United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s last day in office is 31 December 2016. That day will be the culmination of a decade of service at the helm of the world body, during which his priorities have been to mobilize world leaders around a set of new global challenges, from climate change and economic upheaval to pandemics and increasing pressures involving food, energy and water. In addition, he has sought to be a bridge-builder, to give voice to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, and to strengthen the Organization itself.
Mr. Ban began his first term as Secretary-General on 1 January 2007, and was unanimously re-elected by the General Assembly to a second term on 21 June 2011.
In his last remaining days at UN Headquarters, the Secretary-General spoke with UN News on a range of topics, including his service with the world body, the impact that war had on his decision to pursue a career in public service, and his next steps.
UN News: When the first UN Secretary-General, Trygvie Lie welcomed his successor, Dag Hammarskjöld, to the job, he said: “Welcome, Dag Hammarskjöld, to the most impossible job on this earth.” You’ve been in the job now for almost ten years. What are your thoughts on that description?
Ban Ki-moon: It has been a great privilege for me to serve this great organization. My motto was that I will make this “most impossible job” into a “possible mission.” I have been trying during the last ten years, devoting all my time, passion and energy.
Whatever successes or achievements there may be, they are the outcome of joint efforts – not by me alone. The Secretary-General, however capable or willing, cannot do it alone. No single country or person can do it alone without support.
But frankly speaking, realistically, I may have to leave many things unfulfilled. We needed to have much more sense of unity, much more global solidarity and compassion, but we have not been able to see this. Without Member States’ full support, it has been quite difficult.
But, at the same time, we achieved very important visions – like the Sustainable Development Goals covering all spectrums of life and the Paris Agreement on climate change – these are two very important, ambitious and far-reaching achievements. At the same time, I have been devoting all my efforts to improving gender empowerment. When I first became Secretary-General, there were just a few women staff at the senior level. But I have been trying to appoint as many capable and committed women to senior positions. I hope my successor, António Guterres, will build upon this.
UN News: Looking back at the past decade, what stands out for you as your major accomplishments at the helm of the United Nations?
Ban Ki-moon: Whatever successes or achievements there may be, they are the outcome of joint efforts – not by me alone. The Secretary-General, however capable or willing, cannot do it alone. No single country or person can do it alone without support. In that regard, I am deeply grateful to our dedicated staff who have been working day and night – in many cases, in very dangerous circumstances. Without their hard work, we would not have achieved the Paris Agreement on climate change, we would not have had the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. These are just two very important outcomes of our common work. I hope our staff will continue to build upon these by working together with the Member States.
Ban Ki-moon, the eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations, ends his second five-year term at the helm of the world body on 31 December 2016. In his final interview with UN News, Mr. Ban reflects on his decade-long stint, during which he played a key role in helping the international community confront the globe’s toughest challenges.
UN News: In the same vein, looking back at the past decade, what’s been the greatest disappointment?
Ban Ki-moon: My observation, as Secretary-General during the last ten years, addressing many burning issues taking place here and there, is that all these issues, these conflicts, have not been caused by the people. Most of these conflicts, unfortunately I have to say, were caused by leaders – because leaders have not shown strong commitment to the goals and ideals of the Charter of the United Nations, to basic human rights. That’s why people have been very angry and frustrated and risen against their leaders. Had all of these leaders shown more solidarity and empathy and compassion to their people, we would have much less conflict at this time. That is why I have been urging leaders: please put the public common good ahead of everything else, ahead of your personal, narrow or regional perspectives.
UN News: Being UN Secretary-General is a tough job. Long hours, plenty of time spent travelling, gruelling workload. On top of that, you get publicly assessed and criticized for your work quite regularly by so many others – from Member States to the public. How have you dealt with this aspect of the job?
A key achievement of Secretary-General Ban's second term was the adoption of the the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs aim to mobilize efforts to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change, while ensuring that no one is left behind. Shown here, Mr. Ban at the launch of an SDG-related event at the World Economic Open Forum in Davos, Switzerland. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
Ban Ki-moon: It’s been very tough, very difficult. But, however difficult or challenging it may be, if you have strong commitment and a sense of balance and focus on your job, I think nothing is impossible. When I was elected for a second term, the main message from me to Member States and to UN staff was that together nothing is impossible. I cannot do it alone, I said. When we are united, I think there is nothing that is insurmountable.
Many people are asking for our help – people are dying needlessly, people are suffering from persecution, there are so many people who really need our support – that personal considerations fall by the wayside as you have to rush to the scene. In that regard, I am deeply moved and grateful to many of our staff who work day and night on the scene of conflicts and humanitarian disasters. Without them, I think that many more people might have died.
UN News: What will you miss the most about being Secretary-General?
Ban Ki-moon: After retiring, I will be, first of all, free from all these heavy tensions. At the same time, my heart will never leave this organization. What I will miss the most is the solidarity which our staff show for humanity. They are selfless people, they are committed people, and they have been working only for the mission they have been given by the people of the world.
UN News: How will you be spending your remaining days in office?
Ban Ki-moon: I have been doing my work – this long marathon, a 10-year marathon – as a sprinter. I remain focused until the very last day, 31 December, doing exactly the same thing. I will never waver, I will never wait, and I will do what is right to do. That’s my firm commitment to public service.
