Secretary-General, Delivering Sergio Vieira de Mello Lecture, Says Cost of Responding to Crisis Far Higher than Investing in Prevention

1 March 2013
SG/SM/14841

Secretary-General, Delivering Sergio Vieira de Mello Lecture, Says Cost of Responding to Crisis Far Higher than Investing in Prevention

1 March 2013
Secretary-General
SG/SM/14841
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Secretary-General, Delivering Sergio Vieira de Mello Lecture, Says Cost

of Responding to Crisis Far Higher than Investing in Prevention

Following is the text of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s annual Sergio Vieira de Mello Lecture, as prepared for delivery, in Geneva on 1 March:

Thank you for your welcome.  It is a profound honour to join the list of distinguished global citizens invited to deliver the Sergio Vieira de Mello Lecture.  I am also proud to add my congratulations to tonight’s award winner, Bishop [Paride] Taban, for his work to promote interfaith and inter-ethnic understanding in Sudan.

I never met Sergio Vieira de Mello.  Yet, like countless others, I felt I knew him and remain inspired by him each and every day.  During my years at the Korean Foreign Ministry, I recall hearing high praise for a diplomat who was dashing in every sense of the work:  elegant and everywhere.  It seemed wherever there was a crisis, there was Sergio — from Africa’s Great Lakes region to Kosovo to Timor-Leste.

By the time I served as Chef de cabinet for the President of the General Assembly in 2001, his name was on everyone’s lips.  He was known throughout the system as humanitarian coordinator, special representative, transitional administrator; and he was known by one name only, for there was only one Sergio.

Sergio was an idea person and a practitioner.  He did not simply speak about the need to do things.  He did them.  Such was his power to motivate people that some of the UN’s best and brightest followed him, again and again.  They believed in him and his ideals.

Along with the rest of the world, I mourned on that dark day a decade ago, when the grim news from the Canal Hotel brought an end to so much we hold dear.  Twenty-two cherished United Nations colleagues and partners, targeted in the most horrendous way.  Our United Nations family had known violence before, but rarely with such devastating impact.  Tragically, such attacks have accelerated since, from Algiers to Abuja, from Kabul to Islamabad and elsewhere.

The anniversary of the Baghdad bombing, 19 August, is now World Humanitarian Day — a fitting occasion on which we all remember, reflect and recommit.  Tonight, I renew my tribute to the Vieira de Mello family and to the families and loved ones of all who perished.  I also express my profound admiration for the United Nations staff and partners who survived the blast and returned to work with their lives changed forever, but with their commitment to the Organization’s values intact and even reinforced.

As Sergio and our fallen colleagues proved in their too-short lifetimes, and as UN staff and our partners show today on the frontlines of war and disaster, the United Nations is dedicated to fulfilling its humanitarian imperative.  They are following through on what I believe was the lasting message of Sergio Vieira de Mello:  You can turn despair around.  Never give up.  That is the spirit I carry with me tonight.  I will speak about three sets of challenges:  the headline crises; the forgotten crises; and the silent crises.

Let me begin with Syria.  For two years now, we have seen suppression of people’s aspirations for change, the flight of ever-greater numbers of people from their homes, and the daily escalation of killing, war crimes and crimes against humanity.  I visited Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey.  I saw so many children and teenagers whose lives have been uprooted and whose dreams, like the communities they left behind, lie in pieces.

The United Nations and our humanitarian partners are doing all we can to provide assistance.  But, in Syria and anywhere else, we must never use humanitarianism to avoid the tougher political choices.  I continue to urge the Syrian parties to find their way to the negotiating table.  The horrors of the last months and years prove beyond doubt:  the military solution in Syria is leading to the dissolution of Syria.

As one Syrian student recently said:  “My country is being destroyed … and the world is watching it like a film.”  We cannot change the channel and wish it away.  Yet, what atrocity must occur to finally stir the world to act?  Those with the political power to change things must answer to every mother and every girl in Syria.  Inaction in the councils of peace looks like indifference in the cauldron of war.

The Security Council must no longer stand as a silent witness to the slaughter.  At long last, it must come together and establish the parameters for the democratic transition that might be the last best hope for saving Syria.  The conflict will end only when all sides are assured that there is a peaceful way towards a common future for all.  There can be no room in the future Syria for sectarianism or discrimination.  All communities must be assured that their rights will be respected and protected.

Civilians are also bearing the brunt of the crisis in Mali.  Mali and the wider Sahel region have become an epicentre of transnational weapons and drug trafficking, destructive extremism and chronic drought.  The economy of criminality is undermining governance in one of the world’s most impoverished regions.  People are despairing because they see no way out of their subsistence.  The international community has responded to the Government of Mali’s call and reversed gains made by extremists.  As military enforcement action eventually gives way to peacekeeping, our focus must also be on the political steps needed to resolve what is ultimately a political emergency.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, leaders are taking a much-needed new approach to break repeated cycles of violence.  I was just in Addis Ababa for the signing of a framework to address root causes, including governance problems, competition for natural resources and regional divisions.  Formal dictatorship in the Democratic Republic of the Congo ended almost a generation ago, but the people still await their full liberation.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process remains at a dangerous standstill.  Temperatures are rising.  Palestinians face continued military occupation, illegal settlement activity and closure in Gaza.  Their financial and economic situation remains unsustainable.  Tensions have been mounting over Palestinian prisoners in custody.  Renewed rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel has now breached the most recent ceasefire.  We must prevent another cycle of violence and do all we can to save the two-State solution.

