THE SECRETARY-GENERAL OF THE UNITED NATIONS
THE 2011-2012 OTTO L. WALTER LECTURE AT NEW YORK LAW SCHOOL
October 3, 2011
Thank you Mr. Zirin for your very kind introduction,
Distinguished faculty and students,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great honor and privilege for me to address this very distinguished group and audience.
As Secretary-General during the last almost five years, I have been addressing many different types of audiences – starting from government officials, business leaders, civil society leaders. But I have never addressed any group of lawyers, future lawyers and distinguished law professors.
I believe that one of the very difficult audiences to address [are] lawyers. That is why I am here with my Legal Counsel to defend me! If there is going to be any controversies, legal troubles, I hope, Patricia O’Brien, you will protect me.
Not long ago, a dinner companion told me that there is a very nice place with a heavy emphasis on public service. A place where people are working very hard to better themselves, juggling jobs and other responsibilities.
I told my companion I would like to visit that place and talk with those people about how their talents are just what the United Nations needs at this critical time in world affairs.
So that’s why I am here.
That companion was James Zirin, one of your trustees.
And that place was this institution – a very distinguished institution.
New York Law School may not have what the biggest schools have -- a stadium or a campus with a classic quad.
You may not have the traditional mascots -- no Lions, Orangemen or Wolverines.
But this great school has a motto that gets a loud cheer from me:
“Learn Law. Take Action.” That’s very important. That is exactly the same philosophy [that] I have. Lead by example. Take action. Deliver results.
That is what your graduates have been doing for more than a century.
On the Supreme Court.
At City Hall.
In boardrooms and the diplomatic corps.
Even on television. Perhaps when Judge Judy [‘65] decides she has had enough of her reality show, she can become a United Nations mediator to deal with our global reality!
One of your most remarkable graduates was Otto L. Walter [‘54].
An accomplished lawyer, he also devoted himself to UN causes.
He sought post-war harmony between Germany and the United States -- even though, as a Jew, he was persecuted by the Nazis.
He helped shape our understanding of international law.
And much later in life, he supported the establishment of the UN Human Rights Council.
Even today, the Otto and Fran Walter Foundation supports literacy programmes in Guatemala, and fights against hunger and domestic violence here in New York City.
Otto Walter’s name graces my talk tonight.
I welcome this opportunity to talk to you about the rule of law in today’s world – why it is important, and what the United Nations is doing to advance the rule of law principle.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I speak to you just after the busiest period of the United Nations general debate. That is when world leaders gather at our headquarters to tell us what’s on their minds. And I tell them what’s on mine.
This year, we face an increasingly complex set of realities.
Global economic turmoil; mega-disasters; rising joblessness; growing inequality between rich and poor.
We are seeing tectonic shifts in global power.
There is disillusion with the established order, be it democratic or repressive.
We see distrust in institutions, be they public or private – a sense that the playing field is tilted in favour of entrenched interests and elites.
On the last day of this month, 31 October, the human family will welcome its 7 billionth member.
That new face brings us face-to-face with what I call the 50-50-50 challenge.
By 2050, the world population will grow to reach 9 billion – that will be a 50 per cent increase compared with the last decade.
By that time, we will have to cut by 50 per cent greenhouse gas emissions. By that time, we will have [nearly] 7 billion people living in the cities. That, again, creates a lot of problems and challenges for organizations. That’s what I am calling the 50-50-50 challenge.
Unless we address it properly, we will be facing a very serious problem.
This turbulence and anxiety figured prominently in the speeches and meetings of the past two weeks.
A “historic period”, said one prime minister.
An “extremely delicate moment”, said another president.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict claimed most of the headlines, and rightly so: a peace agreement is long overdue, vital for both sides, the region and the world.
But many issues were on the table.
Nuclear safety and women’s health.
Racism and energy security.
Famine in the Horn of Africa.
The sweeping democratic movements in the Middle East and North Africa.
These are disparate issues and events.
But some threads are clearly visible.
First, just as countries are more interconnected, so are the challenges.
Second: no country can take on today’s challenges alone -- however powerful and resourceful one country may be. Look at the case of the United States: the United States, by any standards, is the richest and most powerful, resourceful country. But the United States cannot do it alone now, as it might have been possible even two decades ago.
A legal expression captures this idea perfectly: when it comes to global problem-solving, there is no opt-out clause.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The past nine months have been one of the most dramatic periods in recent history.
Millions of people have taken to the streets demanding freedom, democracy and better governance.
The Arab Spring has captured the global imagination.
It should be especially inspiring to you. After all, the banner that has united them is the rule of law.
We saw that banner waving in Tunis and Cairo’s Tahrir Square and then again in Tripoli and in Syria. We see all these movements in the streets of Syria.
The United Nations stands with all those seeking to build societies where nobody is above the law and where laws are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and consistent with human rights.
These democratic yearnings were also on display in Côte d’Ivoire following last December’s disputed presidential elections.
Yet the intransigent leader who lost the election refused to step down, unleashed violence against his own people.
