REVIEW: Article

The Agenda for the United Nations

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the Republic of Korea is the eighth Secretary-General of the World Organization. The last Secretary-General from Asia was more than 40 years ago with the late U Thant from Burma occupying the post. 

Secretary-General Ban comes to the position with a unanimous decision by the Security Council ratified by the 192 member states of the General Assembly. He comes from a distinguished career in diplomacy having served for 37 years in the Ministry with postings in Washington, Vienna and New York. On his last posting in New York, Secretary-General Ban was the Chief of Staff to the President of the General Assembly. Prior to his election as Secretary-General, he was Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. 

The Secretary-General is a great diplomat/politician; he is also an energetic “Renovator….”


While in service at the Korean Embassy in Washington, the Embassy was ‘renovated.’

While serving as Chief of Staff to the President of the General Assembly, the President’s Suite in the Secretariat was ‘renovated.’

Now that the Secretary-General has assumed the reins of Office, he will spearhead the ‘renovation’ of Headquarters at Turtle Bay with the Capital Master Plan. 

And…he will preside over a complete ‘renovation’ of the official Residence at Sutton Place. 

These are turbulent times in our troubled world. The challenges facing the Secretary-General are awesome. There is a new broom on the 38th floor. I expect the Secretary-General will make every effort to strengthen the Secretariat’s capacity to respond quickly and effectively to the challenges of today, drawing on the talents and experience available. In today’s frenetic world of competing demands on the United Nations, the Secretary-General is being asked to do much more than in the past, but with few additional resources.  The only solution for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is to raise the level of the game.  And, this game starts today, not tomorrow.

The following text is extracted from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on January 16, 2007.

* * *

In 1962, as an 18 year-old boy from rural Korea, I came to Washington for the first time. I was one of a group of lucky teenagers invited to the White House to meet President Kennedy.

That was a magical experience for a young person like me. It gave me something even more significant than the thrill of the moment. It offered me a personal connection to this country, and to the ideas and principles it stands for. And that, in turn, helped to inspire a life of public service.

There was also another personal connection that inspired me equally in my boyhood. As I was growing up in a war-torn and destitute Korea, the United Nations stood by my people in our darkest hour. The UN gave us hope and sustenance, security and dignity. For the Korean people of that era, the UN flag was a beacon of better days to come. And in the course of my own lifetime, with the assistance of the UN, the Republic of Korea was able to rebuild itself from a country ravaged by war, with a non-existent economy, into a regional economic power and major contributor to the United Nations.

Both those experiences helped me make the journey to this podium today. For that, I am deeply thankful.

People look back on those early years of the United Nations—the UN I came to know as a young boy—as the Organization’s golden era. They think of the idealism and unity that inspired the San Francisco Conference, and the signing of the Charter. They think of the creation of landmark documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They think of the brave pioneers who joined and shaped the Organization in its fledgling years.

And yes, those were indeed golden days. Since then, the Organization—and the world as a whole—may have come to appear more tarnished. The challenges confronting the international community have grown infinitely more complicated. The demands placed on the UN have become ever more complex.

But if you are an optimist, as I am, you also will know that this world of complex and global challenges is exactly the environment in which our United Nations should thrive—because these are challenges that no country can resolve on its own. Today, I would like to share with you my agenda for the year ahead, what we must do to succeed, and my thoughts on the UN’s special relationship with the United States.

Let me start by stating openly that the year ahead will be a deeply taxing one. I have already had to hit the ground running. On peace and security, I see a number of immediate priorities.

