A Voice for Peace in a World in Turmoil

In a visit to Tufts, former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon talked about the challenges facing peacemakers

Ban Ki-moon at Tufts

More than thirty years after he first set foot on the Fletcher School campus, former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon returned recently, meeting privately with a small group of professors and stopping to shake hands with star-struck students in the Hall of Flags.

Ban said that the Fletcher School, where he cross-registered for an international law course while earning a master’s degree at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, plays an essential role in educating global leaders for these turbulent times.

A former foreign minister of South Korea, Ban presided over the U.N. from January 2007 to December 2016. He focused on climate change, sustainable development, and gender equality, among other issues, and on reforms to U.N. peacekeeping processes and employment practices. He was considered a top candidate for the South Korean presidency last year, but decided not to run.

While at Fletcher, Ban talked with Tufts Now about some of today’s international hot spots and the future of diplomacy.

Tufts Now: The world is roiled by conflict—in Yemen, Syria, Congo, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and other countries. How can the U.N. remain relevant and help to bring about peace?

Ban Ki-moon: When I assumed my mandate as Secretary-General in 2007, I pledged that I would try my best to make the United Nations stronger and this world a safer place and more prosperous. At the end of my ten-year term, whether I was able to carry out this pledge, that I would leave to the historian’s judgement. But unfortunately it is true that we are now seeing more conflicts and more refugees. As of March, the Syrian crisis has been going on a full seven years. More extremism, more terrorist attacks have taken place.

I’m quite conscious and aware of criticisms of the United Nations’ inability to handle all these issues, but I think it is not because of the United Nations; it is because of the disunity and divisions among the countries, among the leadership of people.

In the case of Syria, this includes divisions in the United Nations, in particular at the Security Council, divisions between the Western countries and Russia. When there were efforts to address this issue diplomatically and politically, the Russians in most cases blocked the resolutions, even in the case of humanitarian issues. It’s not acceptable when they cast vetoes. The most recent resolution was adopted after very long days of negotiation, with Russia participating, but it is one of the rare resolutions. We can count just a few resolutions in seven years. These kinds of things have been letting the Syrian crisis drag.

Speaking of Syria, a series of U.N. special envoys has failed to broker the peace there, with former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan calling the effort a “mission impossible” when he gave up in 2012. Do you believe there’s still potential for a solution?

I appointed Kofi Annan, Lati Brahimi—who is regarded as one of the best diplomats—and now Staffan de Mistura, who is also regarded as a very seasoned diplomat. It’s not an issue of who is the envoy; it’s lack of unity, lack of global vision. The resolutions will help, but first and foremost is the leadership. President Assad of Syria must think about his country and his people, not his own future.

At the Olympics in February, South Korea’s president shook hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, and the two Koreas fielded their first-ever joint Olympic team. Now there’s talk of possible high-level meetings. Do those signs give you hope of reducing tensions on the peninsula?

Definitely, it has given a sense of hope. The process after the Olympic Games will be very sensitive and fragile. The exchanges of strong rhetoric between North Korea and the United States were very worrisome, and people were worried whether there would be military conflicts before the Olympic Games. Now we have opened a small window of dialogue, and this small window of opportunity should lead to a more genuine sustainable process of dialogue, ultimately leading to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

But it is hard to expect that the denuclearization process will take place soon. We have to mobilize all our wisdom, flexibility, and patience to keep this small window of opportunity alive. North Korea should refrain from doing further provocations like missile launches or nuclear weapons tests, which would spoil this process. At the same time, the United States and China should play a very important constructive role in diplomatic initiatives.

Ban Ki-moon greets students outside the Fletcher School during his visit. Photo: Alonso NicholsBan Ki-moon greets students outside the Fletcher School during his visit. Photo: Alonso Nichols

One of your signature successes was helping to forge the historic Paris Accord on climate change in 2016, but the United States has said it will pull out of the agreement, and critics argue it did not go far enough. How does the global community move forward on this problem?

It’s crucially important that the international community should show a united stance in implementing the climate change agreement and that developed countries—the OECD countries—provide the necessary financial contributions, which have already been agreed, to mobilize $100 billion by 2020 and every year thereafter, to developing countries for their mitigation and adaptation efforts.

In that regard, I am deeply concerned about what President Trump has announced, that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Even though the withdrawal is not yet effective, politically the process has been seriously undermined and damaged. I sincerely hope that the U.S. will come back as soon as possible.

There is some sense of optimism and hope, though, with what is taking place in the United States. Many states, starting with California, more than 200 cities, and more than 900 business firms have expressed that they know the answer is in keeping this agreement implemented. They formed what is known as the We Are Still In campaign. This is supported by many at the grassroots. I sincerely hope that this kind of movement and these voices will be heard by the U.S. administration.

Now that you no longer hold an official role at the U.N., what’s next for you?

I’m working as the chairman of the ethics commission of the International Olympic Committee. There is a unique and genuine power of sports in promoting peace and security and development.

Also, in Yonsei University in Seoul, I have established the Ban Ki-moon Center for Sustainable Development, and last month I established the Ban Ki-moon Center for Global Citizens. The two centers will work together.

What I observed in ten years as secretary-general is that most of the conflicts and problems were caused by the lack of global vision, of global citizenship among the leaders. It’s important that educational institutions like the Fletcher School and Tufts University should try to foster global citizenship among students, who will take a leadership role soon, from tomorrow. That’s what I am going to do as a former secretary-general. At the same time, there may be some international advocacy role that I can play on gender empowerment, youth engagement and empowerment, climate change and sustainable development. I will have sometimes direct involvement and sometimes an indirect advocacy role.

Heather Stephenson can be reached at  heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.

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