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As he leaves the office of the President of the UN General Assembly, Father Miguel d’Escoto gave Real News Senior Editor Paul Jay a no holds barred interview on the issues plaguing the United Nations. D’Escoto held the democratization of the UN as a key pillar of his Presidency, but along the way he learned of the various obstacles that keep the General Assembly from becoming an effective body within the UN, and the UN from becoming an effective body within the world. He blames the world’s most powerful states for this ineptitude to act, which has resulted in what he calls the failure of the UN to address the two objectives for which it was founded, the avoidance of war and the eradication of poverty.

Produced by Jesse Freeston

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: A year ago, father Miguel d’Escoto, a liberation theology priest, a former foreign minister of Nicaragua, came to New York to democratize the United Nations as its new president of the General Assembly. Now, a year later, his term is over. He leaves a little saddened, a little frustrated, wondering: is it even possible to reform the United Nations?


JAY: So you talk about reinventing the United Nations. So what would that look like and what, concretely, would you like to see?

MIGUEL D’ESCOTO BROCKMANN, FMR. PRESIDENT, UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY: Okay. The United Nations does not exist for itself or unto itself; it exists on behalf of an idea, of a dream, of a conception of the world that we want to strengthen. And such ideas are implicit or explicit, contained in the Charter. But it is absolutely undeniable that one of the reasons the United Nations has emerged is that some of its most influential and powerful members do not buy, as applicable to themselves, the principles therein contained. In fact, they defend and apply the law of the jungle—might makes right. With those kinds of ideas, you wonder that the United Nations has not achieved the fundamental goals for which it was created. No one can deny it does a great many good things, but the fundamental things—it will be judged on the basis of whether or not it accomplished the fundamental objectives for which it was created. And there are basically two. The prevention of war is one. And the other one is the consolidating of a climate of security, and the founders interpreted that to mean that poverty had to be eradicated. If the United Nations is evaluated having those in mind, then you say, well, it has failed.


JAY: Escoto believes that the power given to the Security Council, and in particular the permanent veto power vested in the governments of the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom, are a major reason for the failure of the United Nations, a criticism he reiterated during his final speech as president of the General Assembly.

D’ESCOTO (VOICEOVER TRANSLATION): They think nothing of railing against multilateralism, proclaiming the virtues of unilateralism, while simultaneously pontificating unashamedly from their privileged seats on the Security Council about the need for all member states fully and conscientiously to fulfill their obligations under the Charter or be sanctioned—selectively, of course. But during this year as president of the General Assembly, I have come to the conclusion that the time has already passed for reforming or mending our organization. What we need to do is reinvent it.

JAY: D’Escoto is not alone in calling for a radical shift in the United Nations power structure. In fact, many heads of state used their podium time at the opening of the 64th session of the UN to call for just such action.

LULA DA SILVA, PRESIDENT OF BRAZIL (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): It’s not possible for the UN and its Security Council to continue running under the same structures imposed after World War Two. We need a UN that is representative enough to handle threats to world peace, through a reformed Security Council open to new permanent members.

JACOB ZUMA, PRESIDENT OF SOUTH AFRICA: If the UN Security Council is not reformed and does not have permanent representation for Africa, the legitimacy of the council’s decisions will continuously be questioned.

ANIFAH AMAN, FOREIGN AFFAIRS MINISTER OF MALAYSIA: Decisions are still made by the few for the many. The prime example of this is the UN Security Council. We continue to believe that reforming the Security Council, including the eventual abolition of the veto, is critical if aspirations of quality of states is to be achieved.

EVO MORALES, PRESIDENT OF BOLIVIA (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): We’re hearing lots of repitition from many presidents about the UN Security Council. We need a real democratization of the United Nations. For this we propose the following. The permanence of membership, as well as the right to veto, must be eliminated. It can’t be possible that in the 21st century we are still employing totalitarian practices from the age of the monarchies. All countries must have the same rights inside the United Nations. Those who call themselves leaders of democracy should give up their privileges and accept the true democratization of the Security Council.

JAY: According to d’Escoto, even the most radical Security Council reform won’t go far enough, because powers like the United States have means to influence the behavior of the General Assembly as well.

D’ESCOTO (ENGLISH): There are all kinds of pressure tactics and arm-twisting things where countries—for example, you have a pending request for a loan in the World Bank or American Development Bank or whatever. They can come and tell you, “Look, if you continue doing that, we promise that we will block that loan that you so desperately need.”

JAY: Working alongside d’Escoto in his year as president of the General Assembly was his niece and deputy chief of staff, Sofía Clark d’Escoto. She explained that aspects of the UN culture render reform and innovation improbable.


JAY: Not many people have much insight into the United Nations, and you’ve had a pretty unique opportunity to see how the place works. In terms of someone coming in with this vision for change, what did Father d’Escoto run into in terms of UN culture? How open is the UN culture itself to being reformed?

SOFÍA CLARK, FMR. DEP. CHEF DE CABINET TO PRES. OF UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY: Oh, they’re scared as—they’re scared. There’s all kinds of turf wars here, and particularly if you’re outside of the programs that have the big funding, if you’re in peacekeeping operations or you’re in peace-building—you know, member states make their contributions to this organization, but they also earmark funds for their pet programs and the things that they want to get funding. And, in fact, under the Bush administration, they actually blocked funds from certain programs that they didn’t want you to be able to use US funding. So it’s not like they just give to the organization to carry out its mandate; they have many other ways, insidious ways, of coming in and controlling sometimes the real autonomy of agencies here which should be able to have a greater say in how they do that. But you look at the problem of the global food crisis, you know, there’s taboos here. When you begin to have problems in the different committees, they don’t want to talk about subsidies that the Europeans put on their exports. There are certain issues they want. If you do it on a rights-based approach, you have to look at some of the structural issues and to constantly be promoting in front of Americans and in front of the media the threat of a nuclear Iran, which [inaudible] purposes [inaudible] right now is a hypothetical, and not to talk about other nuclear powers in the region. I mean, there’s a hypocrisy there that Father Miguel has no problem dealing with.