These crises are the subject of steady media attention.  Many others unfold far from the spotlight — the occasional blip on the radar before falling off the screen.  The Central Africa Republic is a potentially rich country, but its people have been kept poor through a mix of poverty and poor governance.  As a result of the recent hostilities, more than 660,000 people are in need and more children are being forced into fighting.  Last December, the United Nations appealed to donors for $129 million in assistance for this year.  To date, not one penny has been received.  Not one penny.

The response for Sudan is little better.  We have been struggling for eight months to gain access to South Kordofan and Blue Nile State.  We know, from the condition of the thousands who have fled, that the situation is desperate.  People are eating roots and leaves to survive.  We and our partners are standing by with assistance.  Yet, access is denied — another sign of the worrying erosion in commitment to basic humanitarian principles.

A third kind of crisis compels us to act:  the silent emergencies where the tragedies unfold quietly, gradually, behind closed doors.  Nearly one and a half million children will die this year from easily preventable diseases — from lack of access to affordable medicine, clean water and sanitation.  Every day, thousands of children die from hunger-related causes, amidst a hunger crisis greater than any we have seen in 50 years.

All of this in the twenty-first century.  As the late Stéphane Hessel might have said:  where is the outrage?  About poverty, about inequality, about social injustice.  Hessel, who participated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, died on Tuesday — a French resistance hero and a United Nations hero.  He knew that budget austerity is no excuse for inaction.

We all know that the cost of responding to crisis is far higher than the investment to prevent it.  It is almost eight times more expensive to feed a child in a therapeutic feeding programme than it is to prevent that child from falling into such a malnourished state.

That is why I have placed so much importance on sustainable development.  I am pressing ahead with partnership initiatives to achieve adequate nutrition, an end to hunger and better health for every woman and every child.  I am pushing for a legally binding agreement on climate change.  Some have tried to silence the threat, but extreme weather and other impacts cry out for action.

The shameful pandemic of violence against women and girls is another silent crisis.  It permeates our world, but too often, people simply do not want to talk about it.  Yet, talk we must:  about the stigma that keeps women from work and school; about the psychological challenges faced by children born as a result of sexual violence; about rape used as a weapon of war.  As one woman said:  “They took away my life without killing me.”

We must talk, too, about the men and boys who are raped as a deliberate tactic of conflict.  Sexual violence is an issue of human rights and human dignity.  It is a health issue, a social issue, and a question of development; a country will simply not advance if its women cannot live free from harassment and fear.

Next week in New York, at the Commission on the Status of Women, the world will gather for the largest-ever United Nations assembly to end violence against women and girls.  As part of UN-Women’s COMMIT initiative, Governments are coming to this historic session with concrete plans to improve access to justice, ratify international conventions, strengthen protection, toughen punishment and enhance prevention and education.  We must continue.  The silence must stop.

In the face of these crises, the humanitarian landscape continues to change.  On the one hand, in this new age of accountability, international humanitarian law and criminal justice are extending their reach.  On the other, there is still too much brutality, too much impunity.  On the one side, we see armed groups making up for military weakness by attacking civilians or using them as shields — flagrant violations of international law.  On the other, we see strong armies frustrated by enemies that are often difficult to identify, and then too often responding in ways that violate the principles of distinction and proportionality — core tenets of international law.

New technologies are in use.  New humanitarian actors have joined the fray, including the military and the private sector.  They have brought vital new capacities for delivering aid more safely.  But, traditional humanitarians have valid concerns that their own access, security and impartiality may be undermined if they are perceived as aligned to the political or commercial objectives of such missions.

We must work through these emerging dilemmas.  However difficult they are, they at least reflect our shared devotion to serve people and fulfil our humanitarian imperative.  Whether headline crisis, forgotten crisis or silent crisis, there should be no more indifference; no more neglect of early warning signs; no more excuses that problems are too big, too costly, too difficult.

One might be excused for despairing over the long list of global challenges.  Yet, I know we have it within us to solve each and every one.  Crises can end.  From time to time, we might forget.  But then we get reminded.

Six months ago, I travelled to Timor-Leste.  While I was there, many people recalled to me their hardships, their triumphs and the support the United Nations provided during the darkest days.  But above all, the country was looking ahead with a sense of optimism.  Our United Nations peacekeeping mission was packing up and going home.  We had completed our long mission and I saw hope everywhere.

Not long ago, many would have dismissed such an achievement as impossible.  Not Sergio.  As transitional administrator there, he understood the power of national ownership.  He worked closely with the country’s leaders to support their aspirations.  He believed in the people and they believed in him.

Let his example and that of all our fallen colleagues continue to inspire us to believe — push us to act — and remind us that the power to transform our world is in our hands if we have the courage to use it.

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