UN News: Do you have any departing message for world leaders and the world public?
Ban Ki-moon: When you become a leader of a country or a community, or an organization, however small or big, [you need to remember]: first of all, you’re not the only one, you have to deal with people, and you have to listen very carefully, attentively and sincerely to the voices of the people or the staff, and so on. You have to listen to what their difficulties are, their aspirations and challenges – this is very important. And you put your private or personal interest behind the public good, the common good.
There is a saying, which I have been taught by Confucian teachings, which is that if you really want to rule the world, you have to set your country right. If you really want to rule the country, you have to set your family right. If you really want to make your family harmonious, you have to have your heart right. So you have to first cultivate yourself – focused on principles, respecting others, and working for the community, for the common good. That’s what I have been really trying to practice. It’s been hard, I have not been perfect, but I can proudly tell you that I have been devoted to achieving those goals.
UN News: What advice do you have for António Guterres for when he starts the term as Secretary-General?
Ban Ki-moon: When you become a leader of any organization, the first thing normally shown is passion – “I will do this, I will do that, and I will have no problem, I have confidence.” But my experience and my observation from lessons learned over ten years, is that this passion should be accompanied by compassion, compassion for others. Everybody has this passion, particularly when young – it’s a prerogative of young people and some very ambitious leaders – but compassion is much more important. There are hundreds of millions of people who need the support of the United Nations. I know Mr. Guterres is a man of integrity. He is a man of compassion. He has already shown his compassion and leadership during his ten years as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. I am very grateful that Member States have chosen such a superb person as my successor.
UN News: You grew up in far-from-comfortable surroundings and, at one point, in the midst of war, you survived off food rations provided by the United Nations. Looking back at your life journey, what’s it like going from someone who benefitted from the UN’s work to being the head of that very same organization?
Ban Ki-moon: Looking back at 72 years of my life, I think I have been quite lucky. When I was born before the end of the Second World War, everybody was poor. Soon after, South Korea was attacked by North Korea. At that time, the United Nations had sent troops and humanitarian aid. Without the United Nations, I would not be standing here today as Secretary-General.
Looking back 72 years of my life, I think I have been quite lucky. When I was born before the end of the Second World War, everybody was poor. Soon after, South Korea was attacked by North Korea. At that time, the United Nations had sent troops and humanitarian aid. Without the United Nations, I would not be standing here today as Secretary-General.
In the course of my youth and as a public servant, we received a lot of solidarity and support from the developed world, because Korea was going through a very poor stage of economic and societal development.
Since becoming Secretary-General, I have been really trying to show that there should be no more boys and girls who have to go through such difficult challenges as I did. In my encounters with them, I have told them “do not despair, I was you and you can be me – you can become Secretary-General of the United Nations – do not despair because we will be with you just as the United Nations was with me 65 years ago.”
That is what I am now thinking: it has been a great privilege for me to serve this Organization for human rights, development and peace and security. But at the same time, I am very sorry to say that the world is not peaceful at this time.
When I was just 12-years-old, in Hungary, there was a peoples’ uprising against the Soviet Union’s oppression. At that time, I read out a statement on behalf of my schoolmates: “Please help the young people and children in Hungary.” Then, when I was elected Secretary-General, I briefed and reported to Member States on my own experiences. During my terms as Secretary-General, I hoped I would not receive that kind of appeal from young people around the world. But unfortunately, even today, I am receiving a lot of appeals and such letters from so many people.
UN News: You mentioned family. What toll does the job of UN Secretary-General take on one’s family and personal life outside of work?
Ban Ki-moon: Family is the core of the core. You start with family. Without the core of family, you cannot have a community, you cannot have a nation, you cannot have a world. So we must start from family: love and support.
At the same time, I should pay tribute to UN staff in that respect – they have their own families and sometimes they have to sacrifice their familial obligations because of work – for that, I am deeply appreciative, as I am grateful to my wife and children. But, only with this sense of commitment and sense of sacrifice for others and for humanity can we make this world better.
UN News: When historians assess your time as Secretary-General of the United Nations what do you hope that they’ll write?
Ban Ki-moon: As you said, it is historians, as well as Member States and others, who will evaluate and assess my legacy and my commitment. So, I am humbled to leave everything to the historians.
Having said that, I can definitely say that I have given all my passion and time and energy, and devoted everything I had, putting the public good ahead of my personal or familial obligations. That’s one thing.
I have been trying to resolve issues through inclusive dialogue, rather than speaking out on my own vision, initially. I first wanted to listen to our staff, senior advisors and Member States. Then, only after that, did I formulate my own vision, and that’s a very important one.
I have learned one wisdom: if you want to become a good leader, then when something is done perfectly and successfully, you should not claim it as only your success, it would be much better and harmonious if everybody knows that he or she was part of this process, and that he or she has contributed, and they should have a proud moment, that “I have done it” moment.
UN News: What do you want to do once you finish being Secretary-General?
Ban Ki-moon: I’m open-minded. As a former Secretary-General, of course, I have learned a lot of lessons. Whatever would be necessary, wherever it would be necessary, I will not spare any effort to do something that is right for my country, or an even greater community, beyond my country. I think it’s proper for any former Secretary-General to render his or her support to a common cause.