10 December 2012
19th General Assembly of the Students’ League of Nations.
Opening remarks by Mr. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev
United Nations Under-Secretary-General
Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva
At the 19th General Assembly of the Students’ League of Nations
Palais des Nations, Room XIX
Monday, 10 December 2012 at 09:25 a.m.
Mr. Secretary-General of the Students’ League of Nations
Thank you for the warm welcome. It is a real pleasure to be with you this morning, and I would like to express my sincere appreciation for the invitation to take part in the opening of your annual General Assembly.
We enjoy hosting you here at the Palais des Nations. This building is truly historic. It hosted the headquarters of the League of Nations. I hope that you are aware of the importance of that organization. Because without the League of Nations, there would be no United Nations. Our United Nations is based on the lessons learned – both positive and negative – of the League of Nations. And I commend you on carrying forward these lessons through the Students’ League of Nations. I believe that when we put together the experience of the past with the energy and enthusiasm of youth, we have a winning combination.
I am always impressed by the draft resolutions that are tabled. They are a testament to your understanding of the realities of international affairs today, to your readiness to take on complex challenges and to your commitment to a better world for all. Many leaders of the world could learn from you!
Today, we are marking international Human Rights Day, and I welcome that you have also made human rights and empowerment a focus of your discussions. Too many people do not have a voice that counts in their societies. Thousands of fellow human beings are deprived of food, water and health, they are tortured or driven from their homes, bombed or shelled. The right to say what they think and believe, a right that we take for granted, seems a distant dream.
Just consider these figures:
In 2011, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide exceeded 42 million. Of these, 15.2 million were refugees. The more than 42 million also included 26.4 internally displaced people, and close to 1 million asylum seekers.
Almost 870 million people are chronically undernourished. This means that one in eight people goes to bed hungry every night.
While significant progress has been made to advance development, it is estimated that even if the positive trends continue, in 2015, roughly 920 million people will still be living under the international poverty line of 1.25 US dollars a day.
Almost nine million children die each year before they reach their fifth birthday. The highest rates of child mortality continue to be found in sub-Saharan Africa, where one in seven children dies before their fifth birthday.
We must never forget that we all have the right to free, active and meaningful participation in both economic and political affairs. As part of the Arab Spring, which you have all read about, millions of people have taken to the streets to demand that this right become reality for them, too. As the United Nations, we support their right to inclusive societies where all can have a say in shaping their own futures.
That is also why I am particularly encouraged by your emphasis on women’s empowerment, which is a key priority for the United Nations.
In 1911, only two countries in the world allowed women to vote. Today, the right is almost universal but not completely. And women remain under-represented in political leadership. There are only 20 female Presidents and Prime Ministers in the world. Globally, women hold only 16% of ministerial posts. While figures are different across regions, on average only some 20% of seats in parliaments are held by women – only 20%!
Also in the economic sphere, we need greater gender equality. Women are disproportionately employed in low-quality jobs, with limited social protection. On average, women get paid 25% less than men for equivalent jobs. Only one quarter of senior officials or managers are women in companies across the world.
Each year, 10 million girls are married before they reach 18 years of age. Almost half of them die while giving birth, mostly in developing countries. And it is estimated that over the next decade, close to 150 million girls will be married by their 18th birthday. In different corners of the world, marriage is a premature reality for girls, just like you – who wish to go to school, to learn, to be young and to enjoy life.
I was interested to read your draft resolution on Security Council reform. This is a topic that often comes up when I meet with students and other young people. There is no doubt that this is a complex issue, and a topic on which there are very strong views. I am sure that many of these will be revisited in your discussions! The lack of unity in the Council with respect to the situation in Syria has, once again, brought renewed attention to the debate.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, has highlighted that the Security Council’s membership and working methods should reflect today’s political and economic realities rather than those of over half a century ago. Member States are discussing this in the General Assembly and it is up to them to agree on the form that such a reform could take place and when it could happen. I am sure that your exchanges here can inspire them, and I look forward to the outcome.
The United Nations here in Geneva works actively across all of the challenges before the United Nations. In Geneva, we have more than 35 United Nations entities and the United Nations Office at Geneva, which I head as Director-General, is one of the most active centres for multilateral diplomacy in the world.
Part of our core work is providing support to around 10,000 meetings per year, including important meetings such as yours. Some of these are high-level political meetings, like the meeting of the Action Group for Syria, held in June. Others are low-key negotiations and talks, such as the discussions on Georgia, on Cyprus, on Equatorial Guinea and Gabon and others that do not make the headlines. Geneva is also a hub for confidential and sensitive discussions. I would like to note the annual conferences of the International Labour Organization and World Health Organization that are very important opportunities for discussion on real issues that affect people across the world.
We also provide services to the global United Nations, assisting 30 United Nations entities in Geneva, Bonn and Turin, as well as more than 127 field offices in some 90 countries. It involves working together in close cooperation and partnership with the over 170 Member States that are present here, our strong academic and NGO community and the vibrant private sector.
Earlier this month, it was twenty years ago that the first SMS was sent. For you, it will seem like a life-time ago – and it was, because it was just before most of you were born. Last year, some eight trillion texts were sent worldwide. And I suspect that many of them were sent by you!
These figures show how the world has changed only during your lifetimes. It has changed due to innovation, due to ideas that have come from people like you. Each one of you has the potential to make a difference. When we pool this potential, we can change the world for the better. By taking part here today, you have already shown that you are ready to use your potential for the common good.
The challenges of our world do not just concern older generations. They are very real for today’s youth. More than 100 million adolescents are not in school. Every day, more than 2,000 young people contract HIV. Nearly 75 million young people are unemployed. To mention just some of the key figures. We all have a responsibility to work together to change these statistics.
The text of the first SMS was simple. It just said “Merry Christmas”. So, I would like to end my brief remarks in the same way – by wishing you all the best for the holiday season. And by wishing that you take with you from here the spirit of commitment, of caring for the world that we all live in, and of courage to change where we can all do better.
I wish you all success in your two days here and in your studies.