“Today’s lecture is personal attempt on my part to both look back and look forward at the role of the UN and by that international cooperation. Today is my last day outside New York in my DSG capacity. And what could be a better place to be than Geneva for me as an international civil servant?
Looking back at the last almost five years at the United Nations, my present capacity, I see a period of turmoil, uncertainty and a persistent test of multilateralism.
Let us be clear: the world today is not a pretty place. You all know the rising numbers of refugees, displaced persons and people in dire humanitarian need owing to armed conflict, disasters and governance failures.
You have also all seen the effects of polarisation and divisiveness – from national political campaigns to the work of the UN Security Council.
You have also seen that conflicts have grown more protracted and complex – and that abominable crimes are being committed with impunity, sometimes hardly noticed.
Gaping and growing inequalities have undermined peoples’ belief in globalization and our market economies. Oxfam predicts that, for instance, the richest 1 per cent could own more than 50 per cent of the world’s wealth by the end of this year.
Our globalized world
The world today, in the age of globalisation, is more interdependent and more interconnected than ever before. People communicate and find information across time zones at the tap of their fingers.
Ideas, goods and people move across borders with greater ease than ever. But so also do diseases and weapons, illicit financial flows and extremist propaganda and hate speech.
For every opportunity that this new world offers, there is an equally important challenge or risk.
As the line between ‘national’ and ‘international’ has become blurred, almost every issue debated and dealt with at the domestic level – migration, urbanisation, health, energy – has an international dimension.
Governments simply cannot deliver stable, prosperous societies at home without international cooperation. The good international solutions are indeed in all states’ national interest – even if we sometimes have a hard time making that case.
We therefore need to create the space for constructive dialogue between Member States so that international solutions can be identified and agreed. As we know, many people question whether international institutions can deliver sufficient results. Thus, the challenges we face today constitute a severe test of multilateralism and of rising expectations.
Let us always remember – the United Nations is a reflection of the world as it is. But it is also a reflection of the world as it should be. Our job is to close that gap – or at least reduce it.
Let me share with you how we are trying to do this across the three interdependent, mutually reinforcing pillars of our work – peace and security, development and human rights.
Our peace and security
There is a case to be made that the United Nations Organization, by its very existence, has helped to prevent a third world war, as formulated in the preamble of the UN Charter. It has also contributed to the historic decolonization some decades ago.
The United Nations has also helped resolve many inter-state and civil wars over the years through peacekeeping, mediation and peace-building. Over the past decade, we successfully ended peacekeeping operations in Sierra Leone and East Timor, and will soon do so in Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire.
Still, we have much to do to address today’s peace and security challenges.
First, a number of conflicts such as those in Syria, Yemen or Ukraine, have growingly become influenced by larger geopolitical tensions. In the Security Council, we often find deadlock and division instead of a clear and unified voice.
Here, I very much think of the Syrian nightmare, which has had such a horrific impact, primarily on its people but also across neighbours and the world. Tragically, the conflict has more and more turned into a proxy war. The country’s fate has gradually moved to be decided by outside actors.
Second, there is increasingly a sectarian or ethnic dimension in today’s conflicts. This has made traditional diplomatic tools less effective, and made conflicts more intractable, not least through the growing element of identity politics.
Third, we have seen the dangerous rise of violent extremist groups with territorial ambitions and cross-border reach, also through propaganda and hate speech, made possible by Internet and new social media.
Related to this we increasingly face so-called “asymmetric threats” by terrorist groups that are targeting civilians, UN personnel and humanitarian workers.
Recent peacekeeping and police summit meetings have gathered an impressive number of leaders and generated important pledges of support for our peace operations. We have also strengthened partnerships with key regional organizations such as the African Union, the European Union, and the League of Arab States.
Another positive development is the growing role of women and youth for peace and security. We are now implementing the Global Study on Resolution 1325 and the reviews of Peace Operations and the Peacebuilding Architecture. And we are strengthening the role of youth in peace and security through the adoption in the Security Council of Resolution 2250 in December last year.
Here, I would like to stress that the United Nations must always set clear ethical standards true to our values. We have zero tolerance of the unconscionable acts of sexual abuse and exploitation, sadly sometimes committed by UN peacekeeping troops and other personnel. The depraved acts of a few are tarnishing the good work of the many and the reputation of the UN. As the Secretary-General has said, protectors must never become predators.
In spite of the many problems we face, I feel a sense of hope about our work on peace and security. We are recognizing the changing nature of the world and the new tasks before us. We simply have to adapt to the new global landscape.
Above all, I believe we must develop a culture of prevention. We must move from crisis management to conflict prevention, from early warning to early action, and from rhetorical support for prevention to concrete action.
