Secretary-General’s exchange with Asia Society President Josette Sheeran following his speech at the Asia Society
New York, 20 June 2014
Q: Thank you Mr. Secretary-General. I certainly know from observing you when you were my boss at the United Nations that sometimes from the outside it looks much easier than from the inside to really influence the cause of events and have an impact. And yet you have laid out a good six-point plan and as you have pointed out there has been some victories, such as the removal of the chemical weapons from the Syria and the destruction, US and Russia bringing people to the table, and also the Geneva Communiqué and that you plan to have a new envoy soon to work on these issues. I would like to ask you about how much of a game changer is the advances of ISIS? They now have a territory about the size of the state of Indiana in the US that they have seized. Has this morphed now into a different kind of conflict and will this require perhaps a different approach? Have we yet fully understood the dimensions of the new developments across the border?
SG: One very important lesson from this current crisis, allowing extremist elements to infiltrate in this already difficult situation is that first of all, the leaders of the countries concerned – they should have reached out to all the groups of people, whether religious or [different] ethnicity. But somehow there are many such cases we have seen that they have not reached out; they have not been embracing all the people. Through elections, seemingly democratic peaceful elections, they believe that they have a full legitimacy but election is a very important part in democratic processes. But that does not give full authorization or authority or legitimacy. That should be accompanied by good governance and anti-corruption, and reaching out and listening to all the aspirations and grievances and discontent of the people. They should have listened very carefully to what exactly people are speaking. That is exactly what is happening now in Iraq.
I have been urging, in my meetings, and as well as in my telephone call, most recently to Prime Minister [Nouri Kamal al] Maliki that he should now reach out – even though it may be late but it is not too late – he should reach out to all the factors of the society, political and economic society. We have seen so many problems, disharmonious political relationship. That is sad. Now that these extremist groups have infiltrated and taken a foothold, then the international community must address decisively, taking all necessary measures to stem these terrorist groups. This is a common responsibility which we have to do. This may happen in any other country.
Q: Well, we have many questions coming in. I also want to welcome our viewers on the Internet and through Twitter and elsewhere. And they’re also sending in questions so keep them coming in. Let me just ask you: were you encouraged by your phone call with Al Maliki and what did he say about the ability to bring people together? Did you see some good signs there?
SG: Recently I met the first Vice President of Iran, Mr. [Eshaq] Jahangiri, and I spoke to the Foreign Minister. Then I had talks with Prime Minister of Iraq and Iranian leaders and I have really been trying to urge the leaders in the region to show their solidarity. Of course, the United Nations has already shown publicly that we stand behind the Iraqi people in fighting against terrorist groups and also helping them restore peace and stability. Now, I know that the countries in the region are really trying to consider what would be the best way to address this situation. In the course of this, I would encourage them to reach out to all the groups.
Q: So we have a couple of questions up here already. The first one says: You said that the new envoy would not have a magic wand, but would have a mandate to try to find a political solution. And the question is: won’t he or she be hampered by two of the points? If there is an embargo that keeps the regime’s advantage in place and also a call for war crimes prosecution which cannot help bring Mr. [Bashar al] Assad to the table. So, how do you feel these would come into the mix of trying to find a political solution?
SG: The special envoy, when appointed in the near future, will have to first reach out and consult key Member States in the region and key Members States of the Security Council, and I would strongly encourage him or her to do that. There are many other issues which one would have to deal with. Unfortunately, during the last two years or so since Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, because of the division even in the region, they were not given full support politically, let alone financial support. This has been quite regrettable, even though this has not been publically known. I see some gradual changes in the region, knowing that the way they have been doing, first of all, divided, and the way also how some individual countries have been providing arms to either side, was not leading to solutions. I see some gradual changes; therefore, I hope my observation is right that the future special envoy may have a better chance to succeed.
Q: What would you specifically hope, the question raises, the United States Government would do now to reduce the crisis in Syria?
SG: In both Syria and Iraq, the US undoubtedly, as a superpower, has a role to play, as one of the two initiating countries for a political solution, together with the Russian Federation. I have been urging Secretary [John] Kerry and Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov that they should do more in exercising influence and demonstrating their leadership. In the height of the Ukrainian situation, my difficulty and concern was that most of the world leaders’ attention was on the Ukraine situation. My message to President [Vladimir] Putin and all other European and American leaders has been that you are effectively binding my hands. It is important. The Ukrainian situation is very important. It should be addressed, but at the same time you should never lose sight of what is happening in Syria, what is happening in the Central African Republic and in South Sudan. And there are so much broader, more important issues of future development issues, like sustainable development and climate change. Nobody is now talking about climate change, South Sudan and Central African Republic, let alone even on Syria. So, I have been expressing my concerns to them: Please do more. I will support on the Ukrainian situation but at the same time, let’s do it together; let’s us do it comprehensively to address all the issues. That’s my message to the American leadership.
