– As Prepared –

Statement by H.E. Mrs. María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, President of the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly

16 April 2019

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen,

It’s great to be back in Jersey!

I spent some of my happiest years here when I was studying at Rutgers – and believe me – there are many of us in NYC who’d much rather be on this side of the river.

It is such a pleasure to deliver the Spring 2019 Tinker Lecture, and I would like to acknowledge a few people before I begin:

Dr Richard Helldobler, President of William Paterson University,

Dr Kathleen Waldron, former President of the University

Dr Sandra DeYoung, Acting Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs,

Caroline Kronley, President of the Tinker Foundation,

Dr Kara Rabbitt, Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and finally

Professor John Mason and Professor Richard Huizar, for all their support in putting together this event.

Thank you.

I was always going to accept this invitation to speak. But I was twice as keen to do so knowing that this event is jointly organised by the Political Science Department and the Latin American and Latino Studies Program.

I understand that over 30 percent of students here have Hispanic heritage. You may know that I am the first Latina elected to serve as President of the UN General Assembly. So today is very important to me in terms of engaging the future generation of diplomats and UN officials – Latina, Latino and otherwise.

Wherever I go, I meet with students and young people. Today’s generation of young people is the largest in the history of the world. Between now and 2030 – the deadline for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, which I will say more about later – half of the global population will be under 30.

This poses some challenges, to be sure. We need to create about 40 million jobs each year if we are to keep up with the growing global population. And that’s without counting the 60 million young people who are currently unemployed.

But this youth generation is also a great opportunity. As minister of foreign affairs and defense in Ecuador – and now as President of the General Assembly – I have seen first-hand the promise that young people offer: from junior diplomats who’ve made breakthroughs in negotiations, to young inventors working on ways to clean up our ocean. I’ve read a bit about some of your students too – like Shaydaih Williams, who received a Newman Civic Fellow Award this year for working with the elderly, addressing food insecurity and much more.

Your generation that is highly educated and creative. You are willing to take risks and challenge received wisdom. And you don’t need to be told that multilateralism matters. You already know that the problems we face – like climate change – cannot be solved by one government, or indeed by governments acting alone.

From Jersey to Jakarta to Johannesburg – young people get multilateralism. Which is why one of my priorities as President of the General Assembly has been to ensure that young people are involved in our work.

Let me turn now to the reason why we so desperately need the input of the younger generation.

I will start by giving you a bit of background on the United Nations, before moving onto the current context for our work – and how it is affecting some of the issues I work on day in, day out, such as gender equality and migration.

The UN’s founding story usually involves countries coming together in the aftermath of World War Two, and aspiring to work together for peace, development and human rights.

But the UN was not just an idealistic endeavour. It was a pragmatic response by hard-nosed world leaders, who weighed the downsides of compromise against the benefits of co-operation and the heavy cost of war.

The UN was never intended to be a “world government” – whatever its critics might say. It is not even close to that. It is an inter-governmental organization with 193 Member States.

And in case you’re wondering: what exactly does the President of the General Assembly do? Well, the President is elected each year by the UN’s Member States to guide the Organization’s work.

I preside over the General Assembly – the closest thing we have to a “parliament for humanity” – which agrees the UN’s agenda and its budget.

I make sure that all the main bodies of the UN are working together in support of our objectives. I support negotiation processes between states – there are over 50 at present on everything from universal health coverage to reform of the UN.

And when states come together – the results can be fantastic. Let me give you a few examples from Latin America and the Caribbean.

The UN has supported peace in countries such as Colombia. It helped demobilize warring parties in El Salvador. It helped the region reduce hunger and infant mortality by over 60% between 1990 and 2015.

Right now, it is supporting flood victims in Peru and child vaccinations in the Dominican Republic. It is helping small island states to build their resilience against natural disasters.

All of this might seem very far away from us here. But the UN makes a difference to our lives too – through international agreements on issues such as equal pay, food hygiene and pollution, for example.

I’m sure you will have heard of the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals – two agreements that have the potential to transform our world and save humanity.

And there are interesting parts of the UN that you may not have heard of – like the International Civil Aviation Organization, which looks after things like flight safety. Or the Office for Outer Space Affairs, which helps to ensure you have mobile data on your phone.

That is just a snapshot of the UN’s achievements and the range of issues it works on. And it does so on a modest budget.

The total spending by all parts of the UN – peace operations, development agencies, humanitarian programmes, health and so on is about $50 billion dollars a year. Now that sounds like a huge amount.

But let’s put it into context, the world’s richest man has a net worth of three times that amount. New York City’s budget is nearly twice as big. Americans spend roughly the same on pizza each year.

