At Harvard, UN chief urges global community to confront world’s existential threats

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks at the ceremony and lecture for 2014 Harvard Humanitarian of the Year Award in Cambridge, Massachusetts. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

2 December 2014 – The world today faces an increasing array of threats to peaceful coexistence – from climate change and conflict to poverty and disease – all of which loom over the future of the planet’s physical survival, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned today in a lecture delivered at Harvard University.

Speaking in an address to the University’s Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he accepted the Harvard Humanitarian of the Year Award on behalf of “brave and courageous UN staff” the Secretary-General remarked that the world stood at the cusp of momentous change, both as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) approach their 2015 deadline and as the UN prepares to mark its 70th anniversary.

“For almost 15 years, the world has pursued the Millennium Development Goals,” Mr. Ban said, as he described the UN-backed efforts to reduce extreme poverty and hunger, promote education, especially for girls, fight disease and protect the environment. “The gains have been remarkable. But there is a long way to go.”

“We are determined to finish the job of the MDGs. But we also want to address emerging issues such as inequality. And we want the new goals to include critical factors that were not part of the MDG framework, such as building peaceful societies with responsive, accountable institutions.”

Mr. Ban, who had earlier met with Harvard President Drew Faust, told the gathering – which included faculty and students – that while the present global population is the “first generation” that could bring an end to poverty, it also remains the last with the possibility of slowing global warming before it becomes “too late.”

His comments come as Member States kick-off a UN climate conference in Lima, Peru where they will put forward their proposed contributions to a new universal UN-backed treaty on climate change to be adopted in Paris in December 2015.

“We need all countries to come together to secure a new climate agreement next year in Paris,” he said. “We need individuals to do their part through the choices they make, from voting booths to grocery stores.”

Harvard University, Mr. Ban acknowledged, already supports the work done by the Carbon Disclosure Project – a non-governmental initiative aimed at assisting businesses to reduce their carbon footprint and invest in climate-friendly programmes. But he encouraged the institution to be “an even bigger part of the transition to a safer, healthier, low-carbon future” and help the world onto “more sustainable footing.”

Beyond climate change, however, the planet’s existential threats remain numerous and insidious, the Secretary-General continued, as he warned of the constant danger posed by the world’s nuclear arsenals.

“The world remains over-armed, and peace is underfunded,” said Mr. Ban, as he praised the “important work” that has been done to keep fissile materials from reaching terrorists or other hostile actors. “But ultimately, there are no right hands for wrong weapons.”

“People are asking why the nuclear powers are spending vast sums to modernize arsenals instead of eliminating them, which they committed to do under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Where are their disarmament plans? They do not exist.”

Nevertheless, he said, efforts were underway to reduce the global nuclear footprint as Governments and civil society prepared to gather in Vienna next week in an effort “to challenge the belief that nuclear weapons should be valued as a rational basis for defense and national prestige.”

Turning to the imminent challenges posed by sectarian hatred and intercommunal violence – which continue to ravage countries spanning from Syria and Iraq to Central African Republic and South Sudan – the Secretary-General stated that human rights violations remain the international community’s “clearest early warning signs of instability and violence.”

Here, Mr. Ban said, his new Human Rights Up Front initiative would compel the UN to speak up on rights abuses around the world “far earlier, and if necessary far more pointedly, even if that is not what Governments want to hear.”

“Our hope is that Human Rights Up Front will lead to earlier, more determined steps to keep situations from escalating.”

But, he added, global solidarity would continue to be tested unless the international community did its part to help contain the explosive Ebola crisis which the affected countries were “struggling to contain,” despite the bravery of first responders and the UN’s rapid Ebola response mission.

“The outbreak is evolving unevenly with an increase in cases in western Sierra Leone and the emergence of a new chain of transmission in Mali. And we are still short of resources,” he lamented.

As a result, he called on Harvard’s scientists to continue their “pioneering research efforts” on Ebola and continue to pursue vaccines and cures for the myriad other diseases afflicting the world’s populations.

“We cannot ward off earthquakes and other natural disasters,” Mr. Ban admitted. “But man-made ills are entirely within our power to prevent. A sustainable world of freedom and dignity for all is entirely within our power to build.”


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