Canadian International Model UN and Model RIO+20

Keynote Address by Mr. Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Secretary-General of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development

Deputy Premier Horner,
Mayor Mandel,
Dr. Atkinson,
Executive Director Kathryn White,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Young friends,

It is a pleasure to be here, for the opening of this prestigious and world-renowned Canadian International Model United Nations.

Model UN provides thousands of students each year with an exceptional opportunity to enhance knowledge of global challenges.

Equally important, Model UN is a forum where you learn to understand the diverse perspectives of different countries on international issues, and, how to address them.

I am told that many Canadian diplomats were first exposed to diplomacy through Model UN.  I am sure many of our young friends here – one day – will represent Canada on world stage or work for the United Nations.

Ms. White told me that the great majority of you have been active participants in municipal, provincial and federal elections.  Your engagement in Model UN also shows your broader interest in global affairs.

While acting locally, you are also thinking globally, as young Canadians did twenty years ago.

Around this time twenty years ago, a group of four Canadian children attended the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. They raised the money by themselves.  One of them was a 12-year old Canadian girl.  She delivered an impassioned appeal to world leaders. In her speech, she proclaimed:

And I quote – “Coming up here today I have no hidden agenda; I am fighting for my future. – I’m only a child, yet I know we are all in this together and should act as one single world towards one single goal.” [Unquote]

Her words moved her audience to tears. She subsequently propelled to fame as, and I quote again – “The Girl Who Silenced the World for 5 Minutes” [Unquote].

I am told that her speech has become a viral hit on YouTube. This is, no doubt, testimony to the fact that her message is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago. It continues to inspire youth and adults, all over the world.

The impact of her speech was the beginning of a movement of participation of young people, in important international conferences. It laid the foundation for a powerful mobilisation of youth – across the globe – to engage in UN processes.

Today, youth delegates attend the United Nations General Assembly every year. Youth and children are one of the nine Major Groups regularly participating in UN discussions on sustainable development.

While few of you in the audience would have a living memory of the 1992 Earth Summit, you know that it was a watershed moment for the global community.

The Summit gave us a Rio Declaration, which contains 27 principles.  It is these principles that have guided much of our work on the three pillars of sustainable development for all.  The Summit also adopted an action plan, known as Agenda 21.

Needless to say, we left Rio in 1992 with great hopes for the future.

Indeed, much has been achieved since then. 

Today, there is greater awareness of the importance of sustainable development.  Member States have legislated measures to advance sustainable development. Many have adopted national sustainable development strategies and set up national councils or similar mechanisms.  Schools have started offering courses on sustainable development.  Businesses have initiated reporting on their environmental and social performances.

Within a generation, we have brought millions out of the worst kind of poverty.

Many people are living longer and healthier lives. Child mortality rates have declined.  More children are attending and completing school.  And there has been considerable progress in empowering women, and other disadvantaged groups.

But the economic growth that has driven these massive transformations has come at a high price.  From climate change to the loss of biodiversity, and from land degradation to scarcity of freshwater… In fact, the same challenges faced by world leaders in 1992, have intensified.

In recent years, these challenges are made ever more complex by multiple global crises – food, energy, finance, urbanization, disaster, oceans, unemployment and more – problems that are planetary in scope. Problems that are interconnected.

They must be tackled together.

So, in acknowledging the progress that has been made since 1992, we realize these twenty years have also been characterised by missed opportunities, by complacency, by new and emerging challenges, and particularly by a lack of implementation. 

Indeed, in preparing for Rio+20, Member States are now expecting the Conference to achieve a number of objectives.  First, it should: 

  • generate economic dynamism and stability;
  • promote social protection and inclusion;
  • create jobs, especially for the youth; and
  • protect the natural resource base on which the future of our planet depends.

In short, it should integrate the economic, social and environmental pillars of sustainable development.

Second, it should lead to a more energized implementation of the sustainable development agenda, one of the major gaps over the past 20 years.

Third, it should lead to coherent policies and programmes – at all levels.

Thus, the three magical words for Rio+20 are integration, implementation and coherence.

A new generation of young people now look towards Rio+20 with renewed hope for their shared future on this one planet.

I understand this year’s assembly will include a unique model Rio+20 component. This is a very timely initiative and I am looking forward to receiving a copy of your proceedings.

We are now less than four months from the Rio+20 Conference in Brazil – and we are full steam ahead on the preparations.

The challenges before us are very complex. Yet, from such challenges, emerge new opportunities.

Our problems have stimulated extraordinary debate among governments, academia, civic leaders, business leaders, the UN system and the world’s young people.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Rio+20 one of the most important conferences in the history of the United Nations.  He also stressed that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set our world on a sustainable pathway.

It is an opportunity for today’s world leaders to renew political commitment for sustainable development.

It is also an opportunity for today’s youth to take an active part in decision-making and to create a future that they want.

To this end, the United Nations General Assembly decided to focus on two main themes at Rio – a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and the institutional framework for sustainable development.

These are typical UN-speak.  So let me elaborate on these two themes.

One of the lessons that have emerged from the last two decades is that we need economic growth to lift more people out of poverty to create decent jobs for young people, particularly in developing and least developed countries.  But we also know that growth needs to become much more socially inclusive and environmentally sound.

Country experience suggests that a green economy can hold the key to faster implementation of sustainable development. By pursuing economic growth that is socially inclusive, while caring for the environment, the green economy can build momentum for an economic transformation.


Well, it would mean a shift to a new growth model – one with more nature-friendly product design, greater resource efficiency, lower inputs of natural resources, lower emissions, and less waste.

In short, it would mean changing unsustainable consumption patterns and vigorously pursuing sustainable consumption patterns.

A green economy may also create jobs in new and emerging sectors.

But transitioning to a green economy is not without costs. In some countries, the green economy gives rise to concerns, including concerns over the influence of businesses in using natural resources and concerns over trade protectionism. 

It is important that we consider and address all valid concerns.  I hope in your model UN discussions, you can look at the green economy from all perspectives.

I believe the green economy can offer us a bridge towards both sustainable development and poverty eradication.

But to build such a bridge, developing countries, especially small island developing States and Least Developed Countries, will need to be supported by capacity building, technology transfer and adequate financing. Increased opportunities to share experiences, lessons learned and good practice will also be beneficial for all nations.

The Rio+20 Conference can trigger the necessary switches to accelerate progress towards sustainable development and poverty eradication.

There are some promising signs that Rio+20 will deliver the outcomes we need.

Governments met in New York in January to begin negotiations on the outcomes for the conference.

I saw momentum building around some of the key deliverables, for example, on: 

  • sustainable development goals,
  • a global green economy roadmap,
  • promotion of national strategies as a means of implementing sustainable and inclusive growth,
  • and a knowledge platform, toolkit and capacity building mechanism to support the efforts of developing countries. 

Let me now turn to the other theme – the institutional framework for sustainable development.

In reviewing the experience of the past 20 years, Member States have identified one of the main gaps in implementation – that is the weakness of institutions.

While this gap exists at both national and regional levels, much of the discussion in the lead-up to Rio has focused on global institutions.

There are expectations that Rio+20 may take decisions to strengthen the institutional framework for sustainable development, including: 

  • strengthening UNEP as the core of the environmental pillar, through universal membership, stronger finances and, for quite a number of Member States and stakeholders, elevation to a specialized agency;
  • strengthening institutional arrangements for integration of the three pillars of sustainable development, possibly through elevation of the Commission on Sustainable Development to a Sustainable Development Council; and
  • enhancement of civil society participation in decision making and implementation.

For those of you preparing for the Rio+20 negotiations in the current Model UN, these terms may sound familiar.  So I will not explain them here.

While Member States will negotiate in the coming months to reach agreement on these options, I wish to point out that there is overwhelming support from the nine Major Groups, including Youth and Children, for strengthening UNEP and establishing the Sustainable Development Council.

Like the discussion on a green economy, I would be eager to hear the results of your discussion on this theme in the coming days.

Indeed, Rio+20 is very much a Conference about the future, about today’s youth and tomorrow’s children.

Given the opportunity, new generations of young people have the ability to take forward the sustainable development agenda that our generation has only begun to implement.

But your generation is also faced with huge challenges. 

According to the International Labour Organization, by the end of 2010, globally there were about 75 million young people unemployed. For those statistically considered employed, around 152 million of them continue to live in extreme poverty, doing low-paid and unsafe work.

So, instead of being the symbol of hope, young people have become the human faces of poverty.

This is a collective failure on multiple fronts.

This leaves vastly unfulfilled, the development potential of young people.

Creating income-earning opportunities is an imperative because young people are not only the generators of ideas and innovation, they are the drivers of sound economic growth.

The green economy has huge potential to address this challenge. The greening of cities, energy, agriculture, oceans and other sectors …could create a significant number of jobs for youth.  

A strengthened institutional framework for sustainable development will help make sure that we honour our commitments and stay focused on implementation.

To deliver the ambitious outcomes for sustainable development, it is crucial that Rio+20 be a high-level meeting with national leaders in attendance. Youth, and civil society, can use their significant influence to promote the attendance of their leaders, and demand concrete action for the future you want.

You yourselves should try to attend.

The Model UN, in which you will be participating over the next few days, offers young people important insights into the functions of the international governance system.

Of course, the UN is not perfect. It is a mirror reflecting the diversity of the world, along with the hopes and convictions of its people.

When all is said and done, the world needs a forum where sovereign states can come together to address common problems and forge a common future.  That forum is the UN, and by working together, we can ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

This is your moment to make your voices heard. The world is looking to you for inspiration and action.

Seize the opportunity that the Canadian International Model UN offers you. Engage fully in this experience. Learn what the UN is, and how it works. Share your insights into what the UN should do, and your vision for what the UN should become, to ensure a better future for all of us.

In closing, I would like to wish the Canadian International Model UN and Model RIO+20 a resounding success. May it be a formative experience that shapes your world views, your values, and your choices. I hope it empowers you to help solve the complex global challenges of your generation.

Thank you