– As delivered –
Remarks by H.E. Mr. Volkan Bozkir, President of the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly
14 September 2021
Your Excellency António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations,
Your Excellency Abdulla Shahid, President-Elect of the General Assembly,
Ladies & Gentlemen,
Above all dear Colleagues,
It is an honour to stand before you and close the 75th Session of the UN General Assembly.
This past year has been a marvellous journey. Thank you for electing me, in an overwhelming democratic vote, to join you for this session as the President of the UN General Assembly.
I am privileged to have served alongside you.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As the former Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: “More than ever before in human history, we share a common destiny. We can master it only if we face it together. And that is why we have the United Nations”.
This year has been tumultuous, historic, transformative, unequal, challenging and ground-breaking.
From the earliest moments of my Presidency, we knew that COVID-19 would dominate our agenda. Since September 20, re-opening the UN to conduct our usual business and diplomacy safely was our utmost priority. We are not there yet. But I can say now that, COVID-19 has reinforced our belief in a more effective and more responsive United Nations.
We started the session in a very different place to where we stand today. In September of last year, the UN was still closed, the General Assembly had postponed meeting after meeting. Vaccines, even credible testing, had yet to be developed.
From the start of the session, I felt it was important to stand in solidarity with the 200,000 people working for the United Nations around the world. So many of them work with deep dedication in difficult circumstance, some pay the ultimate sacrifice and lose their lives in the line of duty, such as Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld and Sergio Vieira de Mello. It was important to demonstrate that the General Assembly was working alongside them during this especially challenging moment in world history.
Today, although there are many steps left on the path to recovery, it is safe to say that we know our way. There are vaccines and testing capacities. Borders and economies are opening. Lives are resuming. This is progress.
This progress can be felt here at the UN as well. While not yet fully open, we have, bit by bit, expanded in-person meetings and engagements. Various cafes and eateries have re-opened, the space for diplomacy has begun to re-emerge. We started the year limited to one delegate per Member State in the General Assembly Hall, now we are at 1+1. Next week it will be 1+3 for the General Debate. Bilateral booths in the Headquarters will also be provided.
I am happy and proud that all high-level and other meetings mandated for the 75th session have been held. We had 105 formal plenary meetings and 16 high-level meetings. We also have concluded a number of important processes postponed from the 74th session.
The six Main Committees of the General Assembly successfully concluded their extensive work using hybrid working methods.
We adopted 125 decisions and 328 resolutions. We considered reports of the international tribunals, main organs, and other bodies of the UN system.
We conducted in-person meetings and elections, including the re-appointment of the Secretary-General, António Guterres and the election of my successor Abdulla Shahid.
Through hybrid, a combination of in person and virtual, those from outside New York have been able to join us in the General Assembly Hall, on the screens, and participate in our discussions. While day-to-day diplomacy has been exceedingly challenging in a virtual environment, together we tried our best to proceed.
Together, we have demonstrated that leadership matters and solutions are possible. That an inclusive, transparent and engaged General Assembly must be our priority.
I will forever be proud of the work we did to re-open these United Nations. I am deeply grateful to the Member States who put their trust in me to pursue this path despite the doubts of some.
There is overwhelming consensus that the pandemic has created a once in a generation opportunity to recover better and stronger. To do better together, to learn and improve. I urge you all to use this momentum as you continue your work in the General Assembly to ensure the agreements and decisions reached here are turned into real, lasting and sustained action on the ground, so they truly benefit those they are intended for.
Let me also leave you with a quote from Dag Hammarskjold: “Never look down, to test the ground, before taking your next step; only he who keeps his eyes fixed on the far horizon, will find the right road.”
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Notwithstanding, there are lessons that I have drawn in pursuit of our collective objective of promoting peace, security, social progress and better standard of life in larger freedoms.
Let me highlight a few:
Firstly, there are many international organizations that address crises over the world. However, it is the General Assembly that is the most representative global body. It is the single best platform to mobilize political will and incubate collective solutions to a global crisis. However, we are not using this platform effectively and efficiently. We are constrained by bureaucratic excuses and are sidestepping our responsibility out of a misaligned sense of ‘keeping the peace’.
As President of the General Assembly, I have often been blunt, you know that. Similarly, I will not hesitate in saying that our words continue to outpace our actions. While words encourage unity, they are simply not enough. The General Assembly and the United Nations must be seen to be acting to address the most critical challenges of our time.
Secondly, we must strengthen and unite behind the multilateral system. Our world is increasingly globalized, interconnected and interdependent. As such, nationalistic solutions will not resolve our challenges.
