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50 Years of Singapore and the United Nations
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A United Nations–Singapore Story:
The Courage to Transform
50 Years of Singapore and the United Nations Downloaded from www.worldscientific.com
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Noeleen HEYZER
Unless we aim for the seemingly unattainable, we risk settling for
mediocrity.
— Sérgio Vieira de Mello, 2007
It was the 21st of September 1965. The Singapore flag was raised for the first
time at the United Nations. With it Singapore became the 117th member of
the community of nations. Like other newly independent countries coming
out of colonialism, Singapore was at the threshold of a new era, at the edge
of a new time. With the raising of its flag, Singapore was recognised as a
legitimate member State of the international community with rights and
responsibilities as defined by the United Nations Charter. In turn, Singapore
pledged to uphold the values and principles of the United Nations which form
the foundation of how member States should engage with one another, with
its citizens and with humanity at large.
It is now 50 years since that day and Singapore has transformed itself
from a “Third World country” to a prosperous nation. It is a journey of
courage, withstanding the pressures and drama of transition from a colonial
entrepôt to a rich thriving city-state. As a colonial entrepôt, migrants from
China, India and the Malay world flocked to Singapore, creating a diverse
population. Most were poor and uneducated, living in overcrowded
working-class areas with no access to public health services. They aspired
for a better life and provided the political force that brought about independence. The process of nation building was not simple or linear. Forging
a sense of common purpose, and creating institutions to manage a common
future were fraught with difficulties. In 1964, there were a series of racial
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riots on issues of special rights, religion, and privileges. There were political
and ideological struggles over the appropriate path to development. It was a
jagged period made difficult by the Cold War and bomb threats during the
climate of “Konfrontasi” with Indonesia.
With independence, Singapore quickly decided on the building blocks
of its transformation towards a prosperous and stable future, reducing poverty and inequality through job-led growth, public housing, and investing
in all its people based on meritocracy. It created an expanding middle class
by focusing on education, health care, and infrastructure. This was the
Singapore I was born into. I benefitted from the nation’s emphasis on quality
education irrespective of race, religion and gender.
Singapore at Fifty; United Nations at Seventy
As Singapore turns 50, the United Nations turns 70 with a powerful story to
tell. The world in 1945 was a very different place. The Charter of the United
Nations was written while the world was engulfed in the horrors of the
Second World War. Faced with untold sorrow and the potential of human
self-destruction, world leaders were determined that never again should
our world be destroyed by injustice, hatred and violence. These leaders had
the courage to try to transform our world by creating global legitimacy and
laying the strong foundations of shared values, and common responsibilities,
affirming their faith in the dignity and worth of every human person. Their
purpose was to use collective power, working together to secure a better world
“free from want, from fear, and all forms of discrimination” for present and
future generations.
On 24 October 1945, the United Nations Charter entered into force,
established in the name of “We, the Peoples” with the endorsement of all 51
member States. The United Nations was born. The Nobel Laureate, Ralph
Bunche, who was closely involved in drafting the Charter, wrote: “The
United Nations exists not merely to preserve the peace but also to make
change — even radical change — possible without violent upheaval… It
seeks a more secure world, a better world, a world of progress for all
peoples.” The collective power of people to shape a shared destiny of peace
and security, development, and human rights is greater now than ever
before and the need to exercise it more compelling.
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Security Council Resolution 1325: Women, Peace and Security
When I was appointed as the Executive Director of the United Nations
Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in 1994, I was determined to
make the world a better place for all women, supporting the progress of member States and their people, using the United Nations’ principles and values.
On the first UN Day of this millennium, 24 October 2000, a major
opportunity arose for me to address the issues that go the heart of our
Charter. For the first time my team and I succeeded in putting the issue of
women, peace and security before the Security Council. Since my appointment, UNIFEM had provided assistance to women in conflict-affected
countries and supported their participation in peace processes. But women
continued to be targeted in times of conflict, and rape and other forms of
sexual violence continued to be used as weapons of war. I asked the Security
Council for a full-scale assessment of the impact of armed conflict on
women. In conflict after conflict, I met women choked with painful memories of their own humiliation and those of their loved ones. In response, I
demanded that the protection for women and girls in conflict be addressed
at the highest level of the United Nations, the Security Council.
