14 September 2012
“Current Challenges Facing the United Nations”
Remarks by Mr. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev
United Nations Under-Secretary-General
Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva
“Current Challenges Facing the United Nations”
Remarks to the American International Club
Hotel Intercontinental (Salon Méditerrané), Geneva
Friday, 14 September 2012 at 13:10
Ambassador Betty King [of the United States of America]
Director General Swing [of the International Organization for Migration]
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Thank you for the kind introduction. I appreciate being here this afternoon and I thank you for the invitation to speak to such a diverse and interesting group. I want to speak about the role of the United Nations in international affairs. This may take a long time! So, allow me just to frame our discussion in the context of current priorities which will be addressed during the annual UN General Assembly session later this month. I would also like to explore the factors that will contribute to the UN being successful in addressing these priorities, and how we can work better with other stakeholders, such as you, to achieve common objectives.
We had the pleasure of welcoming the United Nations Secretary-General Mr. Ban Ki-moon this week in Geneva and Bern. During his visit, he detailed the major challenges facing the international community and outlined how the United Nations will address these issues going forward.
The Secretary-General was speaking of a world “in the midst of a great transition”. Our world is unstable, with transitions, upheavals and change on many levels. This transition is political, social, economic, and environmental. Around the world, people have taken to the streets, with enormous political consequences. The economic and social landscape is also changing, with new economic powerhouses emerging and others struggling.
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, which is based here in Geneva, has predicted that this year, world growth will slow to 2.6%, and to 0.7% for the European Union. Global unemployment remains extremely high, close to 10%. The global economy has never been as fragmented as it is currently, with a combination of deflation, inflation, recession and growth across countries and regions, which makes policy prescriptions much more difficult.
And even if the trends were to reverse, we are seeing now that growth is not a panacea. An increasing body of research shows that economic growth and political stability cannot be sustained in a society with growing inequality. We must develop an inclusive model for sustainable development if we are to provide a decent and dignified future for our 1.3 billion fellow human beings who live in deep poverty.
Finally, the environmental landscape is also changing. We face rising temperatures, desertification, and extreme weather events - even the melting of the glaciers here in Switzerland. These all point to serious challenges that we must address while we still have time.
How can we address these enormous challenges that we all face? The Secretary-General, at the beginning of his second term this January, set out five ways in which the UN could give support in working towards a safer, more peaceful and just world. These are: Sustainable development. Prevention. Helping countries in transition. Building a more secure world. And empowering the world’s women and youth. These five issues form the “action agenda” for the United Nations and make up an important part of what will be discussed at the 67th session of the UN General Assembly, which will begin later this month.
The first of these areas, sustainability, is more than crucial. It is clear that we must work for economic growth, for environmental protection, and for social equity in an integrated fashion. Our solutions must be connected, as all the challenges are connected. At the Rio + 20 Conference on Sustainable Development in June, Member States reached agreement on a range of issues including strengthening the United Nations Environment Programme, and beginning the process for establishing Sustainable Development Goals and defining a post-2015 development agenda. The Conference represented not just a mobilization of government leaders, but of civil society as well. It also showcased the strong partnerships of many private companies and philanthropists, united to work together to make this world better for all. Some progress has been made, but it is fair to say that considerable work lies ahead of us.
Second, prevention is more important than ever. This is relevant in terms of conflict, as well as human rights abuses and the impact of natural disasters. Preventive political mediation work can save countless lives – not to mention resources – as we have seen in Guinea, in Kenya, and in Kyrgyzstan, to mention only a few. The United Nations has been actively working to strengthen its capacity in preventive diplomacy and mediation. The crisis in Syria highlights the challenges we face in this area. The Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States, Mr. Kofi Annan, who until recently was based here in Geneva at the Palais des Nations, worked intensively for six months to set in motion a credible political transition that met the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. However, despite his efforts, the parties were not prepared to choose this path, nor was the Security Council able to unify behind the blueprint worked out here in Geneva on 30 June. His successor Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi is now taking up this difficult work.
Geneva plays a crucial role in many of our efforts aimed at prevention. In particular, the Human Rights Council is one of the most important contributors to a culture of prevention, with its policy development framework and monitoring mechanisms. On Monday, in his speech to the Human Rights Council, the Secretary-General called for a preventive approach to human rights and said that “by investing in human rights, you invest in the peaceful, prosperous, sustainable future we want.”
But prevention also encompasses disaster risk reduction and strengthening the ability to adapt to economic and social crises.
The third major area for action is building a safer and more secure world. This is the core work of the United Nations – through peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and programmes to address terrorism, organized crime, and drug trafficking, among other issues. Supporting the rule of law is particularly important, and will be the focus of a high-level debate during the General Assembly. It will be the first time that the United Nations addresses the rule of law in this format. Respect for the rule of law is central to both stability and progress. Yet, across the world, we experience the rule of law being abused with reference to the need for stability. Some leaders see a dilemma between stability and democracy. Some are concerned that democratic governance may lead to instability. But, respect for the rule of law is the foundation of both democracy and stability; there is no need to choose between the two. To support greater respect for the rule of law, the United Nations will be focusing further attention on this essential area.
