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To Change World, We Must Respect History, Rise to Occasion by Doing Things Differently, Deputy Secretary-General Tells ‘Diplomat of the Year’ Event

United Nations
November 6, 2017

Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, to the Foreign Policy 2017 Diplomat of the Year Award Dinner, in Washington, D.C., today:

Thank you, Jonathan Tepperman, for your kind introduction. And thank you, Foreign Policy, for honouring me and the other dedicated women diplomats with this award. I am truly humbled and grateful. I accept it not so much for myself, but on behalf of the Organization that I proudly serve.

I have just come back last night from a visit to Haiti, where the United Nations has done much good, but has also fallen unfortunately short. I went on behalf of the Secretary-General together with his Special Envoy for Haiti, Josette Sheeran, whom many of you know, to assure the President, his Cabinet and the peoples of Haiti of the United Nations’ commitment to a new era of partnership.

With new leadership in Haiti, in Government and in New York, we will do things differently and grasp the opportunities of a new era. Last month, the United Nations wound down its Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) after 13 years of highs and lows. When the United Nations peacekeeping operation began in 2004, Haiti was enduring profound instability and wide-spread political violence. Today, that picture has improved considerably thanks to the efforts of both Haitians and the international community.

However, the trauma caused by the cholera epidemic and wide-spread sexual exploitation and abuse still remains a cloud over these achievements and peace gains. The United Nations is now committed to working with Haitians across a number of diverse challenges. This will be underpinned by the work of the new Mission, addressing justice, rule of law and human rights, ably led by Susan Page, an incredible American woman diplomat who served in hotspots such as South Sudan.

The tragedy of cholera, the atrocities of sexual exploitation and abuse and the dire need to invest in eradicating extreme poverty are issues that are on the top of the agenda for cooperation with Haiti.

During my visit, I met with those most affected by the epidemic. Many of them were women dealing with mental health issues, stigma and exclusion from the economy, and still clinging to the hope that the United Nations will right the wrongs.

I spoke to a mother at her son’s bed at the Cholera Treatment Centre in Saint Michel de L’Atalaye, who travelled far to save her 2-year-old child. I met Liz at the Mirebalais hospital, who is tirelessly providing the very best possible care to cholera victims day in and day out. I listened to Michelle from Cité Soleil, who is being stigmatized and can no longer sell at the market simply because she once had cholera. And I met with the Voodoo Priestess, who in the past seven years has relentlessly provided the victims and their families with spiritual comfort.

While cholera transmission has dropped dramatically, from over 18,000 new cases per week in 2010, to 250 per week this year, success will require urgent funding to go that last mile of zero transmissions. We will also continue to rely on the efforts of the many unsung heroes working to eradicate the disease.

I assured the President and the people of Haiti that the United Nations is committed to support the country to move from an emergency approach to durable solutions, from assistance to investment support, from handouts to hand-to-hand cooperation for sustainable development, in solidarity with and dignity for all Haitians. This journey will be complex and will require new tools for diplomacy — which brings me to why we are here tonight.

Haiti is just one piece of the larger project of international partnership to serve humanity, to ward off common threats and to seize common opportunities. The recipe for success can be found in the words of Mother Teresa who said: “I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.”

I believe diplomacy is a tool that should bring us together to close the gap between what is and what should be in a world of peace, development and human rights. Or as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: “Great leaders never accept the world as it was and always work for the world as it should be.”

We live in a world of great complexities, which require that we develop new ways of working to respond to those challenges in a more effective, inclusive, sensible and sustainable way. This requires a new kind of leadership at all levels, in all constituencies, from the President of a country, to the CEO of businesses, and even as a mother and father of families.

As Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, I feel very humbled and honoured to support the Secretary-General, António Guterres, a man of integrity, deep knowledge, courageous leadership and humility. A man who has taken the job because of the moral imperative.