It is my belief that a multilateral strategy may have helped to guard us better against the spread of COVID and its variants and protect those most vulnerable. Despite having the tools available to pursue a multilateral approach, we have pursued a go-it-alone approach. This is unfortunate and has prolonged this pandemic. Let us heed the lessons from this past year. Let us strengthen the multilateral system. Let us put our faith in its ability to support all countries simultaneously.
Thirdly, the pandemic has unveiled the depths of global inequality. Put simply, not everyone has the option of working from home. Not everyone struggles with Zoom calls. Many don’t even know what Zoom is. Hence the third lesson: As we move forward, the UN and Member States must focus on the gaps that were revealed to us. This most critically includes the lingering and ever widening digital divide. If we wish to achieve Agenda 2030, inequality must be reduced.
Fourthly, more must be done to improve gender equality and provide greater protection of the rights of women. I do not wish to discount the progress achieved. Indeed, there is much to celebrate. But let us be honest and clear that our society remains vastly unequal. Women are the first ones to bear the brunt of any challenging circumstances. This was especially visible during my visits to refugee camps on the Syrian-Turkish Border, to Cox’s Bazar and to those in small island states affected by hurricanes. Also, there have been sustained reports of increasing domestic violence towards women throughout the pandemic. In recent weeks, we have heard alarming reports of violations against women and girls in Afghanistan and the hard-won gains risk being lost. Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals will be impossible if we leave half the population behind.
My fifth and final lesson; the Sustainable Development Goals represent a blueprint for peace and prosperity, for people and the planet, now and into the future. Implementing these goals will help to protect us against future catastrophes. With the trajectory we are on, we are going to miss the 2030 deadline. Its unfortunate to say that. This Assembly and you – the Member States who make up the United Nations – must redouble efforts to implement the SDGs.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We were able to meet in-person to discuss the impact and implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the General Assembly special session on COVID-19, we agreed that frank and informative exchanges were necessary to blunt the growing inequality of impacts within and amongst countries. I only hope that this session has helped to boost support for multilateral efforts to combat the disease and has encouraged cooperation and collaboration amongst states.
In a bid to streamline the work of the UN’s principal organs and ensure mutually reinforcing efforts, I held monthly coordination meetings, with combined bi-monthly trilateral meeting with the President of the Security Council and the Secretary-General. I also frequently met with the President of the Economic and Social Council to ensure our efforts were aligned.
Following a technical rollover last year, the Assembly agreed a strong consensus resolution on the Revitalization of the General Assembly. We achieved progress on some important issues including the decisions to move the start of the General Assembly forward one week and to biennialize the resolution – a strong message example from the AHWG to the main committees on the need to reduce the number of resolutions.
Since the beginning of my Presidency, I committed to strengthening the Intergovernmental Negotiations (IGN) on Security Council Reform and worked to overcome the difficulties that were experienced last session due to COVID-19. IGN remains one of the most important processes. It is critical that efforts at reform remain Member State driven. I know, and we witnessed, that differences exist, but in differences of views and perspectives lie progress.
Throughout my Presidency, I have tried to bring greater focus to countries in special situations. I established the Board of Advisers on LDCs, LLDCs and SIDS [Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States], to highlight the specific challenges they face.
This platform has been exceedingly valuable in generating a new way of collaborating at the political level within the UN. Recognizing the usefulness this Group wishes to forge a common agenda and strengthen coordination within the three set of countries. Building on their request, I propose that the President-elect Shahid considers convening a high-level meeting of LDC’s, LLDC’s and SIDS in the coming year.
As a “gender champion” I also established a Gender Advisory Group to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment within the General Assembly’s work. To me this was critical given the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the lives of women and girls. Here at the United Nations, we must uphold and emulate the ideals we advocate for. In that regard, I am pleased by the election of an all-female bureau of the Second Committee for the 76th session, as well as the gender balance in election of the Chairpersons of the Main Committees. I encourage Member States to continue to put women candidates forward until we achieve full gender balance in all elected positions in the organization.
Ladies and gentlemen,
While I am proud of our high level of cooperation and coordination, the scale and evolving complexity of the challenges before us require changes to be made to this organization. In that regard, allow me to present some recommendations.
Firstly, the General Assembly must be strengthened. This body is critical to the success of multilateralism. As an outsider, I have seen progress but frankly it is too little and too late. Various reform processes are overburdened with a plethora of issues. There is a lack of political will to move ahead. We need to take a relook at these processes. We must prioritize and ensure we equip this Assembly – and the UN – with tools required to meet 21st century challenges. We must get ahead of the curve. There are far too many examples of the UN following the crisis, instead of being ahead of it. We have to ask ourselves why. This undisputedly demonstrates that the UN’s preventive diplomacy tools are either not being utilized or they are not fit for purpose and need to be refurbished.
