Kazakhstan’s First UN Representative Reflects on almost a Quarter Century of Membership

Kazakhstan was admitted to membership in the United Nations (UN) on March 2, 1992. On the eve of the 24th anniversary of such an important event in the country’s international recognition, The Astana Times asked Professor Akmaral Arystanbekova to share her thoughts on the significance of the date. Arystanbekova, Ambassador-at-Large of the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was the nation’s first permanent representative to the UN from 1992-1999. She also served as the Kazakh Minister of Foreign Affairs (1989-1991), Ambassador to France (1999-2003) and permanent representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (1999-2001).04

Kazakhstan’s day of accession to the UN, March 2, 1992, is one of the most memorable days of the nation’s diplomacy. How did our country join the UN? What memories from your multi-year activities in the UN are most precious to you?

Instructed by President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev on Dec. 20, 1991, I arrived in New York as a senior advisor and a representative of Kazakhstan in the USSR mission to the UN to establish cooperation with the organisation.

On Dec. 21, the Almaty meeting of the heads of sovereign states, which established the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), decided to maintain membership of the USSR in the UN by the Russian Federation and to ensure accession of the new independent states to the UN.

On the morning of Dec. 31, I received by fax the letter of the President of Kazakhstan and the application on the accession to the UN addressed to Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar and immediately referred them to the addressee. On Jan. 3, 1992 these documents were published in the UN and sent, according to the rules of procedure, to the UN Security Council; its President, Ambassador of the United Kingdom and I met on Jan. 6. On Jan. 23, having considered the application of our country, the Security Council recommended the admission of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the General Assembly for membership in the UN.

In his statement the President of the Security Council noted that the political and economic “significance of Kazakhstan’s admission to this organisation is clear to all… The members of the council are confident that Kazakhstan, as a peace-loving state… will contribute actively and constructively in upholding the purposes and principles of the charter.”

For me, those January days were very intensive in terms of work: meetings and negotiations with the leadership of the UN Secretariat, visits to the ambassadors of the member states and preparation of documents for the sessions of the UN Security Council and General Assembly. On the historic day of March 2, 1992, the General Assembly unanimously admitted the Republic of Kazakhstan to membership in the UN. Tasked by the head of state and being highly proud of my country, I made a speech on behalf of the President and people of Kazakhstan at that historic session.

At the flag raising ceremony in front of UN Headquarters, our national flag proudly soared into the blue sky of New York. I will never forget that happy moment of my life. Thus, the international community recognised the state sovereignty and the independence of our country, which became the 168th member state of the organisation.

The most precious memories are certainly those related to the accession of Kazakhstan to the UN. I also vividly remember the hard work on promoting our resolution in the UN on the provision of international assistance to the Semipalatinsk region, adopted for the first time by the General Assembly on Independence Day, Dec. 16, 1997, and it is still on the agenda of the organisation. A special place in my memory is taken by the time when I met with the UN for the first time, participated in the 45th session of the General Assembly as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, being a member of the Soviet delegation in 1990, the very first address to the UN on Oct. 23, 1990 on the prohibition of nuclear weapon tests, by which I for the first time informed the member states on the efforts taken by the President, the Supreme Council, government and society of Kazakhstan to stop nuclear weapon tests in the territory of our country.

President Nazarbayev proposed developing a 2045 Global Strategic Initiative Plan for the 100th anniversary of the UN. How does the world perceive our efforts?

After the first address of the President of Kazakhstan to the 47th session of the UN General Assembly on Oct. 5, 1992, in which he highlighted the role of preventive diplomacy in conflict prevention and put forth the idea to establish the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), a journalist in the UN told me that his statement attempted to look into the 21st century. Moreover, this initiative calls upon the UN member states to develop an action plan and strengthen the role of the UN in the next millennium of its history on the basis of its main goal, “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” as it is declared in the first line of the UN Charter.

I had an opportunity to participate directly in the very first negotiations explaining and promoting the CICA initiative within the universal organisation, to develop the first memorandum of the Republic of Kazakhstan to convene the CICA and to hold the meeting of the permanent representatives of the UN member states to discuss the proposal of Kazakhstan in 1993.

I would like to emphasise that this first international initiative of the new independent state fully corresponds with the provisions of Chapter VIII (Regional Arrangements) of the UN Charter and was supported by the member states. Its implementation as a result of the multi-year work of the leadership and diplomacy of Kazakhstan proves the responsible approach taken by the young state in strengthening regional and global security. Our country was also an initiator of the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone, which entered into force in 2009 after many years of negotiations within the UN.

The international initiatives of our independent state are in line with the provisions of the UN Charter on strengthening regional stability and global security and facilitate finding joint solutions on topical issues of the global political agenda.

The meetings on the East River gave you an opportunity to meet many eminent figures of our time. Who impressed you the most? What kind of person was Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who recently passed away?

