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“The UN is more important than ever”

Joseph Deiss, speaking at the UN during his time in the Swiss government Keystone

The man who played a key role in Switzerland’s decision to join the United Nations in 2002 talks about his new job as president of the UN General Assembly.

Former Foreign Minister Joseph Deiss will take up his office at the opening of the 65th session of the General Assembly in New York on September 14.

Formally, the presidency of the General Assembly is the highest office in the UN. But unlike the UN secretary-general – currently Ban Ki-moon – the president has no decision-making powers.

After being nominated to the UN post, Deiss said he believed that traditional Swiss values, such as neutrality and the ability to compromise, had helped him. In your inauguration speech, you said “the strength of a community can be measured by the wellbeing of its weakest members”. This is a line from the Swiss constitution. Is that a theme for your period in office?

Joseph Deiss: In our country solidarity has played a big role right from the very beginning. It can also be a successful recipe for the international community. I received many positive comments for this quote. The organisation faces significant challenges. Can the UN still assert itself in important global areas?

J.D.: The UN is more important than ever. It’s the only organisation that can claim universality. The big questions facing humans are global questions, which must be debated in a place where the entire world is present. I know no other place where that can happen. Your first major event as president of the UN General Assembly will be the summit for the Millennium Goals. What are your hopes for the conference?

J.D.: Naturally I hope it will be a success. The definition of that would be a sense of a new beginning, in which we announce not only that we can reach these goals by 2015, but also that we have an action plan for doing so and everyone knows what they have to do.

It’s important to show that progress is being made. The Millennium Goals and their associated activities are an example of that. This project – and it’s fair to say this – is the greatest endeavour ever undertaken to finally rid the world of poverty.

My message is: a lot has been done, but a lot remains to do. And we have the means to do it. We must simply want it. And if we do achieve it, people around the world will surely value and take note of the UN. The General Assembly doesn’t have any legislative powers and is sometimes derided as just a talking shop. A fair comment?

J.D.: I often hear that. I reply that the General Assembly has more competence and power than people generally believe. It’s responsible for the organisation’s budget and the choice of general-secretary, to name just two examples.

It’s also important that it’s the UN that keeps and develops the charter [of the United Nations]. It’s not wholly accurate to say the General Assembly has no legislative powers. It has a quasi-legislative character – in other words, it can lay the foundations for the development of laws.

But in my opinion the best answer to that accusation is ‘so what?’ I maintain that there’s still nowhere else in the world where all 192 states come together and each one has the opportunity to say what it wants. And all the others have to and ought to listen. That that can happen is in my view an enormous achievement for the international community. Which areas are for you particularly important?

J.D.: One topic on which I would like to spend a lot of effort is the green economy. When we talk about economic development, we have to see the connection with the environment and that the world needs sustainable development.

Another area is global governance. How can questions that have only cross-border answers be solved by smaller groups such as the G20? We have to work out how to strengthen the global governance role of the General Assembly. You role has above all a coordinating character. It’s not your job to take political sides. Bearing this in mind, can you achieve anything?

J.D.: I want to be – and must be – the president for all 192 member states. That is my guiding principle. If I fulfil my role as president – which is much more meaningful than many people accept – I can definitely achieve something.

If we in the General Assembly want to advance difficult issues, we appoint facilitators – people who try, initially in small groups, to find solutions. As president, I see myself in a certain sense as head facilitator: much more than the individual facilitators I have the function of bringing together member states and their opinions.

To that end I have considerable means. The agenda is established by the 21-member general committee, which I head. The president can also launch debates on certain themes and promote issues which are particularly important to him or her or which are big in the news. One headline issue at the moment is the faltering reforms of the Security Council. Can you do anything as president to make some progress?

J.D.: That is actually one of the trickiest issues that the General Assembly has to solve. I’ve already started looking at the topic and have met the facilitator. I hope we can bring new impetus to the discussion – even if we probably won’t be able to bring the issue to a close within a year.

People no longer deny that reforms are essential – what’s not agreed however is which changes are necessary. The question now is whether the important work of the past months will yield results.

We’re now at the point at which member states have to take a position on the suggestions put forward by the facilitator. That’s what we’re waiting for now – then we’ll see what happens. As president of the General Assembly you don’t represent Switzerland. Can you nevertheless bring Swiss values into your office?

J.D.: Definitely my experience of neutrality, which is always being mentioned by people around me. I also think that our ability for consensus has generated a lot of hope. Maybe also our pragmatic attitude – when facing a problem we look for solutions rather than theories.

Rita Emch in New York, (Translated from German by Thomas Stephens)

Joseph Deiss was born in Fribourg in 1946.

He is married, and has three grown-up children.

He was elected to the Swiss House of Representatives in 1991.

In 1999 he joined the Swiss cabinet, as foreign minister.

He moved to the economics ministry in 2003, and stepped down from the cabinet in 2006.

From 1984 until his election to the cabinet he was a professor of economics at Fribourg University.

Between 1993 and 1996 he was Switzerland’s Federal Price Regulator.

The UN General Assembly is attended by all 192 UN member states.

All members‘ votes are equal, irrespective of size or power.

The presidency rotates annually between a representative of one of the five regional UN groups.

The 2010 presidency falls to the Group of Western European and Other States.

As a member of the group, Switzerland proposed Joseph Deiss. The group preferred him to Belgium’s candidate, Louis Michel.

Regional groups nominate only one candidate, so he or she is normally elected by acclamation.

The president draws up the agenda for the assembly with the help of the presidential committee.

He also chairs the two week General Assembly debates, and any special sessions held during the course of the year.

In addition, he works with other UN officials to draw up resolutions worded so as to find a consensus among General Assembly members.

Deiss is the first Swiss to hold the office of president.

He succeeds Ali Abdussalam Treki of Libya.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR