Transcript of first Press Conference by the President of the General Assembly

United Nations Headquarters, New York


Miroslav Lajčák: Thank you very much and good afternoon. Thank you for coming. I have arrived this morning in Geneva for my first official trip as the President of the General Assembly. I will spend three days here, and this meeting with you is the first one I am having here – which I find symbolic. I want to use this opportunity to share with you, first, my priorities for the seventy-second session of the General Assembly, and also some reflections on the General Debate that finished in New York recently.

First, the theme of the seventy-second session of the General Assembly, as you might know, is “Focusing on people: striving for peace and a decent life for all on a sustainable planet”. And this theme incorporates three overarching principles of my presidency.

The first one is people, and the fact that we must not forget for a second that everything we do, we do with the aim to improve the lives of people on this planet. The second principle is balance. It is clear from the theme that we want to pay equal attention to all three pillars on which the United Nations is built: peace and security, development and human rights. And the third principle is quality. Since there has been a proliferation of activities, events and side-events, and meetings and side-meetings in the United Nations system, we want to make sure that we focus on quality and outcome rather than on the number of events.

Speaking about priorities, I would like to mention four points that I consider particularly relevant for the seventy-second session. The first one is peace – needless to explain why peace matters. Unfortunately, we cannot say that the world is a peaceful place, and as the Secretary-General put it in his statement at the opening of the General Debate, we have a world in pieces rather than the world at peace. This is why we want to pay particular attention to prevention, prevention of conflicts, and I am going to launch a roadmap that will include a number of activities and debates with the aim to highlight how well – or not so well – we are doing when it comes to our ability to avoid conflicts: what tools do we have at our disposal, how well are we using those tools, what is missing in our tool box, and what can we do to improve this. I want to have a very open discussion about how successful the United Nations is when it comes to the prevention of conflicts. The whole process will culminate in April next year, when we will hold a high-level meeting on sustaining peace and prevention. That is the priority number one. When it comes to the performance of the United Nations, I would say it is uneven. There are areas where we are clearly a global leader and trendsetter, but unfortunately peace is not among them, and therefore I want to highlight the importance of peace.

The second priority is migration, and this is also the issue or topic that brings me to Geneva today. We have been mandated to prepare two important documents, the global compacts on refugees and on migration. The one on migration has been [inaudible]. The responsibility has been given to the General Assembly. The process is on-going, and by September next year we shall be able to present the first ever global framework dealing with migration for endorsement. Migration, as you all know, is a global phenomenon, but we do not have global governance. We deal with migration on the basis of individual Member States, and we are reacting rather than being proactive and being able to manage and to govern. This is the ambition of the process.

As I said, the process is already underway, but we will be switching to a decisive phase. I am here in Geneva to chair the second multi-stakeholder meeting to which we invite civil society, private sector, academia – a number of participants and stakeholders – to hear their opinions and their views. We will have four more of those meetings throughout the seventy-second session. I will also take part in and address the sixth and the last thematic session, which is the inter-governmental part of the process. This will take place here on Thursday and on Friday. It is very important for me and for us, for the United Nations, to demonstrate through this global compact on safe, orderly and regular migration, that the UN is the right address to find global solutions for global challenges.

The third priority ,that I want to mention, is obviously the Sustainable Development Goals, and the Paris Climate Agreement implementation. Here, we are in a much better place because we have a strategy and the process of implementation is going on well. We have more than 40 countries that are going to present their national voluntary programmes in the course of the seventy-second session and we are having reviews of particular SDGs. So here, what needs to be done is to stay focused and maintain the momentum.

Speaking about the SDGs, the particular aspect I want to focus on is financing for development, because in order to implement the 2030 Agenda, we require trillions of US dollars, which are there, but are not linked to the implementation of the SDGs. So if we continue with the implementation at the current pace and the current budget, we will not get there, we will not achieve our goal. We need to attract money, attract the business sector, attract the commercial sphere. We have to make the SDGs implementation commercially attractive. That is one of the priorities for me and for the seventy-second session.

Another priority would be water, not only because we have a regular review of SDG 6 on water, but also because on 22 March 2018, we will be launching an International Decade of Water for Sustainable Development and this is also an opportunity to highlight the importance of water for this planet, not only for development but also for peace.

