“God always forgives,” Ban Ki-moon said, recalling a message Pope Francis gave to him on the urgency of climate change. “Human beings sometimes forgive. But nature never forgives.”
Ban, who served as the secretary-general of the United Nations (UN) from 2007 to 2016, discussed hot-button issues ranging from globalization to climate change in a talk hosted by the Stanford Speakers Bureau (SSB) in association with the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. He urged young people to get involved in addressing these issues.
Ban also described his own experience in public service. He reflected on a visit to the United States in the early 1960s, during which he and a group of fellow students with then-President John F. Kennedy made “a great change in the trajectory of [his] life” and helped him discover a passion for public service.
Ban, born in 1944 in South Korea, served in various diplomatic positions as a representative of his country to New Delhi, India. In 1974, he first began to work within the United Nations as First Secretary of the South Permanent Observer Mission. Over the next thirty years, he rotated between leadership positions in the UN before becoming the Foreign Minister of South Korea in 2004, a position he held until he was elected Secretary-General.
Throughout his decade-long tenure as UN secretary-general, Ban focused on global poverty, sustainable development and climate change. Under Ban, the UN established a new initiative called UN Women, tasked with increasing awareness of sexual violence and bolstering women’s rights around the world. Maternal death rates plummeted during his tenure.
Ban also discussed his efforts to increase the transparency of the UN and reform the body’s peacekeeping forces. Another priority of his administration was to curtail the negative effects of global nuclearization, rejuvenating discussion on nuclear nonproliferation and safeguarding following the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
“The world is going through pronounced changes,” he said, regarding the current state of climate change. To Ban, there needs to be more action taken to prevent climate change, and the necessity of citizen responsibility — specifically that of the youth who, along with women, comprise 75 percent of the world’s population — is paramount.
Nick Kateris, a first-year Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering, said that the talk gave him “a positive outlook on all of the issues that Ban talked about and that he and the rest of the UN indeed tried to make a difference.”
“At the same time I was slightly disappointed in how many of those plans don’t get carried through and how it doesn’t lie within the power of the UN to implement all those measures,” he said. “It lies within the power of the member states to actually implement those measures and make the change that the world actually needs.”
In his lecture, Ban sought to highlight the quality-of-life differences between the wealthy and impoverished.
“Particularly in this country, [in] the most affluent society, people take for granted” human rights such as access to clean water, he said, whereas those in developing countries may walk miles for the same resources.
Ban expressed optimism about the Paris Agreement that was implemented at the end of his term, and said he is “disappointed” in the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from it — the administration is “standing on the wrong side of history,” he said. He called for collaboration between the United States and China in addressing climate change.
Jason Ah Chuen ’22, a member of the SSB, the student organization which sponsored the event, said that Ban’s talk “gave a good overview of what he did as a [Secretary-General], especially his work on climate change and [on] how those goals were partially accomplished.”
“I think it would have been more interesting if [SSB] could ask him more questions because he was reading about things that we mostly already knew about,” he added.
In concluding his talk, Ban called for the participation of his audience in addressing global issues.
“Dear students,” Ban said, “the challenges we face are simply too numerous to be left in the hands of a few leaders.”
Contact Leily Rezvani at lrezvani ‘at’ stanford.edu and Matthew Dardet at mattdar ‘at’ stanford.edu.