MONTREAL — The tale of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s first suit has been told before, but it is easy to forget that the 71-year-old South Korean diplomat who walks the daily tightrope of war, crisis and catastrophe was once a young boy inspired to improve the world.
It was with this in mind that Ban brushed off the story for a speech to McGill University students here Friday. As he tries to tackle global poverty, a warming planet, humanitarian disaster and the often dizzying bureaucracy of the organization that he leads until the end of this year, he took an hour out of a visit to Montreal to urge new generations to engage in the world.
The suit story originates in 1962 in the rural village in which Ban was raised. He was 18 and the chairman of his high school’s Red Cross society nearly a decade after the end of the war that split the peninsula in to north and south. He was selected as one of more than 100 students from around the world to visit the United States. He packed light, but within Ban’s suitcase was a new suit that people in his village had pitched in to buy for their young representative in the world.
He would wear it when the group was invited to the White House to meet U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who gave what Ban said was a “brief-but-inspiring statement” that he later looked up in the White House archives.
At the height of the Cold War, Kennedy told the students that while countries don’t always get along, common people generally do. He stressed that it was up to individuals to improve the world, whether in their own communities or in the farthest flung corners of the world.
“I resolved to pay back the people for this suit,” he said, “and for the other people who don’t have a suit.”
He added for the lecture-hall full of young students: “Each of you has your own version of my first suit ... You are not just a Canadian or an American or (a citizen of) whichever country you may be from. You are part of this small world. You are a global citizen and you must have a global vision.”
It was a rare and effective departure from the language of the 193-member United Nations, which tackles the world’s problems through the setting of things like Millenium Development Goals (a 2015 target focused on poverty, HIV/AIDS and education) and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (a 2030 target aimed at poverty, hunger, the environment and economic growth), or through climate change accords, Security Council resolutions and economic sanctions.
One of those resolutions passed last December urged UN member states to consult, consider and encourage the participation of the world’s young people when battling with conflict and its aftermath.
“They realized that youth issues can affect international peace and security,” said Ban, adding that it was the logical next step after the decade-old push to increase the consideration of women and girls in conflict. “My message is that you can turn all these ideals into actions.”
It starts with realistic optimism, remembering that amid the gloomy headlines about the Islamic State group, about strife in Burundi, or Nigeria or Somalia, about melting Arctic ice and global poverty, there are forces for good in the world.
The most relevant modern-day example, he said, is the focus on middle-class youth radicalized and fleeing to fight in Iraq and Syria, which “fails to show that the vast majority of young people work very hard and want peace and justice and they are very good citizens.”
It’s not easy to be a Don Quixote in a dark world that exposes him to “terrible things, many agonizing days,” Ban said. But it is necessary.
“As the secretary general, I have been refraining from using the word ‘frustrations.’ If a secretary general, or a president or prime minister or a mayor says, ‘I am frustrated,’ then what will happen to the citizens?”