Report of the Secretary-General: Introduction

UN Headquarters in New York lit up blue for annual UN Day © UN Photo/Cia Pak

As I submit my tenth and final annual report to the Member States on the work of the Organization, I recall the opening lines of my very first annual report, in which I observed that Member States and the peoples of the world were asking the United Nations to do more — in more spheres of activity, in more locations, in more challenging circumstances — than at any point in the Organization’s history. This trend has been the defining feature of my 10 years at the helm of the United Nations Secretariat. As I prepare to leave office, the United Nations has more political missions and peacekeepers deployed in more — and more dangerous — locations than ever before. It has its largest-ever humanitarian caseload, including more people displaced from their homes than at any time since the founding of the United Nations. As a result of the adoption of bold new agreements on sustainable development and climate change, it has a more ambitious sustainable development agenda than ever. Notwithstanding other periods of multiple demands on the Organization, the present scale and complexity of its global operations and programmes are unprecedented, even as it grapples with limited resources. By adapting to evolving needs and opportunities, the Organization has become more effective and efficient in how it delivers on its mandates. But increased demand ultimately requires increased investment and trust from Member States so that the United Nations can continue to deliver.

This rising level of demand upon the United Nations is in keeping with the dramatically changing global landscape and the growing number of challenges that no country can confront alone. It reminds us anew of the enduring value of the United Nations as a forum for problem-solving and a tool for burden-sharing. This was a decade of tectonic turbulence and exponential change. Globalization ushered in many opportunities for prosperity and for a sense of shared global community and humanity. But with greater opportunity emerged greater risk and unforeseen challenges. Just as goods and people moved seamlessly across borders, so too did diseases, weapons and extremist propaganda. Events in one part of the world reverberated all over the globe. The decade was marked by a series of crises with global repercussions, from the financial, food and fuel crises to the wave of unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. These setbacks diverted resources away from development towards crisis response and magnified fear and anxiety in many quarters. Throughout my tenure, leaders and global institutions struggled to keep pace with change and to sustain popular faith in their ability to manage its consequences. This was the first decade of the social media age, in which the voice of “we the peoples” was increasingly, resoundingly heard in global affairs. People rightly demanded more of their leaders and more of the United Nations. I trust that they will look back on this decade as a time when the Organization delivered for them, while also adapting to a profoundly changing world so that it could continue to deliver long into the future.

I took office determined to adapt the United Nations — and to support Member States in adapting — to deepening interdependence in a fast-changing world. To that end, I undertook a series of structural reforms and other steps to improve the Organization’s functioning and effectiveness, while also advocating vigorously for Member States to keep their commitments across all three pillars of the work of the Organization — peace and security, development and human rights. Many of my efforts have borne fruit within this most recent reporting period.

In the area of development, throughout my tenure I advocated for keeping the promise of the Millennium Development Goals and accelerating their implementation. We met the first Millennium Development Goal, cutting global poverty by half. We put more girls in school and saved more mothers from death in childbirth. These were no small feats but they were not enough to deliver a life of dignity for all. People around the globe continued to struggle to put food in their children’s mouths, to earn a living wage and to live a life of dignity and peace. As the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals neared, we recognized that their successors would need to more fully integrate economic growth, social justice and environmental stewardship. An impressive global coalition came together to craft a set of sustainable development goals that were adopted by Member States as part of Agenda 2030 in September 2015. These goals are designed to be universal, broader, and more inclusive than their precursors, including by encompassing such key aims as peace, justice and strong institutions.

Recognizing that we were the first generation to truly feel the effects of climate change and the last generation that could take meaningful steps to avert its worst impact, I decided early in my tenure to take a leadership role on this existential threat. When I took office, international climate negotiations were making slow progress and it was not universally accepted that the United Nations Secretary-General had a personal role to play. However, I could not stand by in the face of a faltering global response to the defining challenge of our time, which was already having an effect on all areas of work of the United Nations. I engaged directly with world leaders, paying visits to some of the worst affected parts of the world, and undertaking a wide variety of other initiatives to keep the issue — including that of climate finance — on top of the global agenda. Combined with global action at many levels by world leaders, civil society, the private sector and many other concerned actors, those efforts contributed to the Paris Agreement of 2015. The agreement was a triumph for people, planet and multilateralism itself. On Earth Day 2016, 175 countries signed the agreement, breaking a global record. Much of the hard work lies ahead but I will leave office encouraged that the issue got the attention it deserved in time to make a difference.

