New York

09 October 2013

Deputy Secretary-General's remarks at the Sorensen Distringuished Lecture on the United Nations [as prepared for delivery]

It is a pleasure for me to be here at the world-renowned Council on Foreign Relations.

I am honoured to deliver the Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations and join you in paying tribute to Ted and Gillian Sorensen for starting this series.  Many people talk about having had a so-called “Kennedy moment”; but I have a combination of a “John Kennedy-Ted Sorensen” moment.  When I was an AFS exchange student in the US, I met both of them at the Jefferson / Jackson dinner in Indianapolis on 29 March 1958! 

Special thanks go to Gillian Sorensen for bringing us together tonight.  She has been a great friend for 25 years -- and is a great friend of the United Nations, a passionate speaker about the UN across the country and the world -- with more than 1 million frequent flyer miles to prove it.

Before we move to the discussion, I want to say a few words about the past couple of weeks at the UN General Assembly (GA) and what they may suggest about the state of the United Nations and of multilateral co-operation.

Last week, in his speech to the Member States, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed to world leaders to overcome their unilateral impulses and embrace what he called “the global logic of our time.” 
Another way of framing this challenge is to make the case that - in a globalized world good international solutions are in the national interest of the Member States.  Global problems – which in the end are national – beg for global solutions.  Our fates in this world are more and more intertwined.  Our future must be one of ever deeper and broader cooperation across borders.
We may live in an age of what some call “a la carte multilateralism” – with the G20, regional arrangements and coalition diplomacy.  But the UN general debate this year was a reminder of the strength of universality and the importance of global cooperation. 

I need not explain to this audience the significance of the Security Council’s breakthrough resolution on chemical weapons in Syria.  This was the first sign of unity after a painful period of division that has prolonged the conflict and led to serious criticism of the UN and the Security Council.  

We all welcome this latest step of the Council and recognize the hugely important and difficult task that is now before the  international community to safeguard and destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons.   The operation hit the ground in Syria within four days of the Council’s decision – a fast and effective start at any standards, I would claim.

Still, action on chemical weapons is just one step on the road to peace in Syria. The killing with conventional weapons goes on.  We continue to place the appalling numbers before the world -- the death toll of over 100,000, the 2 million refugees, the 4.8 million displaced and the severely underfunded humanitarian appeals – funded less than half.

And there are still those who believe in, and vainly hope, for“military solutions”.  That is why the Secretary-General, our mediator Lakhdar Brahimi and all of us involved now push for the Geneva II conference in November.  And, we welcome last week’s Presidential Statement by the Security Council on humanitarian access in Syria and assistance to neighbouring countries.  Diplomatic momentum has, indeed, been created.

The Syria crisis topped the list of topics for speeches and consultations at the GA over the past couple of weeks -- rightly so, since is undoubtedly is the most serious peace and security challenge in today’s world

But let me also recognize that the Security Council recently has been more active than ever in terms of authorized political and peacekeeping operations, and in its thematic work on human rights, the protection of civilians and various issues related to women – from sexual violence to their involvement in peace efforts.

Concretely, during the past couple of weeks we have taken important steps in New York on a number of other peace and security challenges.  Some examples:

-- Lebanon:  We have launched a Group of Friends to also deal with the effects of the Syrian crisis on the country’s schools, health system and infrastructure.

-- Transitions in the Arab world:  Member States came together to support the national dialogue in Yemen.  Continued attention was given to the troubled transitions in Egypt and Libya.

-- Myanmar:  There was intensified focus on the danger of communal violence and on the need for greater inter-faith dialogue. 

-- Middle East Peace Process:  The first Quartet meeting took place in more than a year and a half in support of resumed direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

We also stepped back from specific crises and took stock of where we stand in strengthening mediation.  Later this month we will conduct a similar exercise regarding regional organizations.  People tend to focus on Chapter VII of the UN Charter, but there is a highly underutilized potential in Chapters VI (“Pacific Settlement of Disputes”) and VIII (“Regional Arrangements”).

