October 31, 2016

Inaction in Syria and the resurgence of nationalism in the West has led many to question the relevance of the United Nations in today’s global landscape.

Visiting SIPA to give the annual Gabriel Silver Memorial Lecture, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon argued that, despite its limitations and need for restructuring, the UN still has a vital role to play in addressing global issues such as climate change, economic upheaval, and humanitarian crisis.

In his October 26 address, Ban—who will leave office on January 1 after 10 years as secretary-general—identified the adoption of Sustainable Development Goals and the COP21 Paris agreement as major steps forward in addressing these issues.

“The SDGs are the answer and guide to address rising pressures and challenges facing the UN,” he said. “We also have momentum for climate action; no one thought that we would be able to deliver on a climate agreement so fast.”

Ban said the recent agreement among 200 nations in the Montreal Protocol to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons—potent greenhouse gases—represents a great commitment by the international community to take collective action in addressing global warming.

He also cited the success of the International Criminal Court in promoting the legality of international human rights law and argued that strengthening the court is the best way to build an effective international criminal justice system.

“The ICC has become a fundamental and strong legal institution. It has established groundbreaking convictions. Now world leaders have to think twice before committing human rights violations,” he said.

Ban also expressed dismay over the decision of some African countries, especially South Africa, to withdraw from the court.

“South Africa has been at the forefront of the global fight against impunity. Withdrawing could send the wrong message on its commitment to justice,” Ban said. “I hope they will reconsider their decision.

“Deterring future atrocities, delivering justice for victims, and defending the rules of war across the globe are far too important to risk a retreat from the age of accountability that we have worked so hard to build and solidify,” he added.

Ban said the UN has made great strides during his tenure but also acknowledged that it is handicapped by an ineffective decision-making process.

“There’s confusion between consensus and unanimity; we can’t expect everyone to have the same opinion,” he said. “While there may be some cases in which full support is needed, most decisions are made by the majority. However, the UN has been sticking to this model of unanimity. I’ve been making the case to member states to change that. It undermines progress on major threats and gets in the way of UN reform.”

Similarly, Ban pointed to the pursuit of self-interest by member states as another reason for the UN’s inability to act decisively on issues such as Syria and refugee migration.

“There is clear division among UN member states. Some people say you can’t expect complete unity but when member states adhere to the charter, they have to be united,” he said. “I thought that if we could reduce this division, we could deliver a stronger force to parties in conflict.

“But we weren’t able to” reduce the division, he said.

“Change depends on broad alliance,” Ban continued. “Individual leadership is just as important, but we have seen a shocking lack of empathy towards people from their leaders. The problem starts from the top, not from the people.”

Despite its limitations, the secretary-general maintained, the work of the UN has bettered the lives of those suffering from conflict and poverty. He recounted the help that the organization provided him as a child affected by war.

“My hometown was destroyed, but the UN brought everything that we needed,” he said. “It was a beacon of hope to me and most Korean people. Without the UN, I wouldn’t be standing here. That’s why I am trying to give sense of hope to refugee people.”

Ban said young people are a potential catalyst for change within the organization.

“I’m humbled by what the UN has achieved, but there is still much to be done,” he said. “I’m asking young leaders to be a part of process and to carry on the torch.

“I hope you will do this with global passion and global compassion,” he added. “You need both because if you don’t have compassion for others, then your leadership will not be balanced.”

— Serina Bellamy MIA ’17

The United Nations’ Role in a Changing World


Ban Ki-moon gave the annual Gabriel Silver Memorial Lecture at SIPA.