Working to make the world safer and more secure is a particular priority here in Geneva – the world’s disarmament capital and home to the Conference on Disarmament. This distinguished body is unfortunately no longer living up to expectations and now suffers from a serious credibility and legitimacy deficit. Increased political engagement is needed to advance the substantive agenda, together with concrete steps to improve the functioning of the Conference and to help build trust. The central role of the Conference in strengthening the rule of law in the field of disarmament, from my point of view as the Secretary-General of the Conference on Disarmament, must be restored.
Fourth, we must all take the opportunity to support countries in transition, ensuring that the best practices of peacebuilding, human rights, the rule of law, national reconciliation and democratic practices are put to use. The challenges of the past year and a half, as complex and difficult as they have been, have also opened up opportunities – especially in the Arab world and in parts of Africa. Our collaboration in this field must be broad-based, including with civil society, international financial institutions and other stakeholders, and it must aim to put ordinary people in charge of their own destiny.
And fifth, if we are to make real long-term progress, we must increase efforts to work with and for women and young people. We must realize the rights of women and unleash the energies of youth, so that we may work together to meet our common goals. Unemployment rates for young people are at record levels – two, three, sometimes even six times the rate for adults. In many areas of the world, there is a significant mismatch between young people’s skills and jobs available to them.
We must keep in mind that half of the world’s population are younger than 30 years of age. 65% of them live in developing countries. 50% of them are in Asia, and in the Asia-Pacific region, 50 million people are unemployed. This is a huge challenge. But it is not jobs alone that young people want, they also want a stake in shaping their future. We need to give them that opportunity.
Now where does Geneva, and more specifically, the UN in Geneva fit into this picture? First, it is important to note that more than 35 UN entities, 20 plus of which are headquarters, are based in Geneva. I head the UN Office at Geneva, housed in the iconic Palais des Nations compound, which was once home to the League of Nations. I represent the UN Secretary-General in Switzerland, and also serve as the Secretary-General of the Conference on Disarmament. Part of our core work is providing support to around 10,000 meetings per year, making us one of the most active centres for multilateral diplomacy in the world. Some of these meetings make headlines. The meeting of the Action Group on Syria held in June is one example. Some do not make the headlines but remain important. Annual conferences of the International Labour Organization and World Health Organization, for example, set the roadmap for the work of these bodies for years to come. Meetings on Georgia and other discrete diplomatic and mediation efforts are held here.
Also important is the rest of our work. This involves providing administrative services to 30 UN entities in Geneva, Bonn and Turin, as well as more than 127 field offices in some 90 countries. It also involves working together in close cooperation and partnership with our 184 Permanent Missions and Observer offices, our strong academic and NGO community and our vibrant private sector, all represented here in Geneva.
Where do you fit into this picture? As many of you know, what we like to call ‘International Geneva’ is one of our greatest assets. Along with the United Nations and other organizations based here, we have a range of stakeholders – of partners – in fields as varied as humanitarian aid, trade, human rights, sustainable development, training and education, peacekeeping and security, meteorology, intellectual property, nuclear research, health, telecommunications and labour. (Just to name a few!) This community, made up of diverse individual actors, shares many of the same objectives. It is evident that through partnerships with such different stakeholders, creative and innovative solutions to global challenges can be found.
There is common acknowledgement that going forward, the work of the UN cannot be accomplished alone. Partnerships are our future. Partnerships bring innovative means of funding, creative ways of thinking and new approaches to tackling difficult issues.
Let me give you some concrete examples. Every day, philanthropic contributions to health initiatives are saving lives in Africa and Asia. Malaria deaths have fallen by some 25% since 2000, in large part thanks to partnerships. UNICEF announced just last Friday that through more than ten years of partnerships with IKEA, more than 74 million children have been reached in India with programmes to promote children’s rights. Now many are mobilizing action for the environment, which is, of course, a positive development.
This week, we celebrated the 85th anniversary of an important donation by John D. Rockefeller. His endowment made possible the establishment of what was originally the League of Nations Library and what is now the Library of the United Nations Office at Geneva. If you have not been to our Library, I encourage you to visit! It is not only a centre of international research, but also houses the League of Nations Archives and Museum. It is a compelling example of what just one philanthropic act can do and the legacy that it leaves.
We are now also exploring possible partnerships as we prepare to renovate our historic Palais des Nations. Age and extensive use has taken its toll over the years, and critical infrastructure needs to be modernized for the Palais to continue to fulfil its function as a multilateral platform.
As Director-General, it is a priority for me to engage with the many stakeholder communities in Geneva. I meet regularly with civil society; I organize joint events with the rich research and academic community here; and I am working to involve the private sector to a greater extent. I realize that some of the groups have had less exposure to the United Nations and we must become more familiar with each other and with what we can do together. We are committed to making that process easier.
I encourage all of you to become our partners. Partners in our goals, our mission, our agenda. The private sector and other stakeholders should not be isolated from the United Nations; this is also why I am here today. We want to work with you.
Thank you very much.