United Nations Must Accelerate Efforts to Move World Forward, Leave No One Behind, Secretary-General Stresses at Informal Session of General Assembly

SG/SM/19432-GA/12120
16 January 2019

United Nations Must Accelerate Efforts to Move World Forward, Leave No One Behind, Secretary-General Stresses at Informal Session of General Assembly

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the informal session of the General Assembly, in New York today:

Before I start, I would like to offer my sincere condolences to the people and the Government of Kenya for the loss of life in yesterday’s horrendous terrorist attack that we all strongly condemn.

My thoughts are with the families of the victims and I send my best wishes to all those injured, hoping for a full and fast recovery.  The United Nations stands with all Kenyans and with everybody, everywhere, in our fight to counter terrorism — the most dramatic threat our societies are facing in today’s world.

Let me now begin by wishing you a happy New Year — and thanking you for your strong support throughout 2018.  In my New Year’s message one year ago, I issued a red alert for our world.  As we look ahead to 2019, I won’t mince words.  Alarm bells are still ringing.  We face a world of trouble.

Armed conflict threatens millions and forced displacement is at record levels.  Poverty is far from eradicated and hunger is growing again.  Inequality keeps rising.  And the climate crisis is wreaking havoc.  We also see growing disputes over trade, sky-high debt, threats to the rule of law and human rights, shrinking space for civil society and attacks to media freedoms.

These ills have profound impacts on people’s daily lives.  And they are deeply corrosive.  They generate anxiety and they breed mistrust.  They polarize societies — politically and socially.  They make people and countries fear they are being left behind as progress seems to benefit only the fortunate few.

In such a context, it is not difficult to understand why many people are losing faith in political establishments, doubting whether national Governments care about them and questioning the value of international organizations.  Let’s be clear: the lack of faith also applies to the United Nations.

In such circumstances, it would be all too easy to become demoralized or even paralysed.  But, the truth is that the experience of last year proves that when we work together and when we assume our responsibilities, we get things done.

Despite the headwinds we know so well, we have shown the United Nations added value.  Thanks to your commitment, we have made a real difference.  We have focused on results, making the United Nations more responsive and respected.

Consider some of the major gains of 2018.  A surge in diplomacy for peace — supported by the United Nations — is creating movement on seemingly intractable situations.

In Yemen, despite the challenges, a UN-brokered ceasefire has opened a window of hope to end the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe.  An encouraging dialogue for peace and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula has begun.  A peace deal was reached in South Sudan.  Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a historic peace agreement.

The UN peacekeeping Mission in Liberia successfully concluded work after years of effort, building on the achievements of other UN operations in West Africa.  Greece and The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia made substantial progress towards resolving the name dispute.  Democratic transitions and openings advanced in Armenia and Central Asia.

The UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia convicted two former Khmer Rouge leaders of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide — demonstrating the power of accountability even decades after the crimes were committed.

In a number of complex situations, including Madagascar, Mali, Maldives and Liberia, important elections successfully took place, most of them with active UN support.  We now hope that the electoral process in the Democratic Republic of the Congo will conclude without violence and in full accordance with the will of the people and the country’s legal and constitutional frameworks.

There were further landmark steps on other critical fronts.  In Katowice, we overcame many doubts to breathe new life into climate action by adopting the Work Programme for the Paris Agreement on climate change.  I travelled there three times to press for action — and witnessed the commitment of Member State negotiators to deliver a successful outcome.

Against the odds, we adopted a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which points the way, with full respect for national sovereignty, towards opportunity, dignity and an end to the tragedies that happen with grim regularity.

You combined this step with a Global Compact on Refugees that will help ensure more equitable and predictable burden- and responsibility-sharing in providing solutions and protection to refugees and supporting host communities.

Throughout the year, we intensified our work towards the Sustainable Development Goals.  One hundred and two States have now presented their Voluntary National Reviews.  Another 51 will do so this year, providing an inspiring picture of your efforts to advance the 2030 Agenda.

Your support has also been critical to deliver humanitarian assistance to the world’s most vulnerable people.  A record of almost $15 billion of your contributions helped reach nearly 100 million people in need.  That is unprecedented.  This humanitarian aid saves lives, in a remarkable demonstration of solidarity.  And it demonstrates the added value of the United Nations.