And the third aspect that I consider very important is youth, young generations and the importance of the young generations’ involvement in the implementation of the SDGs.

And finally, the fourth point I want to mention is UN reforms. You may know that, apart from two ongoing processes that have been around for some time already, which is the Security Council reform and the revitalization of the UN General Assembly, there are three particular reform proposals that the Secretary-General is presenting to the General Assembly now, during the seventy-second General Assembly session, namely his reform proposals on the peace and security architecture, on development, and on management. And of course, the moment he presents them to the Member States, they will be dealt with, and they will be considered by the General Assembly; and I hope and believe we will be able to provide the necessary support for these reforms so that they will be adopted. For me, again, this would send a strong signal that the United Nations is able to evolve, to adapt to the changing environment and to become more modern and efficient, and that is what is expected from us.

So this is about the priorities and about the things that I believe will be dominant throughout the seventy-second session.

Let me also share with you some reflections on the General Debate that finished recently in New York. The good thing is that for the first time in 11 years, we had all Member States and all observers taking the floor at the General Assembly. We had the highest number of speakers in history: 196 speakers, out of which we had 77 Heads of State, 37 Heads of Government, and 60 Ministers. And it might be of interest to you to hear what topics were most frequently mentioned by the speakers. The highest number of references was dedicated to the Sustainable Development Goals and climate change – more than 140 speakers referred to it. The second cluster that was very frequently mentioned was terrorism and nuclear disarmament – more than 120 speakers mentioned this topic. Lots of attention was given to the process of UN reforms – more than 110 speakers; and also the issue of migration was mentioned by more than 100 speakers. This shows that the priorities of the seventy-second session were reflected by the speakers to a great extent. And what is also important is that many speakers spoke about relevance of the United Nations, about the need to have a UN that is strong, that is coherent and efficient. Many speakers made a point of unstable external environment, that calls for the United Nations to be the place where we can meet and where we can find answers to global challenges. And the fact that we had this high turnout and high participation is a good testimony to this. And of course, this is also my priority.

Thank you very much for your attention, and I am ready to answer your questions.

Q: Good afternoon. Many thanks for giving us the opportunity to talk to you and to ask you questions. I think that’s the first time for a couple of years that the President of the General Assembly shows up here in the Press Room III and gives the journalists this opportunity. Many thanks.

Mr. President, I have two questions. First on your priorities, conflict prevention and sustaining peace. Could you, please, elaborate on the role of the General Assembly in this process? Could there be a specific role for the General Assembly? And secondly, I’d like to ask you about the general debate: what was your reaction when the President of the United States Donald Trump was talking about the total destruction of another UN Member State in the General Assembly? What was your initial reaction, what came to your mind when you were presiding over this session of the General Assembly? Thanks.

ML: Thank you. First, on the General Assembly’s role in conflict prevention. We have tools that have been introduced in the past, such as the Mediation Support Unit. We have experiences, positive and not so positive from different parts of the world. I want to give prominence to the issue of prevention, without interfering with the responsibilities of the Security Council, which has the primary responsibility for maintaining peace and security. I want to focus on the pre-conflict phase because I have a very strong feeling that we are well equipped to deal with conflicts after they have broken out – the peacekeeping and peace enforcement, post-conflict stabilisation. Yes, we have rules, we have tools, but when it comes to the pre-conflict phase, as I call it, what are we doing and how efficient are we to avoid conflicts? I want to have a political debate. I want to give greater prominence to this. We are diplomats after all and this is what I see as the essence of diplomacy – to avoid conflicts. If we are unable to do that, then we are good for nothing as diplomats and we can simply give away our role to the military people. Therefore, without asking for or without having an ambition to create any new structures, or asking for new people or new budgetary resources – no, it’s really about debate, sharing the experience, lessons learned, positive experience and negative experience. And, as I said, to review the toolbox that is there. It is in the system here and there, but to see how well we are using the tools. You know that the Secretary-General recently appointed a team of mediators, which is exactly one of the tools that should help us to prevent conflicts. And to simply see how well we are doing. I am also planning to invite prominent speakers who can bring first-hand experience about UN mediation and efforts to prevent and avoid conflicts. I really hope that as a legacy of the seventy-second session, we will have more clarity about how well we are doing and what needs to be done, and also to have greater focus on prevention of conflict. So, that’s the philosophy.