Fortunately, I met and worked with three UN Secretaries-General. At the 45th session of the UN General Assembly in 1990, I was received by Javier Pérez de Cuéllar as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kazakh SSR, becoming the first official representative of Kazakhstan ever received by the UN Secretary General. I was very impressed by his calm kindness and true interest in our country. In the early 2000s he was appointed as Ambassador of Peru to France and permanent representative to UNESCO, which gave me an opportunity to continue interacting with him in Paris.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali took office as the sixth UN Secretary-General on Jan. 1, 1992. I met with him on Jan. 13 during preparations for the accession of our country to the UN. In his inaugural speech, which I read on the eve of the event, he referred to Al-Farabi, calling him an “Islamic thinker” and telling about his dream of “The Virtuous City.”

Telling Mr. Boutros-Ghali about our country, I emphasised that Kazakhstan was the motherland of the great Al-Farabi and was proud of his contribution to world civilization. “I know,” he replied, “but we consider him an Arab philosopher, because Al-Farabi spent almost his entire life in the Arab East.” In the later years, Mr. Boutros-Ghali, a well-acknowledged, leading world expert on Arab philosophy and the heritage of Al-Farabi, continuously quoted our great ancestor in his numerous remarks.

On March 2, 1992, participating for the first time in the General Assembly’s plenary session as the new UN Secretary-General, Mr. Boutros-Ghali warmly welcomed the accession of Kazakhstan and the seven former USSR Soviet Republics, as well as the Republic of San Marino to the organisation.

I had an opportunity to work with Mr. Boutros-Ghali for five years and I always felt deep respect for him. An experienced politician and brilliant diplomat, erudite, scientist, expert and art admirer, he was well-acknowledged in the international arena.

Once, famous American journalist A. M. Rosenthal wrote in “The New York Times” that Boutros-Ghali “draws understanding from the Islamic world in which he has lived, the Christianity in which he worships and the Jewishness of his wife.” According to the journalist, in his five years in office the sixth Secretary-General made more reforms than all his predecessors put together.

After his work in the UN, he was invited by France to Paris to be the Secretary-General of the International Organisation of La Francophonie and I met with him and his wife Leia at their home. Before the departure, having completed my tour in Paris, I arranged a friendly dinner dedicated to him in our embassy with ambassadors of several countries. Mr. Boutros-Ghali was evidently touched by my words that as a politician and diplomat he devoted his entire life to building “The Virtuous City” on Earth from the dream of Al-Farabi. I think that this eminent diplomat, who led the organisation in the decisive moment of its historic development after the end of the Cold War, had a special and unique effect on the history of the UN and those who were lucky to meet him.

I worked with Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary-General, from 1997 till the completion of my work in the UN in late 1999. Before that appointment, he was Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping. Mr. Annan conducted clear reforms in the organisation, trying to eliminate duplication of many functions in its units. He introduced the position of the Deputy Secretary-General of the UN, inviting a woman to that post, the former Ambassador of Canada to the UN. He was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize for Peace.

Each of the Secretaries-General made his own remarkable contributions to strengthening the central role and standing of the UN in the modern world.

A lot of people today talk about UN reforms. How do you see them?

In the last decade of the 20th century after the Cold War there were a lot of talks about UN reforms; moreover, a lot has been done within the organisation as well and I was a witness and got involved in the works during my service in New York. Make no mistake, the UN should be reformed in accordance with modern geopolitical reality; it should be updated in order to be efficient, capable and more manageable. Kofi Annan used to say that UN reform is not an event, but a process. Decentralisation of powers on a global scale among state and non-state actors of international relations and the increasing threat of international terrorist organisations raises the level of national and global security threat manifold. These challenges demand a responsible approach towards solving international issues by force, increase of responsibility and efficiency of the UN Security Council on reforms of which ample debates have been in place within the universal organisation for the last ten and a-half years.

In my consideration, while reforming the UN it is essential to keep in mind that the UN is a community of sovereign states. Its opportunities are political and financial; its humanitarian opportunities are limited by those provided by member states. Undoubtedly, the UN and its member states should come to terms with modern challenges of globalisation. Along with that, one thing should be set in stone – respect and adherence to norms and principles of international law embedded in the UN Charter – the unique international instrument.

Some foreign affairs specialists think that the future of diplomacy is in the hands of its multilateral format. Do you agree with this statement?

I have the impression that the future of diplomacy is connected to implementation of both multilateral and bilateral formats of diplomatic activities. Indeed, in recent years international academia have been actively discussing the future of diplomacy in world politics. This is connected to the fact that modern globalisation, whose conditions include inclusive transformation of the world order, has an effect on diplomacy as it is a major regulatory tool of international relations in an interdependent world.

Today, the role and importance of multilateral diplomacy is increasing amid the new geopolitical reality, emergence of new non-state actors of world politics and new global issues and security threats which demand joint actions and solutions. It plays a special role in strengthening the international legal base of intergovernmental cooperation.

