Speeches

Please find below a small selection of speeches by Stephen Lewis. Mr. Lewis makes dozens of speeches a year, many of which are not directly related to his role as Chair of the Board of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. This is a small collection of speeches he has made recently about the AIDS epidemic and related issues.

These speeches may be reprinted, distributed, quoted, or copied as long as it is not for commercial use and they are properly sourced.

To browse older speeches, click on a year from the list on the right.

Receipt of Honorary Degree from Royal Roads University

June 19, 2015


Royal Roads University, Victoria, British Columbia

At a presidential dinner last night, I reminded the guests that I was older than Royal Roads and that, therefore, you have to treat me with a certain amount of deference and generosity, and allow my eccentricities not to offend you. At the dinner table as well, was Dr. Catherine Etmanski, who has opened up t his fascinating course at Royal Roads—a Master’s degree in Global Leadership. And it occurred to me as I listened to the discussion that this might well be a theme which I could explore with you in the few minutes that I have at my command. 
 
I always think it’s a little presumptuous at these convocations when speakers attempt to tell you how to live your lives, and exactly what to do as you move out into the merciless world of unemployment or employment, depending what faces you. I’m more inclined, therefore, to rely on some thematic observations, rather than to dictate the assumptions that might otherwise be conferred. I’ve spent a lot of my life engaged in international issues... and I have spent the last few days in New York, dealing with the United Nations. And yesterday at the Security Council of the United Nations, there was an intense debate on what happens to children in situations of armed conflict. And the Secretary General of the United Nations was saying that 2014 was the worst-recorded year in the last couple of decades for children. And that the evisceration and annihilation of children as a result of the Syrias and the Libyas and the Afghanistans and the Iraqs and the Yemens, was almost too heart-breaking to imagine, let alone to comment on. And my mind went back to those 220 young girls—the Chibok girls, as they’re called—who were abducted by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria more than a year ago now. We’ll never see them again. The desperate violations of their little personas is incomprehensible. They undoubtedly have been physically abused, they’ve been raped on a regular basis, whenever the Boko Haram militants felt they were sexually-entitled. They have suffered terribly as domestic servants. Many, many of them are doubtless pregnant and beside themselves at how to handle the pregnancy. And yet the world never adequately responded. We all promised, and nothing happened. We managed to find drones which can pinpoint the assassination of Al Qaeda terrorist from Pakistan to Yemen, but we cannot summon the collective determination to rescue 200 young girls. And there’s something vastly distorted in the priorities of human kind that that’s the case. 
 
While I was at the United Nations just these last couple of weeks, news emerged which electrified Europe that, in the middle of 2014, approximately one year ago, a number of little boys—aged 8 and 9—were sexually abused and sodomized by French troops who were actually peacekeeping in the Central African Republic. And the knowledge of what had happened to those little boys was gathered by the UN and no one said anything for an entire year. And it emerged that at the highest levels of officialdom in the United Nations, there had been damage control, there had been secrecy, there had been a conspiratorial network to suppress the information on what was happening to these children. And I constantly think to myself, what kind of leadership do we have in so many parts of the world? How is it possible that – in our institutional arrangements – there isn’t a greater energy to confront the most diabolical and terrifying dimensions of human depravity? And when I think of what happened to those little boys and what happens to the Chibok girls of Nigeria, I think about the broader issue of sexual violence, which has become a kind of epidemic around the world. It’s not only in conflict; it’s intimate partner violence; it’s marital rape; it’s gang rape. It’s what happens outside of conflict. You remember the terrible rape and murder of the woman on the bus in Delhi in December, 2012 and the way in which that pattern was repeated in a number of countries like South Africa. It’s heart-breaking. It’s incomprehensible. It’s rooted in gender-inequality. There is no struggle on the planet more important than the struggle for gender equality. You cannot marginalize 50% of the world’s population and ever expect to achieve social justice. It won’t happen. 
 
