Remarks at UNESCO Luncheon

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Paris, France
October 18, 2015

DIRECTOR-GENERAL BOKOVA: (In French.) As the fabric of human society seems increasingly under attack by forces that deny the existence of a shared heritage, forces that strike at the heart of our sense of community, I am convinced world heritage holds out a contrary and positive vision of human society and our human nature. So it is not just world heritage; UNESCO itself holds out a positive vision of human society against violent extremism, against cultural cleansing. And I was honored by the invitation from President Obama to speak at the Leaders’ Summit on Countering ISIL and Violent Extremism in New York last month during the United Nations General Assembly.

I know, Secretary Kerry, how committed you are to UNESCO’s mandate. I remember our exchanges in Addis Ababa two years ago on the margins of the 50th anniversary of the African Union, and then later invited by you during the Iftar dinner at the – with the Muslim religious leaders at the Department of State. And I know how committed you are to defending cultural heritage, and I do recall the conference we held at the Metropolitan Museum in September last year.

This is why I am convinced your visit is so important. I’m convinced UNESCO has never mattered so much for the United States, or United States for UNESCO. I believe UNESCO’s work to advance education, to fight violent extremism, to foster global citizenship is shared by the American people. I believe our action to counter racism, discrimination, and anti-Semitism is shared by the American people. I believe our action to empower girls and women is shared by the American people. I believe our action to promote freedom of expression and safety of journalists is shared by the American people. I believe our action for scientific cooperation, ocean sustainability, is shared by the American people.

Despite the withholding of funding since 2011, we have led new initiatives and deepened our partnership. These are embodied in our work to prevent and counter violent extremism, to strengthen youth against radicalization. This is why we work with universities in the United States – University of Pennsylvania, George Washington, Georgetown, University of Southern California – for holocaust education and genocide prevention. It is our standing together for freedom of expression online and offline during the World Press Freedom Day that we celebrated in Washington in 2011; or our cooperation with a number of private sector companies, from Proctor and Gamble to Microsoft, Cisco, and Intel; and of course, in our promotion of International Jazz Day, with our Goodwill Ambassador, Herbie Hancock, or our Artist for Peace, Marcus Miller, who is helping us also make visible our slave route project.

All this, I believe, reflects UNESCO’s soft power. There is much work ahead, starting on the 6 November with UNESCO’s High-Level Conference on Countering Violent Extremism through Education, organized with United States and other partners. I believe this work has never been more important to build a 21st century that is more just, inclusive, and peaceful. In this period, allow me to thank the Government of the United States for its engagement and particularly to you, Secretary Kerry, for your leadership and your commitment. I would like to also emphasize the very important role of Ambassador Nix-Hines, whom I thank. We need you, Secretary Kerry; we need United States; and we need, as we say, we have never had better relations – in every family, there are small problems. There is one small problem that we have to fix, maybe, with you, but I’m sure that with your commitment we will do it. Thank you. (Applause.)

AMBASSADOR NIX-HINES: (In French.) I think I better stop there since Secretary Kerry is fluent in French, and I want this to be an enjoyable experience for him. (Laughter.)

Secretary Kerry, it is an honor to welcome you here to this historic building, which like UNESCO itself, was designed through an international collaboration of three architects – American, French, and Italian. An American author and diplomat, Archibald MacLeish – a member of the U.S. delegation at the first meeting of UNESCO in 1946 – wrote the preamble to UNESCO’s constitution, which we reference so often: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that defenses of peace must be constructed.” We have modernized that phrase to include women, but the mandate is as relevant now as it has ever been.

Mr. Secretary, you know the stakes better than anyone, since you have been on the front lines of some of the most – world’s most difficult problems, from tensions in the Middle East to the growth of extremist violence and the flight of refugees, to the consequences of a warming planet and the degradation of our oceans. And we all know the crucial role you played in spearheading an historic deal with Iran and normalization of our bilateral relations with Cuba.

Secretary Kerry’s long commitment to public service is truly impressive. Prior to becoming Secretary of State, he served in the United States Senate for 28 years. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as a human rights advocate, an avid environmentalist, an exceptional diplomat and negotiator, he has built up a long record of accomplishments – many of which were not quick, they weren’t easy, but they were achieved over time through leadership, collaboration, and perseverance. And since Secretary Kerry represented the state of Massachusetts as a senator, we’re having a New England-style luncheon in his honor. So we promise you, Mr. Secretary, to give you a little time to enjoy that Nantucket-style scallops and Boston cream pie.

Please join me in welcoming the United States Secretary of State John F. Kerry. (Applause.)

SECRETARY KERRY: (In French.) Thank you very much, Crystal. I was staring at my lobster and wondering, when am I going to get a chance to eat it? (Laughter.)

