Ban Ki-moon, who served as secretary-general of the United Nations between 2007 and 2016, slammed the Russian invasion of Ukraine and called on Harvard Kennedy School graduates to take action on the climate crisis during the school’s graduation address Wednesday afternoon.
Ban, himself an HKS alum, was introduced by HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf as someone who has “demonstrated a commitment to public service, the same commitment we see in our graduating students who plan to serve their communities, their countries, and our shared world in a wide variety of ways.”
“Indeed, through his lifetime of public service, Secretary-General Ban is an admirable example for anyone seeking to become a principled and effective policymaker and public leader,” Elmendorf said.
Ban said that meeting President John F. Kennedy ’40, a former Crimson editor, during a trip to the White House as a teenager inspired him to pursue public service.
He said when he came to HKS as a student, he told people his name, too, was “JFK” — “Just From Korea,” he clarified, to laughter and applause.
During his address, which lasted just shy of 30 minutes, Ban focused on the Russia-Ukraine war, saying that the Russian invasion of Ukraine “flagrantly violated the rule of international law that has been maintained since the end of the Second World War, and it has paralyzed the United Nations Security Council and its ability to respond.”
“I am deeply concerned and disappointed that many countries around the world have been keeping silent,” Ban continued. “Neutrality is not an option. You must speak out against this injustice.”
Ban said that he and former Colombian president and 2016 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Juan Manuel Santos, who was sitting in the second row and has a son graduating from HKS this year, visited Ukraine last summer to witness the impact of the war.
“We saw firsthand the terrible, unacceptable atrocities committed there,” Ban said.
Ban told the crowd of graduating HKS students and their families to pursue an ethic of global citizenship as an antidote to the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“A grave consequence of Putin’s reckless and passionate push to resurrect Russia’s past glory, in the absence of compassion, is the current brutal war in Ukraine,” Ban said.
Global citizens, Ban said, “care and collaborate beyond national borders” and are “compassionate and tolerant of other people and other cultures.”
“To be a global citizen and leverage the power of compassion is a significant step as an individual to create a brighter future for all of humanity and our planet,” he said.
“Justice will prevail. If not today, tomorrow. If not tomorrow, then surely in the near future,” Ban said.
The former secretary general ended his speech by stressing the urgency of the climate crisis, which he called an “impending existential threat.”
“The fact of the matter is that today’s world leaders have thus far failed miserably by putting selfish national interests ahead of urgent global needs,” Ban said.
He encouraged HKS graduates in the audience to “challenge” their political leaders to take action on climate change.
“The world leaders must muster the necessary political will,” Ban said. “The developed countries should fulfill their promise of $100 billion per year in climate finance, and all the countries — especially those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change — have access to the resources and technologies to adapt.”
“Please remember that you have benefitted immensely, and you should be ready to return those benefits to others,” he continued.
Ban called the challenge to realize a sustainable future “our moral responsibility.”
“The challenges we are facing now — simply unprecedented. So, our response must be equally unprecedented,” he said.