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4 Feb, 2016

UN Secretary General’s speech at Cambridge University: “Worldwide, there is a strong sense that we are in a deep mess”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s address upon receiving Honorary Degree from the University of Cambridge [as prepared for delivery]

Cambridge, United Kingdom, 3 February 2016 – Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Distinguished Faculty Members, Dear Students, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for the recognition you have just bestowed on me. I know it is a sign of your high regard for the organization I am proud to serve and lead. Thank you for this vote of confidence in the United Nations. I accept on behalf of its diverse and dedicated staff.

This is my first visit to the University of Cambridge. But one does not need to see the colleges to feel the Cambridge spirit. Over the centuries, your libraries and laboratories have shaped the world as much as any other institution, anywhere, at any time.

That impact extends to the United Nations. Cambridge alumni were around the table 70 years ago in San Francisco when the United Nations was established. John Maynard Keynes was the leading designer of the Bretton Woods Institutions.

Lord Mark Malloch-Brown of Magdalene College reached the second highest position in the Organization, serving my predecessor Kofi Annan as Deputy Secretary-General.

Dame Margaret Anstee of Newnham College was a pioneer – the first woman ever to lead a peacekeeping operation as Special Representative of the Secretary-General

Stephen O’Brien of Emmanuel College serves today as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and ¬the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, and spends most of his time on the frontlines of conflict and disaster, helping to ease the suffering of the victims.

Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, earned a Ph.D. at Christ’s College.

And Jane Goodall — of Newnham and Darwin Colleges — is a UN Messenger of Peace, who marched alongside me in the streets of New York in 2014 demanding climate action.

We are grateful to Cambridge for these and so many other contributions. Your scientists and scholars have explained the law of gravity and the workings of the solar system. Most of all, they have taught us that it is knowledge that makes the world go round.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

My great predecessor Dag Hammarskjöld spoke here at Cambridge in 1958. He described those days as “a time of peace which is no peace”. Those words can apply to our time, too.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in conflicts in the past five years alone. At least 60 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes — the most since the Second World War. Terrorist attacks continue to spread mayhem. Extreme weather is on the rise. Oxfam reported last month that the richest 1 per cent of the world’s people are now as wealthy as the other 99 per cent.

Across the world, there is a strong sense that we are off track and in a deep mess.

We remain oriented towards crisis response, acting act only when situations are “red hot” — after the predictable fires have broken out. The challenge facing the international community is to move from a pattern of reaction to a culture of prevention. That, in turn, must mean a heightened focus on preventing violations of human rights. This has been a priority throughout my time in office — and will be the focus of my remarks today.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Ours is an intricately globalized world. Political, economic and social waves on one shore create ripples and storms in all regions. There are few safe havens; we sink or swim together.

In an era of interdependence, peace and prosperity depend on a global social compact rooted in human dignity for all.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it clearly: Everyone, without any distinction whatsoever, is entitled to human rights.

Ethnicity, gender, skin color, religion, sexual orientation, disability, class or nationality must never be used to exploit the vulnerable or fan the flames of hate.

Asserting one’s own rights is only one part of the battle. Recognizing the human rights of others is the true — and harder — test of commitment.

Yet today, in many places and in many respects, the human rights compact is under assault or has broken down completely.

We see this in the deliberate starvation of besieged populations in Syria; and in the enslavement of women and girls by Daesh, Boko Haram and other violent extremists.

We see it in the many places where Governments are retaliating against human rights defenders and restricting media freedoms.

We may also be seeing it in the world’s response to the refugee crisis.

I applaud the countries and citizens that have opened their arms and doors in solidarity. Yet too many Syrians and others fleeing appalling violence are being victimized several times over: at home, where life is impossible; by smugglers and the other perils of their journeys; and by harsh treatment upon arrival in places where they hope to find asylum.

I call for a strong show of solidarity at tomorrow’s humanitarian conference in London. We need to get Syrian children back in school and get our aid convoys through to people in dire need.

As we address the wider challenge of large-scale displacement, I appeal for shared responsibility and compassion. Razor-wire fences, the confiscation of assets, and the vilification of people seeking safety all summon up ghosts of past crises — the lessons of which we are meant to have learned already.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Despite an elaborate international human rights framework and an increasingly dynamic Human Rights Council, the world faces a crisis of protection.