But I’m really, absolutely delighted to be here. Thank you very much, Madam Director-General, for your leadership and your welcome here today, and thank you for your participation the other day in New York at our important gathering. And thank you as well to Marcus Miller for being an Ambassador for Peace, a goodwill ambassador, and for sharing his artistry with the world. And I want to thank – I gather there is a jazz ensemble somewhere. Am I correct? You all got to hear it; I haven’t yet or we will. But it underscores that we are really excited about hosting the Jazz Day at the White House next year. And my Deputy Secretary Heather Higginbottom was able to be out here for Jazz Day last year – or this year, I guess – and she told me that UNESCO knows how to throw a party. (Laughter.) So we look forward. I particularly want to thank all of you – your excellencies, the permanent representatives and ambassadors to UNESCO. We particularly – I particularly and we as a country are very grateful to you for taking time to come on a Sunday. There’s one characteristic about life today for everybody: it is hectic. No matter where you are and what you’re doing, there’s just an intensity to the pace. And so to assemble on a what should be, obviously, a very personal day is very special and we’re very grateful to everybody for doing that and especially after a long week of Executive Board sessions. As you all know, the United States is a proud candidate for re-election to UNESCO’s Executive Board, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to be here, just to talk with all of you, and after I speak formally, to have a chance to wonder around tables and be able to talk with you a little bit personally, but really to explain to you the depth of the commitment that the United States has to this body, as well as our high hopes for the future. (Inaudible) met a few minutes ago for a brief bilateral with the director-general, and we were agreeing really on how the mandate of UNESCO, the mandate of the United Nations, has never been more in need of being applied and lived by and never has our work, frankly, been more important than it is today. There’s an urgency to it.

In this job, I have the privilege of talking with my predecessors fairly frequently. I had lunch the other day with Henry Kissinger and he obviously continues to amaze all of us, but also with my other colleagues, George Shultz and Condi Rice, Colin Powell and so forth. And I think to a person – they have all said to me that they can’t think of a time in history – modern history – when policy challenges have been as wide-ranging and as complex as they are now. We’re living in a moment of huge transformation. And a lot of people focus on sort of how hard it is and the downside. I think there’s more upside than people are really taking note of, to be honest with you – diseases that are being cured, on the brink of changing life for millions of young people who will not be born HIV-positive because of the work we’ve been doing; the fact that Ebola, where it was predicted that there’d be a million people dead by last Christmas, and there weren’t because we came together as a community of nations and pushed back.

In fact, the real difference between this century now and the challenge we face is that there is less potential for significant loss of life at the hands of state actors – state-on-state – and much more as a consequence non-state actors on states and on individuals, and the sectarianism and the extremism that has come with the abuse, frankly, of interpretation of religion. Everybody here knows that Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, al-Qaida, Daesh, have nothing to do legitimately with Islam. And so we need more than ever to come together in a struggle against this, and this is a critical time for UNESCO’s mission – a time to “build peace in the minds of men and women.”

And that’s why the United States – a founding member of this organization – remains committed to strengthening its role in promoting peace and security. And it’s why we so greatly value UNESCO as a platform for cooperation with you – our partners – in advancing so many of the goals that we share as nations. Later this week, I will meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu – because he will be in Germany and I’m coming through at that moment, we will meet there; and then I will go to the region and I will meet with President Abbas and I will meet with King Abdullah and others; and in between I will have some key meetings on the subject of Syria with critical players with respect to that. So we are as deeply engaged as I can ever remember in trying to help resolve some of these very complicated explosions of sectarianism and violent extremism.

Last month in New York, the director-general spoke eloquently at the UN Leaders’ Summit on Countering ISIL and Violent Extremism, and there she spoke about UNESCO’s use of education as a essential tool in order to prevent radicalization. And the United States, I will tell you – and this has been core to our lines of effort with respect to Daesh and other efforts – we are looking at a world in which amazing number of countries have 65 percent, 60 percent of their population under the age of 30 or 35; 50 percent under the age of 21; 40 percent under the age of 18 or less – and they need jobs; they need a future. And in a world that is so connected all the time, every day, 24/7, 365, everybody’s in touch with everybody else’s aspirations and social fabric, but not able to share in it. That makes education a hundred times more important than it’s ever been before. There are probably a hundred and – I know there are more than 100 million children in Africa who need school tomorrow, not 10 years from now – tomorrow. And every one of us knows we’re not yet in a place to be able to meet that challenge.

That’s UNESCO’s mission. It’s all of our mission, frankly. And the United States is looking forward to hosting a high-level side event on this same imperative during UNESCO’s 38th General Conference next month, and I’m very pleased to announce that Deputy Secretary Tony Blinken will be coming to Paris to lead the U.S. delegation to both this event and the General Conference meeting that week. And this effort will be a timely follow-up to the summit that President Obama convened in February, when more than 70 countries came together to discuss effective, carefully-crafted, and long-term ways to protect our citizens from violent extremism.

