Skip to main content
Speeches and Discussions

A century ago, too few leaders had the courage to tackle global threats collectively. Will today's leaders step up?

Share this:

Warning about the terrible consequences of the failures of multilateralism and far-sighted leadership, Ban Ki-moon urges inclusive governance and collective action to solve global challenges.

This speech was delivered at a webinar entitled "Inclusive Governance and Sustainable Development: Bridging the Divide Between Local and International Action". This event in the first in a series to mark Chatham House's centenary.

Dear Robin, dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be with you today, even virtually, to help commemorate the centenary of Chatham House.

For the past hundred years, Chatham House has performed a valuable service to the whole world as a centre for independent thinking, thorough research and – perhaps most importantly – constructive dialogue in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.

Now more than ever, we need the values of Chatham House at the centre of public life and discourse.

COVID-19 has shone a light on the acute vulnerabilities of our interconnected world.

No country can tackle the pandemic alone, regardless of its size, strength or technological sophistication. No country can tackle these global challenges without a sense of global solidarity and compassion. The only way to overcome the threat is through international cooperation and transparency.

Digital technology offers many positive ways to facilitate this cooperation, dialogue and transparency.

Webinars, video conferences and other online platforms can play a significant role in maintaining a global conversation about global problems, and in holding leaders and their advisers to account.

At the same time of course, we all need to be vigilant about the risks posed to peace, democracy and public health by the rising amount of hate speech and disinformation amplified via social media and the Internet during this time of crisis, sometimes as deliberate state propaganda and sometimes as cynical “clickbait” designed to maximise revenue for digital platforms and providers.

This vigilance is all the more important amid the current global climate of populist isolationism, disregard for international law and the abandonment of key treaties and institutional governance mechanisms.

2020 marks not only the centenary of Chatham House but the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. As a former Secretary-General, this holds a lot of meaning and reflection. 

Those intervening twenty-five years, from 1920 to 1945, serve as a reminder to us all of the terrible consequences of the failures of multilateralism and far-sighted leadership.

Faced then as now with a devastating pandemic, growing nationalism, systemic racism and profound economic inequalities, too few of the leaders of 1920 had the courage or wisdom to tackle these threats collectively.

Rather, they retreated into narrow nationalism, tried to maintain unsustainable and unjustifiable colonial empires, and indulged in punitive posturing towards former adversaries.

In 1945, it seemed as if the world had, finally, learned the lessons of past mistakes. The United Nations was created, in the words of its Charter, to “save the world from the scourge of war” and pursue peaceful and inclusive paths to global prosperity and democracy.

Cynics might argue that the fact that war, inequality, discrimination and poverty have not been vanquished over the past 75 years means that the UN is a costly failure. I vehemently disagree!

Even during my time as Secretary-General, I was often asked if the UN was necessary. My answer was always if we have to disband the UN, for whatever reason, then we would have to create another UN the next day! Without a global body as such, it would be extremely different to handle the global issues I have already mentioned. 

Where the UN has failed, I would argue that this has been because member states – particularly but not exclusively the five Permanent Members of the Security Council – have not lived up to their responsibilities, and have placed their narrow national interests above common priorities. It has been very rare that these five countries have been able to come to full agreement on even purely humanitarian issues. As you may remember, the Security Council has not been able to issue a statement or resolution on this COVID-19 crisis. 

In 2014, during my time in the UN, when the Ebola outbreak came to light, I think it took just one day for a declaration to be made that the epidemic was a serious threat to the maintenance of international peace and security. Due to political differences between China and the US, this is not the case in 2020. 

As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the UN, I urge all member states to recommit to the values and aspirations of the Charter, as the only way to tackle the severe threats facing humanity today, from climate change to nuclear weapons.

Climate change in particular is an existential threat that can only be solved through collaborative action based on the principles of solidarity, equality and inclusivity.

This is why the multilateral instruments and processes created to tackle climate change, including the Paris Climate Agreement and the broader UN Sustainable Development Goals, need to be informed by a sense of “climate justice”.

The countries and peoples who have contributed the least to global warming are paying the highest price as temperatures and sea levels rise, making their homes uninhabitable and their livelihoods unsustainable, from fishing and agriculture to traditional indigenous cultures. Yet is industrialised countries that have done wrong to our planet earth - that is what we call climate injustice. 

A country like the UK – a permanent member of the UN Security Council, one of the architects of the international order, a significant player in the global economy and the President of the next COP – has a particular responsibility to show leadership and set a global example on climate justice.

Back in 2019, I expressed my concern about the role played by UK Export Finance in funding fossil fuel projects overseas even when the UK Government was proclaiming its success domestically in moving away from coal-generated power.

I called on the then-Prime Minister Theresa May to recalibrate the UK’s export finance policy so it is fully consistent with international climate trends and obligations, and I repeat the call today to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

I know that many people across the UK, in government, the devolved administrations, business, academia and the think tank community, had been working hard to ensure a successful COP 26 summit in Glasgow this November.

COVID-19 has forced the summit’s postponement to 2021, but there must be no diminution of the UK’s ambition and efforts to secure a meaningful outcome that puts the world firmly on track to meet the target of keeping temperature rises to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius, as was strongly recommended by the IPCC report released in October 2018. 

This must mean listening to and learning from activists at a local level, and providing a platform via the medium of digital technology so these lessons can be translated into international action plans.

In conclusion, I would like to remind you of some wise words from my dearly-missed friend and predecessor as UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. He described the existential challenges facing our world, from climate change and nuclear proliferation to terrorism, racism and economic injustice, as “problems without passports”.

We cannot solve these problems if we retreat behind our own borders, obsess about definitions of sovereignty or indulge in specious rhetoric about “national greatness”.

COVID-19 is a sombre reminder of our common human bonds and vulnerabilities. We will dishonour its victims unless we respond to the pandemic and other shared threats with a renewed sense of solidarity and collective action.

Thank you.

Watch the webinar:

Share this article

Keep up to date with The Elders’ COVID-19 digest:

Sign up to receive regular updates about The Elders’ activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. We will never share your email address with third parties.

Keep up to date with The Elders latest News and Insight:

Sign up to receive monthly newsletters from The Elders. We will occasionally send you other special updates and news, but we'll never share your email address with third parties.


I would like to find: