INTERVIEW: “We have to make decisions together, and we have to make them now” – Mogens Lykketoft

Press Encounter by Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark following his formal election as President of the seventieth session of the General Assembly. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

15 September 2015 – Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark was elected President of the General Assembly’s seventieth session on 15 June 2015. At the time of his election, he was the Speaker of the Danish Parliament. A veteran parliamentarian and government minister, and an economist by training, he was his country’s Foreign Minister from 2000 to 2001. As Finance Minister, from 1993 to 2000, he directed economic reforms that led to a strengthened Danish economy.

In a recent interview with the UN News Centre, Mr. Lykketoft discusses the need for Member States to overcome differences and unite in an urgent push to curb extreme poverty and reverse climate change, as they launch the new Sustainable Development Agenda in New York this month and seek to adopt a new universal climate change agreement in Paris in December. The interview has been edited for content and clarity.


We have very different backgrounds but we hopefully have one thing in common, namely, the understanding that we only have this one planet and it’s in danger.

UN News Centre: This is the first time that Denmark has presided over the General Assembly, and it’s such a significant session – the 70th session.  Could you tell us what it means for the country and what it means for you personally?

Mogens Lykketoft:  I think that it’s a great honour for Denmark, and for myself, that we have this opportunity to make a difference – not of course by changing the whole world, we don’t expect that – but I think we can bring in some of the pragmatism necessary also in Danish politics, during this presidency.  And of course we think it’s a very great honour, especially in this year when so many huge decisions have to be made in the United Nations. It may be the most transformative year, of many, in the history of the United Nations.

UN News Centre: When you say you might be able to utilise some of the pragmatism from the Danish Government, would you care to elaborate?

Mogens Lykketoft:  Well, I don’t think very many people know about Danish politics but we have a multi-party system of minority governments and we have to cooperate in order to reach decisions – not only between one or two parties, but many parties, and different coalitions have to work together in order to get things done. So, we know the necessity of reaching out to each other, and making compromises as a necessary way forward. And I think that’s very much also what is needed in the United Nations.

The President of the 70th UN General Assembly discusses the need for countries to act together, and act now, for people and the planet. Credit: United Nations

We have very different backgrounds but we hopefully have one thing in common, namely, the understanding that we only have this one planet and it’s in danger – because of conflict, because of the deterioration of the environment and climate. We have to make decisions together, and we have to make them now. It could very well be that if we don’t act now, as we are defining it in the Sustainable Development Goals, then we will not be at all able to change the course of climate change and degradation of the environment. It’s the whole living condition of the human race that’s endangered, and it takes the whole world in cooperation to do something about it.

UN News Centre: You mentioned the Sustainable Development Agenda which is expected to be adopted in September. It will guide the international community for the next 15 years. What do you see as your role at the helm of the General Assembly to take this forward?

Mogens Lykketoft: Well, first of all, I think it’s a really historic and revolutionary achievement that 193 nations can agree on the analysis and the goals to solve global problems. And this analysis that we are now taking from the UN, it’s not a new one, but it’s the first time that we realise that the fight, the continued fight against extreme poverty in this world, and the fight against environmental degradation and climate change, are two sides of the same coin. You can’t do one thing without taking into account the necessity of acting, and acting now, also on the other.  And that’s a new statement – a new definition of goals.

We are intertwined – we are interdependent to a degree never seen before.

This means that we cannot continue to work on the same path as we have successfully worked on in fighting against extreme poverty in the last 15 years. We have to do it different. We have to make major changes in production methods, energy technologies, consumption patterns, both in rich and poor countries, in order to solve the immense global challenges. That’s a new common understanding of what’s upon us. And what we can do in the Danish presidency is to work as hard as we can to make governments implement the tools necessary for fulfilling those goals in the coming 15 years.

And I think it’s also about – here in the United Nations at the high-level events we are planning in the Spring in this presidency – including civil society, the millions of active people who have contributed to the definition of the Goals, also in the fight for pushing governments to do the necessary things to fulfil those fine Goals.

It’s about involving the business community worldwide and understanding that maybe, in a little longer perspective, the green investment, the sustainable investment, is also the profitable investment you have to join in.  And it’s about leading nations to understand that they will have, that governments will have, to create the necessary framework, the basic conditions for private investors, for pension funds, for regional investment banks, whatever, to invest in this green development, and make it secure and profitable for them to do just that and not continue on the old path of unsustainable development.

UN News Centre: You have served your country for 30 years in various capacities. What do you feel in all your experience will enable you to take on the job of President of the General Assembly and make a difference?

Mogens Lykketoft: Well I have a very humble position in that I don’t know if I can do it the right way. I will do the best I can to be well prepared, to be inclusive with Member States. That’s what I have promised when I was elected in June, that’s the promise I will keep and that’s the promise I have to keep in order to be able to do this right in this very short window of one year.

I think that the argument that brought me in this position was my background as a very long-serving parliamentarian, a long-serving minister both in finance and foreign policy, and as a Speaker of the Danish Parliament. If you can compare the United Nations to a country, I think the position of President of the General Assembly is most like the speaker of a national parliament.

But anyway, for me, it’s a very steep learning curve in order to do things right in this short window of opportunity – to get implemented the decisions so bravely formulated and decided upon by Heads of State and Government.

UN News Centre: You’re an economist by training and when you were Finance Minister, from 1993 to 2000, you spearheaded economic reforms that led to a rise in employment rates and a strengthened Danish economy. Is there anything you feel you can take away from that experience that could be applied globally to the international community?

Mogens Lykketoft: That’s hard to say. I think we have to be aware, of course, that economic development is not a thing that can be reached successfully by one single nation. We are intertwined – we are interdependent to a degree never seen before. And that it’s not only about traditional handling of economic balances, budgets and employment in the individual country – it’s also about the more basic conditions for human life.

And that’s why this new understanding of the necessity of sustainable development is so transformative, even compared with the job some of us did in the ‘90s in order to bring order in the national economies. But I think in Europe, we have had, over the decades, in building the European Union, the understanding that economic development is only possible to a successful degree if you work together. And that’s of course also something that I think we have to realise in the United Nations. And it has to do also with the international trade agreements, with the revitalization of the WTO [World Trade Organization], so it’s not only the rich countries making free trade agreements together but it’s including the less developed countries in a favourable way for them in any kind of international trade system.

UN News Centre: Getting back to climate change, in December, countries will meet in Paris to adopt a new universal climate change agreement. Do you have any thoughts on how the General Assembly can advance that agenda?

Mogens Lykketoft: Well we have said from the outset in this presidency that if it’s considered helpful in any way, we can also bring together here in the United Nations during the Fall some of the key players ahead of the Paris meeting.  But we will see what is convenient, what’s necessary. There is a very good process headed by Peru and France.

Now there are good signs that it will be a productive outcome in Paris. Maybe not sufficient – I don’t know when these decisions will be really sufficient – but much more positive than we have seen in the previous COP [Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change].  It seems to be possible to have an outcome in Paris where both the United States, as President Obama announced recently, and China, and the European Union, and hopefully India and other big players as well, really commit themselves.

And, you are right, the COP21 in Paris will be the first real test of the political will to implement the totality of the Sustainable Development Goals – because the climate change issue is maybe the most urgent. That’s where it’s really necessary to act now in order to avoid irreparable damage to the balance of the world.

And that’s where not acting creates the risk of uncontrolled waves of hundreds and hundreds of millions of people who cannot be continue to live where they live now, because of sea levels rising, because of fresh water access disappearing. So we will really – by not implementing the big goals of fighting against climate change – risk instability and the collective conflicts with that instability that make it impossible for us to mobilize resources to fight poverty in the future.

It’s the whole living condition of the human race that’s endangered, and it takes the whole world in cooperation to do something about it.

So that shows very much the interconnectivity of all the big challenges we are facing. And that’s why I think that now, finally, the big players in the world economy are realising the necessity and the urgency of acting.

UN News Centre: Is there anything else during this Assembly that you would like to see accomplished?

Mogens Lykketoft: Of course there are these three pillars of the whole idea of the United Nations: development – which we have talked much about in connection with the Sustainable Development Goals in this interview; there are peacekeeping and peacebuilding architectures; and there is also the human rights dimension. And we also have to realise that those three are interconnected as well.  You cannot make fruitful development without peace. You cannot make fruitful development without inclusive government, rule of law, respect for human rights. You have to include each and every human being in this world, as far as possible, in the whole development exercise. 

So, of course, working with the United Nations General Assembly is also about working with peace and security – not specifically with the different conflicts, because that’s more the authority of the Security Council, of course. But we will have to work hard in order to modernize the whole concept of peacekeeping operations and especially political missions, conciliation efforts, so we could avoid, hopefully, more costly peacekeeping operations. We will have to work on the peacekeeping architecture, and we will have to work on the reports coming out on women and conflict  in order to make the whole role of the United Nations  in peacebuilding and peacekeeping stronger and more universal.

And we of course also have to work with the human rights issue, for instance, in connection with the huge challenges we are facing with the more than 160 million people on the run as refugees or migrants because of war and because of extreme poverty.

All these things are integrated. And what we will do is to make it as obvious as possible – one, the need for action, and, two, the need for realising that all the things we’re talking about are closely interconnected and universal in their character.

UN News Centre: Finally, on a more personal note, you’ve said that in your youth you took an interest in the UN. Could you tell us what shaped your interest at such an early age? What drew you to the UN, and did you ever hope to play a direct role in its work?

Mogens Lykketoft: Well, that I should play a direct role in the UN I never imagined when I was a young boy! I was interested in history, in international development and politics in general.  But actually my political interest came out of my interest in history and in international development at the time, and in the big issues. So, in a strange way, that explains why I am here also near the end of my political career – because it has always been the holistic view of world development and the wish to transfer also to other parts of the world the experiences and successes of the part of the world I come from where we have actually been able to create some of the richest, some of the most equal and socially harmonious societies in this world.

And I think where we have something also to contribute to the whole discussion of sustainable development – because sustainable development is also about realising that we can’t do everything good with an economic growth of the kind we know. We have to redistribute. We have to understand that inequality inside nations and, especially, between nations, is a route to conflict, a route to not using the resources of billions of people sufficiently. And, therefore, the fight against inequality in living conditions is essential for creating a better world.


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