Remarks at the United Nations International School - UN Conference

New York, NY
March 6, 2014


Thank you and good morning to you all. I am delighted to be here and want to thank the conference executive committee for inviting me. The UN International School is renowned for its accomplished alumni, outstanding teachers, and brilliant students – of whom I am delighted to say that my four-year-old son Declan -- starting next fall -- will be one. As I left our house this morning, Declan said, “Mommy, have the Russians stopped breaking the rules in Ukraine yet?” He is going to fit right in at UNIS.

I also welcome our many guests who are visiting New York for the first time. This is a truly global gathering which is fitting, because we live in a global era and this conference is centered around that theme. Our shared challenge is to adapt to change in order to achieve a goal that does not change – which is to live together in harmony despite our many differences. Looking around this room and seeing so many of you actually awake, I am incredibly optimistic – but we all know there are serious obstacles. To succeed, we must act boldly by building stronger multilateral institutions, creating space for a vibrant civil society, and harnessing innovative uses of new technology.

But before elaborating on that three-fold challenge, I would like briefly to share with you some of the experiences that shaped my own view of the world.

To begin, I am an immigrant. I spent my first nine years in Ireland and then immigrated to America. From the start, my goal was to fit in with my classmates. That meant practicing my “American” and working hard to lose my Irish accent, while also becoming the only nine-year-old Irish girl who could recite batting averages and runs batted in totals for even the most obscure American baseball players.

When I reached your age, I was more interested in sports than world affairs. I played basketball, loved baseball, and dreamt about a career on television interviewing sweaty athletes. But as I grew older, I found new heroes; people around the globe who were standing up to dictators and promoting freedom and peace. It was in their footsteps that I hoped to follow, but I had no expectation that I would have the privilege of doing so.

I began my career as a freelance journalist where I got a close-up look at the suffering war could cause. I travelled to Bosnia, a country in the southeastern part of Europe, where the members of one ethnic group were trying to dominate others and in the process killing many innocent men, women, and children. I wrote stories that I hoped might prompt outside countries to act to stop the bloodshed, but that didn’t happen until tens of thousands of people were dead and more than two million had become homeless. I was deeply saddened by the world community’s failure to prevent the slaughter.

When I came back to America, I helped establish a human rights center, wrote a book about genocide, and went to work in the office of a United States senator who was just starting out in national politics. His name was Barack Obama.

One thing led to another, and in 2009, I began serving in the White House as his adviser on human rights and on the United Nations. Just last summer, the president named me as America’s ambassador to the United Nations – giving me a seat in the Security Council alongside the diplomats of fourteen other countries.

As my son Declan can tell you, the latest Council crisis involves Russia’s decision to intervene militarily in the territory of its neighbor Ukraine. The United States is among the many countries that have condemned the Russian action. We believe the solution can be found through good-faith dialogue between Moscow and Kyiv, along with the deployment of international monitors who can provide reassurance that the rights of ethnic Russians inside of Ukraine are respected. As we speak, the crisis continues to unfold, and I am monitoring events on an hourly basis.

I can’t tell you what a privilege it is to go to work every day and to turn up at the Security Council and sit behind a placard that says: “United States of America.” For an Irish immigrant naturalized just across the river in Brooklyn, that’s pretty cool. In fact, there is an old saying that if you are able to earn a living by doing exactly what you would most like to do; you will never really have to work a day in your life. That is the way I feel now. I wake up every morning and have the chance to address problems that all of us care deeply about. My overriding message to you is to have faith that you, too, will be able to live out your dreams – especially if you remain open to new ideas and never stop learning.

This is critical because many of the conflicts we see today are aggravated by the fact that some people have indeed stopped learning, stopped thinking, and stopped considering alternative views. Instead of weighing information for themselves, they are persuaded to resent others because of events that took place long ago or because those others are different in religion, ethnicity, skin color, or sexual orientation.

This lack of openness and critical thinking is a major contributor to global problems.

For example, in the Middle East, the prospects for peace are complicated by longstanding rivalries.

Within the Islamic faith, a 1300-year-old religious divide is fueling sectarian conflict in Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and especially Syria, where a brutal civil war has created a humanitarian catastrophe of historic proportions.

The age-old split between Christians and Muslims has surfaced recently in the Central African Republic, which I visited in December. Since late last year, inter-religious violence has claimed the lives of thousands of civilians while disrupting markets and farming, thus creating a perilous shortage of food.

Finally, on every continent, there are terrorist groups who claim full and exclusive ownership of the truth and ruthlessly target and terrorize the innocent.

These kinds of tensions have always been present, but they are particularly dangerous in our era.

We can’t afford to fight ancient battles with 21st century weapons – and today, no matter where we live, we are affected by suffering elsewhere.