At the invitation of former President Nelson Mandela, the facilitator of
the Burundi process, UNIFEM had succeeded in bringing Burundi’s 19
negotiating parties to accept the need for women involvement in the peace
process. 23 of the women’s recommendations, including provisions for
education, health, employment, and inheritance rights, were included in the
final peace accord and became critical components of the country’s reconstruction efforts. We brought women from similar conflict-affected countries to share their stories with the Security Council of how they have the
most to gain from new opportunities and also the most to lose if fragile
communities break down. These women knew the cost of exclusion and
failed states, and now wanted to be key players in shaping a stable new
future for their children and for their country. Through UNIFEM’s support
for these women, I convinced the Security Council of the importance of
supporting women’s leadership in peace building and post-conflict
reconstruction.
The Security Council passed the historic landmark resolution 1325 on
Women, Peace and Security (SCR 1325). For the women who have organised for peace and security on the ground, it represented a long overdue
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recognition of their accomplishments and challenges. SCR 1325 became the
resolution that inspired substantive and widespread action in the whole UN
system, in the security sector of our member States, and among advocates
for women human rights. It is regarded as one of the UN’s most transformative and legally binding frameworks that we have created together with
women living in conflict-affected countries.
Afghanistan: A Test Case for SCR 1325
I tested the implementation of SCR 1325 in a very difficult political context —
Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. Images and stories of all forms of
violence against women dominated our television screens and media after
the September 11 terrorist attack in New York, 2001. The suffering and exclusion of Afghan women — from public execution, to their complete removal
from social, economic and political life — provoked international outrage.
For me, the world finally got it. The condition of women in a country is the
barometer of peace and security and is associated with better governance and
functioning states. This was the message of SCR 1325.
I was thrilled when the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Anan
invited me to be part of his delegation to the International Conference on
Reconstruction Assistance to Afghanistan in Tokyo, January 2002.
Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi had overall authority for the political, human
rights, recovery and reconstruction activities of the United Nations in the
post Taliban transition of Afghanistan. He was in the midst of solidifying
the 2001 Bonn process that created the current Afghan Government. With
all the difficulties of bringing stability, self-rule and security to the country
that he had to handle, he advised me to postpone the issue of gender equality and women’s empowerment to some future date in the hope that it would
be easier to handle. He felt that I had not even visited the country, and did
not fully understand the complexity of the local situation or even what local
women really wanted. On my side, with UNIFEM’s experience in supporting women in Rwanda, Liberia, Burundi, Kosovo, Guatemala and TimorLeste, I knew that support to women affected by conflict and in countries
undergoing transition could not wait. Ensuring gender equality in
Afghanistan’s legislative, judicial and policy frameworks was an essential
starting point for building the new future. I immediately prepared to visit
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Afghanistan to identify and work with women on the ground who wanted
change. I held intensive consultations with the government, and with a wide
range of women from doctors, teachers and lawyers, to displaced women
and girls in the refugee camps.
By the time the first International Women’s Day was celebrated in the
country on 8 March 2002, UNIFEM, in partnership with the Ministry of
Women’s Affairs headed by Minister Simar Samar, was able to mobilise over
1,000 Afghan women from seven districts to make their voices and demands
heard. In the ruins of a cinema burnt down by the Taliban, Chairman
Karzai, Ambassador Brahimi and the whole cabinet listened to the aspirations of women from rural and urban areas, from all ethnic groups. Their
message was united and clear: The women of Afghanistan wanted to help
build a government accountable to all Afghans, at peace with itself and with
its neighbours. They knew the cost of accumulated conflicts, what it meant
to have sons, brothers, and husbands who were forced to fight, and daughters who were forced to hide. They knew what it meant to be displaced, to
have one the highest rates of maternal and child mortality, one of the lowest
rates of access to education and healthcare and total exclusion from public
life. These women were now the highest stakeholders of peace, stability and
development.
From that day, SRSG Brahimi became our champion and helped with
UNIFEM’s work to support 100 women leaders to engage with the
500-member Constitutional Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly for major decisions) in December 2003. Eventually, after difficult negotiations, women
were recognised as equal citizens for the first time in the constitution of
Afghanistan. The inclusion of women’s equal rights in the constitution was a
huge historic victory, although challenges remain in implementation.
