My thoughts on Sergio’s life and legacy derive from my 16 years with UNHCR, the Agency he spent so much of his career serving and representing.
But I also speak as a citizen for my country – the United States. I believe all of us who work with the UN preserve this duality. The United Nations is not a country, it is a place where we come together as nations and people to try to resolve our differences and unite in common action.
As a citizen, I find myself looking out on a global environment that seems more troubling and uncertain than any time in my lifetime. And I imagine many of you feel the same.
We are grappling with a level of conflict and insecurity that seems to exceed our will and capabilities: with more refugees than ever before, with new wars erupting on top of existing conflicts, some already lasting decades.
We see a rising tide of nationalism, masquerading as patriotism, and the re-emergence of policies encouraging fear and hatred of others. We see some politicians elected partly on the basis of dismissing international institutions and agreements, as if our countries have not benefited from cooperation, but actually been harmed by it.
We hear some leaders talking as if some of our proudest achievements are in fact our biggest liabilities – whether it is the tradition of successfully integrating refugees into our societies, or the institutions and treaties we have built rooted in laws and human rights.
We see nations that played a role – a proud role in the founding of the International Criminal Court withdrawing from it, on the one hand, and on the other, we see arrest warrants for alleged war crimes issued but not implemented, and other crimes ignored altogether.
We see a country like South Sudan ushered by the international community into independence, and then largely abandoned – not by the UN agencies and NGOs – but effectively abandoned, without the massive support they needed to make a success of sovereignty. And we see resolutions and laws on the protection of civilians and the use of chemical weapons, for instance, flouted repeatedly, and in some cases under the cover of Security Council vetoes, as in Syria.
Many of these things are not new – but taken together – and in the absence of strong international leadership, they are deeply worrying.
When we consider this — all of this and more, as citizens, what is our answer? Do we, as some would encourage us to think, turn our backs on the world, and hope that the storm will pass? Or do we strengthen our commitment to diplomacy and to the United Nations?
I strongly believe there is only one choice, demanded by reason as well as by conscience, which is the hard work of diplomacy and negotiation and reform of the UN.
This is not to say that in any way this is an easy road. And there are reasons for people to feel insecure today. The level of conflict and lack of solutions combined with the fear of terrorism; the reality that globalization has bought vast benefits to some and worsened the lot for others; the sense of disconnect between citizens and governments, or in some countries the lack of governance; the overall feeling that for all our gains in technology and connectedness, the less we are in control of forces shaping our lives – all these factors and more have contributed to a sense of a world out of balance, and there are no easy answers.
And despite the millions of people who have lifted themselves out of poverty in our lifetimes, the difference between the lives of those of us born in wealthy, democratic societies and those born into the slums and refugee camps in the world is a profound injustice. We see it and we know it’s wrong, at a simple human level. That inequality is contributing to instability, conflict and migration as well as to the sense that the international system serves the few at the expense of the many.
But again, what is our answer, as citizens? Do we withdraw from the world where before we felt a responsibility to be part of solutions?
I am a proud American and I am an internationalist. I believe anyone committed to human rights is. It means seeing the world with a sense of fairness and humility, and recognizing our own humanity in the struggles of others. It stems from love of one’s country, but not at the expense of others – from patriotism, but not from narrow nationalism.
It includes the view that success isn’t being better or greater than others, but finding your place in a world where others succeed too. And that a strong nation, like a strong person, helps others to rise up and be independent.
It is the spirit that made possible the creation of the UN, out of the rubble and ruin and 60 million dead of World War II; so that even before the task of defeating Nazism was complete, that generation of wartime leaders was forging the United Nations. If governments and leaders are not keeping the flame of internationalism alive, then as citizens we must.
The challenge is how to restore that sense of balance and hopefulness in our countries, while not sacrificing all we have learned about the value and necessity of internationalism.