12 June 2006

"There Is No Civilizational Clash -- The Clash Is One of Closed Minds", Secretary-General Tells Graduates of UN International School

NEW YORK, 9 June (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of today's address by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the United Nations International School (UNIS) graduation ceremony in New York:

My dear friends in the Class of '06, it is a pleasure to join you today.  Let me congratulate all of you on the hard work and dedication that have brought you here.  Let me also congratulate your friends and family on this joyous occasion, and thank them -- on your behalf -- for the support and encouragement that they have given to you.

They are all justifiably proud of you today, and I'm sure they have high hopes of you.

So do I.

For you are all not just part of the UN family, you are its future.  Yours is the most diverse school in the most diverse city on Earth.  You speak Hungarian and Hindi, Greek and German and, I suspect, even some hip hop and haiku -- almost 90 languages in all!

As a former Chair of the UNIS Board of Trustees, I am proud of my association with your ideal United Nations -- students of all nationalities, religions and ethnicities living and learning in harmony.  That is what the UN is all about, and you are the UN.  Many would claim you represent the true "United Nations" -- as opposed to the sometimes divided nations, whose representatives usually sit in this hall.

But, I would not go as far as that.  I believe discussion and debate are essential components of human progress.  What is so important -- I would even say sacred -- about this hall is that it's a place where citizens and leaders from across the world gather to consider and address the most pressing concerns of the day -- with words, and not with blows or swords.

Now, it's your time.

Equipped with the diploma that you are going to receive today, you are all well prepared for the next stage of your lives.  Many, if not most of you, are headed straight to college.  Some may choose to meander a bit -- travel, work, volunteer or explore -- before continuing your formal education.  That is OK too!  I have heard Ghana is a wonderful place to visit!

But, whatever future paths of learning and living you undertake, today you step forward as responsible citizens of the world.

Your education, and this diploma, will open many doors for you.  They prepare you for a life of inquiry and exploration, of questions and of answers, of learning and of doing.  I hope they have also prepared you to discharge your responsibility towards your fellow inhabitants of the planet Earth.  And very few of them are, or have been, as fortunate, as privileged as you.

I know that this responsibility is not easy to discharge.  It is always easier said than done.

But let's not forget that the world is truly a global village.  Technology, travel and trade have made us all interconnected and interdependent as never before.  Means of communication have reduced global distances to mere nanoseconds.

Consequently, whatever may happen at one end of the globe can intensely affect large populations at the other.

No, I don't just mean the worldwide gasp at Chris Daughtry's exit from American Idol.  Or even the bated breath of billions at the start of the soccer World Cup today.

I also have in mind the cartoons, published in one corner of the world, which cause widespread and agonized convulsions in lands far away.  Or the acts of terrorism, which are witnessed by men and women around the globe, powerfully affecting their emotions and, sometimes, their actions.

I suspect none of this is really news to you.  You entered high school in the shadow of "9-11".  The "7-7" bombings in London were triggered during your term here.  Wars have been waged in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan.  Needless casualties continue to occur in Israel and the Palestinian territories.  The AIDS epidemic in Africa shows little sign of abating, and is spreading alarmingly fast in Asia, Eastern Europe and the Caribbean.

Nature's hand has been just as cruel.  While the Asian tsunami and the South Asian earthquake disregarded international borders with impunity, Hurricane Katrina showed scant respect for life or property.  Now, the Indonesian earthquake has wrought death and devastation on a large and dense population, killing thousands and rendering hundreds of thousands homeless.

In an interconnected world, none of us can be indifferent to, or immune from, such suffering.  That is why I hope your time at UNIS has not only instructed your minds, but has also opened your hearts.  That alone is the basis of true scholarship and true humanity.

I think each and every one of you can possess that quality of giving back to others -- on one condition:  you must have the courage to believe that what you do really does make a difference.  You are not in a "waiting period" -- waiting to be leaders, waiting to make a difference.  You matter now!  You can make a difference now.

Indeed, you already are making a difference.  You live and breathe multiculturalism.  You embrace diversity and you bring open minds to the table, and I hope you're not going to prove me wrong on this.  People talk of a clash of civilizations.  Your diverse backgrounds reinforce my own belief that there is no civilizational clash.  The clash is one of closed minds.

I hope you will go on to practise in the world what you have learnt within the walls of the United Nations International School -- understanding, open-mindedness, community service, respect and communication across all cultures.  You will find that if you apply these ideals -- the same ideals the United Nations stands for -- then the qualities required to make the best kind of world citizen will come to you naturally.

Your education is the very tool that your fellow men need in these times to rescue them from apathy and hopelessness.  Just remember that there have always been, and always will be, those who make a difference one by one.

Look at Nelson Mandela, who went from prisoner to President because of his unbending integrity, bravery and beliefs.  Look at Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains a powerful symbol of democratic values after years under house arrest or in prison in Burma.  Look at Bono, the rock star who has used his voice to help spur Governments across the world to action on African debt relief and HIV/AIDS.

These individuals' lives can serve as inspiration for all of us to act, in ways however modest -- although chances are that your contributions will not be modest at all.

Dear friends, a century ago, Woodrow Wilson declared:  "We are citizens of the world.  The tragedy of our times is that we do not know this."

Today, we know our responsibilities.  The tragedy of our times would be to neglect them.

Class of '06, I know you will not let that happen.  As you step forward into the world, I know you will be engaged.

I know you will make a difference.


That is entirely up to you.

Congratulations, and good luck!

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