Baroness Amos discusses challenges of the UN

Image of Baroness Amos presenting Roscoe Lecture

Valerie Amos is a long-time campaigner and advocate on human rights, social justice and equality issues. She is a former Secretary of State for International Development in the British Government and was also President of the Privy Council and Leader of the House of Lords. She was also previously the British High Commissioner to Australia.

The Baroness began her lecture by outlining how times of distress and terror can create change for the better in the world and when thanking the University for inviting her to speak she connected the namesake of the series, William Roscoe, with the timing of the lecture, which took place during Black History Month. She explained how Roscoe had been an abolitionist and campaigned against the slave trade but used Britain’s role in the slave trade as an example of how a positive situation can arise from a period of great horror, commenting that without it the UK would not be the diverse and vibrant society it is today.

Equality, human rights and global, collective responsibility were key themes throughout her lecture. She first addressed a concern she said we all have about the world today; how we seem to have made great progress in some respects but seem to be going backwards in others. She said we now connect globally more than we ever have done, mainly through the rise of the internet and social media, and yet we are seeing a rise in intolerance and greater extremism. The internet, she commented, is truly democratic in that it gives everyone a voice, but it also enables misinformation to flourish.

Baroness Amos then gave several examples of backwards steps the world has made, particularly in regard to conflict. She said: “The number of conflicts worldwide has declined but more people than ever before are being uprooted by violence. At the end of last year 33 million people were displaced within their own countries and over 17 million were refugees.”

She explained that the combination of these figures gave an equal number to people in the same situation at the end of the Second World War. She also added that the number of people affected by crisis has doubled over the last decade and said that this figure is expected to grow because of global, environmental trends and other threats including health issues, the latest being Ebola.

Referring specifically to the role of the UN she explained how it must ensure it is seen to be unbiased and not have a political agenda otherwise it will lose its ability to give humanitarian aid to those most in need. She explained how this can make her role very difficult as she has to convince legitimate governments to negotiate with people who they consider to be terrorists in order to help people who most need it. She explained how it is, however, not always possible to negotiate and referred to Islamic State who have made it clear that they see humanitarian workers as targets and so, she said, the work of the UN is often difficult and dangerous.

The Baroness continued to talk about specific international crises such as happenings in South Sudan but also said she was worried about developments in the UK and referred directly to the rise of UKIP. She said she has watched its increase in popularity with a lot of concern commenting: “I think that people across the world, including here, are looking for more certainty and a way of understanding change and its complexity. People need help and support in interpreting this, which is the role of governments, but it's a space that UKIP has managed to exploit. Their media message is about Europe and immigration but the worrying thing for me is they’ve managed to connect with people about the concerns they have within their communities.”

Baroness Amos also outlined how the success of the UN relies on everyone to believe in equality and humanity, quoting the first words of the UN charter, written in 1945: ‘We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind.’

She added that we all have a part to play and the victories, flaws and failures of the UN are the victories, flaws and failures of the international community, ending her lecture by commenting: “The UN with the world that we are living in faces some challenging times but as has often been said, if the UN didn't exist, someone would have to create it because without it the future is about more conflict, more strife, more difference and more separation - not about coming together, which I think is the strength of the world.”

During the lecture Baroness Amos presented Good Citizenship Awards to five pupils from King David High School. Mark Globe, David Grant, Beth Newstead, Christian Nygaard and Kaila Sharples all received certificates for their roles in the making of the film ‘Who Cares.’ The film’s investigation into young people’s democratic rights follows the five outcomes of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Convention on the Exercise of Children’s Rights.

Listen to the full lecture here.


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