Henrietta H. Fore, UNICEF Executive Director
2019 U Thant Memorial Lecture
“Building a Peaceful Future by Investing in Children & Young People”
January 27, 2019
Thank you. This is a great honour to speak today at U Thant House and join your conversation.
U Thant was a teacher. A diplomat. A father and grandfather.
Above all, he was a disciple of peace, tolerance and global co-operation.
After he was denied the Nobel Peace Prize for his deft diffusion of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he said with his typical serenity: “Is not the Secretary-General merely doing his job when he works for peace?”
He knew that peace is found in the willingness of people to listen to one another. To overcome differences. To tolerate and respect diversity.
Peace is found in the ability of governments to make tough choices — and ambitious investments — that are in the long-term interests of their citizens’ health, education and protection.
And peace is found in the willingness of nations to build what U Thant called the “defenses of peace.”
“Wars begin in the minds of men,” he said, “and in those minds, love and compassion would have built the defenses of peace.”
This is what I would like to discuss today — how we best build these defenses not with weapons or arsenals. But rather by working together to support, lift up and invest in those who hold our future in their hands — children and young people. All of them — no matter where they live, no matter who they are, no matter who their parents are.
One year ago, I became the head of UNICEF — an organization driven by the belief that each child protected, each child educated, healthy and safe is an investment in a better, more peaceful future.
Over the last year, I’ve seen what happens to those children who are living in countries engulfed by conflict.
Hundreds of millions are affected. From Syria, Iraq and Yemen. To South Sudan, Central African Republic, Mali and Nigeria. To Afghanistan, where generation after generation of children is growing up under the shadow of war.
To this country where the escalation in conflict — most notably in the northern part of Rakhine state, but also in Kachin and Shan States — means that for millions of children, the promise of peace remains unfulfilled.
Around the world, the children and young people I’ve met over the last year who are living through conflict have a clear message for the global community: you are failing to protect us and provide us with a fair chance in life.
From those displaced civilians forced to flee their homes, wondering if they’ll find the shelter, food, water, and medicine that they need.
To the children whose education is cruelly interrupted by war.
To those who are directly exposed to abuse and exploitation — a violation of their basic rights.
To those whose lives are at risk as the most basic rule of war is being flouted — the responsibility to protect young lives.
Targeted and indiscriminate attacks are killing and injuring children on a horrific scale.
Landmines and explosive remnants of war make every step a child takes a danger — including in this country, where nine out of the country’s 14 states and regions are contaminated by those deadly hazards.
Children are facing violations ranging from sexual and gender-based violence — to abduction and recruitment into armed forces and groups.
Safe spaces are anything but, as schools and hospitals are indiscriminately targeted, along with vital infrastructure like water and sanitation systems. A major change in recent years, as more parties to conflict deliberately ignore the tenets of international humanitarian law.
As a global community, we must ask ourselves the long-term price of this failure — to communities, to countries, to economies, to civilization.
And to children themselves. What happens when a Syrian child has never known a peaceful Syria? When an Afghan teenager has never seen what a peaceful Afghanistan looks like? When 1,200 children are abducted in a single year, which was the case in Somalia last year?
When these children assume the responsibilities of adulthood, will they be willing, or even able, to shape a better, healthier, more peaceful future for the generations to come?
Will they build peace? Or will they perpetuate the divisions that fuel conflicts and wars over generations?
Those of us who believe that the pathway of peace must stand our ground. We must not allow violence and conflict to become the “new normal.” We must step in to protect these children, wherever they are.
And we must work with governments and those who can influence them, and call on them to replace the arsenals of conflict with U Thant’s defenses of peace.
That’s why I’m in Myanmar this week. To build on UNICEF’s work here over the past 70 years. To work with leaders and officials to scale-up support for children in every region of the country. And to do so at a time of heightened tension in some parts of Myanmar.
We believe that Myanmar can address these difficult challenges, heal the wounds that this country has endured, and make progress towards a better future for all of its people. And UNICEF stands ready to support the country’s children and young people — as we’ve been doing for 70 years.
As Myanmar takes these difficult next steps, we also urge the country to invest in the greatest defense of peace there is — education.
A recent UNICEF poll of 22,000 adolescents and young people in Myanmar gave us a clear, and unified message: young people want the same things as any other young person in the world. To go to school. To feel safe. To have a fair chance at a better future.
For millions of children in Myanmar, this simple wish is going unfulfilled.
Half of children in Myanmar reach adulthood with an incomplete education. And more than two million children aged 5 to 17 years remain out-of-school.
