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Climate change and multilateralism figure high on first day of UN General Assembly debate


Climate change and multilateralism figure high on first day of UN General Assembly debate

Climate change and multilateralism figure high on first day of UN General Assembly debate
Photo credit: UN | Cia Pak

Secretary-General calls for renewed commitment to rules-based order, reformed, reinvigorated, strengthened multilateral system

If there was one issue that was a recurrent theme on Tuesday on the first day of the United Nations General Assembly’s annual general debate, it was the potentially catastrophic impact of climate change from Secretary-General António Guterres’s opening address warning global Heads of State and Government  that “its speed has provoked a sonic boom SOS across the world”, to individual leaders highlighting their individual vulnerabilities.

Guterres said the world is suffering from a bad case of “trust deficit disorder”, with people losing faith in political establishments amid rising polarization and populism. Cooperation among States is more difficult, divisions within the Security Council stark, and trust in global governance fragile as twenty-first century challenges outpace twentieth century institutions and mindsets. While living standards for millions have improved, and a third world war avoided, that cannot be taken for granted.

“Multilateralism is under fire precisely when we need it most,” he said. While a multipolar world will not in itself guarantee peace or solve global problems, shifts in the balance of power may increase the risk of confrontation, he cautioned. Leaders have the duty to advance the well-being of their people, but as guardians of the common good, they also have a duty to promote and support a reformed, reinvigorated and strengthened multilateral system.

Leaders must renew their commitment to a rules-based order, with the United Nations at its centre and with the different institutions and treaties that bring the United Nations Charter to life, he stated. They must also demonstrate the added value of international cooperation by delivering peace, defending human rights and driving economic and social progress for women and men everywhere. “In the face of massive existential threats to people and planet – but, equally, at a time of compelling opportunities for shared prosperity – there is no way forward but collective, common-sense action for the common good,” he underscored. “This is how we rebuild trust.”

Focusing on climate change, which represents a direct existential threat, he stressed: “We have reached a pivotal moment. If we do not change course in the next two years, we risk runaway climate change.” World leaders must listen to scientists, see what is happening before their very eyes and guarantee implementation of the Paris Agreement.

“Our future is at stake. Climate change affects everything,” he said, announcing that he will convene a summit on climate change in September 2019 to mobilize action and financing one year before States are to revive their Paris pledges. Only a higher level of ambition will do, he said, adding: “The world needs you to be climate champions.”

While new technologies hold great promise, they also pose risks and serious dangers, including criminal activity and disruption to labour markets, he continued. Malicious acts in cyberspace, such as disinformation campaigns, are polarizing communities and diminishing trust among States.

Social media and the digital revolution are reinforcing tribalism and reinforcing a male-dominated culture. The technology sector must become more diverse, not least for its own benefit. With technology outpacing institutions, cooperation between States and stakeholders is crucial, he said, stressing the urgency to find and implement mutually beneficial solutions to digital challenges. Further, the dangers of new technologies on warfare also need to be urgently addressed, particularly now that the prospect of weapons which can select and attack targets on their own could trigger a new arms race.

“Let’s call it as it is: the prospect of machines with the discretion and power to take human life is morally repugnant,” he said, warning that any new war could include a massive cyberattack against civilian infrastructure as well as military capacities. He urged the international community to use the United Nations as a platform to nurture a digital future that is safe and beneficial for all.

Despite chaos and confusion in the world, there are winds of hope, he said, citing peace initiatives between Eritrea and neighbouring States, the signing of a peace agreement between the rival leaders of South Sudan, and summit meetings between the leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the United States and Republic of Korea. Approval of compacts on refugees and migrations is another sign of hope, while the drive for gender equality is gaining ground. “Our future rests on solidarity,” he said. “We must repair broken trust. We must reinvigorate our multilateral project and we must uphold dignity for one and all.”