At the founding of the UN in 1945, there were 51 member states; now there are 193. In 1900, there were fewer than two billion people; today there are more than seven billion. In 1900, even the most traumatic events in one part of the globe might remain unnoticed in others; today, that is far from the case. Challenges such as climate change epidemic disease acknowledge no borders, and national or regional disruptions can put the entire global economy at risk. Meanwhile, the number of refugees – the international homeless – has risen to a record level.

It should be obvious that the need has never been greater for people and governments everywhere to work together.

And yet, we are aware of many dynamics that work against effective cooperation. Here at home, money is tight, and so some say that we cannot afford to invest in countries that have fallen behind economically. Others point to the persistence of poverty and declare that meaningful global progress is simply not possible. Still others are paralyzed by the differences of ideology that complicate international discussions. Finally, some people just don’t care and so invite us to join them in settling for a world of widespread hunger and violations of human rights. After all, these scourges have been around forever and it is folly – or so the argument runs -- to believe that we can do much about them.

So why not give up? If hope for progress is an illusion, why not focus solely on our own needs instead of worrying about those of others? Why not sit back and enjoy video games about war instead of worrying about victims of the real thing? Why not ignore Gandhi's advice that the best way to find ourselves is to lose ourselves in others?

The answer to these questions is elementary. The naysayers and defeatists are just plain wrong. Even if we acknowledge that we cannot eliminate every problem, there is much that we can do to save and enrich human lives. And one institution dedicated to that purpose is the United Nations.

Fourteen years ago, the UN provided the launching pad for the Millennium Development Goals. These are benchmarks for progress in areas vital to the well-being of people everywhere. And we have begun to make some important gains.

In the past quarter century, the UN and its many partners have helped to reduce the rate of extreme poverty by sixty percent and cut in half both the number of women who die during childbirth and the number of children who perish before the age of five.

Globally, tuberculosis treatments have saved 20 million people since 1995; deaths from malaria have dropped by 25 percent since 2000; and the share of infants born with AIDS has declined by 50 percent since 2006.

Overall, compared to their older brothers and sisters, today’s children are much less likely to go blind from disease and far more likely to receive eye glasses if they need them. Enrollment in primary education is up from 82 to 90 percent and the children who go to school are attending longer.

These kinds of gains also enhance our ability to prevent and contain conflict because – although there are many causes of fighting – basic insecurity and desperation are among them.

This leads us to the UN’s best known purpose, which is to promote international stability and peace; a task described in the following way by former Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld: “The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from Hell.” Here, the international community’s record is mixed.

Since the UN’s founding, we have avoided the catastrophe of a third global war, but we have also witnessed roughly 150 international and civil conflicts of varying duration and intensity.

Trying to stop the world’s bleeding is a task that is both underestimated and underappreciated. When violence breaks out and civilians are killed in a place where the UN is present, the UN is often blamed whether or not the countries that comprise it have been given the resources required to do the job. It’s amazing but true that there are nearly as many police and firefighters on duty in the New York Metropolitan area as there are UN peacekeepers in flashpoints across the globe. And the dangers are great. Over the years, more than 3,000 peacekeepers have lost their lives.

A little more than ten years ago, Al Qaeda terrorists bombed the UN headquarters in Baghdad. Among those who died was Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian who was known as “a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy” and who had represented the UN in crisis situations for more than three decades. In his long career, he had seen religious extremists and militants take shelter in UN refugee camps, where they sold UN food for money to buy weapons. He saw warlords steal and sell UN cars. In Bosnia, he saw French and British UN peacekeepers disarmed and turned into human shields. And yet, for all the setbacks, he concluded that UN forces were usually more reliable and less expensive in preventing conflict than states acting alone. Most of the war zones in which Sergio worked eventually found their way to peace, with the UN stitching together torn social fabrics and helping to mend broken lands.

UN peacekeepers are often at risk because they represent the opposite of what extremists and terrorists want. Instead of division, they strive to bring opposing factions together. Instead of sowing desperation, they work with relief agencies to bring food and medicine to people in need. Instead of endorsing the theory that might makes right; they foster the development of democratic political institutions. And remember as well that UN missions are not made up of people defending the safety and security of their own countrymen; they are men and women making sacrifices for us all. Sergio himself was killed in 2003 by a suicide bomber in Iraq, and the world lost one of its best peacemakers. Those who return home usually aren’t honored with parades.

The role of governments is vital in responding to national and international challenges -- but as you may already have learned from the student organizations in which you participate -- you don’t have be a government official to care, to dream, and to act.

All around the world, good people are coming together, often across ethnic, religious, and racial lines. Their focus may be as narrow as the creation of a food cooperative in a single village, or as broad as the global promotion of democracy. They may be driven by a shared concern for the environment or by a determination to eliminate hate speech, curb corruption, or advance human rights.

