8 June 2005
Deputy Secretary-General, in Montreal University Address, Urges New Graduates to ‘Think and Act As Citizens of the World’
(Delayed for translation of text, originally delivered in French.)
NEW YORK, 31 May (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the address by Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette at the graduation ceremony of the University of Montreal, delivered 27 May:
I am very moved to receive an honorary degree from the University of Montreal. I spent the best years of my youth in this university. I was a student here at a high point in our collective history and what I learned here -- and not just in the classrooms -- profoundly influenced the choices I made thereafter.
I wish to warmly congratulate the eminent individuals that you are honouring along with me. I believe that I speak for all of us when I tell you how grateful we are for the honour you have granted us.
My congratulations also to each of you receiving your diploma today. I can easily imagine your joy -- and relief -- that you have at last arrived at the end of your university career.
When I was a student, the University of Montreal was populated mainly by young people like me, who came from families established in Montreal for several generations. We all had very much the same history and shared the same cultural references.
In 30 years, the profile of graduates has changed a great deal. It only takes one glance to see that you come from diverse cultures and every region of the world. A world where the destinies of people are linked more and more closely. A world in profound transformation. Borders are being erased. People, ideas and goods circulate with increasing ease.
But it is also a world of deepening inequality, between North and South, rich and poor, those who have access to knowledge and those deprived of it.
Over a billion people survive on less than a dollar a day. Each year, millions of people die from AIDS for lack of treatments which are, however, available in developed countries. And war continues to force millions of people to leave their homes to swell the ranks of refugees and displaced persons.
Faced with these realities, it would be easy to let oneself be overwhelmed by a feeling of powerlessness. Please, do not let yourselves be taken in by the fatalism of those who refuse to fight. No people are condemned to poverty, hunger, disease, war or violence.
The path followed since the foundation of the United Nations 60 years ago should convince us of the infinite capacity of human beings to improve their fate and to overcome the most complex challenges.
I take as proof the spectacular reduction of poverty in some countries, particularly in Asia. Hundreds of millions of people are now assured access to education, safe drinking water and basic health care, services that were out of their reach only a few decades ago.
I take as proof the reduction in the number of armed conflicts over the past 10 years, and despite their brutality, conflicts today are less deadly than in the past.
I also take as proof the progress achieved in the defence and promotion of human rights. The universal norms which make up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the numerous international conventions concluded since its adoption in 1948 have transformed the relationship between citizens and their government. Nearly 60 per cent of the inhabitants of the planet today live in a democracy and can influence the decisions affecting their daily welfare.
World opinion increasingly requires the international community to intervene when the fundamental rights of peoples are flouted. And since the establishment of the International Criminal Court three years ago, the world now has available to it an institution that is capable of putting an end to impunity for those who are guilty of war crimes and other grave violations of human rights.
The progress made is due to the combined efforts of a multitude of actors: the efforts of parents who have sacrificed to send their children to school, researchers who have managed to increase crop yields tenfold because of new seeds, small entrepreneurs -- often women -- who have been able to use very small loans and create new sources of income, political leaders who braved persecution to ensure that their rights were respected. In many cases, these efforts would not have succeeded without the generous and unselfish support of foreign partners, whether humanitarian workers, human rights activists or environmental experts.
While immediately recognizing the indisputable and indispensable role of individual initiative, I would be remiss not to speak of the primordial importance of public institutions in the progress of societies. Otherwise, I would not be true to my personal history, since I have spent my entire professional career in them.
It is tempting at times to see civil services only as ranks of sleepy bureaucrats and to reject politicians out of hand as being all the same. Let me be the first to acknowledge that our public institutions, both national and international, often bear primary responsibility for their own difficulties and there is room for improvement, to say the least. But the worst response would be to lose interest in them.
Societies need competent public institutions. In order for courts, parliaments, security forces and public service agencies to fulfil their roles adequately, they need dynamic and creative leaders, people able to imagine effective ways to meet the needs of the society they serve and to anticipate the challenges of the future.
We have a poor grasp in developed countries of the incalculable benefits we derive on the economic and social levels from good public governance. In countries that are emerging from conflict, the establishment of effective and integrated public institutions is an essential condition for the consolidation of peace and development.
What is true for national institutions is also true for international organizations. Our world has a greater need than ever before for multilateral institutions able to orchestrate the cooperation among States which is essential to solve problems that transcend borders. How can we end international terrorism, halt the spread of such infectious diseases as SARS, or manage climate change, if not through collective effort where everyone tries to do his part?
It goes without saying that the United Nations and other institutions for international cooperation must be able to count on the best talents in the world. The challenges are enormously complex. The well-being, even the survival, of the people of the world depends on the answers we find to them.
I hope that you will not interpret my comments as an invitation for all of you to become civil servants. Good heavens no! But I invite you all to take an interest in your public institutions, to make your voices heard, in brief, to take on your responsibilities as citizens. And in this era of globalization, we can no longer think or act locally, as if the only thing that counted was the interests of our community. Henceforward, we must think and act as citizens of the world.
My thanks once again to the University of Montreal for this honorary doctorate. Congratulations to you all and good luck for the future.
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