Ban Ki-moon's speeches

Address to the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize Dinner in New York

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, New York (USA), 13 September 2007

It is a pleasure to join you. I am honoured to address this important gathering of philanthropists, humanitarians, and friends.

First, let me join others in congratulating Tostan and its Executive Director, Ms. Molly Melching, as the recipients of this year’s Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize.

Ms. Melching, in celebrating your achievements, and those of the thousands of people who work with Tostan, we are celebrating the best of humanity. You have empowered people by sharing with them vital knowledge, focusing on the priorities of daily life -- from health to math, and from literacy to management skills. You have helped improve the lives of millions of individuals, in hundreds of African communities. And your grass-roots approach has fostered a true understanding and respect for human rights and democracy.

You have also recognized that for sustainable development to truly flourish, the active participation of women is critical. Women are the world’s transmitters of knowledge. They are the backbone of their communities, entrusted with their families’ health and welfare. When vested with the right tools and granted access to vital services, they bring positive change by challenging the inequities they witness. By recognizing this, you are empowering women to advance their vital contribution towards the Millennium Development Goals, agreed by all the world’s Governments as a blueprint for building a better world in the twenty-first century.

And you are honouring the humanitarian principles pioneered by Conrad Hilton and his Foundation over six decades ago.

Mr. Hilton, today, you and your colleagues at the Foundation continue to advance the values and principles of your founder. Conrad Hilton was a true ally of the United Nations -- a man who embodied the spirit of the Organization.

When Conrad Hilton created the Foundation, the world did not yet possess the technology to channel every major emergency occurring around the globe into our homes. And yet, he had the foresight and conscience to place himself front and centre in the movement to combat national and global inequities. He felt equally strongly about causes at home and abroad. When he spoke of the “natural law that obliges you and me to relieve the suffering, the distressed and the destitute”, he made no distinction according to geographical boundaries. His compassion was as global as his business sense.

Today, we live in a world where boundaries count for less and less. An emergency unfolding on one side of the globe is watched live in living rooms on the opposite side. If Conrad Hilton could honour the natural law of obligation without that instant knowledge of crises in his time, we surely have no excuse not to honour it in ours.

One of the crises that have been dominating our television screens for the past four years is taking place in Sudan. I was recently there. I witnessed first-hand the life-shattering effects of injustice and inequality. I saw the devastating impact of man’s inhumanity to man.

In Darfur, more than 4 million people have been displaced as a result of the conflict between the Government and militia groups. More than 12,000 humanitarian workers, most of them Sudanese, are struggling to provide assistance to the affected populations. Half of those affected have fled their homes to escape violence. Men, women and children are struggling against all odds to live their lives with dignity.

This tragic cycle of violence has been allowed to continue for far too long. I am encouraged that the Government of Sudan has accepted a joint operation, or hybrid, bringing together forces from the African Union and the United Nations. Once deployed, this challenging operation will be an unprecedented effort. At the same time, we must also seek to resolve the causes of the conflict. A new and conclusive round of negotiations is due to begin next month. This must be supplemented by a serious development effort in the region, including ensuring access to water resources.

The challenges we face in Darfur are not unique. In many crisis areas, civilians continue to bear the intolerable brunt of conflicts not of their making.

In Somalia, protracted conflict and the absence of law and order have displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The conflict has been combined with chronic food insecurity, endemic disease, droughts and floods. All of these have rendered the Somali people among the most vulnerable in the world. Access and the protection of civilians are major priorities for the humanitarian community.

In Sri Lanka, two decades of civil war between the Government and the rebels have displaced large numbers of people. All sides to the conflict have limited our access to the displaced, and many are left without assistance or protection. The conflict has also exposed civilians and humanitarian workers to targeted killings and abductions.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, despite considerable progress in the national peace process in recent years, insecurity caused by various armed groups persists in the eastern part of the country. So does the hideous sexual violence perpetrated by members of these groups. As a result, families have been torn apart, and communities have been destroyed.

Credible and lasting political solutions to these and other conflicts are essential to allow people to return to their homes and resume their lives in safety and security.

But while we seek those solutions, our immediate humanitarian work to provide day-to-day assistance must continue. It can never wait for the next round of talks to open, or the next peace treaty to be signed. It must be swift, proactive and effective.