Second, about President Trump’s speech. There were different elements in the speech, and I also had a chance to have a bilateral meeting with President Trump after he delivered his statement. You would not be surprised that I rather focus on the positive elements of his speech – and there were a few of them. He made a commitment to peace. He said let’s fight for peace together. He spoke of the importance of UN reforms. Also, in our bilateral meeting we discussed the regional situation in North Korea, we discussed the relationship with Russia. So, it was quite clear to me from his remarks, both from the podium and from our bilateral meeting, that he has high expectations of the United Nations. And I think it’s a commitment to all of us that we must be able to prove that the UN is the right address and the right place for us to deal with global challenges.

Q: I have two questions as well. One is, the United States said that it was planning to cut its peacekeeping budget (inaudible), the amount of money it is giving for the peacekeeping and I am wondering if this will handicap the operations of peacekeepers which would be too bad considering your first priority on prevention of conflict. Do you believe you will be able to make up for the shortfall of money elsewhere?

The second question is: the United States is opting out of the climate change agreement, this is another one of your priorities. What sort of impact will this have upon the agreement? Will you be able to work around it? Do you have enough nations with enough strength to forget about the United States or is it not possible?

ML: First, on the peacekeeping budget. I have reasons to believe that there will be no gap in financing and as you put it, we will be able to make up for the cuts which have been announced and which will not be that significant. There are Member States which announced readiness to cover, so we have no reason to be afraid that our peacekeeping operations will be under-funded. And that is very important.

On the climate change agreement, this is a very important and very positive global agreement. The decision of the United States Government to withdraw from the agreement is regrettable; we have to accept it, and there is still time before it comes to effect, as you know, by the procedure. What is important and what is positive is that the announcement that came from Washington DC served as a reason for the mobilization of other Member States that have signed the climate agreement. I would like to highlight particularly the leadership of France that was demonstrated also through the speech of President Macron in his address to the General Assembly, where he made it very clear that his Government is going to continue being a global leader, including with the initiative to organize a Global Summit on Environment. The reception of this speech was very warm and very strong, so I really hope that we will be able to mobilize probably even stronger support behind this agreement. The truth is that with the recent natural disasters and hurricanes in the Caribbean area, I think it is quite clear that climate change is a real danger that is affecting the lives of people and we have to do something about it. The Paris Climate Agreement is the best platform for that.

Q: Yes, thank you very much for coming. How do you plan to bring on board the Government of the United States that is basically against all the things that you are mentioning – migration and climate change? On migration, for example, it is very important, and it is your priority, you know, what he plans to do in Mexico, with the “Dreamers” and the wall, and the new laws of migration enforcement that he wants to (inaudible). How can you plan to bring him on board? It looks like he wants the UN to dance at his pace, or something like that.

ML: The United States is a very important Member State of the United Nations, and of course, a major contributor to the regular budget and to the peacekeeping budget. And we need the US that is engaged and actively participating in the UN operations and work. From my meeting with President Trump, it was quite clear that he wants to make sure that the money the US provides for the United Nations is money well invested. So, he wants to see results and it’s in a way also a good opportunity for us to reflect on the way we operate, and to look into how efficient our operations are, and to demonstrate that the UN is relevant and that the money is well invested. I spoke with President Trump also about the particular agenda of migration and I brought to his attention the Global Compact on Migration that we are working on, and I asked for active participation of the US Government in this process. He took note of this information and I only count on a pragmatic and rational approach of the US Government to our initiatives. And, once again, it’s legitimate to ask about the efficiency of these processes, which we have no doubts about, but we must be able to prove it.

Q: I just want to clear up one thing from what you just said, and ask a question. If I understood you correctly, you said that a 600-million-dollar cut to the peacekeeping budget is going to be offset through additional contributions and so won’t have much impact. I didn’t quite understand what you meant.

And then on just what you said now reflecting on using our resources efficiently – are you able to speak specifically about the General Assembly’s role in that? Not so long ago, the Director General here, Michael Møller, talked about the situation where the General Assembly was asked to review the 9,000 mandates that all had budget implications, and in the end the Member States could not agree to cut anything because there are jobs involved and there are favours involved. Presumably, that would be something that a strong push of the General Assembly could work on – really just cutting some of the garbage that seeped its way into the system over the years.

