United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was among the first to welcome Rotary members and friends to the 107th Rotary Convention, heralded as one of the largest-ever gatherings of Rotarians and the most multicultural assembly of nonprofit leaders in Korea.
He offered a message of gratitude: “Rotarians do remarkable work around the world,” Ban told the thousands of attendees gathered at KINTEX, the Korea International Exhibition and Convention Center in Goyang city, on the outskirts of Seoul. “You help the United Nations reach our goals, and you help the world understand the United Nations.”
He described Allan Albert, the former Rotary president who, 70 years ago this month, participated in discussions that led to the formation of the UN, as “a passionate defender of human understanding who called for people to be real factors in real peace. Together we are working to realize this vision.”
Ban, the Korean national who has led the UN and its ambitious development agenda since 2007, thanked Rotary for its leadership and commitment to humanitarian causes. He highlighted Rotary’s contributions to the fight against polio, in both funding and advocacy.
“The United Nations is proud to be a partner in ending this debilitating disease,” he said, referring to UNICEF’s role in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. “We must keep up the fight. Please continue to raise your voices, hold your governments accountable, and campaign hard.”
The opening session on Sunday morning was infused with local flavor: drummers, dancers, and martial artists warmed up the crowd with K-pop and tae kwon do before the formal remarks began.
Paul Harris makes a surprise appearance
An animated hologram of Rotary founder Paul Harris joined RI President K.R. Ravindran on stage. After telling Harris about Rotary’s progress, Ravindran greeted attendees and reflected on his term as Rotary president, including a recent decision by the Council on Legislation to grant clubs more flexibility and autonomy.
“The traditional Rotary model, of weekly meetings and meals, may not be a viable proposition to the professionals of all ages we most need to attract,” Ravindran said. “Your Council made more progressive changes to our constitution than any Council in history — with an eye to a future in which the business of Rotary will be conducted on a level more ambitious than ever before.”
Special guests included prime ministers Hwang Kyo-ahn of South Korea, and Ranil Wickremesinghe of Ravindran’s native Sri Lanka.
Hwang, who was the charter president of the Rotary Club of Seoul before he served as minister of justice, spoke about Rotary’s history and presence in South Korea, now the fourth-strongest Rotary country in terms of membership and one of the strongest supporters of The Rotary Foundation, per capita.
“Ours is a nation built on the ruins of war,” he said. “Our recovery from those dark days has been called a miracle, but it is the kind of miracle that Rotary knows well: of many hands working together to achieve a common goal that could not have been achieved alone.”
Wickremesinghe described polio’s unlikely exit from his own war-torn nation 20 years ago. He also gave a government official’s perspective on the interplay between government and service organizations such as Rotary.
“A Rotary club provides a country with something that every community in every country needs.” He said it complements the government’s work “by offering a way for people who want to make a difference in their community to do it for themselves, together, without having to run for office first.”
Walk for peace
In the days and weeks before the convention kicked off, an estimated 43,000 attendees from 160 countries arrived in Seoul, announcing their presence with a parade through the city center on Saturday.
Several thousand participants, many clad in the traditional attire of their home countries, gathered in front of city hall to join in the 3K Walk for Peace. The route to Gwanghwamun Square led participants past the “Rotary Way” photography exhibit featuring images of Rotary service, set against the mountainous backdrop of Bukhansan National Park in the distance.
Sue and Jim Dunlop, members of the Rotary Club of Geelong East, Victoria, were proud to represent Australia at the walk. Before they arrived in Seoul, the Dunlops explored the Korean countryside on one of the Host Organization Committee tours, sampling local fare and mingling with fellow members.
Sue said she savored the vibrant multicultural atmosphere that filled Gwanghwamun Square on Saturday. Her musings about the 3K Walk for Peace could have applied just as easily to the convention itself: “If events like this could happen all the time, in every city around the world, wouldn’t it be wonderful?”