The human cost is intolerable. The political and economic costs are unsustainable. We must act urgently to restore the human rights compact — and to build it up where it has never existed. Governments have the primary obligations. But the United Nations must also uphold its responsibilities to meet the standards to which we aspire under the United Nations Charter.

The international community did not do enough to prevent the horrors of Cambodia, Rwanda and Srebrenica. During my own term, an internal review of United Nations action during the final stages of the war in Sri Lanka found that there had been a “systemic failure” to protect thousands of civilians.

Since 2013, we have pursued a new effort to ensure that we act early to identify — and speak out about — violations of human rights. We know that exclusion based on ethnic, religious or other potential dividing lines is especially combustible. Under the “Human Rights up Front” initiative, we aim to act on these clear warning signs before they escalate.

We aim to instill a culture of courage across the United Nations. We want our work to proceed from a clear understanding that human rights are not subservient to other concerns, and are not something to be addressed only once other development benchmarks have been attained.

The approach is helping us to regain lost ground. When fighting erupted in South Sudan more than two years ago, we opened the gates of our peacekeeping bases to provide refuge for people who might otherwise have perished. Today, the United Nations continues to shelter nearly 200,000 men, women and children. This is by no means a long-term solution, but it is an advance for wartime protection of people at risk.

Often, however, efforts to address the human rights situation in a given country run up against the assertion that any such discussion violates article 2.7 of the UN Charter on interference in a country’s domestic affairs.

But sovereignty was never meant to be a barrier behind which a Government can freely abuse its own citizens. Human rights violations frequently generate instability, refugee flows and other consequences that go beyond borders. Moreover, human rights abuses eat away at the standing of a state in the eyes of its people, thereby weakening sovereignty.

Sovereignty must be earned. The more a state does to uphold human rights, ensure the rule of law, and practice inclusive governance, the more its sovereignty is strengthened. States have a fundamental Responsibility to Protect their people from genocide and other grave violations of human rights.

Some states have expressed reservations about this principle, which was adopted by world leaders in 2005. Some see it as a license for military intervention. But that is only a last resort. The intervention needed most of all is the one that comes early on, and that helps States to build up their capacity to identify and address the precursors of atrocities.

Sovereignty remains part of the bedrock of international order. But the less sovereignty is viewed as a wall or a shield, the better our prospects will be for protecting people and solving our shared problems.

Impunity only breeds even more violence. Indifference only makes our world far less secure. Inaction remains the greatest threat.

It is time to do more to stop the brazen and brutal erosion of respect for human rights and international humanitarian law in the world’s conflict areas. It is time to strengthen the way we prepare for and respond to the mega-crises of the 21st century.

On May 23rd and 24th in Istanbul, I will convene the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit. Our goal is to reaffirm global commitment to protecting people, and to restore the common humanity that is so grievously under assault.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Human rights figure prominently in the two landmark achievements of the year just past: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Success in reaching the 17 Sustainable Development Goals will depend crucially on empowering women and young people, and on building trustworthy governance institutions. The new goals are also universal — and apply to all countries, not just the poorest, since even the richest have yet to conquer inequality and injustice.

Climate change also raises questions of justice and human rights. The impacts of a warming world will fall most heavily on the world’s least developed countries, which have done little to cause the problem. The consequences could compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs. I am encouraged that with the Paris Agreement, world leaders appear to have finally stopped deferring the difficult decisions. Rigorous monitoring will be crucial in holding States to their commitments.

These two milestones are rooted in a pledge to leave no one behind. They can help us break cycles of deprivation, frustration and violence. Our shared challenge now is to realize their great potential — and to use these roadmaps to build a world of dignity for all.

Vice-Chancellor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz,
Distinguished guests,
Dear students,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Since taking office almost a decade ago, I have tried to stand with the vulnerable. I have sought to connect the dots between peace, development and human rights.

We live at a time when the distinctions between the national and the international are falling away. Leaders cannot govern as if the world stops at their borders, or as if internal challenges are insulated from what goes on beyond. Our vision must be global.

I ask all the students present here today to look up and out beyond your communities and countries. The world needs you to be global citizens who act with compassion, and in solidarity with the world’s most vulnerable people.

The human family is more connected than ever before. Our challenge is to be united, too. At a time when the forces of division are visible and loud, human rights are the bonds that can keep us together.

Thank you.