THE DEPUTY SECRETARY-GENERAL
SPEECH AT GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY COMMENCEMENT
George Mason University, 17 May 2019
Good morning everybody!
It’s a great honour to be here with you all to congratulate and celebrate with you.
My thanks to President Angel Cabrera and Rector Tom Davis for inviting me here today. And to the distinguished faculty and administrators, all the graduates and your families, for your warm welcome.
This is a proud day, and you have worked hard to get here. It takes commitment, energy and resilience to stand where you are today. I congratulate each and every one of you.
Today, you join the ranks of George Mason University Alumni! And that is distinguished company. From journalists and sports stars to a world-famous political consultant [Karl Rove] and the first Muslim woman in space! Yes, Anousheh Ansari, who graduated in Electrical Engineering in 1989, beat me to it! – but I haven’t given up hope.
And to all the women in STEM here today: you are not only fulfilling your dreams, you’re breaking gender stereotypes and creating a better and more equal world for all of us, and I congratulate you on that.
We should all reach for the stars like Anousheh Ansari. That’s something I want to talk about today.
First, I would like to say a few words about my organizations, the United Nations.
I know many of you already know us, through your studies, the Model UN programme, or through the UN Academic Impact initiative.
But we’re now 74 years old, so you may not be aware of how we were created.
The United Nations was founded at the end of the Second World War in 1945, the deadliest war ever, in which some 70 million people were killed – including six million European Jews murdered in the horror of the Holocaust. This came just twenty years after the First World War, in which sixteen million people were killed.
I know some of you, including military veterans, have seen war. I myself have. It is difficult to describe its devastation. It destroys lives and hopes, it uproots families and communities, it sets societies back decades.
So in 1945, people all over the world were absolutely desperate to avoid a Third World War.
That is the reason we exist.
That is our first, most important job: to prevent war and to make peace.
That is why our founding Charter, our constitution, opens with these words:
“We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind…”
The United Nations is the first, and so far only, organization that tries to bring peace and order to our whole world, in all its complexity.
That is our greatest strength, and our greatest challenge.
Ladies and gentlemen, dear graduates,
Over the past 74 years, we have learned a lot about peace.
We are supported in this work by many academic institutions, including the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution here at George Mason University — one of only two in the country. We are grateful for your expertise and dedication.
Thanks to our experience and the work of analysts and experts, we know peace doesn’t happen by chance. It is a choice, and it is based on fundamental principles: democracy, equality, freedom of thought, speech and religion, and respect for human rights and human dignity.
That is why so much of the United Nations’ energy is devoted to preventing conflict, by supporting sustainable development and promoting human rights.
My own path to the United Nations started in the private sector in my country, Nigeria, where I worked for architects and engineers designing schools and hospitals. This convinced me of the need for governments and institutions to deliver for the people they serve, especially the poor and vulnerable. I became an activist for quality education, and took a role in government, working on reducing poverty and promoting sustainable development.
I joined the United Nations to work on our development programme, which became the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – our globally-agreed plan for peace, prosperity, people, planet and partnerships.
These partnerships include academic institutions, and I am delighted to hear that George Mason is setting up a new Sustainability Institute. I wish you every success in fulfilling your aim of contributing to a just, flourishing and sustainable world.
The 2030 Agenda is based on 17 Sustainable Development Goals – or SDGs – and is our best effort to create the conditions for peace over the next 11 years.
And let’s face it, we need a plan. Our world is facing many challenges, including the climate crisis, prolonged conflicts, record numbers of people on the move, growing inequality, youth unemployment, and rising extremism, nationalism and xenophobia.
Amid all this, the commodity the United Nations sells is hope.
We are trying to turn challenges into opportunities.
Every day, around the world, we are saving lives, helping to lift people out of poverty, fighting climate change, providing food, education and shelter to the most vulnerable, and promoting the rights of girls and women.
The United States has always been a leader at the United Nations. From humanitarian aid to support for democracy, from policy expertise to providing many talented and committed staff, the United States improves the United Nations in many ways.
We hear a lot of talk about reduced engagement by the United States in international affairs. This worries me. Because I know that less United States means a less effective United Nations.