And indeed, just like the Secretary-General, it is my aspiration as Deputy Secretary-General to serve the world’s 7.6 billion people and to uphold the promise that world leaders have made: to leave no one behind.

The creation of the United Nations in 1945 in California, in this great nation, was an act of hope in the aftermath of the Holocaust and Second World War. Across the years, the Organization has advanced human well-being and established solid frameworks of international law and human rights. Yet, we have also seen the limits of what the United Nations can do — and tragic examples of the pain human beings will inflict on each other.

Today, the United Nations continues to reflect its 193 Member States in all their shades, the good, the bad and the ugly. To many it may look dysfunctional. But, it remains the only place where all the world’s nations can come together to solve global challenges and support each other through the intricate skills required of diplomacy.

Sadly, in today’s world, everything we know is being questioned, including those values that are at the core of our common humanity. As the Pope once said, we are witnessing the “globalization of indifference”.

I ask you: Can the phoenix rise from the ashes? It is a heavy lift, but I am hopeful. Why? Because our global village has a town hall, where shoulder to shoulder we can lift the burden together. What are some of the key ingredients to succeed? We will need to be truthful, committed, passionate, pragmatic, solution oriented, with a good dose pragmatism and regular reality checks. Always with our feet on the ground and our gaze to the stars.

Your question may be: How will this be done? I would posit by a recalibration of our modus operandi. We will need new ways of thinking and working in multilateralism. How do we navigate the global interests in a context in which common sense is no longer common and in a world in which our universal core values are at risk of disintegrating?

As we strive to make a real difference in the lives of the people we serve, we must hone our diplomatic skills in the Sahel, where violent extremism is undermining security and women’s rights are on the line. Human trafficking, illicit flows, guns and drugs are fuelling terrorism. Our youth is recruited not for jobs but to destroy their future and take many more with them.

In Myanmar, where more than 320,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled as refugees to neighbouring Bangladesh in recent months, our dilemma is stemming the reality of ethnic cleansing and the threat of refugees fleeing.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the country with the highest number of internally displaced people, the transition to the next Government is a challenge in a country that was once the rape capital of the world — if the Democratic Republic of the Congo goes, nine countries are at risk.

And in the European Union, xenophobia and nationalism have seen a disturbing rise and pose a threat to democracy, the rule of law and the very foundation on which Human rights were built.

In all these situations and more we have to be sensitive to history, to people’s different perceptions and realities, and to the need for doing things differently.

At the United Nations, being fit for purpose for these challenges will be embodied in the reforms of the Secretary-General as we present them over the next few months. They will address the skills and capacity to implement the 17 Sustainable Development Goals — our global response to eradicating poverty — and to taking climate action. The reforms will also strive to help us better manage our human and financial resources, bringing service closer to the people. And they will reshape the way we deliver on peacekeeping, assuring prevention is at the core of everything we do. Another heavy lift, which will require all hands on deck.

It will mean ensuring a people-centred response that supports the priorities of a country as they strive to attain the aspiration of leaving no one behind.

So, finally, I ask you as diplomats of the twenty-first century: Are you fit for purpose? Are you the best the world expects you to be? What can you and your foreign ministries do to navigate those interests? Are you rising to the occasion and are you doing things differently? Are you making the impossible possible? Are you making your peoples aspirations a reality? Are you contributing to our collective responsibility?

Each and every one of us has a story. Each and every one of us has a debt that we have to return to the world. I became a diplomat by default.

Today, as a woman of colour, a Muslim, an African, a mother of six, a grandmother and as the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, I owe it to the world to dig deep and to do my part in support of António Guterres to achieve our goals for a more peaceful world of dignity and hope, managing international relations, building trust and leveraging diplomacy in the most unconventional ways and always speaking truth to power for those whose voices cannot reach these corridors of power.

Finally, I accept this honour for those women diplomats gone before me as I stand on their shoulders to carry on their unfinished work in our world of pain, desperation and yet we don’t have the luxury of failure.