CLOSING OF SESSION 72 OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY
– As delivered –
Statement by H.E. Mr. Miroslav Lajčák, President of the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly, at Closing of Session 72 of the General Assembly
Mr. Secretary General, Madam Deputy-Secretary-General, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates, Dear Friends,
As you know, this will be my final speech to the General Assembly. And I want to use it to reflect on the year we have had.
However, I will avoid listing achievements or events. My Team has produced a Handover Report, which contains this information – and it is available on our website.
Instead, I will try to give my own political assessment – of what I have seen and heard as President of the General Assembly. And, in doing so, I will highlight six major trends I have identified.
My humble hope is that this contribution can inspire more dialogue about these issues, in the future.
So, the first trend is about peace.
And, on this, the United Nations Charter is very strong. It commits us to saving “succeeding generations from the scourge of war”.
But we have not always met this commitment. In the past, we were too reactive.
We had excellent peacekeepers and mediators. The problem was that, by the time they got there, it was often too late.
Essentially, we were trying to keep peace, when there was no peace left to keep. And we were leaving too soon – before the roots of conflict had been pulled fully from the ground.
But we have recognised that. And, in 2016, this General Assembly, as well as the United Nations Security Council, adopted ground-breaking resolutions. They outlined a new approach – called “Sustaining Peace”. And they turned our focus to preventive action.
Then, in this 72nd Session, we brought Sustaining Peace to the attention of world leaders. Last April, we held the first High Level Meeting on Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace. And we heard a powerful response from your heads of delegation. They put their weight behind this new concept. And they brought best practices and new ideas to the table.
All of you here were instrumental, in bringing this about. So, I think we can say that we have all brought greater visibility and prominence, to this new approach to peace.
But we have a lot of work ahead. Sustaining Peace cannot be, just, a concept – or an aspiration. Rather, it should be seen more like an Operations Manual; something that guides the real work we do on the ground, every day.
Now, a second trend I want to highlight today is about our planet.
I think most of us have realised something: it is crunch time.
At last year’s General Debate, climate change was the most frequently referenced item on the agenda. In fact, 85% of heads of state and delegations spoke about it. And I predict we will see similar trends next week.
When it comes to the environment, a lot has happened over the past year.
We have seen the Paris Climate Agreement hit the headlines. We have seen hurricanes hit the Caribbean. And, we have seen flooding and drought hit communities around the world – from Africa to Asia.
So, the climate is changing. The planet is reacting to what we are doing. And the need for action is very real. I have heard more and more of you reflect that in your speeches, here, at the UN.
Alongside this, our approach to Sustainable Development is evolving. We have gone from making broad calls for future action to outlining the tangible steps that we are – or should be – taking, right now.
Over 100 countries have now volunteered to share their work in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. Next summer, we will have the first major review of all of our efforts, at the High-Level Political Forum.
So, there is good news. But there is also another side to the story.
And the fact is: we still live in an unequal world. The big agreements are usually reached in rooms like this one. By people like us.
But the real need for them is out there. It is driven by the people in poverty….the people feeling real impacts of climate change…the people who look to the future with only worry or fear.
So, people like us, in here, need to keep the promises we made to the people out there.
But we cannot do any of that, without the funding.
As it stands, we are not on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals or the goals of the Paris Agreement. We must do more to mobilise the financing. We need new partnerships – in particular with the private sector. But they will only come through sustained outreach and dialogue.
The window of opportunity will not stay open forever. We need to wake up – before it closes.
Now, I will turn to a third trend I have seen. Which is the growing ability of the General Assembly to adapt to major global shifts.
In 2015 and 2016, some newspapers and politicians – particularly in my part of the world – were talking about a “migration crisis”. To others – especially our brothers and sisters in Africa – migration had been a fact of life, for a long time.
But all of us agreed on one thing: we could not continue with business as usual.
And so, we turned to the United Nations – and its General Assembly.
We had many discussions – about the challenges of irregular migration, as well as the opportunities that come when it is safe, orderly and regular.
And we decided to, finally, develop a global framework.
This summer, we arrived at a final document. It took a lot of work. And even more work will come – after it is adopted as the world’s first Global Compact for Migration, in Morocco, this December.
I think this shows that our international machinery – with this Assembly as its engine room – can adapt and can react. It is a source of solutions for almost any issue on the global agenda.
Also, with 193 members – and its observers – the General Assembly has enormous legitimacy. And, given its flexible agenda, the Assembly can play the role of a global thought-leader.
But the fact is, we have never seen a rate of change like this one. It is growing. Faster than ever.
And, the General Assembly cannot get left behind. As the world’s most representative body, it must stay ahead of the curve. Or at least be quick to follow it.
This is particularly important, as issues like Artificial Intelligence, data protection and the future of work take up more space in our daily lives.
But the Assembly cannot do this from inside a bubble. It will need to hear from the people on the ground – from scientists, academics and technicians, to parliamentarians, journalists and young people. These are the people who are out there – seeing changes happen, in real time. They must be able to tell their stories and give their opinions in rooms like this one. Or else we will be left playing catch-up – while other actors drive the discourse.
A fourth trend I want to speak about today is reform.
…The United Nations must evolve.
…The United Nations must adapt.
…The United Nations must be equipped for the world around it.
These were the kind of phrases we heard at last year’s General Debate.
During the 72nd Session, the Secretary-General released reform proposals in three areas: peace and security, management, and development. The General Assembly has, since then, decided to advance all three.
