Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the Lamp of Peace ceremony, held in New York and Assisi, Italy, today:
It is a great honour and a privilege to join you for this ceremony and to receive the Lamp of Peace. I only wish I could be with you in the beautiful Basilica of Saint Francis.
By honouring me, you are recognizing the work of all our United Nations personnel striving for peace around the world: diplomats, humanitarians, development specialists and peacekeepers, who put themselves in harm’s way to safeguard and promote peace.
Please forgive me for switching into English at this point. The United Nations was created in the name of peace, after the horrors of two global wars that began in Europe. Peace remains our guiding star and most precious goal.
We are united here today in our pursuit of peace. I thank King Abdullah II [bin al-Hussein of Jordan] for his efforts to promote peace on the global stage, through his staunch support for international solutions, solidarity, dialogue and human rights. And I express my gratitude to [Father Marco] Moroni, Cardinal [Gualtiero] Basetti and all the Franciscans who are working around the world in the name of peace.
I have very close links to the Franciscans through my life‑long friendship with Father Vitor Melicias, a Franciscan priest who presided over both my wedding ceremonies, baptized my children and celebrated mass many times in my home. And as an Antonio from Lisbon, I have a strong connection with Santo Antonio — one of the first Franciscans. People from Lisbon and people from Padua may never agree on where Saint Anthony belongs, but of course, he belongs to the whole world.
As a person of faith with a deep appreciation and respect for the mission of Saint Francis, this award and ceremony are especially meaningful. From the start of my mandate as Secretary-General, I made promoting peace my first priority, having seen some of the worst impacts of conflict during my tenure as High Commissioner for Refugees. I launched a surge in diplomacy for peace. And putting greater emphasis on prevention, establishing more rigorous systems and frameworks to analyse risks, reinforce decision-making and support Member States to take action before violence escalates.
When COVID-19 first took hold, I understood it would be a new threat to peace and called immediately for a global ceasefire to fight our common enemy — the virus. Looking forward, I am determined to use my second mandate to build on these initiatives through my good offices, as an honest broker, a bridge‑builder and a messenger for peace.
But, the struggle for peace is often a Sisyphean task, given the complexity of today’s interlinked conflicts. We live in a world where peace is elusive, and under enormous threat. Many countries and entire regions are suffering from prolonged conflicts, with no end in sight. And in places that have not seen conventional war for decades, peace is routinely undervalued and undermined. This lends even greater importance to moments like this, when we honour peace and reflect on our duty to uphold and promote it.
Saint Francis of Assisi was a true visionary, whose holistic concept of peace is as relevant today as it was during his lifetime, 800 years ago. The patron saint of ecology has much to teach us about making peace with nature. Our unsustainable production and consumption habits are causing a triple planetary crisis: climate disruption; a catastrophic loss of biodiversity; and levels of pollution that are killing millions every year.
Pope Francis recognized this in his inspiring encyclical Laudato Si. Our war on nature threatens all human life, together with many other animal and plant species. Climate disruption is unleashing wildfires, floods, droughts and other extreme weather events that affect every continent. It contributes to a struggle for scarce resources like clean water and fertile land, which can easily erupt into violence and conflict.
Last year, more than 30 million people were forced from their homes by climate-related disasters — many finding shelter in countries that are also affected by the climate emergency. This triple planetary crisis requires urgent action from everyone — from Governments, international organizations, businesses, cities and individuals. We need global solidarity, not only to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, but to support communities and countries that are already reeling under the strain. Developing countries need urgent access to climate finance, so that they can adapt their infrastructure and economies, and build resilience.
Climate action builds peace. Reforestation, water cooperation and cross-border land management initiatives protect and restore nature while connecting communities with each other and with the natural world. This is the way of the future. Human well-being lies in restoring and protecting the health of our planet and everything on it. As Saint Francis understood, there is a deep connection between living in harmony with our environment and in peace with each other.
Saint Francis was also ahead of his time in understanding the links among economic justice, humility and peace. Today, rising levels of poverty coupled with record levels of inequality are a threat to peace at the global and local levels. Humility is out of fashion, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that it remains an imperative. Pride and overconfidence have seriously hampered the global response. A microscopic virus brought the world to its knees. Two years on, we may wish we were done with COVID-19, but it is not done with us and that is why I am here.
The pandemic has exploited the enormous inequalities in our world. Economic inequality enabled it to run rampant through the poorest countries and communities. Vaccine inequality has allowed it to continue mutating, possibly into variants that are more transmissible and more deadly. Inequality in global finance means the poorest countries are mired in debt, while the richest invest in a strong recovery.
Even before the pandemic, people were losing faith in their institutions and representatives. Today, there is widespread alienation and cynicism over leaders and elites who have failed to protect their people and act in the best interests of all.
High levels of poverty and inequality are a direct assault on human rights. They are associated with poor health, increased levels of crime, corruption and instability. And people who are marginalized and isolated are vulnerable to arguments that blame their misfortunes on others. It is no coincidence that the inequality crisis is coupled with rising levels of racism, extremism and nationalism.
At the same time, I am inspired by leaders who are emerging from some of the least powerful groups and regions. Teenage girls are raising their voices and moving the world. The leaders of small island developing States are speaking truth to power. Children and young people, civil society, cities and community groups are joining together to stand up for human rights, climate action and peace.
Saint Francis saw that peace was closely linked to humility and compassion for all others. As Pope Francis has said, Saint Francis “shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace”.
From today’s perspective, perhaps the most remarkable quality of Saint Francis’ vision of peace was its inclusivity. At a time of bloody and violent religious conflicts, when the dehumanization of Muslims and Jews was widespread in Europe, Saint Francis chose to risk his life on a mission for peace in the Middle East. His meeting with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil during the fifth Crusade is an early model of interfaith dialogue that promoted tolerance, respect and mutual understanding.
Saint Francis returned from Egypt to write about new ways in which his order, the Franciscans, could engage with Muslims — revolutionary for its time. Scholars have even observed how his subsequent teachings were influenced by the Islamic Call to Prayer and by the traditional Islamic 99 names of God. His mission is a powerful example and lesson for all of us who strive for peace, particularly in the Middle East, where interreligious tensions and conflict sadly continue.
We can all play a part in ending the polarization that plagues many societies today. In response to rising anti-Muslim hatred, anti-Semitism, [the persecution of Christians,] racism and xenophobia, we must all stand up for our common humanity. We must reject religious and political figures who exploit differences. It is essential that leaders of all kinds take responsibility, condemn all acts of violence and hatred and address the root causes that undermine social cohesion.
As societies become multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural, we need greater investment in inclusivity. Every group in society should feel that their individual identity is respected, while they are also valued members of the community as a whole.
Tolerance is not enough. We must learn to respect each other and to love each other. Building bridges between the world’s major faiths is one of the most important projects of our time. With their agreement on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, signed two years ago, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, sent an important message of mutual respect, tolerance, compassion and peace.
Allow me to close with a final thought: Peace makes demands of us, because peace is not a passive acceptance of the status quo. It is a concrete act; a choice; and sometimes, yes, a difficult one. But, in our fractured, troubled world, it is a vital one. It is the only one. It remains the driving force behind the work of the United Nations, every day, in every country. I will believe our world is truly committed to peace when media organizations employ not just war reporters, but peace reporters, when Governments allocate money not only to defence budgets, but to peace budgets.
As Pope Francis said in his encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, only by walking the path of peace, in solidarity, can we build a better future for all. Because peace can achieve wonders that war never will. Thank you once again for honouring me with this Lamp of Peace. In a world where we can choose anything, let us choose peace. Thank you.