UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon calls for diplomacy in Syria in his Freedom Lecture
‘Let us stop this fighting and let the dialogue begin. Any action that is taken should be guided by the United Nations Charter.’ These were the words of the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, in his Freedom Lecture in the Leiden Pieterskerk.
It was Cecilia Diemont, recent graduate of the Leiden University College, who after the lecture asked Ban Ki-moon the burning question on the lips of the entire world: What is his position on the imminent military actions in Syria, which would be carried out without a mandate from the UN Security Council? Ban: ‘Not a single day passes without my engaging in telephone conversations with world leaders on this matter. Even while driving here today, I received such a telephone call in my car. The Syrian government is finally allowing us to enter the country. The use of chemical weapons constitutes a crime against humanity and the perpetrators must be punished. But as I said this morning at the Peace Palace: give peace a chance, and give diplomacy a chance. Let us stop this fighting and let the dialogue begin. Any action that is taken should be guided by the United Nations Charter.’
In a packed Pieterskerk, Ban refrained from concretely discussing possible military interventions in Syria. In his lecture, however, he did address world leaders directly. ‘If you do not listen to your people, you will hear them – in the streets, in the squares, or most tragically on the battlefield. Is there a way out? Yes. The answer is more participation, more democracy and more freedom.’ The South Korean noted that there is still a growing number of countries where human rights are obstructed, and restricted through misuse of anti-terrorism legislation. Citizens are limited in their choices, their freedom of speech, or their access to internet. Journalists and human rights defenders are being detained. He is also concerned about the repression of minorities and homosexuals.
The UN leader emphasized that the work of the UN is founded on three pillars:
development, or freedom from want
peace and security, or freedom from fear
These pillars are interdependent. The eight Millennium Development Goals are a test the world has to pass. Important progress has been made: the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has been halved. But we still have a long way to go to reach our goals, according to Ban. Nineteen thousand children under the age of five still die every day, and disparities between different social groups are widening. He also has grave concerns about the environment: ‘The way we are consuming seems to indicate that we have a planet B, but we don’t.’
Empowering women is another goal that Ban considers to be of the utmost importance. When he took up his position as Secretary General, in 2007, there were not many women in senior positions within the UN. Now there are nearly as many women as there are men, particularly at senior level. Ban is aware of the fact that the crisis has led to reduced government budgets all over the world, including the Netherlands. ‘But we cannot short-change investments that are needed to lift the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people.’ World-wide, every year, more than a billion dollars is spent on weapons. ‘The time has come to spend less on arsenals that destroy and more on tools that build.’
Ban concluded his speech with his appreciation for the work of human rights activists and ordinary people who stand up and speak out. Thanks to their work, nearly 40 countries have decriminalised same-sex relationships. 'The Netherlands has been a pioneer in this.’
After the lecture two students of the Leiden University College were allowed to ask the UN leader a question. In addition to Cecilia Diemont, third-year student Menno Schelkens asked Ban which of his experiences as a Secretary General he would advise students to seek out. The UN leader invited students in the Netherlands – one of the top economic powers in the world – to look over the ‘high wall’ and to see how other people are living. He urged students to not only have passion, but to also broaden their capacity for compassion, and in this way to contribute to a better world. In his answer he talked about the difficult circumstances of his work, but also about his continued optimism. ‘I do not want to become a Secretary General who has to apologize for what we could have done, but did not do.’ The students met his answer with loud applause.
Following the session with the students, Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker presented the UN leader with the William of Orange Medal ‘to help you and to encourage you in your work’. There was no time for more words as Ban had to leave immediately for a meeting in Vienna. No doubt the first government leader in line was already dialling his number.
(28 August 2013)
The Leiden University William of Orange Medal has previously been awarded to President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and to Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. The Freedom Lecture is an initiative of Leiden University, the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) and the City of Leiden. Previous speakers in the Freedom Lecture series include British author Salman Rushdie, Palestinian freedom fighter Hanan Ashrawi and primate biologist Frans de Waal. With the Leiden Freedom Lecture, the three partners aim to emphasize the importance of freedom for science and for democracy and to keep the debate on freedom alive.