First, we must step up action to confront the tragedy of Darfur. The human toll of the ongoing crisis is unacceptable. After more than three years of conflict, Darfur is a story of broken hope. In the coming days, weeks and months, I will coordinate closely with leaders in Africa and beyond. I will work through my Special Envoy, Jan Eliasson, to secure the constructive engagement of Sudan, African governments, and the international community as a whole. We must work to end the violence and scorched-earth policies adopted by various parties, including militias, as well as the bombings which are still a terrifying feature of life in Darfur. Life-saving humanitarian work must be allowed to resume, and civil society in Darfur must have a voice in the peace process. And we must persuade non-signatories to join, while building consensus for a UN-AU force on the ground. Next week, I will set off on my first overseas trip, which will take me to the African Union summit in Addis Ababa. Darfur will be at the top of the agenda.

Second, we need to make serious efforts for progress in the Middle East. That entails work on several broad fronts. Iraq is the whole world’s problem. I pledge my best efforts to help the Iraqi people in their quest for a more stable and prosperous Iraq. The UN role can assist in building an inclusive political process, helping to cultivate a regional environment supportive of a transition to stability, and pursuing reconstruction through the International Compact.

On Israel and Palestine, I will work with my partners to make the Quartet a more effective mechanism for resolving differences in the region—differences that carry such a unique symbolic and emotional charge for people far beyond the physical boundaries of the conflict. On that score, I welcome Secretary Rice’s commitment to deepening the US engagement in the Israel-Palestine peace efforts.

And I will work to support Lebanon in everything from its physical reconstruction to its quest—as yet incomplete—for a peaceful, democratic and fully independent future. The only hope for stability lies in the path of reconciliation between the various communities inside the country. Today, almost 15,000 UN peacekeepers serve as an extra-ordinary important buffer in southern Lebanon. But they cannot stay there indefinitely. I look forward to attending the Lebanon donor conference in Paris next week to discuss how we can move forward.

Third, we need to invigorate disarmament and nonproliferation efforts. On North Korea, I will try my best to facilitate the smooth process of the Six-Party process, and encourage in any way I can the work for a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. On the specific challenges of North Korea and Iran, the Security Council has acted by adopting important resolutions. I am encouraged by the commitment of all Member States to those resolutions—and I look to them to show equal commitment to bolstering the overall nonproliferation and disarmament regime at the global level.

Fourth, we must not turn away from Kosovo. We must keep working for a conclusive resolution to the uncertainty that still hangs over Kosovo’s status. If unresolved, this issue threatens to cast a shadow over regional stability in southeastern Europe.

The challenges I have just outlined are daunting. But they must not be allowed to overwhelm the equally important challenges we face in other areas. Reaching our goals for development around the world is not only vital to building better, healthier, more decent lives for millions of people; it is also essential to building enduring peace and security worldwide. Poverty, illiteracy and despair breed a hopelessness that allows for neither mercy nor dignity. That hopelessness, in turn, is preyed on by zealots and extremists to advance their agendas and ambitions.

This year will have to see real progress on the Millennium Development Goals, agreed by all the world’s governments as a roadmap to a better world by 2015. If we are to make that target date, we have to see concerted action in 2007. In the Eastern Zodiac, this is the Year of the Golden Pig. It promises prosperity for all. Let us dedicate ourselves to fulfilling that promise for people everywhere.

At the same time, we will need to do far better in fighting climate change. All nations are vulnerable to its impact. This is an all-encompassing threat—to health, to food and water supplies, to the coastal cities in which nearly half the world’s population live. Acting on climate change will be one of my top priorities.

And we will need to strengthen the capacity of countries everywhere to confront the huge challenges in health. Those challenges—from HIV/AIDS to avian flu—are global, and respect no boundaries. They take their worst social and economic toll on countries that can least afford it—some of them struggling with the impact of armed conflict at the same time. These health challenges also pose threats to peace and stability, in the devastation they wreak on capacity and governance.

Security and development are two pillars of the UN’s work. We must make human rights our third pillar—not only on the drawing board, but in reality, on the ground. This will require dedicated attention to the Human Rights Council, to ensure that it delivers on its promise, and shines a spotlight on the darkest places in the world. The stakes are high—too high for the United States to sit on the sidelines. I sincerely hope the United States will become a member of the Human Rights Council this year.