That means more conflict around the world, more refugees and displaced people, greater human suffering, less help for the most vulnerable, less education and fewer opportunities for young women and girls.
Ladies and gentlemen, dear graduates,
Let me give you three examples of how the United Nations is working to create a more peaceful and prosperous world.
First, human rights – our most powerful tool to prevent and end conflict and ensure lives of security and dignity.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which the United States played such an important role, sets out norms and standards against which we measure governments and institutions. But rights are not just abstract ideas or aspirations. They call for extremely specific and concrete actions.
For example, the evidence in country after country over many years shows that repressive policies against violent extremism and terrorism make nobody safe. When counter-terrorist policies disregard human rights, they can reinforce feelings of exclusion and grievance, and fuel extremism rather than reducing it.
This is why the United Nations puts inclusivity, diversity and respect for the rule of law at the heart of all our work. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is based on fulfilling the rights of all to adequate housing, clean water, health care, education and food, as well as their right to participate in the decisions that affect their lives.
Second, climate change. The science is there, and it is time to act.
Climate change is a global threat, and a massive multiplier of other threats – poverty, humanitarian needs, and conflict.
And climate change is moving faster than we are. Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher than they have been for 800,000 years.
We in the developing world have as much right as anyone to live our lives in peace and to pursue economic growth. But if our emissions are threatening other people, we have a responsibility to act.
No one thinks it’s OK to smoke in a room where a sick child is struggling to breathe. But that’s what the developed world is doing – causing irreparable damage to people from the South Pacific to West Africa, who have contributed nothing to climate change but are suffering its worst effects.
The good news is that technology is on our side. Clean, green energy is more affordable than ever.
And around the world, cities, regions, states and private corporations, including major oil and gas companies, are taking climate action and setting their own ambitious targets. But it needs to go further.
In September, the Secretary-General has invited world leaders to the United Nations for a Climate Action Summit, where they will spell out their plans to bring emissions under control, to mitigate them, and to adapt to the reality of climate change.
Climate action is not only for governments; it goes far beyond that. Everywhere, we see the private sector, local authorities, young people and non-governmental organizations, stepping up to lead.
That’s what we need, if we are to safeguard our precious planet and its resources for future generations.
My third example involves you – young people. You are the leaders and torchbearers our world needs. The United Nations is totally committed to working with you to safeguard your future.
Last year, we launched a new strategy, Youth 2030, to engage with young people and bring you into our decision-making processes. It includes programmes on climate action, education and health.
Young people are under unprecedented pressure, due to globalization, new technologies, displacement, changing labour markets and climate impacts, and your voices are often ignored in the decisions that affect you.
But young people are a vast source of innovation, ideas and solutions. You are change agents, pushing for progress in technology, inclusivity and social justice.
The United Nations has always worked for young people. The difference is that we are now working with you, and we hope you will join us in working for a safer, more peaceful and prosperous world.
There are so many ways to contribute.
The engineers among you can help to build climate-resilient infrastructure. The academics and researchers can choose projects that improve people’s lives while safeguarding resources. We need business people who understand that unless we invest in the green economy, we face a grey future.
Beyond working life, there are many ways to make a difference: from giving your time and energy to causes that matter to you, to advocating and standing up for what you know is right.
Many of you have already been involved in tackling global challenges through the Mason Impact programme. Now that you’re are moving on, I challenge you to continue and build on that engagement.
As His Holiness the Pope has said, one of the biggest challenges we face is the globalization of indifference.
What we need instead is the globalization of goodwill.
Social media offers opportunities to join together across borders, through campaigns and online communities. The United Nations is on all the social platforms, and the Secretary-General has just opened an Instagram account. Please follow us!
In our connected world, the United Nations is the virtual Town Hall: a place to look for solutions and reach a better understanding of each other.
As you leave the university gates, I hope you will think of this as the first day of the rest of your lives.
What’s your role? How will you contribute? What kind of world is coming around the corner?
Are people going to become closed off from each other? Or are they going to work together for peace, prosperity and justice on a healthy planet?
The United Nations offers hope for a better future.
Please join us in working for humanity.