Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks at the opening of the seventy‑fourth session of the General Assembly, in New York today:
The United Nations Charter sends a clear message to us all: put people first. The first words of the Charter — “we the peoples” — are a summons to place people at the centre of our work. Every day. Everywhere. People with anxieties and aspirations. People with heartbreaks and hopes. Above all, people with rights.
Those rights are not a favour to be rewarded or withheld. They are an endowment for simply being human. Across the first half of my mandate, I have had the good fortune to meet people around the world — not in gilded meeting rooms, but where they live and work and dream. And I have listened.
I have heard families in the South Pacific who fear their lives being swept away by rising seas; young refugees in the Middle East yearning for a return to school and home; Ebola survivors in North Kivu struggling to rebuild their lives; women demanding equality and opportunity; people of all beliefs and traditions who suffer simply because of who they are; and so many others.
We are living in a world of disquiet. A great many people fear getting trampled, thwarted, left behind. Machines take their jobs. Traffickers take their dignity. Demagogues take their rights. Warlords take their lives. Fossil fuels take their future.
And yet people believe in the spirit and ideas that bring us to this Hall. They believe in the United Nations. But do they believe in us? Do they believe as leaders, we will put people first? Because we, the leaders, must deliver for we the peoples.
People have a right to live in peace. One year ago, in this room, I spoke of winds of hope despite the chaos and confusion of our world. Since then, some of those currents continued to move in promising directions. Against the expectations of many, elections unfolded peacefully in Madagascar, Maldives, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to name just a few. Greece and the Republic of North Macedonia resolved their decades‑long name dispute. Political dialogue in Sudan and the peace process in the Central African Republic have brought renewed hope.
And a long‑sought step forward has just been taken on the political path out of the tragedy in Syria, and in line with Security Council resolution 2254 (2015). As I announced yesterday, an agreement has been reached with all parties [involved] for a credible, balanced and inclusive Syrian‑owned and Syrian‑led constitutional committee. My Special Envoy just left Damascus after finalizing the last details with the Government and the opposition. The United Nations looks forward to convening the Committee in Geneva in the coming weeks.
But, across the global landscape, we see conflicts persisting, terrorism spreading and the risk of a new arms race growing. Outside interferences, often in violation of Security Council resolutions, make peace processes more difficult. And so many situations remain unresolved, from Yemen to Libya to Afghanistan and beyond.
A succession of unilateral actions threatens to torpedo a two‑State solution between Israel and Palestine. In Venezuela, 4 million people have fled the country — one of the largest displacements in the world. Tensions are elevated in South Asia, where differences need to be addressed through dialogue. And above all, we are facing the alarming possibility of armed conflict in the Gulf, the consequences of which the world cannot afford. The recent attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities was totally unacceptable.
In a context where a minor miscalculation can lead to a major confrontation, we must do everything possible to push for reason and restraint. I hope for a future in which all the countries of the region can live in a state of mutual respect and cooperation, without interference in each other’s affairs. And I hope equally that it will still be possible to preserve the progress on nuclear non‑proliferation represented by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
From day one, I have emphasized prevention, mediation and a surge in diplomacy for peace to address the crises we face. Consider the lives we can save by intensifying our investments to sustain peace around the world. Across some of the most troubled corners of the world, some 100,000 United Nations peacekeepers protect civilians and promote peace.
Through the Action for Peacekeeping initiative, we are strengthening our effectiveness and efficiency and we are renewing partnerships with troop- and police‑contributing countries, host countries and regional organizations such as the African Union and the European Union.
I am also proud of the work of our humanitarians easing suffering around the world. Fully half of all international relief aid is channelled through the United Nations — ensuring that millions receive protection, food, medicine, shelter, water and other life‑saving forms of assistance. This year alone, in brutal attacks and other circumstances, we have lost at least 80 peacekeepers, humanitarians and others, all of whom gave their lives serving the United Nations trying to better the lives of others. I honour their service and their sacrifice.
We have bolstered our counter‑terrorism architecture and defined new strategies to tackle violent extremism and address root causes while respecting human rights. And I have put forward a new disarmament agenda to advance global peace. In the near term, the “New Start” agreement must be extended; we must work to address the heightened threat posed by ballistic missiles; and ensure a successful 2020 review of the Treaty on the Non‑Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
The situation on the Korean Peninsula remains uncertain. I fully support the efforts towards a new summit between the President of the United States and the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
And at this time of transition and dysfunction in global power relations, there is a new risk looming on the horizon that may not yet be large, but it is real. I fear the possibility of a great fracture: the world splitting in two, with the two largest economies on earth creating two separate and competing worlds, each with their own dominant currency, trade and financial rules, their own internet and artificial intelligence capacities, and their own zero‑sum geopolitical and military strategies.
We must do everything possible to avert the great fracture and maintain a universal system — a universal economy with universal respect for international law; a multipolar world with strong multilateral institutions. People have a right to security in all its dimensions. Every measure to uphold human rights helps deliver sustainable development and peace.
In the twenty‑first century, we must see human rights with a vision that speaks to each and every human being and encompasses all rights: economic, social, cultural, political [and] civil. It would be a mistake to ignore or diminish economic, social and cultural rights.
But it would be equally misguided to think that those rights are enough to answer people’s yearnings for freedom. Human rights are universal and indivisible. One cannot pick and choose, favouring some while disdaining others. People have a right to well‑being and dignified standards of life, with health, housing and food; social protection and a sustainable environment; education — not only to learn things but to learn how to learn and prepare for the future; and decent jobs, especially for young people.