Women hold the key to driving progress across the international agenda. With that in mind, I made the empowerment of women a cardinal mission throughout my time in office. I ushered UN-Women into existence and undertook special initiatives on issues such as maternal and child health, sexual violence and economic empowerment of women. I tried to set an example through improving the gender balance in senior appointments at the United Nations itself. We did not reach parity but we broke many glass ceilings during my tenure. When I took office, there were no women heading peace operations in the field. Now, nearly a quarter of United Nations missions are headed by women. I also appointed the first woman Legal Counsel, the first woman Police Adviser, the first woman Force Commander and more than 100 women at Assistant or Under-Secretary-General level.

With the world supporting its largest-ever generation of young people, I also sought to harness the energy of youth. We saw time and again their energy, passion, and keen desire for a voice in their own affairs. I responded by appointing an Envoy on Youth — himself only 28 years old — and making every effort to ensure that the voice of those “succeeding generations” was heard in our decision-making at the United Nations. I made a point of meeting with young people whenever possible, to hear their concerns and to encourage them as the leaders of tomorrow.

In the area of peace and security, I made conflict prevention a priority throughout my time in office, beginning with strengthening United Nations capacity in mediation and preventive diplomacy. The proof of these reforms has been in the heightened demand throughout the decade and across the globe from Member States and regional partners for preventive diplomacy, mediation and mediation support from the United Nations. In 2016 alone, my envoys continue the painstaking work of diplomacy on the Syrian Arab Republic, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere, while United Nations personnel in peace operations and country teams work discreetly around the world to avert violent conflict and promote dialogue. I am pleased that Member States have responded to the recent series of independent reviews of our action on peace operations, peacebuilding and women and peace and security by pointing to the imperative of conflict prevention. We have much work to do to consistently translate this rhetoric into reality. In that connection, I launched the Rights Up Front initiative to better link the three pillars — peace and security, development and human rights — and to use prevention of violations as a principle for internal decision-making by the United Nations.

During my tenure, the United Nations became the second largest deployer of troops in the world. Peacekeeping deployments hit an all-time high. Deployments were not only bigger, they were far more complex and sometimes more remote. Operating environments became more and more dangerous as the security situation deteriorated in many regions. This required us to innovate continuously so as to make peace operations more responsive, effective and accountable. Accordingly, there were important reforms to the architecture of the United Nations in the peace and security realm throughout my tenure. As I took office, the new peacebuilding architecture was getting off the ground and, over the course of my time in office, it made a mark on our work to more successfully build and sustain peace in countries that had suffered the scourge of war. Member States have just adopted ground-breaking resolutions on sustaining peace that enshrine many of the lessons we have learned along the way.

I also book-ended my tenure with reforms to our systems for deploying and managing peace operations. This began with the establishment of the Department of Field Support and ended with proposals from the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, which made important recommendations on how we can better manage peace operations and deepen the global partnerships underpinning them. Some of the Panel’s ideas will necessarily fall to my successor and many of the most important are in the hands of Member States but the bulk of those that fall under my authority are expected to be well implemented by the time my term concludes.

Institutional reforms alone will not be sufficient to the future effectiveness of our operations, however, if they are not undertaken with a renewal of the requisite political will and trust. The compact among Member States that contribute in different ways to peace operations, and between Member States and the Secretariat, has been frayed by some of the challenges of recent years and badly needs to be restored, especially in cases where host government consent comes into question. I was especially disappointed by the muted response from the Security Council to the expulsion of United Nations civilian personnel from Western Sahara. I was also disappointed at the limited support for new proposals to strengthen our capacity for conflict prevention, in view of the clear consensus that we urgently need to do better at preventing violent conflicts before they start.