Here, I would interject a comment on the value of dialogue and informal meetings in the margins of the GA.  This year “UN as a meeting place” was mainly seen through the prism of Iran’s diplomatic openings, not least on the nuclear issue.  I would hope these openings are tested seriously.  Reducing tensions around Iran is of great regional and global significance.  This reminds me of a quote from John F Kennedy’s UN speech almost exactly 50 years ago – “It is never too early to try; and it is never too late to talk” I would not be surprised if Ted Sorensen had a hand in this formulation.

Beyond the political crises of the moment, the recent Assembly period highlighted some of the longer-term, and even existential, challenges we face.  Several streams of work will converge in the crucial year of 2015.

-- 2015 is the deadline for the MDGs.  Substantial progress has been made, for instance on extreme poverty and education.  But we need to accelerate efforts in areas where development is lagging, most notably maternal health and sanitation.

-- 2015 is also the year we plan to adopt a post-2015 sustainable development agenda with the eradication of poverty at its heart.  Our hope is for an agenda and a set of goals that will mobilize the world just as the MDGs have done.  I would also hope that rule of law and institution-building will be part of this agenda.

-- And 2015 is the year in which Member States have pledged to reach agreement on a comprehensive legal agreement on climate change.  The Secretary-General will convene a Climate Summit in 2014 to generate new political momentum to reach this agreement.

The centrality of the UN today is encouraging.  But the Secretary-General and I recognize the responsibility this confers on us.  We have to learn from our failings and our shortcomings.

Syria, of course, represents a collective failure to stop the killings, the destruction and the regional destabilisation.

With respect to Sri Lanka, a review of UN action at the end of the civil war in 2009 noted a “systemic failure” of the different parts of the UN.  Member States did not meet the tasks they themselves had set.  The UN system did not adapt properly when the final brutal stage of the conflict called for a broader UN presence, which up to that point in Sri Lanka had been focused on development. 

A main lesson we are to draw from this experience is to ensure that the UN system has political and human rights expertise and resources in place when and where they are needed.  Equally important is to recognize that human rights violations are our best early warning signals in emerging crises – and, of course, that we must act on such signals and speak out about what we see.  On behalf of the Secretary-General, I have led this internal scrutiny.  There is important work here for the UN and its Member States.

With the Westgate massacre in Kenya and the recent horrific killings of civilians in sad memory, you will understand that terrorism also was a frequent theme during the UN General Debate.  The degree of brutalization and disregard of human dignity and human life in today’s conflicts is shocking.   Equally troubling is the extent to which this extreme violence is motivated by ethnic or religious differences.  The aim of the terrorists is to sow fear and sharpen divisions along such ethnic or religious lines. 

The message in response of the world at the General Assembly was that we must not fall into this trap.  We must not  become numb and indifferent to this blind rampant violence, which only feeds hatred and polarization.

In closing, we are at a crucial juncture, at a cross-roads, in world affairs.

We are making strong inroads against long-standing problems such as poverty – in spite of growing inequalities within and between nations.

The 21st century promises to finally be the century of women’s empowerment – in spite of cultural gaps and bias and discrimination of women. 

Migration should be a powerful positive force – in spite of strong inward-looking and xenophobic tendencies around the world.

Technology is making tremendous advances against hunger, disease and wasteful uses of energy.  But it also empowers organized crime and raises the specter of crippling cyber-attacks.

But let us remember: people in the world are looking to the United Nations for big decisions, big ideas, big changes.  Expectations and hopes are high. 

The Secretary-General and I are determined to make the most of the current moment.  From the very beginning of the Arab Awakening, the Secretary-General spoke out and called the leaders of the old order to listen to those, not least the young, seeking change, fully realizing that this is a long and arduous journey.  As a child, Ban Ki-moon personally experienced poverty and the devastation of war.  I know that these memories and values guide his work atop the global organization at a time of global turmoil.

The Secretary-General also succeeded in luring me back to the Organization and to his side after a period away from the UN on my part.  My wife thinks I am “addicted” to the United Nations. I believe she is right.  The UN easily becomes a drug in the veins – as Gillian and Ted Sorensen also must have known and felt when they proposed this lecture series 17 years ago!

I thank you for your attention and now look forward to the more informal Q&A session.

Thank you.