Secretary-General's Remarks at 75th United Nations General Assembly
10 January 2021
Secretary-General's Remarks at the Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the First Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly
Lord Ahmad, Distinguished guests, Ladies and gentlemen, Dear young people,
It is a special privilege to address you today, on the 75th anniversary of the first meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations, which took place in London.
First of all, let me say how deeply I regret not to be physically present with you to commemorate this historic event.
I want to express my total solidarity with the British people in these challenging times of the pandemic. My sincere condolences to the families of those who have perished and my admiration for the courage and sacrifice of the health workers and others on the frontlines, rescuing people at the risk of their own lives.
I want to pay tribute to one of the organizers of the first meeting of the General Assembly, the legendary Sir Brian Urquhart, who passed away last week. Sir Brian’s combination of dedication, integrity and diplomatic skill set the standard for the United Nations. He left a lasting mark on many areas of our work, particularly the establishment of United Nations peacekeeping missions that have saved countless lives and reduced human suffering around the world.
Sir Brian will be remembered with pride as we continue our pursuit of the goal he cherished throughout his career: a peaceful and just world.
The United Nations was founded in 1945, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. But its origins lie in the darkest hours of that conflict.
In August 1941, as unprecedented suffering spread across the globe and Jews across Europe faced extermination, as London was being bombed and parliament itself was hit, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt came together to commit to a unique vision for post-war generations.
The commitments they made, known as the Atlantic Charter, set the foundations for a more just world order, based on the right of all people to choose their own form of government; and on cooperation, human rights and the rule of law.
Three years later in 1945, many of the principles and values of the Atlantic Charter were enshrined in our founding document: the United Nations Charter.
In many ways, the vision of our founders has been vindicated.
There has not been a Third World War.
Since 1945, the world has enjoyed the longest period in recorded history without a military confrontation between major powers.
That in itself is a great achievement, of which the United Nations and its Member States can be rightly proud.
The General Assembly, where States have gathered for 75 years to debate the most important issues of our age, has seen many historic moments.
And its daily work has played an enormous part in formulating and upholding laws on key global goods, from human rights and environmental protection to arms control and war crimes. The work of the General Assembly has helped to boost global health, literacy, and living standards, and to promote human rights and gender equality.
The General Assembly’s declaration on the granting of independence to colonial peoples in 1960 was a milestone for self-determination. Since the UN was established, more than 80 former colonies have gained their independence.
In the past year, the United Nations has been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Health Organization has led the global health response and coordinated the provision of essential equipment, training and services worldwide. Early in the pandemic, the General Assembly acted swiftly to pass a resolution calling for global solidarity to fight the virus.
While we are proud of our collective achievements, we are also aware of our failures.
The climate emergency is already upon us and the global response has been utterly inadequate. The past decade was the hottest in human history. Carbon dioxide levels are at record highs.
Apocalyptic fires and floods, cyclones and hurricanes are becoming the new normal.
If we don’t change course, we may be headed for a catastrophic temperature rise of more than 3 degrees this century.
Biodiversity is collapsing. One million species are at risk of extinction and whole ecosystems are disappearing before our eyes.
This is a war on nature – and a war with no winners.
Meanwhile, conventional wars are growing more entrenched and difficult to resolve.
Geopolitical tensions are escalating. The threat of nuclear proliferation and confrontation has returned.
Inequality is growing; hunger is on the rise. The number of people who have fallen into extreme poverty has increased for the first time in decades.
Transformative technology has opened up vast new opportunities, but also new threats – from cyberwarfare to rampant disinformation; from hate speech to political subversion and mass surveillance.
And the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted serious gaps in global cooperation and solidarity.
We have seen this most recently in vaccine nationalism, as some rich countries compete to buy vaccines for their own people, with no consideration for the world’s poor. I thank the government and people of the United Kingdom for supporting the COVAX facility, established by the World Health Organization to guarantee that vaccines will be available to all, as a global public good.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate and terrible impact on the poor and dispossessed, older people and children, those with disabilities, and minorities of all kinds. It has pushed an estimated 88 million people into poverty and put more than 270 million at risk of acute food insecurity.
Disruption to education will affect millions of children for their entire lives.
