‘We Face a Race against Time,’ Secretary-General Tells Council on Foreign Relations, Urging Collective Action to Address Crisis in Syria, Threat of Climate Catastrophe

12 February 2013
SG/SM/14808

‘We Face a Race against Time,’ Secretary-General Tells Council on Foreign Relations, Urging Collective Action to Address Crisis in Syria, Threat of Climate Catastrophe

12 February 2013
Secretary-General
SG/SM/14808
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

‘We Face a Race against Time,’ Secretary-General Tells Council on Foreign Relations,

Urging Collective Action to Address Crisis in Syria, Threat of Climate Catastrophe

Following are UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, to the Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations at the Council on Foreign Relations, in New York, 11 February:

Thank you for your warm welcome.  I am glad to be here with the members of one of America’s most influential think tanks.  I am especially honoured to deliver the Sorensen Lecture on the United Nations.  The Sorensen commitment to the principles and purposes of the United Nations is unrivalled.

Ted Sorensen wore UN blue since the model UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] exercise he took part in as a student.  His law practice found many ways to advance UN causes.

Gillian, your voice has reached across this country, and around the world.  For decades now, you have been a great UN advocate, explaining what we do and why it matters.  I know how much it pained you and Ted whenever the United Nations was marginalized or misunderstood.  This annual lecture has helped to serve as a welcome corrective.

You may all be aware that my own career in diplomacy was sparked in part by meeting President [John F.] Kennedy.  One minute I was a country boy, visiting from post-war Korea.  The next, standing there in the Rose Garden in 1962, I was determined to do my part to build a better world, just as JFK encouraged us to do.

I have wondered about Ted’s whereabouts that day.  Was he there watching us, another group of visitors having their Kennedy moment?  More likely, he was bent over a typewriter, wrestling another memorable phrase into being.  Whichever the case, I feel fortunate that my life has been touched by the Sorensen spirit of service.

You all know how many issues are on the UN agenda.  I cannot possibly cover all of even the most urgent issues in the space of these remarks.  So I have done what is typically a very perilous thing for a UN Secretary-General to do:  I have chosen two items above all others to discuss in depth.

Both have huge consequences.  In both cases, the international community is not upholding its responsibilities.  Both risk the harsh judgement of history should present trends continue.  And both require collective action that must involve the United States.  I speak about the crisis in Syria — and the threat of climate catastrophe.

We can use the question-and-answer session to cover other issues — Mali, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo — to name just a few.  But for me at this time, Syria and climate deserve our heightened attention.

Syria is self-destructing.  After nearly two years, we no longer count days in hours, but in bodies.  Another day, another 100, 200, 300 dead.  Fighting rages.  Sectarian hatred is on the rise.  The catalogue of war crimes is mounting.  Sexual violence is widespread.  The destruction is systematic.  Syria is being torn apart, limb by limb.

The political crisis has bred a humanitarian emergency.  Four million people — one out of every five Syrians — are in need of immediate assistance.  Three quarters of a million have fled the country, straining Syria’s neighbours — and further risking regional instability.

The pledges from the donor conference two weeks ago in Kuwait will help us to bring comfort to those in need.  It can never be enough, however, to treat the symptoms of conflict.  Our responsibility is to get to the roots and make the violence stop.

But for the moment, division rules the day — inside Syria, in the region, in the UN Security Council.  The Syrians are not ready to talk to one another.  The regime remains as repressive as ever.  The situation cries out for action by the Security Council in particular.  As Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi has said, the Council cannot simply wait for divisions to evaporate.  That guarantees not only more violence but the very disintegration of a country and the possibility that Syria could become an arena for competing national and regional forces — Government and non-State actors alike.

The Security Council must no longer stand on the sidelines, dead-locked, silently witnessing the slaughter.  It must be willing, at long last, to come together and establish the parameters for the democratic transition that could save Syria.

The offer by National Coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib to open discussions with representatives of the Syrian Government is an opportunity we should not miss — a chance to switch from a devastating military logic to a promising political approach.  This was a courageous offer by Mr. al-Khatib.  I urge both the Syrian Government and the Security Council to respond positively.

We need to find a way towards negotiations between empowered Government and opposition delegations that can make key decisions about the country’s future — on elections, on constitutional reform, on accountability for victims of international crimes, on other steps needed to meet the people’s legitimate aspirations.

It is time for a clean break from Syria’s past, and for a decisive turn toward a future where Syrians are able to express their political views freely, without fear of arbitrary arrest or killing — a Syria where the human rights of all are protected.