These rights permeate the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. And they are among our best tools for preventing conflict. Yet we are not on track. Inequality is exploding. Our global economy generates great flows of income, but this prosperity is captured by a small number of elites. It is a sad fact of our world today that one’s chances of leading a life free of want and in full human dignity still depend more on the circumstances of one’s birth than one’s innate capacities.
Today’s Sustainable Development Goals Summit — and Thursday’s dialogue on financing — are opportunities to ramp up ambition, including by utilizing the promise of technology and innovation as recommended by the High‑Level Panel on Digital Cooperation that has concluded its report.
As was emphasized at yesterday’s Climate Action Summit, the climate emergency is a race we are losing – but it is a race we can win if we change our ways now. Even our language has to adapt: what once was called “climate change” is now truly a “climate crisis”. And what was once called “global warming” has more accurately become “global heating”.
We are seeing unprecedented temperatures, unrelenting storms and undeniable science. Ten days ago, in the Bahamas, I saw the ruin caused by Hurricane Dorian. That aftermath is a mere prelude to what science tells us is on its way. But something else is on its way: solutions. The world is starting to move — not yet fast enough but move in the right direction — away from fossil fuels and towards the opportunities of a green economy.
The Climate Summit highlighted some of the solutions we need to scale up in order to dramatically reduce emissions, keep temperature rise to 1.5°C and reach carbon neutrality by 2050. But we are not yet there. We must build on this momentum and do much more to be able to defeat climate change.
People have a right to the fundamental freedoms that every country has promised to uphold. Yet today, we are at a critical juncture where advances made across the decades are being restricted and reversed, misinterpreted and mistrusted. We see wide‑ranging impunity, including for violations of international humanitarian law. New forms of authoritarianism are flourishing. Civic space is narrowing. Environmental activists, human rights defenders, journalists and others are being targeted.
And surveillance systems expand their reach day by day, click by click, camera by camera, encroaching on privacy and personal lives. These breaches go beyond the breakdown in rules governing the behaviour of States and businesses. They are also playing out at a deeper level, shredding the fabric of our common humanity.
At a time when record numbers of refugees and internally displaced people are on the move, solidarity is on the run. We see not only borders, but hearts, closing — as refugee families are torn apart and the right to seek asylum torn asunder. We must re‑establish the integrity of the international refugee protection regime and fulfil the promises of responsibility‑sharing set out in the Global Compact on Refugees.
We must also build on the landmark adoption of the first‑ever Global Compact on Migration last December. That means strengthening international cooperation for safe, orderly and regular migration and countering the smugglers and criminals who enrich themselves on the backs of vulnerable people. All migrants must see their human rights respected.
Around the world, alienation and distrust are being weaponized. Fear is today’s best‑selling brand. That is why I launched two initiatives. First, a United Nations system‑wide strategy to tackle hate speech.
Second, an action plan to support efforts to safeguard religious sites and uphold the right to religious freedom. Religious, ethnic and other minorities must fully enjoy their human rights. That requires a strong investment in social cohesion to ensure diverse communities feel that their identities are respected and that they have a stake in society as a whole.
To those who insist on oppression or division, I say: diversity is a richness, never a threat. It is unacceptable in the twenty‑first century for women and men to be persecuted because of their identity, belief or sexual orientation. We must also secure the rights of vulnerable and marginalized people. This year I launched the first United Nations Disability Inclusion Strategy.
And, of course, the world’s most pervasive manifestation of discrimination affects fully half of humankind: women and girls. Let us never forget gender equality is a question of power. And power still lies overwhelmingly with men — as we see from parliaments to boardrooms, and even this week in the halls, corridors and meeting rooms of the United Nations. We will shift the balance when we truly see women’s rights and representation as our common goal.
That is why I have worked to ensure gender parity at the United Nations, together with regional balance. Today we have achieved parity in my Senior Management Group and among those who lead United Nations work at the country level. I will not let up until we have reached gender parity at all levels at the United Nations — and full equality for women and girls around the world.
That means continuing to push back against the pushback against women’s rights. It means calling out a troubling commonality in terrorist attacks, extremist ideologies and brutal crimes: the violent misogyny of the perpetrators. And it means stepping up our efforts to expand opportunity.
At present trends, it will take two centuries to close the gap in economic empowerment. We cannot accept a world that tells my granddaughters that equality must wait for their granddaughters’ granddaughters. As we continue all this vital work and more, I have launched ambitious reforms to make the United Nations more effective. I count on you to place our Organization on sound financial footing.
In an ever more divided world, we need a strong United Nations. Next year we will mark the seventy‑fifth anniversary of the United Nations — a critical moment to renew our common project. The problems we face are real. But so is hope. As we strive to serve people, we also can be inspired by people.
Over the past two and a half years, I have spent time with young African girls learning to code; with teachers equipping young people with new skills for the future; [and] with entrepreneurs in many fields leading the world, innovation by innovation, into the green economy. They and so many others are helping to build the future we want. Their aspirations and their human rights must always be our touchstone.
We are here to serve. We are here to advance the common good while upholding our shared humanity and values. That vision united the founders of our Organization. At a time of division today, we must reconnect with that spirit. Let us restore trust, rebuild hope and move ahead, together.