New formal and informal mechanisms are being created, e.g. the G20 and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). In line with so called “club diplomacy” which assembles various country groups of common interests, the formation process of “network diplomacy,” which refers to development of a flexible network of interactions both between governments and between governments and civil society, is being established.

States place high emphasis on expansion of the “public diplomacy” dedicated to create a positive image of the country in other states in order to influence their policies towards the country. Modern bilateral diplomacy, besides traditional intergovernmental interactions, particularly uses these new forms of diplomatic activities more frequently. Obviously, increasing the role of the so-called Track II diplomacy, which is implemented by representatives of non-governmental structures, and actions of different civil society groups progressively influence the determination of the global agenda.

In my opinion, that is why the modern foreign policy activities of a state must embrace a whole variety of interactions with state and non-state participants in international relations. At the same time, traditional diplomacy, based on intergovernmental relations both in bilateral and multilateral formats, will preserve its paramount importance.

Your book “The United Nations and Kazakhstan” says that a radical turn took place in the early 1990s, after which more and more women have been appointed as permanent representatives to the UN. How could you describe the role of women in the organisation?

There were women in the UN who left their bright mark on the history of the organisation. The charter of the UN, which marked its 70th anniversary last year, was adopted during a diplomatic conference in San Francisco as the result of arduous negotiations where women were represented in the composition of delegations from the nine founding members of the UN.

Four women representing Brazil, the Dominican Republic, China and the United States were among 160 delegations which signed the charter. I met Minerva Bernardino from the Dominican Republic in the UN in the 1990s, who was among those women. Thanks to women delegates, the provisions on equal rights of men and women were legitimised in the preamble and relevant articles of the UN Charter. The name of Eleanor Roosevelt is associated with development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted during the third General Assembly session in Paris in 1948.

During the 70 years of the UN’s history, three women were elected as Presidents of the General Assembly of the organisation. They represented India (1953), Liberia (1968) and Bahrain (2006). I had an opportunity to work and talk with Haya Rashed Al-Khalifa, Chairman of the 61st session of the UN General Assembly in Paris, where she also worked as an Ambassador of her country to France and permanent representative to UNESCO.

Becoming the first permanent representative of Kazakhstan to the UN in April 1992, I was the fourth woman ambassador among 176 member states. Whenever we were together with Ambassador of Canada Louise Fréchette, we always told everyone that we represented half of all women ambassadors to the UN. These words were stated twice by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with reference to me in 2008, stressing that the number of women ambassadors is not enough despite the fact it has increased five-fold.

After Madeleine Albright was appointed the US Ambassador there were seven women ambassadors and we created the Group of Seven, which later became influential and reputable. At that time there was the maximum number of women ambassadors in the history of the UN. Our famous Group of Seven, which is still remembered in the UN, did a lot to prepare joint decisions for the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995), promote women to the top leadership positions in the UN Secretariat and assist them in election to the position of Special Representatives of the Secretary General in crisis situations. In 2004, women represented 31 countries among 193 UN member states and six women ambassadors were among the 15 members of the Security Council.

Women politicians, former heads of states and governments who had directed various UN structures, are relying on their political background to make their big contributions to the organisation’s activities.

However, for the 70-year-long history of the UN women have never headed the universal organisation and today a lot of people talk that it is time to elect a woman as the Secretary-General in December of this year, when the period of the current Secretary-General’s service will expire. I think that this is not only about gender equality, but in using the intellectual capacity and political experience of all women in the world. On the eve of International Women’s Day on March 8, which is celebrated across the world under the auspices of the UN, I would like to express my commitment that the objective needs of the world community will contribute to further promotion of women’s roles and their participation in diplomacy.


In your opinion, what kind of qualities should the modern diplomat have? What you think should be borrowed from the UN diplomatic kitchen?

Today a state’s foreign policy and diplomacy, as a major tool of its implementation, is referred to as the so-called soft power of the country, the concept of which was proposed by American scientist Joseph Nye. It involves creation of a favourable image of a country, forming its intellectual advantage through ideal and spiritual values and cultural and scientific contributions to world civilisation. In my opinion, in the 21st century the role of the soft power, which contributes to strengthening the trust between states, will increase, which in its term will facilitate the strengthening of global security and cooperation.

Such perception approves increasing the role and importance of diplomacy in the modern world and newly represents the requirements for diplomats as qualified professionals, possessing a new level of competency and omnifarious knowledge in the field of international relations, history, economy and social studies. In this context, we should borrow the necessity to fully master the diplomacy, utter knowledge of both the current situation and history of the issue, its legal base and approaches towards its solution. In advocating national interests, it is essential to develop the aspiration to search mutually-acceptable decisions of common interest.

Working in the UN, I fully realised the importance of personal, friendly contacts and relations with my collaborators, which not only helps in solving professional tasks but also contributes to enriching personal background knowledge. The modern diplomat, in my opinion, should have the following key qualities – the art of reasoning and art of bringing confidence, in other words – to master personal soft power.

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