Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Ban Ki-moon's Cyril Foster Lecture in Oxford

[updated 4 February]

This evening I went along to Oxford's Examination Schools to listen to H.E. Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General, give a speech entitled 'Human Protection and the 21st Century United Nations' by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. This was for the annual Cyril Foster Lecture organised by the Department of Politics and International Relations. Mr. Ban Ki-moon was the 4th UN Secretary General to give this speech, in front of an audience of about 400 people (mainly students) in South Schools, plus an estimated 500+ in overflow rooms, who watched video transmissions on projector screens. I share here a few points that interested me and my response.

The UN Secretary-General was formally welcomed by Prof. Andrew Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor, who explained how Cyril Foster, a relatively humble owner of sweet shops, came to make a profound difference: having no dependents, he decided to give money to serve the cause of international peace, whence the lecture series was instituted in his name. Mr. Foster stipulated that every year a prominent figure working in this area should be invited to speak.

In delivering his contribution today, Ban Ki Moon conveyed enthusiasm and optimistic purposefulness. He had a ready smile and applauded the role that Oxford has been playing, graciously indicating his appreciation for being part of the Oxford community even for just the one day. With his office following him like a close shadow, events like this that allow him to expound his vision, must come as something of a welcome interlude! Even in the relative shelter of a university lecture, the office had the first say, as though tapping him on the shoulder. Thus as UN Secretary-General, he started by addressing the situation in Egypt, and reiterated the need for political change, echoing the phraseology "peaceful transition" used by President Obama, EU leaders and others, in calling for a process of democratisation that better respects the wishes of its people.

(I'm not trained in politics, but I have noticed this statement, like many other statements I hear, especially from Western leaders, seemed pervaded by an assumption that democracy is the de facto system of workable government. Is it? If Emperor Asoka were ruling a South Asian continent today how would he be viewed...? I don't know, but I suppose it depends on what we mean by freedom. In any case, those who have surveyed history and its ideas (see e.g. The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, by Garry Trompf) probably have a more measured assessment about what has really worked. The title alone suggests that no particular system - at least not in the past few millennia - has been able to last. )

Mr Ban then proceed to embark on the speech itself, starting in touching fashion by sharing his own experiences in childhood, when his family suffered as a result of the Korean War. He described his sense of displacement during his studies, having to seek shelter outdoors, under trees when rains came. It was the United Nations who came to his rescue and his sense of gratitude is evidently deep. Yet, strangely, on this question of well-being I see these kinds of descriptions of homelessness are close to those for sramanas, those wanderers who have renounced the world in pursuit of the greatest happiness of all, the eradication of the real root of suffering...

The main substance of the speech was in three parts and conveyed a good sense of the scale and nature of the UN's operations, particularly the logistics. The first part was concerned with "fire fighting" - bringing humanitarian resources, expertise etc into desperate situations - and it's here that great progress has been made on the logistical front through the Central Emergency Response Fund. However, more important is prevention, which was the second main strand and here there was ample linkage between environmental devastation and human conflict. Putting resources into prevention is obviously going to be more efficient.

The third part seemed the one that was dearest to Mr. Ban, the operationalisation of human protection. Sovereignty should be respected, but carries a responsibility, a moral imperative, to protect its citizens and their human rights. In this connection we were informed about Responsibility To Protect, an emerging project that I think he greatly cherishes. These appear to be expressions of basic precepts - not to take life, not to take what is not yours etc.

Apart from his opening remarks about his upbringing it was only here that my mind was brought fo focus more on the individual personal situation. Whilst the general picture was admirable for having a compassionate and humanitarian outlook, I felt deeper meanings of human protection were left largely untouched. This is where I'm sure a Buddhist perspective can help: its focus is on intentional actions, where protection is fundamentally protection from various forms of suffering that arise from actions that are cloudy, i.e. born of greed, hatred and delusion. There are two watchwords (in Pali): hiri (moral shame), which is an internal sense of shame at the consequences of a misdeed; and ottapa, its external counterpart, the fear of consequences. These are true guardians of the world.

Whilst claiming not to be used to speak for more than 10 or 20 minutes at a time, Mr. Ban's hour-long speech flowed well and there were many who wanted to ask questions at the end. I think just three people had the chance; I was pleased that one was from the UN Association of the UK, who sought further guidance on how to support the 'operationalisation' of human protection. In his response, the UN Secretary-General acknowledged the key role that members play as instruments of change within societies. Continued focused involved seemed to be the message.

As for the other would-be questioners, the audience was promised use of the department's blog, Politics in Spires.

The session concluded with warm applause and friendly hand waves in return!


The UN Web site now has a full transcript of the UN Secretary-General's speech.