (the World Forum of Civil Society Networks). The name UBUNTU is “an age-old African term for humaneness – for caring, sharing and being in harmony with all of creation. As an ideal, it promotes co-operation between individuals, cultures and nations”.

Carmen Font interviewed Professor Mayor for Share International.


Share International: As a staunch defender of the United Nations, what, in your opinion, is the root of its alleged malfunction?

Federico Mayor: I believe the United Nations has been gradually weakened since the end of the Cold War, despite the fact that important initiatives have been passed recently. In 1954, UN officials realized that the world needed to share its resources better, and that it was unfair that some countries were so poor and others so wealthy. Back then, the first most important programme was created: the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Suddenly, the international community realized that sharing was the key. And what’s the best course of action for sharing? Development.

Then came a long debate over how to develop all countries to the same level, and whether political, educational and cultural developments were necessary for economic development. This is what we now call ‘integral development’. But then another notion emerged which is even more important: ‘endogenous development’, helping countries to help themselves. This is ‘capacity building’, but at present we are not doing this at all; if we were, every rich country would give 0.7 per cent of its GDP [Gross Domestic Product].

A third big step in the field of development came with the notion of ‘sustainability’. Gro Harlem Brundtland was the first to say that development is useless if we exhaust natural resources. Therefore, every resource we use must be replenished in equal proportion. It goes without saying that we are not taking any of these three basic and commonsense steps in development. We are not bringing about development with a human face, despite the fact that we publish a colourful Human Development Report once a year.


SI: What would be the first step towards the implementation of real development with a human face?

FM: First and foremost, we need to get rid of loans. Since the ending of the Cold War, nations have replaced the 0.7 per cent of GDP donations with loans with very harsh conditions. These loans force a cut in the number of the so-called “effectives” – teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers – and most of the money goes to infrastructure built by donor countries, since the recipients have no means to invest in training their own engineers. So these loans are sheer business and the United Nations, with its mandate to build peace through development, is a reluctant participant. This approach fosters a system of deeply indebted countries, where the flow of aid is inverted so that recipients pay more than they receive. As a result, poor countries are financing wealthy ones. This is utterly shameful.

So, gradually since the end of the Cold War, the United Nations has been eroded because it has been forced to divert from its essential core work – peace through justice, meaning real sharing, co-operation, development, health, housing and education. We all know this, but there is a big gap between what we know intellectually and what we are willing to do.


SI: One constant criticism of the UN is that it lacks political power. How do you react to this?

FM: The United Nations has political power, but it is not allowed to use it. There are several problems which prevent full political action. First of all, there are two or three countries which, by dint of their economic power, are able to withhold their contributions (remember that the US owes billions of dollars); they have also raised their position to being the virtual rulers of the UN. They do not abide by the Security Council resolutions or by the judgements of the International Court of Justice. This fosters a negligent attitude within the UN system which permeates all its departments. Many officials and employees feel discouraged and betrayed, and therefore the quality of their work and commitment is lessened.

It is true that the UN system has been under deliberate constant attack in order to distract it from its core work. As we know, people can die for an ideal, but if the ideal is valid, it can never die. This is what happens within the UN system. Some governments and leaders have tried to weaken the UN by forcing it to do things which are not part of our brief. But we have not yet lost our moral integrity.

The United Nations is not a relief organization, and the role of UNESCO is not to build schools or to increase literacy. The schools have to be built by poor countries through their programmes and budgets. And the UN has to work with poor countries so that they can stand on their own, and avoid exploitation from multinationals and wealthy countries. This is how peace is built. UNESCO’s mandate, for instance, is to build peace wherever wars are waged. How? Through education and culture. We all need to be educated – especially our political leaders. Only then will we be able to prevent wars, and use, or help use, war resources as peace resources through self-management. The UN is not a charity. We exist to create, physically and intellectually, the conditions for peace. This implies real justice and sharing, not a simple distribution of aid and political patch-up.

When politicians understand that the creation of peace involves prevention of conflict, and ‘peace building’, then the true soul of the United Nations system will come to the fore. We must prevent conflict by creating economic conditions that allow poor countries to gain emancipation and self-esteem. Of course, there will always be crazy groups resorting to terrorism and violent nationalism, but the UN has global security mechanisms (like its Nuclear Energy departments) to avert dangerous actions. It is not the role of the US or any other country to engage in unilateral actions under the pretext of preventing terrorism. We need more wisdom and less retaliation.


SI: Let me insist on the importance of the end of the Cold War in relation to the United Nations. I’d like to return to the issue for a moment.

FM: I’m delighted you insist. It was a colossal historical moment for many reasons, where humanity had to go through a test. We had two systems: one [communism] which, in the name of equality, lacked freedom. (Gorbachev knew the transition from uniformity to freedom would be difficult, and eventually he could not control the situation.) And the other [capitalism], which lacked justice in the name of freedom. This is what we have now, the credo of the market economy, and it is getting worse and worse. When the Berlin Wall fell, we were eagerly expecting peace dividends. Everyone thought: “Great, now it won’t be necessary to spend so much money on weapons, now it is high time to strengthen the UN and foster world peace, since we have more money and a window of political opportunity.” But, what happened? The G7 and G8 were formed, and gathered immense power virtually unnoticed.