That is why we are doing all we can to improve the way the United Nations responds to emergencies. We recently initiated a major reform process to ensure that for each and every emergency, we are able to meet the needs of its victims -- in health, in protection, in water and sanitation services and in other essential areas. We must reduce the gaps in our response, in places like Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We must bring more accountability, more order, and more predictability to the process. And we must forge strong partnerships with national organizations on the ground.

In the past, whenever an emergency occurred, the humanitarian community would scramble to find the resources to respond. These often came too little, too late.

That is why, last year, the United Nations launched the Central Emergency Response Fund. The CERF allows donors to pre-position funding so that aid workers can jump-start humanitarian operations and rapidly deliver relief to victims during the first phase of an emergency. That is when most lives are at stake. The CERF also provides assistance to under-funded “forgotten emergencies” -- most of which never make it to our television screens.

Since its inception, the CERF has contributed to saving the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. The United Nations will organize a fund-raiser in December to replenish the Fund. I urge you to consider supporting this important funding mechanism.

Improving our response to emergencies is important. But prevention has an even higher pay-off. That is why we must do more to reduce our vulnerability to natural hazards. Today, our world is paying closer attention to this challenge, as embodied in the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. And since 2005, when 168 Governments adopted the Hyogo Framework for Action, we have had a road map for building a more disaster-resilient world.

The road map includes a number of simple measures -- from enhanced monitoring and early warning systems to public awareness campaigns and improved evacuation plans. Environmental protection programmes and better and safer building standards are also key. But to be successful, disaster risk reduction must be a national and local priority.

Such practices are evident in places like Simeulue Island, Indonesia, situated near the epicentre of the 2004 tsunami. There, oral history passed down from a tsunami 100 years ago -- in the year 1907 -- taught people that if an earthquake struck and the ocean suddenly receded, you should head for the hills. As a result, only eight of the island’s 78,000 inhabitants died in the devastating tsunami of 2004. In nearby Aceh, where no such communal memory existed, up to 90 per cent of the population perished in some areas.

Honduras stands out as another example of effective disaster response. In 1998, when Hurricane Mitch killed more than 14,000 people in the country, no deaths were reported in the hard-hit municipality of La Masica. Why? Because six months earlier, a pilot project in community-based mitigation was established. When Mitch struck, people in vulnerable areas quickly evacuated. Notably, the active participation of women saved many lives, not least when they promptly replaced men who abandoned their monitoring posts in the early warning system.

Global warming makes it even more urgent to plan for disaster mitigation, and it makes the challenge even greater. The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes that hundreds of millions of people face increased risks from climate-related hazards linked to global warming. More floods, more droughts, more intensive storms, heat waves, and rising sea levels are all predicted. And with this, significant population migration and displacement will result.

Only last month, hundreds of millions of people were affected by unusually widespread flooding in parts of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. This is a wake-up call that more must be done -- now -- to mitigate the impact of disasters. Some estimates suggest that a dollar invested today in risk reduction can save between 7 and 10 dollars in relief and recovery costs tomorrow. Risk reduction prevents deaths, and makes good economic sense. I urge you to encourage Governments to make it a priority.

In less than two weeks, on 24 September, I am convening a high-level meeting on climate change to discuss our global strategy. Many of you are already working on this vital issue in your institutions, your communities, and your private lives. We all must work together -- across sectors, professions, and Governments -- in a strategic partnership to address this complex, pressing issue.

Here, too, we can learn from the excellent example set by Tostan, the organization we honour today. In the countries where it works, Tostan incorporates activities to help sustain the environment -- for example, through the innovative use of fuel-efficient wood-burning stoves to combat deforestation.

In the 63 years since the founding of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation -- one year before the founding of the United Nations -- the world has, in many ways, evolved faster than we could have imagined. Today, just as our interconnectedness means that our challenges are global, so, too, should we strive to ensure that our successes are global. And there can be no greater aim than achieving true and lasting development for all.

As we redouble our efforts to reach the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, let us take inspiration from Tostan’s remarkable accomplishments in strengthening the capacities of communities and individuals, particularly of women. And let us recall that all of us -- from the United Nations to the private sector, and from the local to the global -- share the responsibility of fulfilling our shared objectives.