This is not only an injustice for these children, whose future opportunities will be greatly diminished.
It’s also a missed opportunity to build the social cohesion, even peace, that every society needs.
Schools are where boys and girls from various cultures, religions, and social and economic backgrounds can gather and spend time together. Learn together. Play together. And build the mutual respect and understanding that builds social cohesion.
So during this visit, I’m taking every opportunity to encourage the government and businesses alike to invest in education for all children. In better schools. In quality education. In education programmes for children in all states and regions. And in the specialized skills-training that every young person needs in today’s global economy.
UNICEF can help. Right now, in countries around the world — including those enduring conflicts — you can find UNICEF and our partners working to provide learning spaces that are safe and protected, equipped with water and sanitation facilities. Training teachers and providing learning materials. And working with governments to ensure that education facilities are resilient and safe.
We can see the results in the children we support.
In South Sudan, I met a young man named John, age 16. By the time he was 10, both of his parents had died. After a difficult time living with his relatives, he accepted an offer to join an armed group that offered him food and a place to sleep. He became a child soldier, and was forced to do things that no child should do, and saw his friends killed in front of him.
After he was shot and wounded in battle, he received medical treatment and help from UNICEF staff, and moved into a UNICEF-supported centre for former child soldiers in Juba. There, he underwent a two-year programme to rebuild his life. John now goes to school. He told me that he hopes to become a doctor.
There is no better pathway to peace than by supporting young people to shape better futures for themselves — and for their societies and economies. No matter who they are, or what they’ve endured. We need their ideas, their energies, and their commitment to shape a better world. In every country.
When I think about what they can contribute, I also think of a young woman named Hikma — a talented 22-year old I met in Syria last month. After her sister was hit by shrapnel, Hikma designed a special leg brace that will allow her sister to walk with a walking device. Hikma has patented the design and plans to make it available for others who are injured in war.
This is not only an example of a young woman taking it upon herself to make life better for a loved one.
It’s also an example of why we must invest in the talents, ideas and creativity of young people everywhere.
The need is urgent. Today, there are about 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10 and 24. And every month, 10 million more young people reach working age around the world.
Are they ready? Do they have the education and skills that they need to compete and succeed in today’s workplace? Will they know how to put their own ideas to work and become an entrepreneur in their communities?
Taking advantage of this demographic dividend — tapping into the ideas, energies and vision of millions of young people — means getting every young person in school, learning, training or age-appropriate employment by 2030.
This is the goal behind Generation Unlimited — or Gen-U. A new partnership — including businesses and young people themselves — to identify and scale-up new solutions to support young people’s education and skills-training. From digital learning, to apprenticeships, work-study programmes and job-shadowing opportunities.
What better way to ensure that every country lives up to the great promise of its rapid economic development, than by investing in those who will drive it forward: children and young people? Their education? Their potential? Their ability to shape a better, more peaceful future for themselves — and for their country?
Because that’s where peace is ultimately found — in the ability of young people to be ready and willing to contribute to a better future.
But they need our help and our support. As adults, our legacy to them must not be endless division and strife. But health. Prosperity. Dignity. Mutual respect. And an education so that they can reach their full potential.
Supporting every child is not only an obligation that every country has — but an enormous opportunity to shape a better, more peaceful and prosperous future for all.
We need the commitment of the entire global community of nations to put peace first by putting children first.
To work with parties to conflict — and those who can influence them — to come to the negotiating table: from Syria and Yemen, to South Sudan and Central African Republic. To this country.
And to spare no effort to replace the mistrust and division we see around the world with a commitment to dialogue and collaboration.
As U Thant once reminded the world: “Generations to come will judge the conduct of those in positions of authority today by the effect that their actions had on the course of human peace and progress. If they wish to have an honoured place in human history they must appear as men of peace and not as mere victors of war.”
U Thant’s legacy of collaboration and dialogue continues through the work of the Trust his grandson has established. And today, I’m pleased to announce that UNICEF will be working with U Thant House beginning this year, on issues related to children and peace in Myanmar.
UNICEF has been here for 70 years. We aren’t going anywhere.
As Myanmar takes these difficult next steps in its history, please know that our organization is here to support you. And here to help you build the defenses of peace and progress that defined U Thant’s legacy to the world — and must define our world of tomorrow.
UNICEF in Myanmar
UNICEF has been working with the Government and the people of Myanmar since 1950. In partnership with the Government and the civil society, UNICEF’s current focus of work aims at reducing child mortality, improving access and quality of education and protecting children from violence, abuse and exploitation.
For more information about UNICEF and its work in Myanmar: