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The Meaning of the International Community
Secretary-General Kofi Annan*

A scholar said recently that the growth of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society groups was "as important a development to the latter part of the 20th century" as the rise of the nation-State itself had been in earlier centuries. If the NGO revolution is one phenomenon that defines our times, another, of course, is the subject you will examine over the next few days: globalization. Ours is a world in which no individual, and no country, exists in isolation. All of us live simultaneously in our own communities and in the world at large. Whatever separation there once was between the two realms is shrinking as fast as one can say fax, e-mail, or CNN. Peoples and cultures are increasingly hybrid. The same icons, whether on a movie screen or a computer screen, are recognized from Berlin to Bangalore. We are connected, wired, interdependent.

Globalization has become the essence of modern life. It must become second nature in our thinking. But as we have seen, this is not an easy task. Many experience globalization not as an agent of progress, but as a disruptive force, almost hurricane-like in its ability to destroy lives, jobs and traditions in the blink of an eye. For many there is an urge to resist the process and take refuge in the comforts of the local. Globalization may be exacerbating inequality. It may also be disturbing cultural traditions and increasing our sense of spiritual disorientation.

It gives me no pleasure, I can assure you, to recite the litany, because globalization is undeniably improving standards of living and creating more opportunity. It is making us more familiar with diversity. I believe that on the whole, over the long term, globalization has been positive. For the moment, however, we are face to face with the need to do better. We need, in a word, to give concrete meaning to a phrase that has become very fashionable, "the international community".

What binds us into an international community? In the broadest sense there is a shared vision of a better world for all people, as set out, for example in the United Nations Charter. There is our sense of common vulnerability in the face of climate change and weapons of mass destruction. There is the framework of international law. There is equally our sense of shared opportunity, which is why we build common markets and, yes, institutions-such as the United Nations. Together, we are stronger.

When governments, urged along by civil society, come together to create the International Criminal Court, that is the international community at work for the rule of the law. When we see an outpouring of international aid to the victims of recent earthquakes in Turkey and Greece-a great deal of it from those having no apparent link with Turkey and Greece except for a sense of common humanity-that is the international community following its humanitarian impulse. When people come together to press governments to relieve the world's poorest countries from crushing debt burdens-I refer here to the Jubilee 2000 campaign-that is international community throwing its weight behind the cause of development. When the popular conscience, outraged at the carnage by landmines, succeeds in banning these deadly weapons, that is the international community at work for collective security.

There are many more examples of the international community at work, from peacekeeping to human rights to disarmament and development. At the same time there are important caveats. The idea of the international community is under perfectly legitimate attack because of its own frequent failings. [For example,] the international community allows 3 billion people-half of all humanity-in a world of unprecedented wealth, to subsist on $3 or less a day. In short, the international community, today, can be as uncaring as it is high-minded. The international system for much of our century has been based on division. We must now stitch together the strands of cooperation into a strong fabric of community for the new millennium.

Governments need non-governmental partners. I am glad to know that you have formed coalitions on the issue of small arms and child soldiers. I urge you to focus your efforts in a way that can duplicate the success of your advocacy against landmines and for the International Criminal Court. Please, for all our sakes-for the sake of the international community-keep up the fight.


* Excerpted from the address to the 52nd DPI/NGO Conference, September 15, 1999. For a copy of the full address, please see the Reply Slip.

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