Lord David Owen on the UN, hubris and the climate emergency
PUBLISHED: 08:56 05 February 2020 | UPDATED: 09:04 05 February 2020
He is a former British Foreign Secretary, the EU peace negotiator in the Balkans and one of the stalwarts of British politics. But last week Lord David Owen had a more intimate reason for visiting Saffron Walden - he was hoping to revive the former local branch of the UN.
Speaking exclusively to the Reporter, Lord Owen said he felt it was his responsibility to revive interest in the UN following the UK leaving the EU.
"It's a very natural thing to do. I have a very long-standing friend whom I wrote a book about the NHS with in 1965 and he asked me if I would come and talk to the local UN.
"I have been here before in 1971 and it is a pleasure to be back".
He cast a shadow over the current state of international politics: "It's a very grim picture in the world at the moment. There is internal fighting even between EU countries right now. We are still living the consequences of the British intervention in Iraq.
"Now we have to put the same amount of effort and energy into organisations like NATO and the UN and our British influence will remain strong if we do it right."
Now 81, Lord Owen has past experience promoting the UN.: "I used to spend quite a lot of time going around the country to speak about the United Nations. A lot of our focus was getting an agreement with 28 other countries.
"I call them my hard labour years when I was a Foreign Secretary. It was time-consuming, trying to bring peace in the Balkans."
The Global Britain event, which took place at the Boatman Centre at the Saffron Walden County High School, was designed to revive the interest in the local United Nations Association (UNA).
David Barrs, a member of United Nations Association (UNA) for the past 40 years, and also a headteacher and geography teacher from Hadstock, told the audience that the general public does not often understand what the UN can and cannot do.
"The work of the UN is focused on human rights, workers' rights and climate change. The UN is fundamentally a force for good."
Mr Barrs read the Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations, and added: "The values included in that preamble have to be reviewed as a community, country and as a planet."
Lord Owen spoke for the rest of the evening, focusing on the UN's past and current work. He explained how the UN tried very hard to get an international agreement after the Second World War, in order to create a global peacekeeping structure.
He said one of the first things the organisation grappled with was human rights - with the feeling of guilt from knowing about the existence of concentration camps very important.
Lord Owen encouraged the aucience to think critically about negative views on the UN, because it is often member states making decisions and passing the blame.
He also spoke about the fact that diversity should be at the core of the British society, as it is in the case of the UN: "We have to champion a diverse range of countries having responsibility, so we must not see it as a blow to our British prestige that we don't get a judge into the Court of Justice.
"UN said from day one that it would not just try to involve democratic countries. We have taken religion out, we took out democracy. The UN can only be universal, it cannot discriminate against communists."
Environmental problems were also discussed and Lord Owen declared himself "optimistic" that science will solve everything. He added that the UN plays a "vital role" in the issue and is committed to support the case of young people, who are themselves committed to the climate emergency.
In his book 'Hubris: The Road to Donald Trump' (2018), Lord Owen analysed the mental and physical condition of political leaders who paved the way for the current US president.
He described the phenomenon: "I have seen people who seemed normal, who, after they got power, changed. 'Hubris' is quite a powerful word. We see it with many of our leaders. People come in and you trust them, and they get power and lose themselves."
He told guests that the responsibility of the national UNA is to ensure the UN is more respected in the UK and that it gave him huge hope to see so many people come to a conversation on the UN in Saffron Walden.