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Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

General Assembly

15 May 2008

Remarks to the Global Classrooms Model UN Conference


I am fascinated and very much impressed by the big turnout, and I thank the DeWitt Clinton High School Choir High School Choir for the beautiful songs. It is wonderful for me to be here with you and look out at such an energetic audience. I'm very grateful to all the students, teachers and faculty advisors who make this programme possible. 'Global Classrooms' is raising awareness about human rights, sustainable development and peace – the same goals we are promoting at the United Nations.

Sitting amidst you, all young leaders of the future, I feel little stressed because there are so many potential Secretaries-General here. But I am willing to give up my seat to any of you, whoever will take my job in the future. I want to talk a bit about the United Nations in today's world, but most of all I want to hear from you, so I'll keep my remarks brief.

The international community increasingly recognizes the importance of our work. The United Nations has been very effective in a number of areas, and as a result we're getting more and more responsibility. I have been saying to my colleagues that the pendulum of history is now swinging back to multilateralism – and that is the United Nations. For example, we have over a hundred thousand UN peacekeepers deployed around the world. That's an all-time high. The United Nations keeps the second largest forces in the world, only next to the United States.

But we don't always get the resources we need to fulfill our responsibilities. Darfur is one example. We're in the process of mounting our largest peacekeeping operation there, but we still don't have enough troops and equipment, especially helicopters.

At the same time, we have to acknowledge that right now, the United Nations is under threat. The terrorist attack against UN offices in Algeria last year showed just how dangerous our work has become.

But we are not deterred by these tough conditions. If anything, we are more determined than ever to press forward with our mission to promote peace, development and human rights.

In this effort, we need more than resources. We need more than governments. We need the energy and enthusiasm of global citizens committed to making this world a better place.

Take climate change. I'm doing my part as Secretary-General to push governments to reach an agreement limiting greenhouse gas emissions. That's important, but it is not enough. We need people everywhere to conserve natural resources. We need a top-down approach and we need a grass-roots effort if we are going to reverse environmental damage and preserve our planet for future generations - for all of you.

You are central to this effort.

So please indulge me while I tell you a true story about someone I know very well. His name is Han Seung-soo, currently the Prime Minister of Korea, where I come from. When he was a young boy, he lived in an isolated village in the mountains of my country, Korea. He had to get up at dawn and travel for miles, crossing two different rivers, just to get to school. The only thing that kept him going was the dream that he might one day become President of the United Nations General Assembly. He later wrote that this great dream, I quote “offered one destitute boy the hope and sense of purpose needed to continue studying.”

It was a great dream, but I think looking back, it was also a very unlikely, unrealistic dream because at the time, Korea was not even a member of the United Nations. That young man had about the same chance of becoming President of the General Assembly of the United Nations as being abducted by aliens and taken to Mars.

Still, he never gave up his dream. He studied hard and began to work on the international scene. And finally in 2001, right here in this room, he was elected President of the United Nations General Assembly – the 56th Session of the General Assembly. I worked as his Chief of Staff at that time.

I'm sure you've guessed that I'm telling you this story because you're young and you should cherish great dreams for the future, no matter how impossible they may seem.

That's true, but it's not my main point. You've probably already heard that you should dream big - you should have big ideas and high aspirations. Here's the difference at the UN. When Dr. Han was inaugurated as President of the General Assembly, he felt very happy, of course. But he also felt, in his words, again I quote him, “the tremendous weight of the mission for world peace and development” that fell on his shoulders.

You are all here because you are concerned about the world at large. You have a higher sense of purpose that draws you to think beyond the borders of your own countries. I want to encourage you to continue on this path, and to dream big. But I feel I can be honest with you. There are easier roads to travel. On this one, you'll feel the “tremendous weight of responsibility” that comes when we open our eyes to all the suffering in this world, and resolve to try to change it.

I hope you will stay with me on this difficult path cut by the United Nations because ultimately, it is also the most rewarding one, leading to a better world for all people in the world.

Thank you and I will be happy to exchange views with you. Thank you very much.