ML: To answer your first question, there should be a three per cent cut in the contribution from the US Government and this three per cent is going to be covered by other Member States. So, there should be no gap in the financing of the peacekeeping operations of the UN.

To answer your second question, this is exactly what the reform of the Secretary-General is about – to make the organization more efficient and to see where we are spending not adequately, when we speak about value for money. It’s too early to say now because, as you know, the committees started their work last week. The Fifth Committee is now beginning its deliberations. And the Secretary-General presented the ideas for his reforms. But we are going to discuss them in detail later on. So there is no reason to panic. I think the periodic review of the operations of the Organization is always helpful because it’s about money and making sure that money is well spent. No one has any intention to damage the Organization’s performance and effectiveness. And, of course, the role of the General Assembly is crucial. Everything presented is to be approved by Member States, which is of course the responsibility of the General Assembly. So we have to make sure that we have an open and inclusive debate with the interest of the Organization at the top of our priorities.

Q: What do you think of the prospects that the Nuclear Ban Treaty that was adopted on 7 July and open for signature on 20 September? What are the prospects that you will get 50 countries to ratify it and bring it into force, and what are the implications for global disarmament? Will it have in your view any impact on the permanent nuclear powers? Thank you.

ML: Of course, I can offer you my personal views on the subject. I am not authorised by the General Assembly to offer … First of all, I congratulate the Initiative [International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons] for being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It shows how successful the civic initiative could be. Secondly, it comes at a time when the nuclear threat is closer than it used to be for many years, and the possibility of nuclear weapons being used is, unfortunately, very realistic. So it shows the prominence of the issue and of the agenda. The fact that the treaty was concluded and supported by more than 120 States, that it was open for signatures and now for ratification, is a very important fact that cannot be ignored. At the same time, we shall not hide the fact that not all Member States have been in favour of this process. Plus, we have two channels, two avenues dealing with nuclear disarmament. We have the CTBT [Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban-Treaty] and now the new Nuclear Ban Treaty. What I don’t want to see is that we will have two instead of one, and both will be stuck. What I wish to see is that the process that led to the conclusion of the Nuclear Ban Treaty will serve as a strong push, call it a wake-up call if you wish, for the countries that we have to be serious when it comes to implementing our commitments to the CTBT, to the operationalization of the CTBT process and to our adherence to NPT [Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons] process, because they both are aiming to the final goal which is the world free of nuclear weapons. But, right now we are not progressing on either of the two. I really hope that it will help us to get more serious on this agenda.

Q: But how does the new treaty to ban nuclear weapons help? Because the CTBT negotiated on the first floor here in 1996 has got problems. How does this new treaty help? Will it move the permanent nuclear powers to be more flexible, or will it see a gridlock between the non-nuclear powers and nuclear powers, in other words what we have seen in the NPT?

ML: That remains to be seen. But, one thing is clear: if your device is not working, then it will be bypassed. And this is exactly how the process that is not delivering results is bypassed. And this cannot be ignored. You cannot ignore the will of 120 plus Member States of the United Nations. So if there is no direct impact, it’s not binding on the NPT process. But to ignore it would be a big mistake because it would also mean that you are ignoring almost two thirds of the membership of the United Nations. Therefore, I don’t want to see these two processes in confrontation. I really want to see this process helping us to unblock the NPT and CPT process.

Q: I would like to come back to the priorities of the UN reform, particularly multilingualism. We see the growing use of English everywhere and even here in Geneva, the host city of the European Office of the UN, we have less and less opportunities to express ourselves in French, and too much of the opportunity to speak in English. And also when we have personalities like you or other people, we don’t have any translation. Do you plan in the UN reform to allocate more money to that specific post about translations?

ML: Well, one thing I can assure of, is that multilingualism is an issue that is present in the UN world. And, it’s been mentioned by many Member States that are calling for the respect of this principle. And it’s all about money. It’s not about politics, it’s about money, as you know. I really think that the ongoing process of the UN reforms that is going to be given particular attention to during the seventy-second session, in connection with the three sets of proposals presented by the Secretary-General, could help us to address also this issue, because it’s about efficient spending of money. So, the political support is here. The financial support is lagging behind – which is not the only case. But I really hope that it will be addressed. It will have my support. I can guarantee that.

