Thank you for giving me this unusual honor of being the chief guest at the inauguration of the United Nations Club. I say this is unusual, because when I was in school, Chief Guests usually had beards, or grey hair or wore the national outfit (with or without a red satakaya). So, thank you for having me here this afternoon.
You may recall, that during MUN workshops, I’ve told you numerous times, to avoid reading off paper when making speeches. Now today, I might be guilty of doing exactly that. I must confess, I was a little nervous about writing this speech. This is partly because, I always value opportunities to speak to people younger than I am and especially people like you who are still in school, because I was in school, not too long ago and I know that what you hear or do not hear, at this time of your life, could really have an impact on the kind of people you turn out to be as you grow older.
Growing up, MUN along with debating and drama played a very important part of my childhood. I went for my first MUN conference exactly 10 years ago. I was in grade 10 and it was COMUN 2006. Now, SLMUN didn’t even exist at this point. I had joined debating in school from grade 6, but at that time, in school, our seniors wouldn’t let anyone lower than grade 10 to take part in MUN, because they thought we were ‘too young’ and ‘not ready yet’. So when we were finally allowed to take part in COMUN, it was frankly, a big, big deal. As I entered the conference, I saw lots of kids more or less my age, most were older, some, younger, looking extremely stylish, yet important, dressed up in suits and sari, at an extremely posh hotel in Colombo pretending to be diplomats of countries from around the world, talking about problems that were affecting various parts of the world I had never been to and were discussing how to solve them, how to make the world a better place.
I was the delegate of Brazil, in the 3rd Committee of the General Assembly. My greatest aspiration at the time was to at least ask one point of information during the whole conference. I did end up asking more than one question and I think I even made a very nervous speech on the 2nd day of conference. But at the end of the three days, I remember, going back home reading all the autographs I had collected from people I had barely spoken to, and thinking to myself. Oh my God, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, I want to dress up in a fancy suits, go big hotels and conference halls around the world and discuss world problems and find solutions that will help millions of people. Now, this ambition remained with me for a long time. If you asked any of my friends from the O/L classes, they’d tell you that I told everyone that asked; and you know that when you’re a young girl or boy in Sri Lanka, we get asked “putha what do you want to be when you grow up” a lot. I always said I wanted to be a diplomat, and ultimately I wanted to be the Secretary General of the United Nations. I’m guessing some of them might still remember, because it was actually a big joke in our class. Kofi Annan was the UN Secretary General at the time, and my friends called me Kofi Wanniarachchi and all that sort of thing and I must confess, I was loving it!
I continued to do MUN for the rest of my school life and for quite some time after as well. After a while, with a lot of help from the seniors in school, I got the hang of making speeches, I got used to pretending I was not nervous even when I was, (like today) doing research, or pretending I had done my research even when I hadn’t, working on resolutions and position papers and so on. I also managed to bag a few awards every now and then and got to travel to different countries for MUN, and visit places I never thought I’d be able to, and meet so many wonderful people. But when I took part COMUN for the 1st time in the year 2006, as the delegate of Brazil in the 3rd Committee I had absolutely, no idea that 8 years later, in 2014, I’ll be able to speak in that same committee, not at MUN, but during a session of the UN General Assembly in New York, at the UN Headquarters, as a member of the National Delegation from Sri Lanka to the UN General Assembly that year.
I felt that as an official Sri Lankan Youth Delegate to the UN, I’d be able to join negotiations that would help make the world a better place for millions of young people around the world and to be honest, in some ways we were able to influence important discussions in little ways. But the truth is, these negotiations at the UN and elsewhere could also be extremely slow and frustrating, with member states discussing for hours over where to place a comma or add a preposition and sometimes you find yourself wondering if it really does have an actual impact on the ground. You see how some states, invariably have more power than the others and manage to ensure that their interests are always upheld. You see how countries fail to reach consensus on the war in Syria even after over 400,000 people have been killed in a matter of years. We witness the rise of violent extremism like with ISIS and Boko Haram and see that not enough is being done to address climate change, we see countries doing mass violations of human rights going scot free and holding positions of power within the UN.
All of this can be extremely frustrating and people are always quick to criticize the UN for Its lack of initiative, its inherent biases and so on and not all of these allegations are unfounded.
Young and rather idealistic, these frustrations also affect me. My life’s ambition is no longer to be a diplomat, let alone be the UN Secretary General. I am a lot more skeptical of the impact big conferences can have and I’ve realized that I’m too impatient, for these resolutions to translate into action. I’ve also begun to understand the power of grassroots action and community mobilizing.
