ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary-General of the United Nations, opened the seventy-sixth session with a wake-up call. “We are on the edge of an abyss — and moving in the wrong direction,” he warned, stressing that societies have never been more threatened — or divided. “We face the greatest cascade of crises in our lifetimes,” from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has supersized inequalities, to the climate crisis, to upheaval in countries spanning Afghanistan to Ethiopia to Yemen, and misinformation polarizing people and societies alike. Human rights are under fire and economic lifelines coming “too little and too late” — if at all.
And while most of the wealthier world is vaccinated, more than 90 per cent of Africans are still waiting for their first dose. “This is a moral indictment of the state of our world,” he said. “We are getting an F in Ethics.” He called the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report a “code red” for humanity, citing scorching temperatures, biodiversity loss and climate-related disasters at every turn. Instead of humility in the face of such epic challenges, hubris prevails, he said, cautioning that people may lose faith not only in their Governments, but in the values that have animated the work of the United Nations for over 75 years: peace, human rights, dignity for all, equality, justice and solidarity. “Promises, after all, are worthless if people do not see results.”
He went on to stress that failure to deliver creates space for humanity’s darkest impulses, fuelling conspiracy theories, cultural supremacy, ideological dominance and violent misogyny. “We face a moment of truth.” He called on Governments to deliver, restore trust and inspire hope, drawing attention to his Our Common Agenda report, which analyses the state of global affairs and offers 90 recommendations for taking on the challenges. Describing six great divides, he turned first to the “peace divide”, stressing that peace and stability remain a distant dream for far too many, stretching beyond Afghanistan and Ethiopia, to Myanmar, the Sahel, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Israel and Palestine.
He said military coups are back, due largely to a lack of unity among the international community. A sense of impunity is taking hold. He expressed fear that the world is creeping towards two sets of economic, trade, financial and technology rules — and ultimately — different military and geopolitical strategies. He described such a scenario as far less predictable — and far more dangerous — than the cold war, calling instead for dialogue, investment in prevention, peacekeeping and peacebuilding, and progress on nuclear disarmament and counter-terrorism, with all efforts anchored in respect for human rights.
To bridge the climate divide, he called for creating trust between the global North and South, with countries doing their utmost in the areas of mitigation, by committing to carbon neutrality by mid-century, finance — with developing nations seeing the promised $100 billion a year — and adaptation, with developed countries living up to their pledges to help developing nations build resilience. “Do not wait for others to make the first move,” he said. “Do your part.”
Bridging the gap between rich and poor starts by ending the pandemic for everyone, everywhere, he continued. A global vaccination plan is needed to double vaccine production and ensure that vaccines reach 70 per cent of the global population in the first half of 2022. Noting that advanced economies are investing nearly 28 per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) into economic recovery, he said that in sub-Saharan Africa, cumulative economic growth per capita over the next five years will be 75 per cent less than the rest of the world. The Debt Service Suspension Initiative therefore must be extended until 2022 and available to all highly indebted and middle-income countries requesting it. “Countries should not have to choose between servicing debt and servicing their people,” he emphasized, calling as well for reform of national tax systems and the end of tax evasion, money-laundering and illicit financial flows.
He went on to stress that bridging the gender divide would be a game changer for humanity, as societies with equal representation are more stable and peaceful, boasting better health systems and more vibrant economies. “We must urgently transform our male-dominated world and shift the balance of power to solve the most challenging problems of our age,” he said. He called for more women leaders in parliaments, cabinets and boardrooms, and urged Governments, corporations and institutions to set benchmarks and quotas, creating gender parity from the leadership down.
He said restoring trust also means bridging the digital divide, as half of humanity lacks access to the Internet. He called for connecting everyone by 2030, a vision laid out in his Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, and pointed to the growing reach of digital platforms, as well as the use — and abuse — of data. While much is unknown about how information has been collected, by whom or for what purposes, it often is used to boost corporate profits. “Our behaviour patterns are being commodified and sold like futures contracts,” he said. And while autonomous weapons can kill people without human interference, there is no consensus on how to regulate these technologies, which he said should be banned.
Finally, he called for bridging the divide among generations, noting that the world will need the talents and ideas of the estimated 10.9 billion people born by century’s end. Opportunities for today’s 1.8 billion young people also must be expanded. As such, he will appoint a Special Envoy for Future Generations and create the United Nations Youth Office. “Young people need a vision of hope,” he said, as 60 per cent of future voters feel betrayed by their Governments. Calling interdependence “the logic” of the twenty-first century and the United Nations its “lodestar”, he said now is the moment to reignite multilateralism. “Let us restore trust.”
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