The litany—the catalogue—of discrimination and stigma and violence visited on the women of the world, whether it’s sex trafficking or female genital mutilation or the absence of land right or the absence of inheritance rights or the absence of political representation, taken together it’s a monstrous reality which we must overcome. And this September at the UN, all of the countries will gather to consecrate what they call the Sustainable Development goals—goals that will govern public policy in most countries for the next 15 years. And two of those goals are particularly important. One of them is the elimination of poverty and hunger. And what we have learned as we direct our views to those goals is that the very rich countries of the Western world are not anywhere near reaching the target which was decided on in 1970 of finding 0.7% of Gross Domestic Product to assign to foreign aid. As a matter of fact, Canada has dropped almost to the bottom of the numbers of Western countries in the percentage of aid. It’s painful to think that our country—my country, your country—is so delinquent in this measure. 
 
On the other side of course is a question of what we do about climate change, which will be central to discussions in September. I’m one of those people who believes that by the year 2050—I teach this stuff so I have to read it all the time—we’re going to have an apocalyptic event which will eclipse everything from the tsunami to what happened in New Orleans. Even, in terms of the measurable human impact, to what happened in Haiti. And there doesn’t seem to be a readiness to recognize that we’re fighting for the survival of a planet where our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are put at enormous risk for survival. And just a couple of weeks ago the G7 nations got together and congratulated themselves—it was kind of an orgy of self-congratulation—as they said by 2100 we will no longer be carbon-dependent economies. But what a load of rhetorical claptrap. There were no targets. There was nothing by way of compliance. There were no punitive dimensions if you didn’t comply. It was just a series of aspirational, voluntary assertions which you know and I know never reach implementation. 
 
And necessarily, before I bring these remarks to an end, I want to mention HIV & AIDS, which is a pandemic by no means over, despite the constant talk of the end of AIDS. We still have 20 million people living with the virus to whom we have to get treatment. And they’re fighting desperately to survive in the communities in the grassroots of Africa. And right at this moment in time, the major international financial donors in major international countries are drawing back and the funds are drying up. And I cannot convey to you the human consequences on the ground as people struggle to survive. It’s like a vast Ebola network, except it isn’t 10,000 who die, it’s over a million and a half who are still dying every year, and the effort must continue to be made in the face of these financial restraints which are imposed on those who need the money most. May I diverge slightly to say: we always have money to bail out the banks, and we always have money for corporate bonuses, and we always have money to fight wars, but we never have sufficient funds to help global public health. And that’s what has to be overcome. 
 
The absence of global leadership on so many fronts is obviously disheartening, but it’s disheartening in our country as well. This is the last honorary degree I ever intend to accept. I don’t expect to have any further degrees offered, so it’s an easy statement to make... but I want to say to you that one of the things which is inexplicable to me as a Canadian is the government’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I was an honorary witness in Vancouver at that Commission and sitting in the audience and listening to the testimony of men and women who have been through the residential schools, I was embarrassed—I was mortified—to be a Canadian. The terrible violations and sexual violence against tiny young girls. The man who took the platform with his support group and looked at the Commissioners and said, “I was eleven years old when they pulled my pants down. And I didn’t understand what was happening.” And I thought, in Canada? In my country? And then finally we have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which looks at the residential schools, which draws necessary attention to the more than 1,000 missing and murdered Aboriginal women. And when they produce the report there isn’t a peep from the government. The Prime Minister sits in virtual silence. I don’t understand it. These aren’t issues which require ideological positions. We’re talking about First Nations. These are issues which should unite a Canadian response. And I am completely bewildered by the failure to respond urgently and effectively. And you’re going to have to forgive me for this, but I’m just too damned old and I’m going to have to say it: I regard it as racism. Pure and explicit. Unadorned. No question. 
 
And I’m therefore proud to be speaking from traditional aboriginal lands. And so, so proud to be a part of Royal Roads. Extremely gratified and honoured by the honorary degree. And although I have imposed on you unduly around time, I want to thank you more than I can possibly summon. Thank you. 
 

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