Our work on rebuilding conflict-affected countries through the empowerment of women, using the legitimacy of SCR 1325, continued to deliver
results. By educating women voters and supporting peer networking,
women elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the first women President of Liberia
and of Africa. By supporting women to become elected leaders, Rwanda has
the highest percentage of women in parliament in the whole world, with
women playing a bigger role to shape the new direction of their conflict
affected country. These experiences are testimony to the fact that people are
the most powerful agents of change and when supported and empowered in
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the direction envisioned by the UN Charter can shape their destiny towards
a future of greater freedom and dignity.
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Myanmar
It is commendable of the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
that he has made women’s leadership a priority in leading different parts of
the UN system. He appointed me to the rank of Under-Secretary-General and
to serve as the first woman Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social
Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) since its founding in 1947.
In 2007, at the time of my appointment, Myanmar hit the headlines
because of the protests led by Burmese monks, triggered by the military
government’s removal of fuel subsidies. In the first week in office, I realised
that this was one member state in a very difficult situation and that this
political situation would make it almost impossible to engage with Myanmar
on the economic and social agenda. But then, on the 2 May 2008, Cyclone
Nargis hit Myanmar. More than 100,000 people were missing or dead —
with up to 2 million people affected. Even more problematic were the severe
restrictions on getting humanitarian aid and aid workers into the country.
I accompanied the Secretary-General into the country at the time of the
donor conference at the end of May. The Secretary-General was able to get
full humanitarian access for the international community after his meeting
with President Than Shwe, and a tripartite aid coordination mechanism was
established, between ASEAN, the UN and the Government of Myanmar.
For me, it was the first of several visits which by December 2009 led to
an unprecedented dialogue with Myanmar leaders on development and
poverty reduction. The Government requested me to form a development
partnership with them at a very tense time. It was a difficult tight rope to
walk because Myanmar was politically isolated. The West was strongly
opposed to the country’s human rights record. The Secretary-General’s
good offices were rightly focused on securing the release of political
prisoners — especially Aung San Suu Kyi — and the overall human rights
and governance situation. The UN Resident Coordinator had been asked to
leave the country for raising concerns about poverty conditions following
the monks’ uprising. Yet the ESCAP mandate of supporting economic and
social development in all our member States gave us reason to stay engaged
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and to find new areas of building trust and cooperation. I decided to push as
hard as I could on the development front, even when the politics left much
to be desired, opening the new chapter for engagement and using the newly
forged economic and social space to further the dialogue that put people
and poverty reduction at the centre of the development agenda.
The result was the Second Development Partnership Forum that allowed
practitioners and eminent international scholars such as Economic Sciences
Nobel Laureate, Professor Joseph Stiglitz and local researchers to exchanges
experiences and ideas with government agencies and civil society. This
engagement has been regarded by many, especially current President Thein
Sein, as helping to provide the initial direction and substance to the country’s economic reform agenda when it was most needed.
As I reflect on my UN experience and look beyond 2015 when Singapore
turns 50 and the UN turns 70, one thing is certain — no country or people
can hope to navigate the turbulence and uncertainty of the future alone. We
need moral courage and authority in our interdependent but divided world
to address new dangers and major challenges of conflicts, disasters, climate
change, rising extremism and economic turmoil. It is only through shared
values, common purpose and collective responsibility that we can forge a
future of progress, peace and sustainability for all. Our destiny now rests in
our own hands.
Noeleen HEYZER is an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN)
and the highest-ranking Singaporean in the UN system. She is the United
Nations Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for Timor-Leste, working to support peace-building, state-building, and sustainable development in fragile
states. She was the first woman to serve as the Executive Secretary of the UN
Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific since its founding
in 1947. Under her leadership from August 2007 to January 2014, the commission focused on regional cooperation for a more resilient Asia Pacific, founded
on shared prosperity, social equity, and sustainable development. She was at the
forefront of many innovations including those for regional disaster
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preparedness, inclusive socio-economic policies, sustainable agriculture and
urbanisation, energy security and regional connectivity. As the previous
Executive Director of the UN Development Fund for Women, she was widely
recognised for the formulation and implementation of Security Council
Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. She holds a BA (Upper Hons)
and a MSc from Singapore University, a PhD from Cambridge University, and
has received numerous awards for leadership.
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