Seychelles President Danny Faure warned that peace and prosperity cannot be disassociated from the effects of climate change and its existential threat to the world as a whole. “Neglecting the effects of climate change will pass on to the next generation a world beyond repair,” he said. 

Many leaders recounted the problems and achievements of their own countries. But they also highlighted the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which seek to eliminate a host of social ills in an environmentally friendly way by 2030, and underscored the UN’s prime role in attaining the global partnership needed to combat climate change and resolve a slew of other problems, including the current worldwide migration crisis.

A discordant note came from United States President Donald Trump, who rejected the ideology of globalism, opposed the new Global Compact on Migration, scheduled to be adopted in Morocco in December, and complained that the US’s trading partners had taken advantage of it, explaining his policy of unilaterally imposing billions of dollars in import tariffs.

Delivering a sound argument against this position was Swiss President Alain Berset, who bemoaned the “tendency at the moment” to seek answers to such problems as globalization, inequality, conflict, extremism, migration and climate change “in nationalist isolation and in a growing mistrust with regard to cooperation between States.”

“We are witnessing a real crisis in multilateralism – paradoxically at the very moment when we are trying to forge the main pillars of the global governance of the future,” he said. “The United Nations is indispensable and ideally placed to tackle contemporary challenges, especially the fight against inequality.”

He also decried “policies relying on trade protectionism and selfish interests” that undermine trade and prosperity, and reiterated his countries support for the [International Criminal Court] as “this unique international cooperative effort in favour of the victims of the most serious crimes.” 

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa also robustly defended multilateralism. “We must resist any and all efforts to undermine the multilateral approach to international trade, which is essential to the promotion of stability and predictability in the global economy,” he declared.

Many speakers declared their support for the Global Compact on Migration. “We look forward to its adoption in Marrakech later this year,” Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari said, noting that irregular migration is not a consequence of conflicts alone, but of the effects of climate change and lack of opportunities at home, calling climate change “one of the greatest challenges of our time.”

While stressing the importance of multilateralism, Rwandan President Paul Kagame highlighted the need for “real multilateralism, where it has too often been lacking.

“The current two-track system of global governance is unsustainable,” he said. “A few get to be the ones to define the norms by which others shall be judged. But standards that do not apply to everyone equally are not universal. Addressing this imbalance in the very foundation of our system is what will give shape to a revival of multilateral cooperation, and renew the legitimacy of the international institutions, that are so crucial to our planet's future.”

But it was Malawi’s President Arthur Peter Mutharika who perhaps best captured the true essence of the UN. “Every nation is important and we all have something to offer,” he declared. “There are no minorities here. There are no small nations here. There are only nations in the United Nations.”

Throughout the day, a total of 34 world leaders from the four corners of the globe addressed the General Assembly and shared their vision of the world’s most pressing challenges, ranging from climate change, nuclear proliferation and protracted conflict to large-scale migration, economic inequality and the elimination of extreme poverty through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Several speakers also addressed United Nations reforms, including changing the make-up of the 15-nation Security Council.

Selected African statements

pdf PAUL KAGAME, President of Rwanda (328 KB) , spotlighted the paradox represented by both Africa’s deep sense of transnational solidarity and its frequent division and dysfunction. “This left Africa unable to articulate and advance our common interests,” he said, adding: “We ceded responsibility for our futures to others, not by force, but by default.” However, he emphasized that times are now changing rapidly, and Africa’s global position must also change.

He went on to say that the continent’s current trends are towards closer and more productive cooperation, both through the African Union and regional economic communities. Recalling that the former recently initiated major financial and institutional reforms, he said that practical results are already being seen. The African Union’s budget is 12 per cent lower than in 2017 and the share of funding supplied by its member States has increased substantially.