But the truth is also that, in the middle of all of this frustration we sometimes forget to notice what we have achieved over the years and the role that the UN has sometimes played in facilitating these victories. The UN was formed in 1945 after world war two – which killed over 60 million people (to put things into perspective that’s almost 3 times Sri Lanka’s population) and the very fact that these countries which were at war, causing so much destruction to each other and inevitably to themselves, have a platform to regularly meet, discuss and even just take photo together, for me is in itself special. Also, data shows that the world has never been more educated with more young people being in schools than ever before in history. The world is also healthier than ever before, with diseases like polio and Malaria now being treated and less women die giving birth. Poverty and illiteracy have been halved since the year 2000. Today there are international conventions laying groundwork for rights of children, of women, of migrant workers or people with disabilities and these are affecting domestic policies and making human lives better and safer. So yes: if you take a step back for a second, and look at real data, it’s hard to deny that despite all the lows, there has also been progress. It has been frustratingly slow, but there has. And many of these changes came about as a result of the kind of resolutions you debate at MUN, happening at real meetings with real diplomats, because that’s how the world’s priorities get shaped, and donor money gets directed and governments are held accountable.
I know I haven’t given you a black and white review of what the UN is like, I’ve probably confused you even more. I’ve told you it’s awesome, and then that it’s horrible, but again that it’s kind of awesome. But that’s often how the real world works. There is almost never any black or white. There’s just grey. The truth is always somewhere in the middle. So on a different note, always learn to question everything and not accept things at face value. Remember that your ideas are often shaped by what you’ve heard growing up, how your parents and teachers felt, the movies you watched, the books you’ve read and so on. Always bear in mind; that maybe if you had read a different book or had parents who thought differently or were born in a different context, your views, (and these could be about anything) may have been extremely different. Always be willing to accept, that maybe, you are wrong.
I know I’ve already spoken for quite long, and by now you’re probably getting tired of listening to me. I also know that, at this point of your life, you have bigger priorities than climate change, world hunger, nuclear disarmament or abject poverty. Like who’s who is dating who, how do it fit in or how to get more people to follow you on Instagram.
But before I sit down, I also want to make just one more point, real quick and it’s about gender. I’ve identified myself as a feminist for some years now and sometimes, people get very confused when I say this. I think this is partly because I’m a man. It’s almost like if I tell them I robbed a bank or killed a cute cat. Not all of these people that are surprised are boys or men, they are sometimes girls and women many of them are nice people with good intentions.
I don’t mean to sound like a ‘mansplainer’, which I know is a word, people use these days to describe men who condescendingly explain to women, things they already know of. I also don’t mean to say that as someone who grew up in an extremely patriarchal society, I am completely devoid of sexism that we’ve been socialized into understanding is normal.
I don’t think I need to explain to a room a room full of girls about gender inequality. I’m sure a lot of you are already questioning gender based assumptions which are so widespread in our society where women are paid less than men for doing the same work, whether it’s the estate workers in the plantation communities or in boards of directors of big business conglomerates. Little girls are married off in this country, sometimes even before they complete their O’Levels and while we boast of having the world’s first woman Prime Minister and also an executive President who was a woman, do you know how many women are in the Sri Lankan parliament today? 13 out of 225. We speak of the UN, in its existence since 1945, how many women do you think have held the position of position of Secretary General? That’s right, none and do you think that’s because they’re aren’t women qualified enough to take up that position? We know the answer is no.
Of course, Presidents and Secretaries General who are women are a great symbols and great figures to provide leadership for the movement but there are so many systematic problems that need to be addressed as well. Women in this country are often told that they’re dreams are valid, but not as important as the boys’ dreams- this not really told to your face but our society is in many ways built in this way. They’re taught at a very young age to put their dreams behind for others. Boys and men are leaders and girls are told to take the second row.
The world has a long way to go in the fight for gender equality but always remember that you have the same rights as anyone, that your dreams matter as much as anyone else’s and what you make of your life is always, always, up to you. People always tell me women don’t need sama thana, that is equality, but nisi thana, that’s the ‘appropriate’ place- but the truth is women don’t get to decide what this nisithana is — men do. Whether it’s in a parliament with 212 more men than women or in communities or families where often there are unequal power relations between men and women.
And there is no nisi thana before law, everyone is equal before the law, and there’s no nisi thana for opportunity, everyone should have equal access to opportunity.
To conclude, MUN has really helped me in so many different ways. It helped me to understand more about the world but also about myself and the things that I care about. It’s given me so many opportunities in life and has given me confidence and even shaped what I want to do in life.
I recently lost a very good friend of mine. He was the Secretary General of the 1st Sri Lankan Youth Model United Nations and was the Sri Lankan Youth Delegate to the United Nations in 2013. Adhil has taught me so much in death as he has in life and his loss has got me thinking a lot about what I’d like to try and accomplish before I eventually die and how I’d like people to remember me. I’m still trying to figure this out but I know that I’d like change at least a few little things about this world before I eventually do. Not big things, little things. My final advice for you is to whatever you end up doing in life, whether its business, politics or building bridges, if you end up becoming an astronaut, a teacher, a doctor or a painter always try to change at least a few things that you dislike about the world. You can always start with the UN club. MUN in this country is often perceived as elitist and inaccessible to the majority of young people in this country and we know that this allegation not without reason.
I’m sure being a part of the UN Club and doing MUN would help shape you in many different ways. I congratulate the board that was appointed today and I wish the best of luck to everyone. Thank you so much, once again for having me.