I’m also pleased to announce that the United States – through the leadership of Ambassador Nix-Hines – will help UNESCO launch an education initiative to equip teachers and students with the skills and values to embrace tolerance and inclusion and to be able to resist violent extremism. And through this partnership, we are helping to bring American leaders, corporations, and NGOs to the table to bolster and to expand UNESCO’s critical work in this area. UNESCO member nations are well aware that groups such as Daesh are not only committing unspeakable crimes against individuals; but they are literally tearing apart the fabric of entire civilizations. They show absolutely zero respect for life, for religion, for knowledge, or for our collective cultural heritage. Yesterday I was in Milan talking with our friends at EXPO 2015, where we’re talking about food security, and we drifted into the conversation about what is happening with Daesh. And I pointed out to them that they too have a critical role, because Palmyra and the destruction of a Roman arch is a destruction of their culture and it’s an attack on all of us together.

And there is no greater crime, obviously, than to take the life of an innocent human being – and we’ve seen too much of that in grotesque ways. We are witnessing rape, not just as an instrument of war, which we have seen before, but now as an institutionalized way of life. And all of us know that if we don’t push back and fight back against this, the consequences for all of us in terms of everything we believe in, all of the values that drive us and unite us and bring us together at UNESCO, at the UN – in all of our efforts – will be challenged. It is stunning to see people who have zero respect in the year 2015, after all of our endeavors for history, for statues, for art, for culture – and who are we without those things? So most of these things have been protected through wars, through history, through shifts of governments, though despots to democracies; these folks want to simply destroy. So our mission is more significant now than it has ever been as a collective group of countries who believe in rule of law and believe in norms and standards of behavior that we have been fighting for for all of those 70 years since the end of the last colossal failure of people to remember what the difference is when we fell into World War II.

So in that connection, I want to affirm that the United States strongly endorses UNESCO’s own efforts in this arena, along with others in this room, we intend to do everything we can to help. And we are committed in these past weeks to even up what we are doing with respect to Daesh, ISIL, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and others.

Now, similarly, we know too well what it means to lose our journalists. The safety of journalists – which is another UNESCO priority – is a top concern for the United States. Freedom of expression is enshrined in the very first amendment of our Bill of Rights. And it is, I think all of you know, part of our DNA as it is yours. And today, we’re actively engaged in efforts to ensure the security of all media workers, especially those who practice their profession in places of strife and conflict. And we fully support UNESCO’s role in implementing the 2012 UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. Journalists must secure our support – whether on the Internet, or in the field or wherever they are trying to report or broadcast the truth. And the United States is also very grateful for UNESCO’s sustained effort to encourage sound environmental practices. Crystal mentioned in the introduction my long engagement in environmentalism, and indeed, it’s true. Before – when I came back from Vietnam, before I demonstrated against the war and led the Veterans Against the War, I actually was engaged in the first Earth Day in helping to organize. And I have been involved throughout my life, in public life, in an effort to try to awaken people to our collective responsibilities. I will be here in Paris for COP21, as I was in Copenhagen, as I was in Rio in 1992. And it is essential for us to move faster than we are moving now. Paris must be a success. But beyond Paris – I explained to the director-general that we are hosting again next year, after Chile’s outstanding job of doing it this year, the Our Ocean conference in order to raise the profile of people’s awareness of how every major fishery in the world is either in extremis or near extremis and how there is too much money chasing too few fish and how we are witnessing acidification of the ocean and other things happening which mandate that we make a greater global effort to educate children, to educate people, and to take steps in our countries to protect it.

I was able to call attention yesterday in Milan to the interrelationship between climate change and food security. You can’t have food security if whole populations are going to be moved out because of sea level rise, or because of droughts that prevent them from growing food or lack of water – and you run the list. So this linkage is something that we have an extraordinary opportunity now in Paris to create an ambitious and durable, and inclusive global agreement on climate change that will set us on a path towards a low-carbon future. We all know it’s not going to achieve the exact 2-degree centigrade that we need, but we also know that we now have, because of the effort we made with China two years ago, and now China’s joining us in this initiative to urge countries to have their independent – their intended national determined contributions announced, we now have more than a 150 nations that have stepped up and are agreed they will come to Paris in an effort to secure this agreement.

These challenges and a lot of others that we face, my friends – gender equality, inequality, a lack of opportunity for young people, extreme poverty and more – every one of them will require a creative, multifaceted, multi-national solution. And that is why it is, frankly, encouraging that the world has been able to agree on a comprehensive 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. I find this one of the most exciting things that has been achieved in recent time because it’s setting a new standard, and the concept of sustainability being embraced therein is absolutely critical to our ability to be able to achieve the mandate that all of you have come here to implement. So – (in French). (Applause.)