Early in 2018, the historic African Continental Free Trade Area was signed, representing the culmination of decades of effort, he continued. Once in force, Africa’s place in the global economic and trade architecture will be redefined. Economies of scale and higher levels of intra-African trade will help the continent attain the 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Underlining the importance of crucial developments in the Horn of Africa – where leaders have set aside decades of mistrust to work towards comprehensive settlements – he said the Security Council must work closely with the African Union to accompany that normalization process.

Turning to other situations on the continent, such as those in the Central African Republic, Libya, the Sahel region and South Sudan, he said Africa and the world should come together to harmonize overlapping initiatives and ensure that agreements are respected. African countries stand ready to embark on a new chapter of cooperation between the continent and the United Nations, based on the stable funding of African Union-mandated peace support operations. In that regard, he noted that a resolution slated to be introduced by Africa’s three present Security Council members enjoys the full backing of the African Union and will align with the Secretary-General’s new Action for Peacekeeping initiative.

“The dividend of a more focused and functional Africa benefits everyone,” he continued, emphasizing that against the backdrop of stronger partnerships the African Union’s representation at the United Nations must be accorded the same status and weight enjoyed by other major regional bodies. Making the United Nations relevant to all people requires a commitment to achieving real multilateralism where it has too often been lacking. Indeed, the current two-track system of global governance – in which a few define the norms by which others will be judged – is unsustainable. “Standards that do not apply to everyone, equally, are not universal,” he warned, adding: “Addressing this imbalance in the very foundation of our system is what will give shape to a revival of multilateral cooperation.”

pdf MUHAMMADU BUHARI, President of Nigeria (662 KB) , said Africans took pride in the way former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan served humanity in an exemplary manner. The international community is witnessing positive results from bilateral and multilateral efforts to address conflicts and threats to world peace, he said, pointing to recent commitments by the United States and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. However, other crises have deteriorated.

The international community must strengthen its resolve to combat ethnic and religious cleansing everywhere, including Myanmar, he said, where Rohingya refugees must be able to return to their homes with guarantees of security and citizenship. Carnage in Syria and Yemen continues unabated and he called for negotiated political solutions to those crises. The situation in the Middle East is worsening and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is the result of unrestrained use of power. He reaffirmed support for a just two-State solution to the Israeli‑Palestinian crisis. Terrorist insurgencies continue to affect the Sahel and Lake Chad regions, increasingly fuelled by the international Jihadi movement.

He said irregular migration entails avoidable loss of lives and strains all countries affected by migration flows. He welcomed the successful conclusion of negotiations on the first-ever Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and looked forward to its adoption later this year. Climate change is contributing to irregular migration and negatively impacting the livelihood of those around the Lake Chad region, leading to instability in the subregion.

Turning to corruption, he noted that illicit flows of funds across borders negatively impact the stability, peace and economic prospects of millions of people in developing countries. Corruption deprives Governments of resources to provide meaningful livelihoods to their populations. It is in the collective interest of all States to cooperate in tracking illicit financial flows, and investigate and prosecute corrupt individuals.

Stressing that current challenges can only be addressed through multilateral cooperation and concerted action, he reiterated the call for strengthening the United Nations and speeding reforms of the Security Council, with expanded membership in line with prevailing international consensus. Nigeria is mobilizing the human and material resources to achieve United Nations goals, including those outlined in the 2030 Agenda.

pdf MATAMELA CYRIL RAMAPHOSA, President of South Africa (426 KB) , said nearly a quarter of a century has elapsed since Nelson Mandela stood at the Assembly’s podium, declaring that millions of his people looked to the United Nations “to bring them a life worth living”. Asking if those hopes have been met, he said the Organization is still called upon to ask what it must do to achieve peace, reconciliation and stability around the globe. Welcoming the 24 September adoption of a political declaration marking 2019-2028 as the Nelson Mandela Decade of Peace, he said the Organization is obliged to truly become what the people of the world want it to be: A voice for all, including the poor and marginalized, around the globe.

