CARBONDALE — Outgoing United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has tried to be “a voice of voiceless people and a defender of defenseless people” throughout his decade-long term, the diplomat told audiences Wednesday in the SIU Student Center Ballrooms.
In his final public lecture as secretary-general, Ban discussed challenges facing the world today and what he has learned during his time in office.
The talk — co-sponsored by the Office of the Chancellor, the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute and the United Nations Association-USA Southern Illinois Chapter — marked Ban’s first visit to Southern Illinois University Carbondale, although the university had twice invited him to campus in the past.
“I believe he chose Southern Illinois (for his final public appearance) because of our strong reputation as a national research university and our rich history of embracing international education, which dates back to 1947, just two years after the founding of the United Nations,” Interim Chancellor Brad Colwell said before the lecture. “We are extremely proud to enroll students from more than 100 nations each year.”
During his introductory remarks, Colwell announced that SIU is now a member of the United Nations Academic Impact Program, an initiative launched by the secretary-general in 2010 that connects higher-education institutions with the U.N.
“I’m very glad to be in a place where global citizenship is a part of the school’s identity, and where diversity is in the campus DNA,” Ban said.
The South Korean political leader leaves office at the end of the month and will be succeeded by António Guterres.
“I’m counting the days,” Ban joked.
Ban, who has served as secretary-general since 2007, said his visit to SIU comes at a time of worldwide “transition and uncertainty.”
For the first time in history, the U.N. and U.S. leadership are changing simultaneously; the U.S. presidential term is four or eight years, and the U.N. secretary-general term is five or 10 years.
“The world is also undergoing a transition in every sense. We are becoming more urban as more people live in cities. We are becoming younger, with the largest generation of youth the world has ever known,” Ban said.
Ban said he had served during a “decade of turmoil,” having watched the world suffer the biggest financial collapse since the Great Depression along with a staggering refugee crisis. There are currently more people in need of humanitarian aid than any time since the end of World War II, and at least 130 million people need daily life-sustaining support by the UN.
The past decade has also seen political polarization and shocking crimes against civilians, Ban said.
“Even in peacetime, basic human decency often seems in short supply, as people look and talk past each other. These challenges have been arduous and complicated as any we have seen in the United Nations’ history,” Ban said.
The conflict in Syria has defied the efforts of some of the world’s most experienced mediators, Ban said.
“I continue to stress that there is no military solution. There is only an inclusive political solution,” he said.
He described the situation in Aleppo as “a synonym to hell,” and noted that just a few days ago, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution to deploy United Nations monitors to ensure safe evacuation of civilians.
There are fires still burning in Yemen, Mali and South Sudan, where tens of thousands of people have been displaced, the secretary-general said.
Despite ongoing global crises, there are gains to report, he said. In the past 10 years, the U.N. successfully ended peacekeeping operations in Sierra Leone and will soon do the same in Liberia; it has also helped ensure democratic elections in Guinea and Myanmar.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Progress, adopted at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in 2015, is another recent achievement. The plan contains 17 sustainable development goals to create a healthier, more prosperous world and ensure that the planet remains inhabitable.
Ban said he also draws hope from the inroads made in combating climate change. The Paris climate change agreement, signed by 194 countries, aims to restrict greenhouse gas emissions and limit the rise of global average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.
“We must make sure that whether it is a Republican administration, Democratic administration, whoever’s in power, in the United States and elsewhere, this promise must be kept and fully implemented,” Ban said.
Ban stressed the importance of “leading by example” when it comes to sustainability issues.
“I have devoted all my passion, time and energy to make sure that world leaders move in the right direction. If I did not lead by example, I would not have any convincing power,” he said.
Ban said we need to de-carbonize industrial operations and focus on developing sustainable energies like wind and solar.
Citizens should stay engaged and tell elected officials that they should lead by example in lowering greenhouse gas emissions, Ban said.
“Even in the universities, there are many areas where you can make sure you don’t make (many) greenhouse gas emissions and you use sustainable energy. Can you promise?” Ban asked. He was met with applause.
Ban was scheduled to visit the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield after his lecture, and said he draws “hope from the spirit that resides right here in Southern Illinois.”
“One can draw a straight line from the principles President Lincoln defended to those that animate the United Nations charter. Lincoln was a heroic force for equality, integration and reconciliation,” he said.
He urged students and young people to become “global citizens” by looking beyond the United States.
“Just remember that you’re a family member of this world, one world, where we have to live together peacefully, equal to everybody. That can be done only when you have a global citizenship, a global vision. … Particularly young people, you have a dynamic passion. ‘I will do this, I will become this.’ That passion is very good. With a person without passion, you cannot make anything. But if your passion is not accompanied with compassion for others, then you don’t know where this passion will go,” Ban said.
In a question-and-answer session following the lecture, Ban told moderator Jak Tichenor that he would not be alive if not for the U.N. He was just six years old when the Korean War broke out.
“When I was poor, the United Nations brought food. They fed us. When I really wanted to study … they brought textbooks, and milk, and water, and clothes. So I am a child of the United Nations,” he said.
Asked about the future of agricultural production, Ban said we need to work toward minimizing food waste in rich countries like the U.S.