London International Model United Nations
Opening ceremony, Central Hall Westminster
Friday, 21 February
Speech by Koji Sekimizu, Secretary-General
International Maritime Organization
“Supporting the United Nations”
Ladies and gentlemen, aspiring diplomats,
It is my great pleasure, indeed a great honour, to be with you today and to welcome you to this Model United Nations exercise. Indeed, we are all standing in the shadows of greatness today, because it was here, in this very hall, that the inaugural meetings of the UN General Assembly and the Security Council took place in January 1946.
Not only is this a wonderful opportunity for you to experience for yourself the pressures, challenges and, ultimately, rewards that come from working within this unique system that we call the United Nations: it is also an opportunity for me to tell you something about my own personal journey; about how I came to be the Secretary-General of a UN agency here in London. It is an opportunity that I relish, and for which I am grateful.
In due course, I want to tell you about some of the things that have shaped me and inspired me, in the hope that you too will one day find your own inspiration.
But first, I want to say a few words about the United Nations itself. Let me say straight away that the United Nations is vast, complex and incredibly ubiquitous. There is almost no limit to the areas of human activities it covers.
Speaking as an insider, we have a number of different words that we use to describe ourselves; we refer to the 'UN system', we refer to 'Organizations' (with a capital 'O'), and extend to embrace agencies, programmes, funds and so on.
But perhaps my favourite term is one that we use more colloquially. We talk about the 'UN family'. I like this, because, as in any family, we have our arguments, our quarrels and our disputes; but, again like any family, we are bound together by something deeper and stronger, and it is this strength that we draw on to face our challenges.
Here in the UK, we are a relatively small branch of the family. The International Maritime Organization, IMO, is a specialized agency with its headquarters about a 15 minute walk from here, on the south bank of the river Thames.
IMO is the only UN agency to have its Headquarters based here, but the UN High Commission for Refugees, the World Food Programme, the UN Environment Programme and the World Bank all have offices in the UK too. There is also the International Organization for Migration, a thriving United Nations Association and several other groups that actively support the system and espouse its values.
I have had the privilege to work in the United Nations system for a quarter of a century. Yes, it is my job: but it is also so much more than that. The UN is something I am passionate about and in which I have a resolute and unshakeable belief.
For me, the United Nations is the ultimate expression of mankind’s need to learn from its own history; and, in particular, from the appalling history of the first half of the twentieth century.
The concept of a peaceful community of nations first began to emerge in Europe, following the Napoleonic Wars of the nineteenth century. The first Geneva Conventions and Hague Conventions, which sought to address aspects of the conduct of war and promote the peaceful settlement of disputes, were drawn up and signed during that period.
But, as we now know, none of this prevented Europe, and the world, from being plunged into the awful destruction of the First World War. The social, political and economic devastation of this conflict was simply unprecedented.
When the fighting ended, in 1918, it was called 'the war to end all wars'. The League of Nations was born out of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and civilized people everywhere hoped and prayed that a new era had dawned.
And yet, a mere 21 years later, the world was engulfed in an even more dreadful war – one that, once again, pushed levels of destruction and cruelty beyond anything that had been previously imaginable. Mankind, it seems, does not find these lessons easy to learn.
If anything good can be said to have come out of the two World Wars of the twentieth century, then let it be the renewed vigour for international peace and the widespread rejection of armed conflict that led to the formation of the United Nations.
The Charter that founded the United Nations was signed in San Francisco in June 1945; and, today, almost 70 years later, the values enshrined in its provisions still provide a relevant and credible blueprint for a better world.
Its preamble speaks of the need to save future generations from the scourge of war; but it also speaks of human rights, human dignity, gender equality, equality between nations, justice and international law, tolerance, freedom, respect, security and social advancement. It is a document for our time – it is a document for all time.
I mentioned a few moments ago that the United Nations of today is a vast and complex entity. The influence of this global family reaches the remotest wildernesses and densest conurbations on the planet. Its work ranges from front-line, headline-grabbing missions such as peacekeeping, peace building, conflict prevention and humanitarian assistance, through broader, fundamental issues such as sustainable development and environmental stewardship, the protection of refugees, disaster relief, food production, health, counter terrorism, disarmament and non-proliferation, to more technical matters, such as those dealt with by my own agency, the International Maritime Organization.
The common threads that run through all this are a firm commitment to improving peoples’ lives; a strong desire to promote equality; and a passion and a belief that we can, and must, strive to make the world a better place – where human rights and the rule of law are respected and we recognize and rejoice in the diversity of global culture.
At IMO, the main thrust of our work is to develop and adopt technical standards for international shipping, so that countries involved in international trade can have confidence that ships entering and leaving their ports adhere to appropriate standards of safety and environmental performance. It is important – but, nevertheless, might be considered marginal to the overall objectives of the UN. It can be broadly set alongside similar work carried out by other technical agencies such as the International Civil Aviation Organization or the Universal Postal Union.