In 2018, I also launched a number of new initiatives, taking profit of our Organization’s unique legitimacy and convening power.

In March, we introduced “Action for Peacekeeping” to refocus peacekeeping with more realistic expectations; make our missions stronger and safer; and mobilize greater support for well-equipped, well-trained forces, as well as the political will that is central to all successful peace efforts.

I thank the 151 countries and 4 major organizations for endorsing this undertaking.  Indeed, the partnership underpinning our operations is stronger than ever, with troop and police contributors near record levels.

In May, I set out a new disarmament agenda to address weapons of mass destruction and conventional weapons, and to ensure that wondrous new technologies do not spark a horrendous new arms race.  Our aim is three‑fold:  disarmament to save humanity; disarmament to save lives; and disarmament to safeguard our future.

And in June, for the first time ever, we brought together the heads of counter-terrorism agencies from around the world, and established the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Coordination Compact Task Force encompassing entities across the UN system.  We have strengthened our efforts in this essential battle — and have proven the case that it is possible to fight terrorism while upholding human rights.  Across the year, we deepened our engagement with young people, and launched Youth 2030, a youth empowerment strategy.

And we took unprecedented steps to advance gender parity.  For the first time in UN history, we achieved gender parity in the UN senior management team and among those nominated to serve as Resident Coordinators.  We are doing everything possible to create a working environment free of harassment or abuses of power of any kind.

Discrimination against women remains shockingly pervasive across the world, and women continue to be routinely excluded from peace negotiations and in other key forums for decision-making.  The United Nations must remain at the forefront of change.

We should draw encouragement from our achievements.  At the same time, we recognize that many people still see our United Nations as ineffective, cumbersome and bureaucratic.  We all want a more nimble, effective, flexible and efficient Organization.  That is why we are reforming ourselves in ambitious ways — to better serve the people.

With your guidance and support, a new United Nations development system is now in place, including a new resident coordinator system and a new generation of country teams.  This positions us to better support your efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Our peace and security architecture has been fortified to strengthen prevention, mediation, peacekeeping and peacebuilding.  Underpinning these changes are new management capacities, structures and practices, including new levels of transparency, simplification and accountability that will hopefully, deeply transform the organization.

On 1 January, I issued new delegations of authority to more than 200 heads of United Nations entities.  This will cut red tape and bring decision-making closer to the point of delivery — a key reform objective.

We are also improving the regional balance of our staff, recognizing the immense value of geographical diversity at all levels, unfortunately not always fully understood in the past.  With two years of reform discussions and decisions now behind us, 2019 will see a renewed United Nations working for all.

While recognizing the progress we are making, we cannot be complacent.  To meet the needs and expectations of the people we serve, we must accelerate our work.  It starts by accelerating the surge in diplomacy.

Partnerships are fundamental — none more so than in our engagement with the people of Africa.  We will continue to strengthen our partnership with the African Union as we strive to consolidate gains towards peace on the continent, and press for lasting solutions in Mali and the Sahel, South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Last month’s Stockholm Agreement on Yemen helped to avoid a catastrophic military confrontation in Hodeidah that would have greatly increased the risk of famine.  But, much more needs to be done to ensure that the parties live up to their commitments, and that a true political process finally leads to peace.

In Libya, the ceasefire brokered by the United Nations is still holding.  Our efforts have helped stabilize the currency, brought some measure of economic relief and enabled a realistic prospect for security reform.  Now it is the time to help unite the Libyan people to advance the political process and create conditions for a National Conference paving the way for reconciliation and future elections.

In Syria, the war is far from over.  Millions of civilians remain displaced and under constant fear of yet another humanitarian catastrophe, particularly in the north-east and north-west.  My new Special Envoy will continue to push for what remains the only solution: a political path– in accordance with Security Council resolution 2254 (2015) and the Geneva communiqué — where the voices of all Syrians are heard, and grievances can be addressed in a peaceful and equitable manner.

The conflict in Afghanistan continues to take an appalling toll.  I welcome recent peace efforts, including the Government’s offers for talks and ceasefire, as well as difficult initiatives by both civil society and different Member States.

Unfortunately, a number of peace and security challenges remain frozen or unresolved, from the Caucasus and Ukraine to Myanmar and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  On these and other matters, the unity and support of the Security Council will be crucial to overcome the deadlocks.

