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A conversation with Lord Malloch-Brown, UNA-UK Patron

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The highest-ranking UK citizen to have served at the UN, Lord Malloch-Brown served as Deputy Secretary-General and Chief of Staff of the UN under Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He joined The United Nations Association - UK as Patron in February 2017. UNA-UK's Campaigns and Communications Officer, Isabelle Younane, sat down with him to discuss UNA-UK and the future of the UN, the conflict in Syria, and the success of the 1 for 7 Billion campaign.

Full interview transcript

Why did you accept the position as Patron of UNA-UK?

UNA-UK is, for generations of young Brits wanting to get involved in the UN, a gateway to that engagement, an opportunity to meet UN people and an opportunity to learn a little bit about the current UN and its history. It’s an extraordinary civil society window between what can seem like a rather impenetrable fortress on the East River of New York or Geneva, and young students wanting to find out how to get a foothold, how to find a window into the Organisation and explore whether it’s a career possibility for them.

But UNA-UK is more than a Job Centre. It’s also a place where people who have chosen related or completely different careers can stay engaged with the world – and with thinking about progressive solutions to the world’s problems.

In this current period, with Brexit and the new US presidency, what do you think is the biggest challenge to organisations like UNA-UK, which are seeking to galvanise public and political support for multilateralism and the UN?

There’s no doubt that the UK will lose tremendous standing globally by leaving the EU. The EU is one of the big blocs at the UN. But the silver lining to that is the determination of British ministers to go for this thing called ‘Global Britain’ and that relates to organisations like the UN and the Commonwealth, which don’t depend on membership of the EU. You’ll see Britain trying to re-double its efforts, ‘punch above its weight’ to use that famous phrase, and really take some stands on issues to get noticed. If you’re a smaller power, you have to be shriller, and Britain will be a smaller power but with one great asset: a permanent seat on the Security Council.

On that point, the UK is committed to remain a "global Britain" after it leaves the EU, but sometimes we’ve seen that its respect for human rights doesn’t always match up to its actions in foreign policy, for example, in terms of the UK arms trade. Are there any other examples of inconsistency between words and actions that you think deserve greater attention from organisations like our own?

One thing to say is that Britain and France, by the standards of the five permanent members of the Security Council, do get the prize for being the more consistent. But it’s a pretty low standard because in general, unfortunately, permanent members are inclined to preach one thing and behave another way. This has been, over the long-term, extraordinarily undermining of the moral fabric of the UN.

Britain is willing to be a champion of the UN agenda. I had the personal experience of moving from being number two at the UN to being a British minister and was very worried that I’d find dozens of inconsistencies of policy. There were some, but it wasn’t overwhelming because even on something like the arms trade, Britain has taken the lead in trying to control small arms even though it has been much worse on large arms, of which it is a major exporter.

Like anyone who is an ally of the United States, there has been, I’m sorry to say, dramatic inconsistency in the UK’s Middle East position. There is a double standard around Israel versus its neighbours, and a willingness to allow too much leeway to Saudi Arabia and others over their behaviour in Yemen. So, it is, unfortunately, one of the regrettable facts of life in international diplomacy and therefore shows up at the UN. There are double standards. But I hope young UN officials will be as angry about them as I was and fight them as hard.

In light of the Trump Presidency and the potentially divisive elections across Europe in the future, do you think there is a greater need and potential for UK leadership at the UN?

The Trump Presidency and the likely votes in Europe ahead of us intimate that there is a reorganising of politics in many countries around, what Mr Trump would call, the ‘nationalists’ versus the ‘globalists’.

In many ways, the Brexit victory here in Britain was a victory for the nationalists but the current Government is a globally minded-nationalistic government, if I can put it that way. And so, the extent to which it will lead on universal issues of human rights. on international engagement, on burden-sharing around security, and also on development and social problems, is obviously a very good thing.

Failure in the UN Security Council over accountability for war crimes in Syria has made people question whether the UN is still fit for purpose. What would be your response to that?

I think the question of whether the UN is fit for purpose can be put another way round, which is: are international government relations still fit for purpose? Because, essentially, Syria was about two implacable regional alliances with Iran, Hezbollah and other groups on one side backing the Syrian regime in Damascus, versus Turkey, the Gulf and others on the other side, backing equally implacable supporters of the opposition to Assad. The global players, US, Britain, France, Russia, all piled in behind their side.

The UN is never better than the behaviour of its member states, and they have all behaved abysmally; they put short-term political gain ahead of finding humanitarian solutions – let alone long-term political solutions and resolution of the conflict. So, this certainly shows a UN that has not delivered, but more importantly, it shows a failed international system, of which the UN is just an expression.

An outcome of that is the difficulty in trying to persuade members of the British public that the UN is still useful and can still uphold our interests in the UK. How would you get a member of the British public interested in the UN and the need to preserve the international system?

Well I think the British public is made up of generally pretty sane-minded, feet-on-the-ground people who are not going to be moved by appeals to distant, disembodied international organisations, of which they occasionally catch footage via large, four-wheel drive cars with UN on the side. That institutional UN is not going to catch their imagination.

What has and always will catch their imagination is the human, campaigning UN. So, when it’s about kids getting to school, or mothers and children surviving childbirth or other health interventions, or about building a decent future for people in less lucky circumstances than Brits back home, there is an infinite imagination and capacity and willingness to help on the side of the British public.

My feeling is, always, strip out the institutional stuff and get to the basic offer, which is about improving the lives of others but also engagement around a global community that is stronger together than apart.

One last question, you’ll have heard about the 1 for 7 Billion campaign, which showed that UN reform is difficult but possible. What other opportunities for UN reform would you like to see civil society and member states pursuing?

The 1 for 7 Billion campaign was really inspired and I think many people have noted that if there had not been these public hustings in the UN General Assembly, António Guterres may well not have emerged as the new Secretary-General. It was his triumph in that forum which really set an otherwise rather unlikely campaign going. By gender and region, he wasn’t where people had anticipated the choice would finally fall. And so, I think this power to harness social media; this power of a message which pushes against the closed doors of the current UN system, offered two ways forward.

If you look, over the years – whether it’s campaigns against land mines, or for a more open Secretary-General, or against poverty and debt – in each case, it’s a powerful emotional campaign around an issue which is current and meaningful to people, and then a hell of a lot of organising behind it. The earlier ones I mentioned largely preceded social media, but they had in common a network of NGOs and other civil society groups, who were really organising and driving people to sign up and offering them things to do, like writing letters to their MPs.

In all cases, there was the excitement of a mass movement achieving real results. So, in a world which is falling short across the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, there’s plenty of ‘grist for the mill’ for new campaigns.