But, even in these smaller agencies and marginal areas, we quickly learn that nothing is ever achieved without cooperation, understanding and a willingness to work together to find a solution. The members of IMO – and there are 170 of them – frequently have disagreements, hold different viewpoints and sometimes have different objectives. Sometimes they disagree on technical matters, and sometimes political considerations set them apart.
What is a high priority for one country may not even be on the radar for another. And yet, over the course of more than 50 years since it became operational, IMO has produced a series of international agreements and conventions that, collectively, have made shipping infinitely safer and more secure and dramatically reduced its negative impact on the environment.
It isn’t my intention to speak to you in any detail about this work. The point I wish to make is to do with the process.
For it is in the search for common ground, for consensus, and in the understanding that solutions must be supported by the wider international community. Our activities, through the standard UN process at IMO, even in limited areas, do make their real contribution towards the objectives and the spirit of the United Nations.
I mentioned earlier that I have been working in the UN system, exclusively for IMO, for a quarter of a century. I feel both proud and privileged to have done so. I was born in 1952, which was also the year of the San Francisco Peace Treaty that saw my country, Japan, come back into international society after World War Two. It was the year that Japan applied to join the United Nations. Four years later, in 1956, Japan joined the UN. So I am a child of the peace time. I never saw or experienced the horrors of war for myself.
But the war left its mark on me, nevertheless. As a boy, I was taken on a school trip to visit the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall, a place of contemplation and reflection designed to deepen peoples’ understanding of the power of the atomic bomb against human dignity and to reaffirm Japan’s commitment to genuine and lasting peace. I still remember, facing photos after photos of truly terrifying calamity, my eyes were filled with tears.
That was a powerful moment for me and, when I look back, I think that that experience had a lasting impact on my life. I remember to this day how it shaped my mind-set and defined the path I wished to follow. Rather than blacken my mind with any thoughts of blame, it brought home to me, most graphically, that only actions united through cooperation and mutual understanding can ensure that such horrors are never repeated. Simple prayers for peace would not work here. So, although by training I am a technical person – a naval architect, or ship designer, to be precise – my life has been devoted to, and defined by, international cooperation, within the United Nations family.
It is a family of which I am proud to be a member. And I don’t mind admitting that I sometimes get frustrated and defensive when others, outside the family, seem intent on belittling its efforts or darkening its reputation. Of course, it’s not perfect; of course, it has its weaknesses. But it is, without doubt, the best hope for a better future for mankind.
It’s easy to stand outside something like the UN and simply point to its imperfections; but doing this achieves nothing. Today’s UN may not be ideal, but it is the best chance we have, to tackle the serious, global challenges that affect us all. So I would encourage all to be critical, yes: but be constructive, be supportive and help us to strengthen and improve it.
I hope that many of you will one day join the UN family, whether in a professional capacity in one of its many organizations, agencies or programmes, or as a supporter or volunteer.
The fact that you are here today – engaged, active, interested and concerned – tells me very clearly that you recognize and understand the importance of the UN system and that you embrace its values. As your careers and your lives progress, I urge you; do not lose sight of them. Continue to seek out the ways in which you can make your own contribution towards the peace and prosperity of mankind, wherever your life takes you, and whatever you do.
I am sure this event will give you a strong flavour of the mechanisms that underpin and shape the United Nations, and I hope it will strengthen the zeal you already have for collaboration, consensus and for working together.
I would like to conclude my short address to you today, by quoting words of Paul Kennedy, a contemporary historian specializing in international relations, economic power and grand strategy. In the afterword to his book 'The Parliament of Man', about the United Nations, he writes:
"The world is not so happy a place. Billions of people suffer impoverishment, many until the end of their miserable lives. Population pressures build up. Can we really offer justice and freedom to a mid-twenty-first-century earth of perhaps nine billion people, one-third of whom may live in squalor and desperation?"
"How do we handle our collective human impact on the environment, with its rising sea levels, collapsing glaciers, and massive weather turbulences, without multinational work? How do we manage global fiscal and trading dislocations without strengthening present UN instruments or creating new ones? How do we push for the advancement of human rights and displacement of awful dictatorships except through the summoning of world opinion, pressure, and Security Council sanctions?"
"So the only answer, as far as I see it, is by trying; by repairing weakness, coaxing reluctant governments to accept change, understanding what works best and where international organization has problems – or even should not be involved at all – and not giving up. A hard-nosed realist approach to the world order will not work here. Nor will an over imaginative idealist belief that everything will be okay if we just pull together. The world needs both sceptical intelligence and vision. Mixed properly, as they were between 1942 and 1945, they can work wonders."
Ladies and gentlemen, I have nothing to add, except that I just hope he is right; and that you, the younger generation, will carry our hopes and aspirations into the future.
It has been a pleasure speaking to you, and I wish you an enjoyable and rewarding event.