Q: You talk about bringing the UN to people and people to the UN. How would you personally act for that? Because this is a grave issue. Unfortunately, many people forget about why the United Nations had been established. I have a little remark. I was in New York when you spoke and I saw that you were more open and more direct during your speech there than here. What happened? [laughter] Thank you.

ML: Interesting remark. I don’t have that feeling… Maybe it’s because I spent last night on the plane! [laughter] I will reflect upon my performance! The topic you touched upon is extremely important. It sounds like a cliché focusing on people, but as a matter of fact that’s the most important thing because if we are unable to explain to our citizens that what we do matters to them, and it’s important to them, then we will never get our citizens’ support. And then, without their support, we will never succeed. We diplomats sometimes tend to be focused on declarations and resolutions, and forget about the life out there, outside the building, where normal people sometimes struggle to understand what we are doing. And, it’s also the language we are using – that I call the UN speak -which looks like it’s a coded language that normal people cannot understand. I think it is extremely important that we use the plain language people can understand. I want to strengthen the link between the work of the UN system, which I appreciate very highly and I find it extremely important for this planet, and the perception of this work by our people. Without this link, again, we cannot succeed. And we need the support of our people now more than ever, because the international architecture is going through changes and people need to have guarantees that there is someone that would stand up for them – and that someone is the United Nations in the first place. Therefore, the communication with the people and the support for the people is extremely important, and that’s why I keep repeating focus on people and don’t forget about people.

Q: I want to talk about the Global Compact on Migration. Could you go into motivations? The problem, as far as I know, is far greater in developing countries. Many of them – including the refugee issue and the migration issue – are facing greater problems in terms of number and capacity to handle those people than in European countries. So what are the motivations? Did it really begin to help those countries, or is it mainly to sort out the problems of the Europeans and maybe of the Americans?

ML: Let me stress the word “global” in the task that we are trying to carry out. The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration: that is the name of the document that we are trying to put together. It is based on the New York declaration on refugees and migrants that was adopted last September. This document mandates us to prepare two separate documents: one dealing with refugees and the other one with migration. This has the ambition to be the very first global framework dealing with the issue of migration. Strange and ironic as it is, but the global phenomenon of migration does not have a global platform to regulate. Therefore, we are dealing with migration in a basically retroactive manner and in a very nationalistic position.

The issue of migration is very complex. It looks different from the African continent, from Asia, from Europe and our ambition is to prepare a really global document that will address all aspects of migrations. There are so many aspects of migration and that’s why the process has already been going on for a year. This week, we are having the sixth stakeholders’ meeting, which is a consultative phase of the process. In December we will have a stock taking exercise, basically taking stock of all the knowledge that we have generated through this process. Then after the New Year, we’ll switch into the inter-governmental stage of the process, with the ambition to prepare this document.

What is very important is that Member States will not enter into this process, into the inter-governmental stage, with a narrow perspective defending their national positions, but rather with an understanding of the global responsibility. Migration is a phenomenon which is here to stay, which has been here for years and will be here as a fact of life. We have to learn to live with that. We have to address many issues, including the protection of human dignity and rights of people on the move, trying to define a framework dealing with these issues. Plus, what is important for me is to demonstrate that when it comes to global challenges, the UN is the right address to offer global leadership on this. For me, this is the absolute priority for the seventy-second session. And it will also be a very quick test of the UN’s ability to be a global leader because of September 2018, when this document is going to be endorsed.

Q: Are you looking at something declarative mostly, or could there be a new fund of money, or something more practical like that?

ML: It remains to be seen how ambitious we are. But, it should be a step forward, compared to the declaration adopted last September. How big of a step, I don’t know. I really hope it will be a leap, a very important step, and to make sure that it is a step in the right direction. It would be naïve to believe that we can address all aspects of the migration phenomena in one document. But, it should be a basis on which we will build the subsequent documents and legal acts. So, I don’t want to end up with yet another declaration. I really want to end up with a document that helps Governments to build their national strategies.

Thank you very much.

Press Conference in Geneva