Working Towards a Better World: Ban Ki-moon at the Cambridge Union (Part Two)

Felicity Garvey 30 January 2020
Image Credits: The Cambridge Union

Here is Part Two of the TCS exclusive on Ban Ki-moon at The Cambridge Union!

His Excellency Mr. Ban Ki-moon spent a decade in office as the 8th Secretary-General of the United Nations – a role once described by President Roosevelt as the “world moderator”. Mr. Ban oversaw a period of drastic global change, holding office for a decade from the start of 2007 to the end of 2016 after being unanimously re-elected for a second term in 2011. On the subject of his achievements while in office, Mr. Ban said “I can tell you that I am proud that I prioritized the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals Agenda 2030 and The Paris Climate Change Accord. These two important plans were adopted during my term.” There were other achievements he might have picked – the creation of UN women being one that he highlighted in his speech – but these were the two he seemed particularly keen to mention here, as being significant parts of his fundamental goal “to make this world better, so that nobody will be left behind.”

I can tell you that I am proud that I prioritized the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals Agenda 2030 and The Paris Climate Change Accord

The United Nations, as an organisation, has faced much criticism in its time – it has been called a ‘sprawling bureaucracy’ that struggles to enact real change through the red tape, and an elitist organisation that favours the permanent members of the Security Council.

Even as a clear proponent of the institution, Mr. Ban was keenly aware of its issues, noting “I am conscious of criticism from the international community about the way the United Nations are performing. Of course, we are very much concerned about this, and as Secretary-General I have been really trying to improve the way the UN is working, to make it more accountable and transparent. At the same time, you should understand, that any organisation with such a large number of people – 40,000 and 120,000 peacekeepers and there are many partners that are working with the United Nations – there are some loopholes. There are some areas for changes, I fully agree with that. At the same time, when the UN is providing assistance to more than 91 million people who need urgent action – and we have to provide all that they eat, drink and wear and education and you know, medical services. We are really trying to improve the way [we operate] so we will never let all this issue be side-lined. It will always be a top priority.”

Another area in which the UN has faced reproach is in its handling of LGBTQ+ rights. Some member states – including those on the human rights council – continue to actively persecute LGBT individuals. “There are some people who are born with a different sexual orientation. We cannot just blame them for what they are. They are human beings. This LGBT issue is clearly a human rights issue – before it is a sexual orientation issue.” Mr. Ban stated. “Therefore, there should be no such different treatment, for anyone, for what they are. And this is what I believe. I have been really speaking out for their rights – there should be no discrimination whatsoever.”

“There was some staff within the United Nations who were LGBT… I changed the administrative rules that there should be no differentiation in their treatment, particularly when there were LGBT couples – they were treated equally, their family allowances, work conditions etcetera, etcetera. And I kept really speaking out and trying to protect the basic human rights of those LBGT [individuals]. Because of that, I have been criticised by member states. Many member states wanted to overrule my administrative decision – to cancel it by General Assembly resolution, but somehow I won over that battle.”

Across the years there have been contrasting opinions of Mr. Ban himself – The Economist, in May 2016, called him “plodding, protocol-conscious and loth to stand up to the big powers”, while he has been supported by other diplomats – notably Kiyotaka Akasaka for his understated, ‘Confucian’ presence.

Mr. Ban clearly supports traditional diplomatic efforts, noting that “through diplomacy, we can gather the people of all different ideas” and commending “The fantastic way the international community has been working and promoting human rights and also trying to resolve conflicts and differences of opinions.” He spoke about the merits of diplomacy specifically in relation to the increasing use of social media in politics, and its implications on diplomatic relations. “It is true that we are living in an age of digital and social media, and many political leaders, business leaders and even civil society use Twitter [and other social media], but whatever the impact of this social medium, for better or worse, I think that there is still space for diplomacy.”

“All this social media is one-sided. You can just send it out – whether people like it or not. But diplomacy is mutual – and that is why whatever [people] like President Trump have been tweeting, many, many messages a day, and have made a lot of controversies, still, it is the diplomacy that we can co-ordinate, we can settle the differences of opinion. We are more legal, more official that way.”

Mr. Ban spoke not just of technological change, but the change that young people can incite in the global order. “I have quite a hope for the young people, and particularly the young people who are privileged to study at this highest level of educational institution like Cambridge.” When asked what he would like to see Cambridge students doing to make the most of their education, he explained “we expect that they have a global vision, as a global citizen. […] They should never be complacent. They should look out for other people who are not as fortunate.” He spoke of a “global vision” and of “global citizenship” and had clear hope for an exciting future – one where “nobody will be left behind.”

When asked what he would like to see Cambridge students doing to make the most of their education, he explained “we expect that they have a global vision, as a global citizen. […] They should never be complacent. They should look out for other people who are not as fortunate.”