At the same time, there is a very serious issue happening now with Iraq. I think the international community should show strong solidarity to the Iraqi people. They have suffered long. Now only after a few years after the departure of American forces, they are experiencing such difficulty, so we should show some solidarity and support for them.
Q: And a question: the US and Iran are on the precipice of a possible deal to end the nuclear standoff and there has been some talk among US leaders that Iran could possibly play a constructive role in the current crisis in northern Iraq, given that it is particularly close to the Shia elements in Iraq and they feel threatened by that. What is your message to Iran right now about the possible role it can play?
SG: In the Syrian situation and current Iraqi situation, Iran is [playing] and can play a very important role. So we need to get their support and their very proactive supporting role to first of all defuse tensions and address all these issues. In that regard, I was encouraged to hear that the American and Iranian representatives were meeting informally on the margins of the Vienna nuclear deals. That is good. I think they should continue to have this kind of dialogue, if not officially, but even informally to get the Iranians involved - that is encouraging.
Q: What about the role of Saudi Arabia? Are you hopeful that they also can play a leadership role in addressing this?
SG: Saudi is a very important regional power, and I have been also very closely working with the Saudi King, and Foreign Minister and representatives. In dealing with the Syrian situation, they may also have different positions but largely they have been supportive. Now, in the Iraqi and Syrian situations, and most of the situations in the Middle East, I sincerely hope that Saudi Arabia will continue to play a very positive and constructive role. We need their support.
Q: Mr. Secretary-General, I have many questions so we’ll try to merge a couple. One, there seems to be quite a focus on ISIS and their emergence and there is a question around the flow of money and arms into the region. And realistically, can we expect there to be an embargo? Because who controls the gates now to the flow? Isn’t it so diffused, including a question on funding into ISIS. So who are the gatekeepers and how do we deal with that challenge?
SG: One should know that for a certain political purpose when they think it would be beneficial for them to provide arms or funding to a certain group, but they should also understand that in the end, this may backfire and come back to them. Just supporting or providing funding and arms to all the terrorist and extremist groups, like ISIS, that should be stopped all the time. And at the same time, this is relating to my first remarks that leaders are not reaching out to the people and various different groups. This will allow a certain space where extremist elements may prey as a breeding ground; that, we have to guard against. Therefore, inclusive, reconciliatory, reaching out to all the people, particularly civil society and religious groups -- by doing that, I think we can prevent any potential breeding ground of extremist groups.
The arms embargo: I said that, when it comes to Syria, there are some political divisions in the Security Council and the United Nations and in the region. It is a known fact that many countries are providing either side, according to their own political thinking. And when we urge them to impose an arms embargo, that may create some imbalance in the current situation, particularly for the opposition groups, because of the massive weaponry capacity of the Syrian government. If there is going to be a total arms embargo, it may be imbalanced. But as I said, there is no such military win; only political solutions can bring an eventual and peaceful solution of this issue.
Q: So, Mr. Secretary, there’s a question about the frustrations of the last Envoy, Mr. [Lakhdar] Brahimi, and as you know he was frustrated and didn’t feel that the international community was taking it seriously enough, felt, what he called “there was a total failure of the international community” and that Syria may become another Somalia. Do you feel that the international community is taking the situation more seriously now? If so, why? And if not, why not?
SG: First of all, this is quite a dramatic situation which we have been seeing now. Not in the past have we seen so many crises taking place all at once. It’s not only Syria; we have so many crises in Africa - South Sudan and Central African Republic and Mali, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Great Lakes Region. There are so many areas. Libya is also in very much a difficult position. After a very dramatic transformation after this Arab Spring, many of the countries are also suffering from these aftershocks of transformations. Syria is one. Then we have Ukraine situation. Therefore, it is a very difficult situation for the international community to handle all these matters. In the course of dealing with this, many countries have different perspectives and we have seen so many divisions in Syria and in many other issues. Therefore, what is important is that political leaders should have very long-term vision and should be united. We need one voice and one measure to address all these issues. It may be very general the way that I’m speaking, but I may not be able to go one by one, but generally speaking, we need the political leadership and strong solidarity for peace and also human rights and the humanitarian situation. We have seen tremendously tragic human rights violations and this accountability justice system has not been brought to all the cases; therefore, the United Nations takes it very seriously, that if not today, we make sure that these perpetrators will have to be brought to justice. That is why recently I have initiated “Rights Up Front”, because when it comes to human rights, everything will be brought up front, held above anything. So that kind of vision should be shared and supported by all 193 Member States and supported by civil society. That’s the only way we can address these issues.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you have a question from Eugenia, a student at NYU, and she wants to know about the children of Syria. Of course, the UN has a very important mandate with children, with UNICEF and Tony Lake’s leadership there and all of that. She’s worried, as the whole world is, about education, let alone food and shelter and removing them from trauma. What are your thoughts about this particular tragic element?