And as we strive to end conflicts around the world, we understand that lasting peace must be based on a broad consensus of society, with women as full participants in all peace processes.  In this fast-changing world, standing still means falling further behind.  On three key twenty-first-century challenges, we need to dramatically accelerate our efforts in 2019.  Quite simply, we must put our pedal to the metal.

First and foremost, to fight climate change.  There is no greater challenge to the world of today and tomorrow.  The threat is on a clear trajectory:  hotter, faster, more severe.  Science is clear.  And things are even getting worse than what was forecast.

Last week, a study found that ocean temperatures are rising 40 per cent faster than the world’s top scientists predicted just five years ago.  Over the next decade, we need to transform our economies at an unprecedented scale to keep temperature rise to 1.5°C.  By 2020, under the Paris Agreement, Member States are meant to assess progress and submit new pledges to meet the goals to which they agreed.  And by 2050, we need to reach net zero global emissions.  That means enhanced efforts now, both to reduce emissions and to seize the opportunities of a clean, green energy future. 

That is why I will convene a climate summit on 23 September to mobilize action by political leaders, the business community and civil society.  We need greater ambition — ambition on mitigation, ambition on adaptation, ambition on finance and ambition on innovation.  I appeal to world leaders to bring solutions and commitments that will at last match the scale of the challenge.

Second, alongside a dramatically improved response to climate change, we must strongly accelerate our broader efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.  Despite considerable efforts from Governments and many others, the transformative changes demanded by the 2030 Agenda are not yet being made.

We need a sharper focus on what works in reducing poverty and inequality, and in delivering strong and inclusive economies while safeguarding the environment — and we need increased financing for those solutions.

That is why the Climate Summit will be followed by the General Assembly’s first Heads of State and Government meeting of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development since the 2030 Agenda was adopted.

And it is why those two Summits will be complemented by prominent meetings on three other key challenges:  financing for development, universal health coverage and the risks faced by small island developing States.

I urge you all to do your utmost to make September a defining moment for stopping runaway climate change, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and building a fair globalization.

Third, the new technologies that can turbocharge this work are also outpacing our capacity to reckon with their profound impacts.  Here, too, we need to step up.

The fourth Industrial Revolution continues to open new possibilities for health care, education, humanitarian assistance and much else.  But, alongside these benefits, we must address the disruption of labour markets, the weaponization of artificial intelligence and the heinous activities on the dark web.

Later this year, my High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation will report on proposals for reducing digital inequality, building digital capacity and ensuring that new technologies are on our side and are a force for good.

Across this work, across the world, what really matters is people — “we the peoples”.  And what guides us is a set of values — the universal values of the United Nations Charter that binds us together.  Peace.  Justice.  Human Dignity.  Tolerance.  Solidarity.

Today, those values are under attack around the globe.  An ideological battle is taking place.  Most disturbingly, we hear the troubling, hateful echoes of eras long past, and noxious views moving into the mainstream.  Let’s not forget the lessons of the 1930s.  There can be never room for hate speech, intolerance or xenophobia.  We will fight it anytime, anywhere.  But we must do more.  We must go deeper. 

For the values that we defend to truly prevail, we need to show that we understand people’s anxieties, fears and concerns.  We need to address the root causes that lead people to feel marooned in our rapidly changing world.

I am convinced that we can move forward with confidence for the green economy and for the benefits of the fourth Industrial Revolution.

But, I am equally certain that we must at the same time invest in social cohesion, in education, in new skills for people to adapt, and safety nets for those that risk to be left behind — never forgetting the coal miner, the assembly line worker, and all those across the world, destitute or caught up in crises, afraid of being left behind.

We need a new campaign for values — for the human rights and human dignity that we hold dear and that must be made real in the lives of all.

Allow me to recall what I said as a candidate for Secretary-General almost three years ago when I presented my candidacy:  “In times of insecurity, when people feel uncertain about their future, when anxieties and fears are promoted and exploited by political populists, old-fashioned nationalists or religious fundamentalists, the success of the United Nations and the international community lies in our common commitment to our common values.”

In that spirit, let’s keep showing all people that we care.  Let’s keep proving our worth through action.  And let’s accelerate our efforts to move our world forward and leave no one behind.

For information media. Not an official record.