SI: By “virtually unnoticed” do you mean “hidden beneath the surface”? Are you implying that it is more dangerous now than during the Cold War?

FM: Now, let me be absolutely sincere with you. I lived through this transition in a very intense and personal way, and I am able to say that, in many respects, we are now living in more dangerous times than during the Cold War. But, at the same time, I have every reason to believe that these are also times of great opportunity and optimism. I trust humanity and, above all, I trust ordinary people. OK, as the UN we have almost been deprived of our principles and moral integrity. For the first time in history, humanity has largely abdicated its ideologies in favour of the market economy. This is – and I cannot stress it enough – extremely dangerous. We are all living, whether we know it or not, even if we consider ourselves very progressive and sensitive to world problems, under the influence of competition and market forces. We are told to believe that sharing and love are signs of ‘weakness’ and that ideas and culture are useless because they do not ‘produce’. Children grow up with this mindset, and our societies are getting very aggressive and selfish, deprived as they are of the values of caring and compassion. This is happening now and it is a time bomb. Market economies and companies are only interested in short-term benefits: which is why they do not look after their employees and why they exhaust the planet’s resources. Politicians, particularly after the end of the Cold War, have been ‘abducted’ and brainwashed into believing that the market economy alone will guarantee prosperity. Against this, the United Nations (and many other organizations) are working hard to voice aloud that the rules of life are different, that we need to recover our moral authority as human beings.


SI: What is the contribution of UBUNTU to this global voice?

FM: The work of UBUNTU is not to campaign for a change in the UN Security Council. For us, this is secondary. We press hard to re-establish in people’s minds the true value of the United Nations charter, and this implies that the essential UN departments (political, economical, social, environmental and cultural) work together, united in a new light. We also work hard to promote the voice of the people, both in the street and in political representation through direct participation in the UN General Assembly.


SI: Do you believe ‘people power’ is the way to the future?

FM: Absolutely. In the past I used to hear people say “there is nothing we can do”, “individuals are helpless in the face of the system”, “peace is just a dream”, and so on. But now there exists, for the first time, an inner conviction that we have not yet used the power we have, and that now is time to use it. People are discovering that they have, individually and as a group, an energy, a force.

UBUNTU is working on a promising initiative in this regard: as well as ordinary rallies, what about gathering a world rally through electronic means? For a period of three days, for instance, people would receive SMS [text] messages from their authorized local organizations with a number of specific questions about pressing international issues. Using their mobile phones, they could vote. This would create an enormous pressure to political leaders around the world, since important specific issues are not voted upon, only ‘assumed’ to be included in vague political programmes. By employing such initiatives we, as a political and social class, can regain an ethical authority on an international scale.

UBUNTU’s Manifesto — for in-depth reform of the system of international institutions

We, citizens of the world, determined to safeguard future generations from war, poverty, injustice, cultural uniformisation and environmental degradation, declare the particular seriousness of the problems and challenges facing humanity and, in particular, that:

• the globalisation process is increasing the interdependence and complexity of world problems and widening the gap between rich and poor people; whilst markets become increasingly global, the influence of political institutions required for their democratic, equitable and effective functioning decreases every day
• the weakening and marginalisation of the system of international institutions as regards peace and security issues has led to unilateral use of force in recent armed conflicts (Iraq…), than promoting conflict resolution collectively and in accordance with processes and protocols established through the UN.

In this state of the affairs, we citizens proclaim that a fairer world is possible, and we reclaim our democratic entitlement to participate in global decisions that affect our lives every day. To this end, we propose in-depth reform of the system of international institutions to guarantee:

• democratic governance of globalisation to contribute to resolving the grave problems and challenges that face our world;
• the eradication of poverty and the promotion of more equitable development and respect for cultural, natural and gender diversity;
• world peace and security, embracing human and environmental security, based on justice and freedom; and
• the establishment of mechanisms to enable the world’s citizens and civil society organisations to achieve direct representation and participation in global decision-making processes.

The pursuit of these goals requires a stronger, more democratic UN, placed at the centre of a consistent, democratic, responsible, effective system of international institutions. More specifically, we need to democratise the composition and decision-making procedures of UN bodies and agencies to ensure that they are effective and democratic. And we need to reform and integrate within the UN all other global multilateral organisations (IMF, WB, WTO, etc). To achieve these objectives, we promote a process of:

Mobilisation of the world’s citizenry based, for example, on citizens and world organisations’ support for this manifesto so that it comes to the formal attention of the United Nations General Assembly, with a request to call a world conference on the in-depth reform of the system of international institutions.

Carmen Font is a Share International co-worker based in Barcelona, Spain.

From the October 2007 issue of Share International magazine.

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005