JAY: Meaning Israel.

CLARK: Meaning Israel. But, I mean, Israel, how many nuclear weapons do they have?


JAY: Another of d’Escoto’s goals as president was to make the UN more relevant by reacting quickly to important events. To this effect, he spearheaded a UN conference on the economic crisis in June, to which he invited all of the world’s heads of states.

CLARK: I remember being here in October, early October, when it was quite clear that this crisis was not going to go away and that we realized—and he was the first one to say, you know, the truth is, nobody knows how deep this is going to be, but we know it’s big. And, in fact, this is probably the biggest challenge this organization has faced since it was founded. And he was like, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?” And it wasn’t one of the six priorities that he’d established for the 63rd session. But I remember the morning he came into the office and he said, “We’re going to talk about it, and we’re going to talk about it inside General Assembly. Everybody talks about it in the hallways. Everybody waits to see what the G8 will do. Everybody waits to see what G-20 is. Well, we’re going to talk about it here, because if we’re going to be relevant, we have to talk about what’s affecting the whole world.” And there was a discussion here with the Secretary General’s office, and “Maybe this isn’t the time.” You know, “There’s going to be a meeting in Washington. Let’s let them go first.” He goes, “No, we don’t want them to go first. They’re the ones who got us into this.”

D’ESCOTO (VOICEOVER TRANSLATION): The G-192 was thereby established as the most appropriate forum to address those issues that affect the international community as a whole. The G8 and the G-20 will continue to be significant minorities; however, this is more due to the fact that they are rich and powerful than to their demonstrated ability to do things well. We cannot and should not forget that, after all, it is because of the extremely grave errors committed by them and the Bretton Woods institutions run by the G8 that the world is currently undergoing what could well turn out to be the worst crisis in history.

JAY: Despite asking all 192 heads of state to attend, only 14 were present, and the media largely ignored the event.


CLARK: I think there was a feeling by Father Miguel on a very personal level that he failed, and it was discouraging to the rest of us because we felt that even if we didn’t have the heads of state, that he might have liked [inaudible] the G192 that has caught on, and I hope that will be a legacy of his presidency, that they will remember that he brought them into the global discussion on the economic crisis.

JAY: But the sense of failure is that the heads of states didn’t come to the conference?

CLARK: He truly believed if we step up to the plate, we can really do something visionary. And because they didn’t come, he took that as a reflection on his own inability to have been the messenger, that somehow he wasn’t compelling enough that he couldn’t make them see what he thought was truly a historic opportunity. And I think, in a very, very personal way—and he paid a very high price—it’s an open secret here—his own constituency—I mean, he’s coming from Latin America, he’s coming from the group of the revolutionary left, his comrades who fought with him side-by-side, not very many of them came. And that also, I think, made him feel in a very, very personal way that he had failed.

JAY: Why didn’t they come? They were expected.

CLARK: I think a couple of things. One, because I think that there are many, many nations who really have very low expectations and don’t believe that you can reform the United Nations and don’t believe that the United Nations will respond in a meaningful way to the crisis and the way it’s affecting them. So they wanted to look for regional responses and work among themselves, their own model, and forget the IMF and forget the World Bank. And his feeling was that’s great if you have certain resources. Some countries have—you know, it’s easier for them to do. But there are many countries that that is their only option. And what do we do about them?

JAY: And not everybody’s sitting on a mountain of oil.

CLARK: Not everyone’s sitting on a mountain of oil, not everybody has a direct link to that, and that these small island states, where do they go to? They end up falling under patrons. You know. And he wanted to be able to work so that they would feel they have other options, and that working together we can actually do more. And he really wanted to mobilize the South. It wasn’t because they thought the Western powers will come; he thought, if the whole South comes together as a bloc, they can’t ignore us. But like I said, his constituency chose not to come. And so that was painful for him.


JAY: While the failure to guide the UN into leadership over the global economic crisis clearly affected d’Escoto, it’s the inability of the United Nations to bring about a resolution to the crisis in Palestine that has caused d’Escoto the most pain.

D’ESCOTO: My greatest frustration this year has been the situation in Palestine. The question of Palestine continues to be the most serious and prolonged unresolved political and human rights issue on the agenda of the United Nations since its inception. The evident lack of commitment for resolving it is a scandal that has caused me much sorrow.

JAY: Join us for part two of our interview with Father Miguel d’Escoto, when we discuss the United Nations and Palestine.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann recently finished his term as president of the United Nations General Assembly. His term was notable for numerous attempts to assert the authority of the General Assembly and numerous pronouncements on current events, such as the financial crisis and the Israeli siege and war on Gaza. This was a considerable departure from the highly conservative role that the General Assembly, and in particular the president, had played over recent years.

D'Escoto is an ordained Roman Catholic priest for the Maryknoll congregation, serving in 1970 as an official with the World Council of Churches. As an adherent of liberation theology, he secretly joined Nicaragua's revolutionary Sandinista independence movement. In 1979, he was appointed foreign minister of the new revolutionary government following the Sandinistas' overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship. He served as foreign minister under President Daniel Ortega from 1979 until their electoral defeat in 1990. He was one of a group of Latin American priests who were denounced and eventually suspended during the 1980s by the Vatican of Pope John Paul II, after their dedication to liberation theology compelled them to become involved in revolutionary politics.

In 2008, he was selected by the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean to as their choice to fill the presidency of the General Assembly.