SG: I visited many refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. My Deputy Secretary-General visited Lebanon. Wherever I visited, I met many children - young boys and girls – I was very saddened. Of course, just looking at meeting refugees themselves, it is very sad and tragic. But when I saw all these young people – what have they done wrong? They do not know anything about what is going on. But they are just suffering. What really inspired and impressed me was that the United Nations has been providing all what we can do. For example, we constructed makeshift schools and even though these schools, the classrooms were very crowded with one hundred people, but still they were given textbooks and teachers were teaching and there were many teachers among refugees and they were volunteering. That was quite a moving scene and I told them that: “Look, do not despair, don’t lose your hope, the United Nations is helping you.”
I thought about my own days when I was a young boy without any classrooms after the Korean War. I was studying on the ground, on the dirt. I told them that “look, my situation was even worse than what you are doing; at least you are studying in these makeshift classrooms.” So the United Nations is really providing all.
As I said earlier in my statement, we have provided to 3 million children vaccinations. I am sorry to say that polio has broken out in Syria because of these very dire sanitary conditions. But we are really trying our best, with UNICEF, UNDP, UNFPA and UNHCR, WFP, which you led (speaking to Josette Sheeran). We are doing our best.
Q: Mr. Secretary, I think this has to be our last question, but there is much debate since we’re at the point of 100 years after the First World War in 1914 and all the institutions, primarily and centrally the United Nations, set up to try to avoid a future where war was involved and yet we hear statements – recently someone said the new world order [is] the new war order. There are so many wars and conflicts as you have pointed breaking out. Are the tools of diplomacy and peace-making robust enough? And what, if you would share for a moment, are your frustrations or your hope, since we have so many dignitaries from the United Nations here and Ambassadors? Do we have the tools we need for a world where the challenges are perhaps even more complex than they were a century ago?
SG: This, 2014, may give us a good opportunity for us to look back to what had happened a hundred years ago - centennial for the First World War - and we have experienced this very tragic, much, much more tragic Second World War. The United Nations was born after the tragic consequence of the Second World War.
I believe that the United Nations has been really doing, during the last almost seven decades, to prevent such horrible wars which we experienced many years ago. The United Nations may not be perfect - being a multilateral organization, composed of all sovereign states, Member States bringing their own visions and their own systems, even. But the United Nations, largely saying, has been working very well to address all development issues, peace and security and human rights issues. One may still think that it is not perfect. We have not done enough – that I agree, I admit that we have not done enough. We have made a lot of pledges that we will never repeat this kind of situation like twenty years ago in Rwanda, and nineteen years ago in Srebrenica, there was genocide and we pledged ourselves that never again but still we are seeing the possibility of genocide in Syria, and in Central African Republic. Even though I cannot term it as genocide yet, they are serious crimes against humanity. We should really make ourselves united, not to see the recurrence of that kind of tragedy. I know that we are not perfect. That is why we are really trying to make our Organization adapt to this changing world. One fact we have to know is that we are going through a dramatic transformation in terms of our whole life, particularly global communication and technology really compels us to adapt to this changing world.
There are clearly boundaries between national boundaries and international. There is a distinction between international and national. Once we know that, there is a great transformation and shift is taking place under their feet. We should know that a lot of things are happening while we are standing on this. Our answer is quite clear: that we must be united; we must have a global vision. One should know that good international global solution is good for the national solution. Then there should be no such distinction between international and national - this is my message and I have been speaking to young people, particularly students, that you should have a global vision – forget about your national boundaries, national passports. We are only one global family, very tightly, closely connected. Otherwise we will not be able to have sustainable development. The UN’s vision is now to make this 21st century a sustainable world where nobody is left behind, where everybody’s human rights and dignities are promoted and protected.
Q: Well, Mr. Secretary-General that was a very eloquent statement and I was struck when I served in the UN that many people feel that you are all powerful and that indeed you have a magic wand. When you travel around the world they think you can solve every problem. Would you like to set the record straight that maybe you are lacking all powers to fix all situations?
SG: I’ll try my best; I’ll continue to do that.