New York

05 May 2014

Deputy Secretary-General's remarks at General Assembly Special Thematic Debate on Culture and Sustainable Development in the Post-2015 Development Agenda [as delivered]

I am delighted to take part in today’s debate on behalf of the Secretary-General, who is on travel.  I thank the President of the General Assembly for his initiative to bring us together on the vital subject of culture and sustainable development.

We will hear from leaders and Ministers, and I am indeed impressed by the number of the Ministers attending this meeting, and also from many experts who will offer well-researched and penetrating views on this subject.  My introductory comments are based as much on subjective impressions as on objective observations, and I will share some of these with you this morning.

When I prepared for this thematic debate, I immediately thought of Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.  He placed, as you may recall, an extraordinary emphasis on culture in his personal and professional life.  He was a member of the committee that selects the Nobel Prize for Literature – and he voraciously read poetry, novels, biographies in several languages.  He translated complex works on philosophy even during crises at the United Nations.  In fact, he did so on a flight which ended in the fatal crash outside Ndola on the 17th September. They found a translation of the philosopher Buber in his briefcase. For Hammarskjöld, culture was not an escapist distraction – it enriched his approach to his work.

His aide and biographer Sir Brian Urquhart, who is well known to all of us, once said that the Secretary-General’s reading was not an extracurricular activity – it was “very much a part of a perfectly balanced curriculum” of his life.

Dag Hammarskjöld was also responsible for instituting the tradition of United Nations Day concerts, and I was very glad to hear of the President’s initiative for the 6th of June.  He would have been delighted to see many of the artists who have come to our Headquarters over the years to inspire audiences with their performances.  Time and again, these talented individuals have reminded us that for all the brutality and suffering we confront in today’s world – just think of the girls lost in Nigeria now, or the suffering of the Afghan people with the mountain of mud falling over two thousand people – for all the brutality and suffering we are confronted by in today’s world, humanity has an enormous potential – unfortunately very often untapped – to generate beauty, foster mutual respect and build peace. And I know that this is inspiring Irina Bokova.

I have often used culture in a wider sense in my work as a diplomat and a mediator to bring people together.  I recall many visits to museums, cultural sites and events during my mediation assignments.  On a lighter note I may tell you that, on one occasion, we could not get parties to a conflict to speak face-to-face.  Both sides came from coffee-drinking cultures, so we prepared strong coffee in the negotiation rooms in Geneva and then waited an excruciatingly long time to serve it.  Finally, negotiators from both sides were very eager, to say the least, for a cup of coffee.  We then suggested that everyone should take the coffee break together, and in the negotiation room – and it worked.  This was the breakthrough of direct contact between the parties. So we saw that even a coffee break could provide diplomatic progress.

The United Nations has long seen culture as a means to promote development.  Many of our goodwill ambassadors have championed cultural causes.  And of course, the raison d’être of UNESCO is to serve peace, development and human rights by promoting education, science and culture.

There is a growing understanding of what Dag Hammarskjöld knew intuitively: culture is essential and inspirational to progress and international understanding.

Last June, at the first thematic debate on culture and development, the Secretary-General expressed support for seeing culture as part of the post-2015 debate.

Culture in a deeper sense can have a strong influence on sustainable development.  A transformative approach to development involves adopting lifestyles which do not overburden the planet’s resources, and which enable those living in deprivation and poverty to meet their basic needs.

Most societies, especially those with indigenous populations, have a cultural heritage which requires solidarity with nature. We need peace with nature, which requires conservation of resources.  These values are basic for sustainable development.

We see this, for example, in the area of sustainable tourism mentioned by the Vice President.  When countries invest in protecting their unique natural and cultural features, people will travel to marvel at these treasures.  This will generate jobs and economic growth, which, if well distributed, will engender greater stability and peace, apart from the understanding of other nations, peoples, cultures and traditions which we need to really be reminded of in today’s world, where we see such polarisation in the dangerous way where religion, sect, tribe and other ethnic dimensions are used to divide people.

But all this does not mean that we should place culture in a glass case.  But rather we should recognize the role of culture for all.  We should protect it and allow it to flourish in all aspects of the sustainable development agenda, and also see it as a creative part of a national identity.

Culture is not static; it’s very dynamic. It evolves and reflects constantly, it gives new perspectives and new experiences.  We have seen this for example in how the role of women has changed in various societies over the years, having a deep cultural, societal impact. A positive impact, I would say very strongly.

And we must not allow culture to be used as an excuse to undermine development.  For example, this Assembly has rightly called for an end to female genital mutilation, sadly a tradition in several countries still.  This is critical to realizing our vision of a world free of violence against women – which is essential for development and essential for a life of dignity for all.

The Rio+20 outcome document had many references to culture, as you recall.  The ECOSOC subsequently adopted a ministerial declaration recognizing culture as essential to sustainable development.  Ministers at ECOSOC saw culture as key to building social inclusion, eradicating poverty and generating economic growth.

The General Assembly adopted its own resolution last December underscoring the need to give due consideration to culture and development in the post-2015 development agenda.


The Open Working Group on the SDGs has made considerable progress in this regard.  As we know, it is in the process of reviewing a series of focus areas with a view to identifying targets and eventually arriving at a set of goals. While we cannot predict nor should predict what goals or targets will be, we can reasonably expect that culture and cultural heritage will underlie and inspire the development agenda to come.

I hope today’s debate will help distil your cultural experiences and practices into new and bold creative directions which can inspire again the post-2015 development agenda and our work for a better world.

I thank you.