At that moment, the United Nations stood firm and helped the Ivorian people to defend their genuine freedom, their genuine right, on the basis of democratic principles.
The United Nations demonstrated for the first time the principle of the “responsibility to protect”. That new doctrine aims to ensure that people facing mass atrocity crimes are not alone when their own country cannot or will not protect them.
After months of conflict, the man who won the election was inaugurated as president – President Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire – a huge victory for democracy and human rights, not only in Africa but everywhere.
Indeed, that experience set the stage for the further application of the responsibility to protect, when the international community came together to protect the people of Libya from a massacre by their own government.
Two weeks ago, the flag of a new Libya was raised at the United Nations. I was there and I was at the inauguration ceremony in Côte d’Ivoire. I was there when the new flag of Libya was raised at the United Nations.
Where once the idea was widely debated but not put into practice, we can now say that the responsibility to protect has arrived.
But let us remember: the concept is too often misunderstood as a license for intervention. That is exactly the point where many countries have fears or concerns about officially accepting this idea of the responsibility to protect. Yet human protection begins with prevention.
We far prefer early engagement to late intervention. We prefer helping States succeed to responding when they fail.
Our challenge now is to help these societies successfully manage their transitions, and build the foundation they need to ensure that the gains they have achieved are irreversible, and that the peace they have found is sustainable.
That foundation lies in the rule of law.
Where the rule of law is weak, impunity prevails and the risk of a society lapsing into violent conflict is strong.
The chain of events is all too common.
Institutions meant to ensure justice and security lack the capacity to uphold these basic sovereign responsibilities.
Corruption, cronyism and criminal networks exploit these weaknesses.
Citizens begin to feel less safe, and have nowhere to turn when their rights are violated.
Investment dries up. Public services diminish.
Jobs vanish, especially among young people.
Distrust or outright hostility towards the state grows.
Often, extremists harness these sentiments, inciting marginalized groups of people and restless youth to challenge the established order through violent means.
Societies fragment under the stresses of increasing lawlessness.
This is not just theory. The global implications of these dynamics are self evident.
Pirates would not threaten international shipping lanes if not for Somalia’s deep poverty, political instability and lack of legitimate justice and security institutions.
Conversely, were it not for the substantial efforts of the United Nations to build justice and security in post-conflict Liberia, thousands of demobilized combatants might now be agitating for another civil war.
This is why the United Nations and its regional and civil society partners seek to strengthen the rule of law at the national and international levels.
Newly constituted governments are looking to us for a wide range of assistance.
They want help in drafting constitutions.
They want to rebuild -- or establish for the first time -- institutions trained in human rights and due process. We are there, training judges, prosecutors, police and corrections officers in international best practices. In fact, the United Nations, during the last six decades, has accumulated experience in these areas.
They want to conduct peaceful, credible, democratic elections. We are there, in dozens of countries, providing technical assistance. We have already deployed electoral [teams] in Tunisia and Egypt. This month there will be an election in Tunisia and next month there will be elections in Egypt.
We have secured real advances in recognizing conflict-related sexual violence as a threat to international peace and security.
We are pushing hard to overcome longstanding gender inequalities through legislative reform, restitution and reparations programmes, and increased participation in decision-making.
And we are helping societies address the roots of crisis and the legacy of past atrocities.
That has meant facilitating truth commissions and other transitional justice efforts.
International criminal tribunals have carved out new legal territory, winning convictions for genocide and establishing rape as a crime against humanity.
Perpetrators of international crimes are being held accountable – to soothe the suffering of victims, and to put a nation at peace with itself.
International criminal justice also has a strong preventive element.
Reckoning with the past also helps to deter future war criminals.
We want to move from retribution to reconciliation, and from punishment to prevention.
The trend is clear: we are mobilized against impunity. We are moving with ever greater determination into an age of accountability.
I want to see a world where accountability, the rule of law and a culture of prevention work together for sustainable peace.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Your responsibility as students is to master your material and pass those exams, get a good job.
But you also have responsibilities as global citizens.
So I ask you to consider joining one of our peace missions for a year or two to help build accountable justice systems. Try to broaden your vision. You are living in a most prosperous and rich country. But try to look beyond the United States, try to look around the world where many people are in danger, are in need of immediate help -- humanitarian or legal protections. There are many people whose human rights are abused, brutally abused. Then, instead of just sitting in this ivory tower and getting good jobs as lawyers, why don’t you broaden your understanding and vision towards other parts of the world?
Work with bar associations, prosecutors and ministries of justice in a country rebuilding after civil war.
Use your knowledge to develop training programmes.
Give some part of your careers to assisting with security sector reform in emerging democracies.
Other paths will surely entice you, especially those that might be more lucrative.
But at times of great flux and transformation such as those we are living through today, opportunities to make a difference are especially compelling.
Therefore, I will look to all of you, faculty and students alike, to stand up for the principles that animate this school – justice, equality and the certainty of law.
And I sincerely hope that we will work together, with the United Nations, to build this world, better for all, where all human rights are equally protected and where all people can live without any fear.
Thank you for your attention.