The growth of civil society and the increase in its capabilities are good news to those of us who believe in the value of grass roots organization. The bad news is that not every government is comfortable with this kind of activism. In recent years, we have witnessed an effort by many regimes to crack down on civil society by spreading lies about the purpose of nongovernmental organizations, vilifying their leaders, restricting their activities, and blocking their finances. And these aren’t strategies adopted only by dictators and despots. The push-back on civil society is happening also in some respected democracies, such as India and Turkey, where those empowered to represent the interests of citizens are closing the space for people to make their voices heard.

Part of my responsibility – and yours – is to fight back against this crackdown, and to stand up for the rights of free speech and free association – which I encourage you to do.

A healthy and flourishing civil society is essential to the kind of future we want. So is technology, provided we use it the right way.

There’s nothing that I – a person who still refers to “hash tags” as “pound signs” -- can tell you that you don’t already know about social networking. But you might be interested to learn that there is a precedent for Wikipedia. About 120 years ago, a Belgian named Paul Otlet became worried that human knowledge was expanding too rapidly. He was concerned that people would begin to forget significant facts. So he bought a large supply of index cards and began to list places where important bits of information about science, history, and culture could be found. He named his collection the Universal Bibliographic Repertory and by 1934, he had assembled sixteen million hand-written cards – all readily accessible -- just so long as you had time to fly to Belgium and look at them.

Of course, the Internet is far larger and more accessible than Monsieur Otlet could have dreamed. The internet is also very hard to govern – which makes it hugely empowering to those outside positions of official authority. This revolution in communications has allowed a multitude of voices to be heard that could never have been heard before. And when combined with other modern technologies, it is creating new pathways to progress in areas that, although very important, are not necessarily the most glamorous.

For example: toilets. We are well into the 21st century and yet nearly half the world’s population is without access to sanitary bathroom facilities. The resulting infections kill 1.5 million children each year. That’s why the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation challenged scientists to create a super toilet that can operate without either a sewage system or water. The winning design – which should become operational this year --

uses a solar-powered reactor to kill off micro-organisms while also producing hydrogen and electricity.

A second example is stoves. For centuries, people and especially women have been cooking with wood and then slowly dying from the smoke that penetrates their eyes, hearts and lungs. Exposure to smoke is the fourth highest health risk in the world and the second leading cause of death in some countries. Today, a global campaign is underway to develop cooking solutions that are clean, affordable, and adaptable to local cultures and cuisines. This initiative includes 900 organizations on six continents and aims to install 100 million clean cook stoves before the decade’s end.

A third example is fish. Traditionally, women in the Congo brought their daily catch to market, only to watch it spoil in the heat of the day. Now they leave their fresh and hooked fish in the water until notified of an order by cell phone, after which delivery is arranged.

A fourth innovation involves footwear. In Kenya, a young entrepreneur named Anthony Mutua has developed an ultra-thin computer chip that can be placed in the sole of a tennis shoe. When placed under pressure, the chip generates enough energy to re-charge a person’s phone. Imagine how a big a deal this can be in areas that lack conventional sources of power.

Meanwhile, new applications of air-borne technology are helping us to detect potential famines, locate refugees who are in desperate need, and track the movement of armed groups who may be intent on committing ethnic cleansing or genocide.

To sum up, despite the many problems that confront us today, the evidence is strong that we can make progress by working together through multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations; participating actively as members of civil society; and seizing the opportunities made possible by new technologies.

But the real key to future breakthroughs is in the realm of ideas. When I go to a place like the Central African Republic, I know that something is fundamentally wrong when I hear a young man express his desire to kill another young man who lives in the same neighborhood and speaks the same language -- all because he is a Christian and the other a Muslim.

Here at the UN school, in each class room, there is a “peace table.” I’m sure that even our visitors from other schools have heard of this. The peace table can be used in a variety of ways but the basic concept is that students who have a disagreement are expected to engage in a dialogue; they have to explain to each other what their views are and why they are upset. And I guarantee you that, if you were to ask the Christians and Muslims who are fighting in the Central African Republic why they want to kill each other, the answer would have nothing to do with reason or logic, and everything to do with fear of being attacked or desire to avenge a previous attack against members of one’s own group. They are being guided by their emotions and prejudices, and so have stopped thinking. They have forgotten how much they have in common.

A major part of my work at the UN is to listen and – given the fact that the UN has so many members – I have the chance to listen a lot. We have many arguments, but what strikes me is how deeply most of us want the same things. As nations and as individuals, we insist on being treated with dignity. We don’t always expect to get our own way, but we do want our voices to be heard. We ask that our history and culture be respected but – in return – we are willing to respect the history and culture of others. Above all, we are determined to create a future with less ignorance and more understanding, less suffering and more justice, less cruelty and more kindness, less fear and more hope, less war and more peace.

Some say that, in our troubled world, that is too much to expect. I say it is an agenda we can all get behind. And it is my job – and yours – to do everything in our power to help bring it about. Thank you.


PRN: 2014/042