And we must take the first steps to move the Responsibility to Protect from word to deed. This concept was rightly hailed as a historic breakthrough in 2005, when all Member States expressed their will to act collectively, through the Security Council, in cases where a population is threatened with genocide, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity, and national authorities fail to take appropriate action. The time has come to build consensus among Member States about how we can operationalize that will. I pledge my best efforts to this end.

Clearly, the UN is being asked to do more than ever before, and still more demands are sure to come. Two vital pieces need to be in place for us to succeed in the long term: we need to strengthen our capacity, and we need to change our working culture.

Peacekeeping is bearing the brunt of the escalating demands. The UN is engaged, in some form, in around 30 peace operations in the most difficult places in the world. We now have a historic high of almost 100,000 personnel in the field. I pay tribute to the valiant contribution these brave men and women make, under difficult and often dangerous conditions. And we are now faced with the possibility of a bigger UN role in other places. With all that in mind, I am consulting with Member States about ways to strengthen our capacity and meet the growing needs.

At the same time, I am convinced that it is not enough to strengthen capacity alone. There is also a need to change the working culture of the Organization itself. We must build a staff that is truly mobile, multi-functional and accountable, with more emphasis on career development and training. And we must hold all UN employees to the highest standards of integrity and ethical behavior. On this, I have sought to set an early example, by submitting my financial disclosure statement to the UN Ethics Office, for standard external review by Pricewaterhouse Coopers. After the review is complete, I will make the statement public. But all the financial disclosures in the world will mean very little if we do not bolster our ethical standards—and our implementation of them—both at Headquarters and in the field.

Clearly, we have our work cut out for us. But we are ready to get to work. In East Asia, where I come from, 60 years marks one full cycle. So as the UN has completed its first 60 years, we now enter a new cycle in the life of our Organization. We can build a new golden era for the United Nations, if we work collectively to make it so—and if the United States is with us, wholeheartedly and consistently. We can do it only in partnership with your country—key to our creation, crucial throughout our history, indispensable to our future.

But let me be clear: a constructive partnership between the US and the UN cannot, and should not, advance at the expense of others. Every one of our Member States has the right to be heard, whatever the size of its population or its pocketbook. And “We the Peoples,” in whose name the United Nations was founded, have the right to expect a UN which serves the needs of people everywhere. That is, after all, the only kind of UN they will respect.

Nor can our partnership flourish in a climate of fear and mistrust. With the US actively and constructively engaged, the potential of the UN is unlimited. And with the UN’s potential fulfilled, the US can better advance its aspirations for a peaceful, healthy, prosperous world.

If I am to succeed as Secretary-General, I will need our partnership to be strong, deep, and broad—politically, morally, operationally and, not least, financially. With demands exploding on virtually every front, from peacekeeping to humanitarian assistance to health, a sound financial base is not only a matter of survival for the Organization; it is a matter of life and death for millions of people around the world. Such a financial base requires the timely and full engagement of the United States government—administration and Congress alike.

As with any large Organization, transforming the United Nations will require patience. It will require perseverance. It will require courage. We must not be discouraged by temporary setbacks—and we must keep reminding ourselves that they are temporary.

Today, allow me to end where I started, as a young Korean boy who had the unforgettable privilege of visiting John F. Kennedy in the White House. A year later, on September 20, 1963, President Kennedy gave his last speech to the UN General Assembly, two months before his death in Dallas that November. He told Member States of the United Nations:

“The value of this body’s work is not dependent on the existence of emergencies—nor can the winning of peace consist only of dramatic victories. Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures. And however undramatic the pursuit of peace, that pursuit must go on.”

Times have changed; JFK’s wisdom has not. I shall be inspired by those words in the years ahead, as I seek to gradually change opinions, slowly erode old barriers, and quietly build new structures. However undramatic, our pursuit of peace, development and human rights must go on. The United Nations’ biggest challenges, and its best years, are still to come.

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