We know, of course, that there are plenty of times when the UN has failed. Last week, we commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide – one of the worst examples.

Your generation that is highly educated and creative. You are willing to take risks and challenge received wisdom. And you don’t need to be told that multilateralism matters. You already know that the problems we face – like climate change – cannot be solved by one government, or indeed by governments acting alone.

María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés

President of the UN General Assembly

Despite the great progress we have made, millions of people around the world continue to endure violence, war and deprivation. Billions of people do not have access to safe water or sanitation. They continue to die from preventable diseases. Uncertainty and fear are a daily reality for these people.

And the gains we have made over the past 70 years are now at risk, as a number of crises – environmental, political, economic and social – are driving conflict and instability around the world.

Climate change is jeopardizing sustainable development and peace, threatening the lives and livelihoods of billions of people. The world’s growing population, expected to reach 11.2 billion by 2100, will lead to even greater demand for natural and social resources, adding further pressures to our economies and ecosystems.

Every analysis, based on sound evidence, shows that these challenges will not be addressed if we don’t work together. No single country or region can address climate change. No one is immune to international terrorism or pandemics. We need global cooperation more than ever.

But at a time when the case for multilateralism should be obvious, we are witnessing a rise in nationalist sentiment.

We live in an era of transformation, from the impacts of automation and digitization on the economy to the effects of globalization on social attitudes and expectations. Many people around the world are feeling insecure and ill-served by their political leaders.

Neither the UN nor traditional political establishments have yet managed to address this anxiety in a meaningful way. This has opened up opportunities for those who seek to attribute people’s struggles to multilateral institutions, to so-called “global elites” – or to immigrants.

They promise easy solutions that stand no chance of addressing the challenges we face. They peddle an insular vision of nationalism to score political points with domestic constituencies. They point to some unspecified time in the past, when things were supposedly better. Except, of course, they weren’t better – for the poor, for women, for minorities, for persons with disabilities.

This narrative has created a difficult environment at the UN on many issues. We see it, perhaps most obviously in disagreements in the Security Council. But there has also been a backlash against women’s rights – with long-standing principles on areas such as sexual and reproductive health being challenged.

Last year, when I was helping Member States with the Global Compacts on refugees and on migration, I was shocked at nasty smear campaign about what these agreements would mean in practice.

It was astounding, really, because if you are worried about immigration, surely you should be in favour of a managed approach to regular migration?

And if you are worried about refugees coming to your shores – although I must point out that over 85% of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries – surely you should be in favour of international programmes that address the reasons why people flee their homes?

These trends are playing out – in communities and in countries. We see it in the rise of extreme nationalists in every region. We see it in the challenges to regional cooperation – in Europe, for instance, but also in Latin America. I recently visited Argentina, Cuba and Mexico, and took part in a conference on South-South cooperation – it is not an easy time for the region.

So what can we do?

Well, the best way to convince people that multilateralism works, is to show them that it works for them. Part of this means doing a better job in communicating the work of the UN.

We have a lot of good stories to tell, and a lot of talented people working on the ground – but we aren’t doing a good job of making the case for the UN.

But it also means doing more to make the UN relevant to all people. More than any speech or PR campaign, we need to show people that the UN can deliver – including for those who feel marginalised.

In 2015, world leaders came together and adopted the Sustainable Development Goals – which is something like a “global green new deal”, with targets on education, decent work, social protections, environmental sustainability, tackling corruption – things that will make a tangible difference to people’s lives.

And the Goals are not an “aid” programme – rich countries helping the poor. This is a universal agenda, which recognises that all governments must do more for their citizens and for the world. We need to encourage politicians, cities, communities, companies, schools, universities to get behind the SDGs.

And this is where you come in. I said earlier that I hope there are future diplomats and UN officials among you. But you don’t have to work for your government or at the UN to make a difference.

You have tremendous power as citizens. Governments are more likely to support international cooperation and initiatives like the SDGs if they think their voters care.

You have power as consumers. One of my priorities is fighting plastic pollution. We have already seen the progress that has been made in relation to plastic bags and straws.

You have power as activists – in your communities and online. I know it can feel like you’re standing in the street and nobody is listening. Or that you are marching with thousands and then nothing happens. But it does have an impact. Everybody at the UN has been talking about the youth climate strikes, for example. You can push us to do more.

And whatever path you choose – lawmaker, lawyer, entrepreneur, translator, teacher, parent – you can contribute to a safer, fairer and more sustainable world, to an atmosphere where the dignity and worth of every human being is respected. If you only remember one thing from this lecture, I hope it is this.

And I hope I have encouraged you to learn more about the United Nations, and to get involved with our work. We are counting on you!

Thank you.