Millions of women have been trapped at home with their abusers and progress on gender equality has been reversed.
Emergency measures have been invoked to quash dissent and silence the media.
The pandemic has revealed the deep fragilities in our world.
To tackle these fragilities, we need to reduce inequality and injustice, and to strengthen the bonds of mutual support and trust.
At the international level, I have called for a new global deal. Power, resources and opportunities must be managed better and shared more equitably. Developing countries must have a proportionate role and more relevance in global institutions.
At the national level, I have called for a new social contract between people, governments, the private sector, civil society and more, to tackle the roots of inequality with fair taxation on income and wealth, universal benefits, and opportunities for all.
We need a strong emphasis on quality education for all, not forgetting girls, and on access to digital technology, as powerful equalizers and enablers.
Investment in the recovery must put economies and societies on stronger foundations: human rights and dignity; peaceful cooperation; respect for other species, for our planet and its boundaries.
The pandemic is a human tragedy – but it can also be an opportunity.
The past months have shown the huge transformations that are possible, when there is political will and consensus on the way forward.
Our blueprint already exists. The Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – including the Sustainable Development Goals or the need to set a course for a healthier post-COVID world.
These agreements have been adopted by all countries and were inspired by the activism of communities, civil society and particularly young people across the globe.
We now need increased ambition and action to deliver – beginning with the climate emergency.
The central objective of the United Nations this year is to build a global coalition for carbon neutrality by the middle of the century.
We need meaningful cuts now, to reduce global emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, compared with 2010 levels.
The United Kingdom has already pledged to cut emissions by 68 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990. I look for your continued strong leadership as we prepare for COP26 in Glasgow.
Every country, city, organization, financial institution and company needs to adopt plans to reach net zero emissions by 2050 -- and start executing them now, with clear short-term targets.
The United Nations marked our 75th anniversary last year with a global survey. We asked people around the world to share their hopes, fears and priorities for international action.
Over 1.5 million people responded.
People everywhere called for better access to healthcare, education, safe water and sanitation. They demanded greater international solidarity and support for those in need.
And fully 97 per cent called for improved global cooperation to find multilateral solutions to today’s global challenges.
They expressed their strong support for a reinvigorated United Nations as the platform for that cooperation. 75 years since its founding, the General Assembly remains the global forum where all countries have a voice.
Looking ahead, climate action was the top priority, followed by action to protect human rights, address conflict and corruption, promote sustainable and inclusive growth, and create jobs.
All this shows that while we face unprecedented challenges, there are reasons for optimism.
People everywhere understand that today’s problems demand new approaches – based on common values and principles.
We are at a 1945 moment – but it is not 1945.
Today’s war is against a microscopic virus.
Tomorrow’s could be against terrorists in cyberspace.
And we are still losing the long battle against climate change.
Conflict is no longer a matter of military and economic might alone, just as power is no longer the sole preserve of states.
While the need for international cooperation continues, we must expand our idea of what that means.
In our interconnected world, we need a networked multilateralism, so that global and regional organizations communicate and work together towards common goals. And we need an inclusive multilateralism, based on the equal representation of women, and taking in young people, civil society, business and technology, cities and regions, science and academia.
We must transform our global system into a global partnership.
Justice and equality, including gender equality, are prerequisites.
Women’s leadership and equal participation are key ways to address the global challenges we face.
The past year has highlighted the effectiveness of women’s leadership, adding to evidence that gender-balanced decision-making leads to stronger climate agreements, greater investment in social protection, longer-lasting peace, and more innovation.
Achieving women’s equal representation requires bold action, and I am proud of our success in this area over the past four years.
Outside the Houses of Parliament stands a statue of the British suffragist Millicent Fawcett, inscribed with her famous rallying cry: “Courage calls to courage everywhere”.
Today, it is often young people who are showing courage, and demanding courage from the rest of us.
Let me be clear: I stand with you. You give me hope.
Young people can and do change the world.
Your courage, commitment and action have already made a difference.
Today, I see a growing momentum for change, from grassroots activists, young people and civil society, and from businesses, cities, regions, and governments in the United Nations General Assembly.
Together, I am confident that we can emerge from COVID-19 and lay the foundations for a cleaner, safer, fairer world for all, and for generations to come.
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