– As delivered –

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

3 September 2019

Justice Abdulqawi A. Yusuf, President of the International Court of Justice,

Mr. Alain Pellet, President of the French Society for International Law,

Mr. Yves Daudet, President, Curatorium of The Hague Academy of International Law,

Mr. Miguel Serpa de Soares, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Legal Counsel,

Distinguished speakers, guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Good evening,

It is a great pleasure to join you for the Second World Meeting of Societies for International Law – and a privilege indeed to be here with Dame Rosalyn Higgins – first female judge and first female president of the International Court of Justice, as well as so many other distinguished lawyers, female and male.

While I was preparing my remarks, I was looking through my notes on gender representation in the UN system, and I saw that there have fewer than 10 female members of the International Law Commission in its seven decades of existence. I look at the expertise in this room and think: really, we must do better and I hope that I can count on law societies and associations to advocate for gender equality and representation.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to focus today on the health of our multilateral system, which is often described as being at a crossroads but which I fear might now be approaching a tipping point.

We are witnessing the rise of nationalist populism and extremist ideologies, as the world becomes more multipolar but also more polarized. We have seen the impact of this trend on hard-won multilateral agreements and institutions: the Paris climate agreement; the global compact on migration; the Human Rights Council, the WTO, arms control instruments – these are just a few examples that I’d like to mention.

We are seeing long-established international laws and multilateral practices – which have delivered so much for the world since 1945 – devalued by geopolitical tensions, unilateralism, and ad hocery.

And we are seeing a growing disconnect between people, governments and institutions. People expect us to keep the promises we have made, through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, for example. But they are losing faith in our capacity to deliver for them.

Unless we reverse these trends, we risk damaging the values, principles, laws and systems that have been the bedrock of the international community for more than seven decades. And the irony is that these trends are occurring at precisely the moment when we need global cooperation more than ever.

Dear friends,

The Charter of the United Nations and the Statute of the International Court of Justice were signed at the same time. These two elements – political and legal – form the mutually reinforcing core of our international system.

And over the past seven decades, the UN has provided the framework for international laws, norms and mechanisms on everything from the promotion of human rights and gender equality to the regulation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

These frameworks have often proved incredibly successful – the Montreal Protocol, for instance. Or the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Who in the 1960s would have thought that the number of nuclear-armed states would still be in single digits today?

And the General Assembly, the world’s most representative and democratic forum, has been crucial to these efforts. Its Sixth Committee on legal matters, alongside the International Law Commission, maintain a constant focus on opportunities for development of international law in accordance with the UN Charter.  The Assembly itself plays a vital role in norm development, often serving as both the starting and confirmatory point for declarations and conventions.

The Assembly’s processes are not perfect. The debates we have seen over the referral of issues to the ICJ is a prominent example of the difficult nexus between the political and the legal.

But it is my firm conviction that the United Nations, and specifically the General Assembly, remains essential to the upholding and development of international law. There is simply no other forum that can match its representativeness and legitimacy.

In current times, we need a strong, predictable, reliable international law order in order to deliver on the three pillars of the UN Charter, peace and security, human rights, and development, which has been translated into a very powerful contemporary social contract: the 2030 Agenda and the sustainable development goals.

María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés

President of the UN General Assembly

During this session, the UN General Assembly  discussed a number of issues – tackling hate speech whilst protecting freedom of expression; regulating technologies such as social media and lethal autonomous weapons; protecting the environment during armed conflict; moving towards a Global Pact for the Environment, to name just a few – that are likely to grow in prominence and urgency, and that will need ongoing engagement with stakeholders, including law societies. Indeed, I know that you have discussed some of them today.

We need your expertise, your commitment, your voice as advocates of international law as the strongest tool for human coexistence, for weaving the balance needed for a sustainable world between economic interest, nature’s integrity and human dignity.  

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is clear that I cannot give you firm answers – that is something that both lawyers and diplomats are wary of! But let me close with a couple of opportunities.

First, there is growing recognition that we urgently need a stronger multilateral and rules-based system to protect our global commons, such as the atmosphere, the ocean, the cyberspace, and global goods, such as international peace and security.

And second, there is the UN’s 75th anniversary next year, which I hope will be an important inflection point for these conversations, and to engage new and wider audiences, as you have done here.

So, I commend you once again for this event and thank you for inviting me. You have gathered despite the headwinds we face – indeed, because of them – we need more scholarly debates, more analysis and more co-operation between sectors. We need to talk the talk, the refresh our narratives in order to connect the principles of the UN Charter with the contemporary challenges such as climate change, new technologies or violent extremism.

In current times, we need a strong, predictable, reliable international law order in order to deliver on the three pillars of the UN Charter, peace and security, human rights, and development, which has been translated into a very powerful contemporary social contract: the 2030 Agenda and the sustainable development goals.

I would like to end with a quote from Martin Luther King that I am sure is well known by this audience:

“Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.”

And indeed, international law can protect those most vulnerable to abuse, oppression, and harm. It can be the voice of the speechless, including the voice of nature.

The rule of law has been the foundation of our post-war multilateral system. And it is the foundation we need for our future, to tackle the threats we face and to seize the opportunities we have to build a safer, just and more sustainable world.

Thank you.