In the second half of September every year, most of the world’s leaders would descend upon New York to attend the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly. Grandiose speeches would typically echo the grand hall of UNGA. But this year, in contrast to the high drama and extant rhetoric by national leaders, it was the UN “boss”, Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, who captured the attention of world media by means of the “exciting” content of his “farewell” speech.
Nearing the conclusion of his otherwise less than ostentatious decade of helming the UN general secretariat, Ban was perhaps not unaware that as his term was left with but a few months, he could afford to care less about the potential adverse reactions by UN member states to his blunt statements. He thus departed from his usually cautious speaking style, and was quite frank in pointing out some of the major challenges around the world, not the least almost naming those member state leaders he felt were most responsible in rupturing the international order and global peace. Many of Ban points are indeed worth pondering.
Ban commenced by expressing his deep concerns that “gulfs of mistrust divide citizens from their leaders” and “extremists push people into camps of ‘us’ and ‘them’.” He warned that “Earth assails us with rising seas, record heat and extreme storms” and “danger defines the days of many.” The Philippines is of course no stranger to Ban’s latter characterizations, having been overrun by many horrific typhoons and with many of its people facing serious security problems on a daily basis. I agree particularly with Ban that “we have the potential to close the gap between rich and poor, and to make rights real in people’s lives.”
I have emphasized numerously that quite a lot of political uncertainties in many countries, including the Philippines, actually have their socio-economic roots. Highly uneven distribution of economic fruits will almost inevitably lead to fiery “contests” among various concerned parties. Some would strive hard to preserve their existing interests. Some others would attempt to rewrite the rules of the economic games. But of course all these elbowing moves pale in comparison with Ban’s pointing out of the “one hundred and thirty million people need life-saving assistance.” Perhaps sometimes we should still be thankful of our bounties and be more willing to extend help to those who are most miserable among the human race.
Ban went on to call the Syrian conflict as “taking the greatest number of lives and sowing the widest instability.” He condemned especially the government of Syria, and vowed that “the future of Syria should not rest on the fate of a single man (referring to Syrian president, Assad)”. Ban minced no word in calling out those “present in this hall [who]are representatives of governments that have ignored, facilitated, funded, participated in or even planned and carried out atrocities.”
Ban’s blunt words were perhaps prompted by the deplorable deliberate attack on a UN aid convoy in Syria just the day before. Many years ago I also had the honor of working in the UN humanitarian affairs system. I saw many of my UN colleagues working hard under constrained resources to save more lives, but were often subject to callous attacks by parties in conflict, sometimes unfortunately sacrificing their lives in the process. I recall my senior colleague, the then UN undersecretary for humanitarian affairs, Mr Sergio Viera de Mello from Brazil, later rushed to Baghdad after the second Iraq War to set up the UN office there to initiate humanitarian relief operations as soon as possible. Unfortunately, he was soon killed in a car bomb attack, becoming a martyr in the often-thankless task.
Although Ban is widely rumored to be soon running for his native country’s presidency, he did not shy away from the Korean Peninsula security issue. He considered the North’s fifth nuclear test to have “again threatened regional and international security,” and urged their leaders to “fulfill their obligations to their own people and to the family of nations.” I frankly do not think Ban’s call will be heeded by those concerned, but if he were indeed to be elected the South’s next president, hopefully his many years of dealing with the North could be of help in lessening tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Ban’s message to national leaders were equally blunt, that they should serve their people, not subvert democracy, not pilfer their countries’ resources, and not imprison and torture their critics. But these words are likely to again fall on deaf ears, as some of these leaders were actually present in the hall, sometimes even speaking loftily on democratic ideals from the very same podium where Ban spoke. The harsh reality of the world is such that nations take sovereignty very seriously. So absent egregiously despicable acts such as committing blatant genocide, these autocratic leaders could most likely get away to continue to suppress the legitimate yearnings of their respective peoples, with the international community left with only wringing its hands in helplessness.
In the foreseeable future, while the UN may not be the most ideal platform for solving all the world’s ills, a world without UN may indeed be a more miserable and dangerous one.