“During the dark days of colonialism and apartheid, we drew strength, inspiration and encouragement from the United Nations,” he said. Today, he said, South Africa is making strides in dealing with apartheid’s ugly legacy, including undertaking reforms to ensure that land “belongs to all who work it” and attracting millions of dollars in foreign investment. As world leaders assemble today, they must commit to forging a more fair, equal United Nations that is better equipped to end the struggles against poverty and discrimination. Those challenges are most pronounced in Africa, which is “living in the age of youth” and bears a special responsibility to place young people and women at the centre of its affairs. “It is young people who are fighting the wars that we started” and women who bear the brunt of conflicts, he stressed, underlining the urgency of measures needed to end wars, death, destruction and human suffering.

Emphasizing that commitments to address terrorism and end protracted disputes must be coupled with resources and action, he spotlighted the long‑standing plights of the Palestinian people and Western Sahara, both of whom possess inalienable human rights. He also called for efforts to address youth unemployment and educational opportunities that are appropriate to the changing world of work. The potential of the digital revolution must be effectively harnessed to promote social justice as well as human progress, he stressed, also calling for stronger and more global institutions. Indeed, he said, the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and others need to be revamped to better meet the needs of all peoples around the world. “We must resist any and all efforts to undermine the multilateral approach to trade” which is central to the global economy’s stability and predictability, he stressed, adding that history has demonstrated that no country can prosper alone.

Spotlighting the potential of the 2030 Agenda to tackle those challenges and “turn implementation into impact”, he said African nations are working more closely together to rid the continent of underdevelopment and conflict while promoting the rule of law and human rights. For example, he said, the recently agreed African Continental Free Trade Area will give rise to a new industrial age in the region. “Africa has the potential to be the next great frontier for global growth and development” with major investments in education, good governance, health care and large-scale industrial capacity aimed at lifting millions of people out of poverty. “The youth of Africa are poised to transform their continent,” he said, reiterating South Africa’s determination to always be a force for good, peace, development and progress around the globe.

pdf ARTHUR PETER MUTHARIKA, President of Malawi (188 KB) , urged the General Assembly to raise the flag of peace in honour of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, asserting that peace must be guarded by all. The Assembly cannot stand proud while people around the world are forced to abandon their countries and while innocent children, women and men are being killed. Every human needs a home, every life is precious, he asserted, adding that there is a shared responsibility to seek and defend peace.

He said the relevance of the United Nations rests on its ability to satisfy the needs of people across the world, including Africans. Every nation is important and every nation has something to offer. However, those with more resources and power must step up and offer more. Global leadership must be defined in terms of global responsibility and Malawi is prepared to fulfil its responsibilities and obligations, he said.

He acknowledged the sacrifices being made by United Nations peacekeepers and expressed pride in Malawi’s active membership in peacekeeping operations, including ongoing efforts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He said Malawi supports United Nations efforts to galvanize international cooperation in promoting socioeconomic development and remains committed to the 2030 Agenda. The priorities of the United Nations are also Malawi’s priorities.

The plight of refugees and migrants is a concern to the people of Malawi, he said, expressing his belief in the collective responsibility to ensure the protection of refugees. Malawi is actively part of a United Nations initiative to develop a comprehensive refugee response framework to be rolled out within its national development strategy. Turning to climate change, he said its consequences are real, devastating and often tragic and urged all relevant actors to fight for the bending of the curve of carbon dioxide emissions by 2020.

