[9 February 2011]
When Ban Ki-moon, current Secretary-General of the United Nations, became the fourth man holding his position to give the annual Cyril Foster lecture at Oxford University, he did so at a moment which made his talk’s subject particularly timely. In keeping with the theme of peace and understanding requested of the lecture series by the man for whom it is named, Mr. Ban’s contribution was titled “Human Protection and the 21st Century United Nations”. Before he began his speech proper, Mr. Ban acknowledged its relevance to the crisis raging in Egypt, and mentioned his talks on that subject with British prime minister David Cameron earlier in the day.
To hear the UN’s position restated directly from its Secretary-General at such a crucial time made us feel fortunate indeed. I was among a group of postgraduate students from Keele University’s School of Politics, International Relations and Philosophy (SPIRE) who had skipped seminars and made the trip south to see Mr. Ban’s lecture. The journey was a hastily organised gamble; we’d learned of the Sec-Gen’s visit only 48 hours previously, and knew that demand to hear him speak would be substantial, with entry being far from guaranteed. When we arrived at the Examination Schools building on Oxford’s High Street, its shabby and scaffolding-covered exterior appearance meant that only 30 people had recognised it and begun to queue. By the time the doors opened at 5pm and we were let inside, that number had risen to around 1,000, only half of whom could join us in the main room in which Mr. Ban actually spoke. The others had to make do with the projector screens set up in an overflow room.
Our wait had been long, and as 6pm approached there was an excited atmosphere among the crowd, made up mostly of young Oxford students from the university’s department equivalent to our own. After a round of applause and an almost giddy introduction from Andrew Hamilton, Oxford’s vice-chancellor, Ban Ki-moon began to speak. Although he said early on that “Secretaries-General are often better advised to listen than to speak”, he soon fell into the steady rhythm of a man used to speaking regularly at much larger events than this. The bulk of Mr. Ban’s speech, a transcript of which is now available on the UN website , was concerned with his vision for updating the UN’s institutions to deal with the “significantly changed” new world and its conflicts, whilst still adhering to the UN’s “core responsibilities” as outlined in its Charter.
Having travelled to see a speaker so renowned for his neutrality, we didn’t expect any explosive revelations on the night, and we didn’t get any—but I was pleasantly surprised by Mr. Ban’s willingness to inject a modicum of his early personal experiences into his talk. He discussed briefly his witnessing “the ravages of the Korean War”, a time during which he learned about hunger, poverty and displacement in the “ultimate classroom” of personal experience. There were even a few wry jokes; at one point, our speaker referred to himself jokingly as the world’s second most powerful military commander behind only United States President Obama, a line which has seemingly been removed from the official UN transcript.
The main body of the lecture was built around a fire analogy; to Ban Ki-moon, flames represented conflict, and so the first part of the lecture was concerned with the UN’s role as fire-fighter. Naturally, the second part was about the UN as fire safety officer, working to prevent the fires of conflict from breaking out in the first place. Finally, Mr. Ban discussed the development of legal institutions designed to “promote accountability” and to combat conflict in the long term. Always linked into the wider geopolitical context, Mr. Ban’s attentions were wide-ranging, and name-checked conflicts and humanitarian crises in Korea, the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan, Chad, Burma, Haiti, and Pakistan. A few slight barbs were fired, first at UN member states from whom military equipment like helicopters can be so difficult to procure, and later at the military junta that governs Burma – or Myanmar – for their failure to engage with the UN and the international community in a way that would have saved lives when Cyclone Nargis stuck in 2008.
Mr. Ban did not himself go uncriticised, however; while we were queueing to access the venue, a car pulled up emblazoned with a banner questioning the legitimacy of the Secretary-General’s bid for re-election given his perceived failure to confront the Sri Lankan government over violence in that country in 2009. This protest, along with the distribution of a number of leaflets to the audience, was the work of the group Act Now, whose leader Tim Martin was among just three people who were able to ask Ban Ki-moon a question at the conclusion of the speech. The Tamil News Network somewhat excessively referred to this part of the evening as a “confrontation” , as opposed to a sober exchange. Also towards the end of the speech, Mr. Ban had to speak over the chanting of other unidentified protesters outside the building.
To witness first-hand a speech by such an internationally-recognised figure was an experience to cherish. Although predictably following the official UN line on current events, it was nonetheless fascinating to hear Ban Ki-moon’s lecture, so tied as it was into the geopolitical context of the moment. This was a talk which dealt with issues and ideas which are poised to have a great impact in the UN’s response to crises around the world—not least the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect or “R2P”—and it will be interesting also to see how the issues Mr. Ban discussed will develop over the coming months and years.