The deteriorating security environment required us to innovate in other ways too. The reporting period began with the winding down of the first-ever United Nations emergency health mission. The United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response was an important and successful example of the flexible and creative use of the United Nations political, logistical and other capacities to respond to the kinds of unanticipated crises that our interconnected world experiences with ever more frequency. Emerging threats such as organized crime and violent extremism also required new approaches and a principled collective response. One major output of this effort was my Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism. I was pleased that Member States supported the call in my plan for a comprehensive approach encompassing not only security-based counter-terrorism measures but also systematic preventive steps to address the underlying conditions that radicalize individuals and drive them to join violent extremist groups. I look forward to continuing engagement on this and related issues in follow-up to the General Assembly review of its counter-terrorism strategy.

Another innovation was the response to the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, where the joint investigative mechanism serves a dual purpose of investigating the specific use of these inhumane weapons and acting as a deterrent to their future use. More generally, I advocated for action across the disarmament agenda, on nuclear weapons, conventional arms and small arms and light weapons. I sought to revitalize the non-proliferation agenda and to advance measures to protect civilians and combatants from indiscriminate weapons. I was particularly pleased to welcome the adoption in July 2015 of the agreement on the nuclear programme of the Islamic Republic of Iran — a testament to the value of diplomacy.

My tenure has coincided with unprecedented humanitarian needs across the globe and the highest level of forced displacement since the founding of this Organization. My advocacy for a more global, accountable and robust humanitarian system culminated in 2016 with the World Humanitarian Summit. The effort continues at the high-level plenary meeting on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants to be held in September in New York. My overarching message is for global solidarity in response to the needs of our fellow human beings. This is a theme that I have tried to strike since the outset in advocating for the prioritization of human rights, beginning with support for the establishment of the Human Rights Council just as I took office and continuing with my campaigns for the abolition of the death penalty and an end to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as my Rights Up Front initiative. I am heartened, as I leave office, to see the human rights agenda reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals, in our peace and security strategies, and in our efforts to address violent extremism. While our dedicated human rights mechanisms still have an overly full agenda of issues, the effort to place human rights at the core of all our work is a concrete manifestation of the promise to put human rights up front in everything we do, as a matter of course.

When I arrived at the United Nations, I was struck by the gap between the enormous dedication of its staff and the weaknesses of the systems with which they work. Member States, too, sent me a clear message that they expected more transparent, accountable and effective stewardship of the Organization and its resources. In response, and to enable the United Nations to live up to growing demands and commitments, I prioritized institutional and management reforms. I took steps to strengthen the accountability system, including a focus on internal controls and oversight mechanisms and tools to promote transparency and integrity. These included the establishment of the Independent Audit Advisory Committee, the implementation of a new internal justice system and an expansion of the senior managers’ compacts to include heads of peacekeeping and special political missions. I also introduced new human resource policies, including mobility. I pushed for the evolution of the Secretariat to a global organization underpinned by modern management practices and business processes. Many of these reforms come to fruition as I wind down my term and I am delighted to leave in place for my successor an Organization that is well prepared for its eighth decade and the more complex world to which it must respond.

I also sought to take advantage of the emergence of new communications technologies, new media and new actors on the global stage, harnessing the power of partnerships and using the convening power of the United Nations to bring a wide range of actors together in pursuit of responses to pressing global challenges. Multi-stakeholder initiatives were established to address challenges such as women’s and children’s health, sustainable energy and hunger. I sought to open the doors of the United Nations ever further to parliaments and to civil society organizations, which play such a vital role in advancing critical agendas at the national and global level.

It has been a remarkable decade for the United Nations. As someone who grew up knowing this Organization as a beacon of hope, it has been privilege to serve. I have worked alongside Member States and many dedicated colleagues around the world. Too many staff members have given their lives serving the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. The best way to pay tribute to their sacrifice is to redouble our efforts. I have seen what transformation we can bring about when we pull together. But in my travels as Secretary-General, I have also seen despair, misery and hopelessness. Too often, these horrors are man-made. I have done what I can to ensure that the United Nations responds to the needs of the most vulnerable but that work is far from over. I will conclude my service at the end of this year and pass the baton to my successor, to whom I wish every success in what is, to quote the first Secretary-General, the most impossible job in the world. It is also the most uplifting.