He said Malawi is endeavouring to eliminate hunger and malnutrition by 2030 and that inclusive economic growth is essential to reducing poverty. Malawi’s economy has stabilized with inflation having been reduced from 24 per cent to the single digits and with its GDP expected to grow by 6 per cent in 2019. He said Malawi supports United Nations reform efforts, including the call for two permanent, veto-holding seats for African States in the Security Council. The United Nations cannot preach democracy while it itself is unrepresentative, he said, calling for the Organization to be relevant to all people.

pdf EDGAR CHAGWA LUNGU, President of Zambia (676 KB) , said little has changed in the African continent’s situation over the last seven decades. Today, however, the effective implementation of the 2030 Agenda and Agenda 2063 present huge opportunities for Africa to revitalize its growth and further accelerate its transformation, as both frameworks seek to achieve inclusive growth, sustainable development, peace and security. Noting that Zambia’s development path is guided by its “Vision 2030” plan – aimed at making it a prosperous middle-income country by that date – he said its successful implementation still faces many hurdles. Zambia’s economy, like those of many other developing countries, depends on commodities for economic growth and has not been spared by the negative impacts of their declining prices on the international market.

Reiterating Zambia’s determination to overcome those challenges by creating a more diversified and resilient economy driven – among other things – by agriculture, tourism and energy, he said robust infrastructure development, regional partnerships and conducive policy frameworks will also play critical roles. The country has mainstreamed the 2030 Agenda, Paris Agreement, Addis Ababa Action Agenda and Agenda 2063 into its national development plans and is focusing on such initiatives as road construction and rehabilitation; the expansion and construction of hydropower stations; the diversification of energy towards renewable sources including solar power; rehabilitating railways; and construction and modernization of airports.

Outlining some of the country’s important policy and structural reforms, he spotlighted the Economic Stabilization and Growth Programme, which improves domestic resource mobilization and modernizes revenue collection processes. Meanwhile, Zambia – mindful of the challenges in financing development as well as the declining resources and ODA being allocated to least developed nations and other countries in special situations – continues to call on all its partners to help it implement the Sustainable Development Goals. Expressing support for Council resolution 2378 (2017) on peacekeeping reform, he welcomed a stronger focus on mediation, ceasefire agreements and the monitoring and implementation of peace accords, and voiced support for the Secretary-General’s proposed Action for Peacekeeping initiative.

Zambia has increased the number of its troops in United Nations peacekeeping operations, including deployed women, he continued. In addition, his country recently took up the chairmanship of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Organ on Politics, Defence and Security, a position it will hold until August 2019. Turning to gender equality and women’s empowerment, he underlined Zambia’s commitment to eliminating all forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls, noting that it implemented a “50‑50” school enrolment policy and in 2017 began distributing free sanitary towels to girls in rural and peri-urban areas to help them remain in school. Meanwhile, traditional leaders across the country have been helping to combat child marriage and forced marriage.

Noting that the world is witnessing a movement of migrants too vast for any one country to handle alone, he underlined the importance of collaborative efforts and stressed that – if well managed – migration has the potential to contribute to the socio-development of both origin and destination countries. Voicing support, in that respect, for the Global Compact for Migration, he also underscored the centrality of the principle of responsibility sharing for hosting and supporting the world’s refugees, while considering the differing capacities and resources of Member States. Expressing concern over the little progress made in reforming the Security Council, he reiterated the call for two permanent members representing Africa, declaring:  “Not only is this a matter of common decency and correction of a historical injustice, but [also of] restoring the dignity of Africa.”

pdf ADAMA BARROW, President of the Gambia (563 KB) , said no country can thrive in isolation amid complex global multilateral challenges, with our salvation as human beings resting in strengthening multilateral institutions and greater international cooperation. “The UN uniquely provides the opportunity to achieve this goal,” he added. Noting the irony of underfunding the United Nations in that context, he called upon Member States to step up support.

Turning to his own country, he noted that after a difficult political impasse in 2016, the Gambia had restored democracy and the rule of law, completing its national electoral process and further pursuing institutional and electoral reforms. With Gambians yearning to oversee their destiny, the Government is implementing a national development plan (2018-2021) to transform the country through infrastructural development, agricultural transformation, macroeconomic stability, job creation and employment. Aiming to deliver “a fully transformed Gambia that has a future”, they have begun to harness information and communications technology (ICT) to catalyse modernization and youth empowerment. The plan is consistent with the 2030 Agenda and Agenda 2063 of the African Union.