Let us also draw a broader lesson:  in the Arab world and elsewhere, people want real change, not grudging, cosmetic adjustments.  Let us remember that whether countries are emerging from conflict or authoritarian rule, transitions will not be linear marches toward Jeffersonian democracy or Swiss-style tranquillity.

The road will be rocky.  The cases of Myanmar, Timor-Leste and Sierra Leone give some hope that patient, long-term engagement can yield results.  The case of Mali shows how little we sometimes understand about the fragility of democracies considered well established.

We must also resist the temptation to see the current troubles in Egypt or Libya as proof that the old order was a better one.  We can take some confidence from history that periods of post-revolutionary disorder are passing phenomena.  But close and patient engagement will be crucial.  The international community has a duty to accompany these transitions with meaningful contributions.

Let me turn now to the gathering threat of climate change.  Scientists have long sounded the alarm.  Top-ranking military commanders and security experts have now joined the chorus.  Yet the political class seems far behind.

You all know the potential consequences:  a downward global spiral of extreme weather and disaster; reversals in development gains; increases in displacement; aggravated tensions over water and land; fragile States tipping into chaos.

Yet greenhouse emissions are rising faster than ever.  Business as usual retains its hold.

We must limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees.  We are far from there, and even that is enough to cause dire consequences.  If we continue along the current path, we are close to a 6 degree increase.

Too many leaders seem content to keep climate change at arm’s length, and in its policy silo.  Too few grasp the need to bring the threat to the centre of global security, economic and financial management.  It is time to move beyond spending enormous sums addressing the damage, and to make the investments that will repay themselves many times over.

Some countries are embracing the transition to a low-carbon, low-emissions future.  They are adding electrical capacity through renewable energy — and avoiding the need to build new coal power plants.  The renewable energy industry created 1.5 million new jobs last year.  The costs of wind power continue to fall.  With the right enabling public policies, close to 80 per cent of the world’s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century.

This is not utopian, or science fiction; it is current fact.  My “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative aims to support and expand such efforts.  The green economy is an essential insurance policy — an investment in a safer future for all.  A global climate change agreement would give us the engine we need to advance us decisively on this path.

I welcome President [Barack] Obama’s new resolve to address climate change and give it high political priority.  I am reaching out to government and business leaders to mobilize the capital and the political will for a global, legally binding climate change agreement by 2015.  World leaders have pledged to reach an agreement, and we must hold them to that promise.

Before making way for Christiane Amanpour and your questions, let me violate my own rule tonight and mention two other issues of special urgency.

First, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  With change in the air across the Middle East, it is long past time to resolve this conflict.  We all know what a just and permanent solution looks like.  In the year ahead, we must stop finding excuses as to why the issues are too hard.

Second, the situation on the Korean peninsula.  I have urged the new leadership in Pyongyang to refrain from any further provocative actions, particularly another nuclear test.  It is time for the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] authorities to heed the unified call of the international community to return to dialogue for the de-nuclearization of the peninsula.  They should also address international concerns, including about the dire humanitarian and human rights situation.  Should they reverse course, doors are open for the DPRK to build a better future.  As Secretary-General, I stand ready to work with all concerned parties for peace and stability in the region.

On the more general question of disarmament, here, too, I welcome President Obama’s heightened attention, including efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals.  For my part, I continue to press for steps to realize the goals of the five-point plan I set out early in my first term.

Later this week, I will visit Washington, D.C., for talks on these and many other issues.  I look forward to my discussions on Capitol Hill and with Secretary of State John Kerry.

My task as Secretary-General is to address crisis today while building solid foundations for tomorrow.  I seek good international formulas.  I try to make possible the sacrifices and compromises that may be painful in the moment, but which bring great dividends for coming generations.

We live in an age of monumental transition — economic, demographic, political.  Global interdependence is deepening.  Transnational threats are growing.  This means we must make better use of the United Nations machinery.

From peacekeeping to peacebuilding, from prevention to international criminal justice, our tools have proven more dynamic than most people give us credit for.  But we also recognize the need for our vehicle, first created in the 1940s, to be equipped for the highways of the twenty-first century.

International machinery does not operate on its own.  Hardware requires programmers.  We need national leaders who think globally.  We need a stronger sense of collective responsibility.  And we need the United States.

“Our last best hope”:  that is how President Kennedy — with help from Ted Sorensen — famously described the United Nations in his inaugural address.

He was speaking about a world in the grip of an arms race.  Today we face a race against time.  I look forward to the contributions that you in this room will make towards helping us reach our shared destination — a safer, more just and more sustainable world for all.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.