And, this is a step forward. There is no doubt about it. But I want to use my platform, today, to highlight a potential challenge.
We can all say that we want reform. And, we can even adopt resolutions, to support each reform process. But these actions, alone, cannot produce results; we also need funding.
And that, I think, is another trend. Overall, there is a growing appetite for reform and innovation. We have raised our expectations. But we do not always have the budget to go with them.
So, I believe this issue is in need of further discussion.
But I cannot talk about the reform proposals without acknowledging you, Mr. Secretary-General. It has been a pleasure to work with you this year. I know how much your leadership is needed, and appreciated, in these trying times. And I am confident that this house will back your efforts to secure the central role of our United Nations in a changing world.
Now, I want to talk about reform within the General Assembly, itself.
The revitalization process continued this year. And so did its results. We saw some of them in action last June – with the election of my successor. For the first time, it happened through a system of interactive dialogues with Member States.
And, I hope this revitalization process continues. And I want to use this opportunity to, once again, congratulate the President-elect, Her Excellency, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés – and wish her luck for the session ahead.
However, we cannot talk about a trend of reform without mentioning the United Nations Security Council.
And here, I want to share one perspective with you.
As President, I received many invitations for trips. This led me to travel to 28 countries. And, in every single case – without exception – I was faced with questions on the reform of the Security Council.
So, Member States, this is your process. But I do want to share what I saw and heard, outside this building.
The work of the Security Council is a matter of life and death – for too many people. This entire Organisation is judged by it.
And, as we decide how to move forward, the eyes of the world are watching us.
The fifth trend I want to highlight today is not a good one.
Because, frankly, I think the space for dialogue is closing.
And that, to me, is very worrying.
This entire Organisation was founded on dialogue.
And this very Hall was intended as a place where world powers could talk through their differences – instead of bringing them to the battlefield.
Dialogue leads to results. It is why, last February, we watched a joint Korean team playing in the Winter Olympics. It is why peace has returned to Colombia, after five decades of war. And it is why, in January of last year, political turmoil in the Gambia did not turn violent.
But, for dialogue to work, it must be real.
I do not think we can generate real dialogue from shouting down the opposition, or sticking to prepared scripts, or repeating our own position, again and again.
And we certainly cannot generate real dialogue from refusing to even engage in the first place.
What would happen, if we all said that we would only talk to those who agree with us?
…Or if we froze out anyone with different opinions?
…Or if we put our hands over our ears – and shouted louder?
Well, there would be chaos. This Organisation would become obsolete. Our differences would turn to animosity, or even conflict. And – overall – we would get nowhere.
Dialogue is part of our humanity.
Maybe our current political climate has trained us into our monologues. But I think our instincts for dialogue run deeper. And I hope they will prevail.
All of this leads me to the final trend I want to flag today, which is about multilateralism.
Dialogue is how we interact, while multilateralism is who we interact with – and in what format.
But, again, the trend is not positive:
Multilateralism is, I believe, under threat.
We created this international system in 1945, as a direct response to the horrors of the Second World War.
Unfortunately, some of its most fundamental principles are being eroded from beneath us.
For example, over seven decades ago, we decided against exclusion. So, we made the United Nations into what has become the most inclusive Organisation in the world – with 193 Member States.
….Now, however, we are seeing a return to the exclusive clubs of the past. A preference for bilateralism, or small alliances, is becoming dangerously common.
Also, in 1945, we decided that a common set of rules should bind us all.
….Now, however, our rules-based system is under attack. Some seem willing to return to a world in which rules are set by those with the most power.
Finally, after the Second World War, we came to a realisation. Which was that, if every country pursued its own agenda, we all risked destruction. But, if we, instead, worked together, we could all move forward.
…Now, however, we seem to have forgotten it.
It is clear that we live in a complex, uncertain world.
That is why it is so tempting, to go it alone; to pull up our drawbridges; to wall ourselves in; to focus on our own defences, and let everyone else fend for themselves.
And some of us are giving in to that temptation.
But history tells us that this is not the way forward. It tells us that, actually, this could be the way back – to a world we thought we would never see again.
There is still time to counter this trend. I hope that we do not have to wait for disaster to teach us that multilateralism is the only way.
I think we are at a crossroad.
And we need to make some tough choices.
We can choose a better life for everyone….. Or we can take the road of growing inequalities and broken promises.
We can choose a new approach, for peace…… Or we can take the road, which will bring more human suffering.
And we can turn current trends into opportunities – from the movement of people to the advance of climate change …….Or we can turn down the wrong path – and turn on each other – instead of working together.
I think I will conclude here.
I have many people to thank, for their work over the past year. Too many, in fact. So, I am going to save that for my own time.
Instead, I want to end by telling you that it has been an honour and a privilege to serve as your representative and president, over this past year.
This might be my last speech, but it won’t be the last time you see me. In fact, I’ll be back next week – sitting in one of those chairs!
I’ll end with a quote from Nelson Mandela. It comes from his final address to the United Nations General Assembly.
“…I will continue to entertain the hope that there has emerged a cadre of leaders in my own country and region, on my Continent and in the world, which will not allow that any should be denied their freedom as we were; that any should be turned into refugees as we were; that any should be condemned to go hungry as we were; that any should be stripped of their human dignity as we were.”
The stakes are high. We need to take the right road.
And, to do that, we will need leadership. And we will need vision.
I hope we will see both next week, when our heads of state and government gather in this hall.
So, good luck for the 73rd Session – and the years ahead for our United Nations! Thank you!