Relatedly, and as my second point, the Office of the President of the General Assembly needs your urgent attention. It must be further institutionalized and supported. There is a serious mismatch in the way this organization treats its employees and the world’s highest political office. Delays and inefficiencies, resulting from a lack of staff and insufficient resources for this Office, are not acceptable. An enhanced cadre of professionals is needed to run this Office and maintain institutional memory. An effective political administration should be a priority for all Members of this Assembly. I have made a set of recommendations to strengthen the Office of the President of the General Assembly in my handover report and I hope that my brother President-elect Shahid will take these forward.
My third recommendation is on substance. This session I have observed that too much of our work is focused on procedures at the cost of substance. Nowhere is this more visible than at General Assembly led High-Level meetings, for which we liberally develop mandates and call every High-Level meeting leads to results or is needed. Many of these engagements are poorly attended. We must continue to make efforts to restrict the number of High-Level and mandated meetings during any given session. Quantity should not supersede quality. If we call a meeting a High-Level meeting then we must ensure that there is in fact high-level engagement, and this necessitates a much more streamlined, priority driven agenda.
Fourth point, the focus on the most vulnerable must be strengthened. The General Assembly must continue to give a voice to those most in need. As I have seen on my trips – to the Syrian Refugee camps, Rohingya Muslim camps in Cox’s Bazaar and to the volcano and hurricane affected areas of the Caribbean – there is a deep respect for the United Nations flag. Wherever I have travelled in the world, the UN flag has been applauded. It evocates feelings of respect, of integrity, of progress. The world sees the UN as a single entity. They expect the General Assembly, as the most democratic body, to be their voice and deliberate on their behalf. This, above all else, must be our priority.
And finally, there must be strengthened cooperation with the UN Security Council. These two bodies are like limbs of the same being. If they work together, they can reach great distances. If they pull in opposite directions, they risk tearing this organization apart. There are synergies between the General Assembly and Security Council that are not currently being exploited. Take for example the General Assembly’s work on Myanmar, Syria and Palestine, which supported that of the Security Council. The General Assembly cannot be reduced to a talking shop, or merely focused on normative guidance of the development agenda. As the UNs most representative body, it must consider the most pressing political issues. The General Assembly must strengthen all the available tools at its disposal to address the key issues facing our planet and species.
It has been an honour, as a citizen of one of the founding states of the United Nations, to hold this Office. I thank the President of Turkey His Excellency Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu for nominating me to this important post and their strong support throughout my tenure.
I want to pay my particular thanks to Antonio Guterres, our Secretary-General. His support was crucial to my work, and this session. Dear Antonio, I thank you very much from the heart. I thank your team, Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammad, and your Executive Office for cooperation, despite very challenging times, that we collectively faced. I wish you a successful tenure ahead.
I would like to recognize the governments that provided support to the trust fund and secondees to staff my Office. The staff of the Office of the President of the General Assembly – so ably led by Ms. Tegan Brink and Mr. Farrukh Khan – was critical to the smooth running of the UN’s most representative body. I am grateful to all those that have served with me this year.
I thank the Western European and Others Groups States for their support and endorsing my nomination with consensus.
I would remiss if I didn’t thank the Turkish Foreign Ministry for giving me the services of its two sterling diplomats, Ms. Ceren Ozgur and Mr. Oncu Keceli. They were the backbone and pillars of my senior Cabinet.
I am deeply grateful to the entire staff of the Secretariat, who ensure this Assembly functions efficiently and effectively every day; the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management, the Department for Global Communications, and the Department of Safety and Security for their dedication and distinction.
I also wish to pay tribute to all the exceptionally brave people who work for the United Nations the world over. I have been inspired by your dedication and commitment to the multilateral system and I have been honoured to serve alongside you.
I wish His Excellency President-elect Shahid, my brother, a fruitful and impactful 76th session. There are certainly many challenges ahead, and my brother Abdulla has my full support.
Ladies & Gentlemen,
I left you to the end…
I was trying for weeks, to find a way to thank you and the Member States for all the support you have shown me, a way which could truly reflect my heartfelt feelings. Then one day I heard a song playing. It was sung by one of the best artists and singers ever, Miss Bette Midler, and produced by Mr Arif Mardin, a Turkish musician with many Grammy awards & platinum records.
I immediately understood that it was what I was looking for.
So, let me end with the title of that song.
I could fly higher than an eagle..
For you were the wind beneath my wings..
Flied high against the sky..
So high that I almost touched the sky..
For you were the wind beneath my wings..
Thank you, thank you, thank you.