Saying he recognized the “importance of a meaningful engagement with the Gambian diaspora – fondly referred to as ‘the eighth region of the Gambia’”, the strategy seeks to utilize the talents and resources of Gambians everywhere. In that regard, there has been a decrease in young people making dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean to Europe. Strongly urging incentivized intervention to curb youth migration, he looked forward to the high-level conference in Morocco to adopt a new Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

As a member of the Sahel, the Gambia fully supports implementation of the new United Nations Support Plan for the region, anchored in the United Nations integrated strategy for the Sahel. As the new strategy views the Sahel as a land of opportunity, not hopelessness, he sees it yielding important dividends for Africa, especially in peace, security and the elimination of terrorism. Aiming to “fulfil our aspiration of silencing the gun on the African continent by 2020”, he worried that United Nations peacekeeping missions will suffer from drastic budget cuts and lack of critical resources and called for appropriate reforms.

“As Africans, we must assume leadership for maintaining peace and security on our continent,” he said, commending Ethiopia and Eritrea for “extraordinary efforts” to bring peace to the Horn of Africa, and South Sudan for agreeing to restore peace and work for development. He called on Libya and the Central African Republic to intensify their efforts. Internationally, he affirmed support for the two-State solution for peace between the Palestinians and their neighbours, offered unconditional recognition of the One-China policy and recognized the support of Bangladesh in addressing the plight of Rohingya Muslims. As Chair of the next Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit, he said the Gambia will champion an accountability mechanism to “ensure that perpetrators of terrible crimes against the Rohingya Muslims are brought to book”.

FILIPE JACINTO NYUSI, President of Mozambique, acknowledged the role of the United Nations in promoting dialogue and solving conflict, as a forum for multilateral dialogue in globally assumed agendas. Saying “an unequal and fractured world requires multilateralism to address its gaps”, he cited the implementation of the Paris Agreement and efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons and to regulate migration. With the promotion of human rights, good governance and financing for development as key points, he called for support of the Secretary-General’s reform of the United Nations system so the Organization can be adequate to its purpose. Commending the Secretary-General’s inclusive approach, he said Member States must resolve differences for more effective cooperation.

Expressing deep concern for flashpoints and conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, he said Mozambique also follows tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Fighting recruitment and financing of terrorist groups will aid development. His country supports self-determination for Western Sahara and the two-State solution to resolve the Palestinian issue. Appealing for the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States, he said that he is personally committed to the search for peace. In his own country, he started dialogue that led to consensus and approval of an amendment to the Constitution introducing an innovative approach to resolving conflicts, a milestone in the history of his nation, meaning the next elections will be held without armed parties. Those elections will prove Mozambique’s commitment to democracy, but the country still needs more assistance in disarmament and demobilization. While committed to peace, he resolves to continue the fight against organized crime which threatens development, aiming to neutralize criminals in the northern regions, as we cannot think about human rights when the very right to life is jeopardized.

Aligning his country’s national agenda with the 2030 Agenda, he said this will lead to a just, equitable society and broaden social justice in his nation, particularly for women and youth “and not leaving anyone behind”.  Social justice requires gender equality, and his country has made significant strides in that domain, also prioritizing access to food, water, nutritional security and sanitation. Increasing productivity and livestock will also help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. While stating that corruption remains a scourge, his Government has worked for good governance, strengthening institutions and respecting the separation of powers.

As one of the countries most exposed to the effects of climate change, he said Mozambique continues to take measures in accordance with the Paris Agreement, devoting 25 per cent of its territory to the conservation of biodiversity, developing renewable energies in rural areas and working to ensure the protection of ecosystems and sharing of benefits. Appealing for international cooperation in sharing technological means, and reiterating the unconditional commitment of his country to the critical role of the United Nations in solving humanity’s problems, he called for continuing to be “faithful” to those ideals.


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