As Secretary-General-designate Antonio Guterres resoundingly stated during his informal dialogue with the General Assembly on the work of the UN: “Prevention, prevention, prevention”.
Last year, we made important gains and opened up new horizons for progress towards sustainable development.
The adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Paris Agreement on climate change show that countries can overcome their differences and can take action for the common good.
The 2030 Agenda and the 17 integrated goals build on the Millennium Development Goals. But they take us much farther, into key areas such as energy, transport, agriculture, as well as governance, institutions and justice.
Let us remember that the goals are universal. Every country has agreed to be bound and led by them – rich and poor countries alike. When it comes to the challenges of sustainability, we are all developing countries.
The Paris Agreement has just entered into force – a true landmark in humankind’s efforts to address this global threat.
At a time of record heat in the world, Member States embraced this new global agreement in record time. Almost 100 countries, accounting for 70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, have now joined.
Our challenge now is to sustain momentum, do what science demands, see the benefits of the green economy, and seize the opportunity to build a safer, more sustainable world for all. It is time for us to finally make peace with nature!
Together, the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement represent historic commitments to collective, responsible action. Such action must be taken by all nations in the interest of our children and grandchildren and of life on this planet.
We may have a Plan B in life – but we surely do not have a Planet B.
Human Rights and Rule of Law
Let me also say a few words about the third crucial pillar of the UN’s work: human rights and the rule of law, which is very close to my heart.
The global landscape may be changing, but the values which underpin our work remain as relevant as they were in 1945. These purposes and principles are enshrined in the UN Charter and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are also captured in International Humanitarian Law.
Yet, we are witnessing a serious erosion of respect for these core humanitarian and human rights principles. This is happening not only in fragile states where law and order have broken down. It is also happening in countries where challenges such as refugee flows have caused some to even call into question basic agreements and obligations. Not to speak about rampant disregard by many of protection of civilians, and indiscriminate attacks on hospitals and schools in warfare.
Impunity for atrocities compounds the crime, breeds disillusion and makes it harder for societies to recover.
We have worked hard to move the world into an “age of accountability”, not least through support for the International Criminal Court (ICC) and other international tribunals.
We have indeed seen Heads of State and other political leaders brought to account. Yet, not all countries accept the ICC’s jurisdiction. And in recent weeks we have sadly seen a number of countries take steps to withdraw from the Court.
We are calling on countries to work with the ICC rather than against it. It is vital that we do not lose sight of the fundamental principles that must guide us, not least in the area of accountability.
To that end, the Secretary-General and I have been stressing the primacy of human rights through our “Human Rights Up Front” initiative. This initiative also reflects our conviction that violations of human rights are the most effective early warning signs of situations that could escalate into instability, atrocities and war.
This preventive approach must guide our responses to the threat of terrorism and violent extremism. We must not be provoked or play into the hands of those who thrive on hatred and division, who compete in brutality in order to instil fear in our societies, dividing us into “us” and “them”.
In that same spirit, we are now launching a world-wide campaign against xenophobia. This is one of the outcomes of the September Summit for Refugees and Migrants.
We call this campaign “Together”. It is to highlight the strength of diversity in our nation states, to promote mutual understanding, and to help societies address the challenges of integration.
We live in dramatic times. But I want to end on a note of hope.
I mentioned the SDGs and the climate agreement as reasons for optimism. Let me mention some more.
- The growing role of women. This is and must be the century of women’s full empowerment.
- The dynamism of the world’s young people. We should not only work for young people but also with them. They should more and more be subjects, not objects.
- Major advances in science and technology, not least in the areas of health and environment.
- Diplomacy remains as important as ever. The agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries reminds us that even the most intractable issues can be resolved with patience and diplomatic skills.
Ban Ki-moon and I are now preparing to hand over to a new leadership team. I want to pay tribute to the Secretary-General and thank him for his decisive work on the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, and his tireless, committed and principled work for peace and human rights around the world.
Antonio Guterres is known and respected by you all. He is especially known in refugee camps across the world. His understanding of their plight, his knowledge of the United Nations, his political experience – will be great assets as he takes the helm of the international agenda.
Former Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld always underlined – when he spoke about the future – the importance of having a clear vision, a horizon. But he also noted that equally important for the future are the many steps we take tomorrow and the day after tomorrow which are to move us closer to that vision.
It is sometimes said that the darkest hour is before dawn. There are indeed times when the world around us seems very dark and threatening. But then I recall how many reasons we have for hope and how many good forces there are, wishing to create a world of dignity for all.
We must never give up. We must stand up for basic values and principles and remember: nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something.