Obama and Ban deliver final U.N. speeches no holds barred

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon toasts President Obama at their final U.N. General Assembly, in September 2016. (Credit: United Nations)

U.S. President Barack Obama and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon delivered their final speeches to the U.N. General Assembly this week, and they didn’t hold back. Obama called out a long list of people and ideas; Ban owned up to some of the U.N.’s biggest scandals.

Topping Obama’s agenda was democracy, and he did not waste the opportunity to blast Russia, the Islamic State and Donald Trump.

“We must reject any forms of fundamentalism or racism or a belief in ethnic superiority that makes our traditional identities irreconcilable with modernity. Instead, we need to embrace the tolerance that results from respect of all human beings,” said Obama, a criticism aimed both at Trump and radical Islam.

He endorsed the idea of international cooperation and the need for organizations like the U.N. to bring countries together under the common goal – to end human suffering and war. Obama focused on the war in Syria and the refugee crisis. He chastised Russia for “attempting to recover lost glory through force” and urged fellow leaders to “open our hearts and do more” for refugees. Though delivered to an international audience, most of the ideas were directed at Americans who will vote in just a few weeks for his successor.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) meets with Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, on the margins of the General Assembly’s general debate. (Credit: United Nations)

President Barack Obama, left, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the General Assembly’s general debate. (Credit: United Nations)

“I believe that the acceleration of travel and technology and telecommunications – together with a global economy that depends on a global supply chain – makes it self-defeating ultimately for those who seek to reverse this progress. Today, a nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself,” he said.

Ban also acknowledged the hatred directed at migrants and refugees, listing his concerns about the way extremists are dividing people within countries and throughout the world.

But is was a small part of his speech, delivered in French, that really stood out:

“[The] heinous sexual exploitation and abuse committed by some peacekeepers and other members of the United Nations have compounded the suffering populations have already taken in armed conflict and undermined the efforts of so many other U.N. officials in the world. The guards must never become predators. Member-states and the secretariat must redouble their efforts to implement and strengthen the zero-tolerance policy of the organization,” Ban said (translated).

U.N. peacekeepers brought cholera to Haiti and sexually abused people in the Central African Republic – both Francophone nations. Ban was speaking directly to those who suffered from U.N. failures. His acknowledgement is a step forward, but did not constitute an admission of guilt.

“The secretary-general must still address Haitians directly and provide a full accounting of the U.N.’s responsibility for cholera, and apologize for its refusal to engage with victims and their demands for years following the outbreak,” said Mario Joseph, managing attorney of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, a lead advocate for victims of cholera, in a statement responding to Ban’s speech. “It is also critical that the U.N. provides compensation to the victims who have lost loved ones and breadwinners, and who suffered immense pain and hardship as a result of cholera.”

In recent weeks, the U.N. has started to publicly accept its role in the cholera outbreak. A letter from a group of U.S. senators and another letter from more than 40 former U.N. officials, both sent this week, urged Ban to ramp-up U.N. work to end cholera in Haiti.

With their speeches complete, Ban hosted Obama and other world leaders for the traditional formal lunch at the General Assembly. The pair toasted each other to mark their last time at the New York event. Obama remarked that it was the first time that a U.S. president and U.N. secretary-general were ending terms at the same time.

“Mr. President, we need to find something to do!” exclaimed Ban to Obama. “I challenge you to a round of golf. But please don’t challenge me to a game of basketball!”

Secetary-General Ban Ki-moon (front left) with United States President Barack Obama, at the Leaders’ Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. (Credit: United Nations)

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, left, with President Barack Obama at the Leaders’ Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. (Credit: United Nations)

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.