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“The United Nations in Geneva: Past, Present and Future”

23 June 2014
“The United Nations in Geneva: Past, Present and Future”

Inaugural lecture by Mr. Michael Møller
United Nations Under-Secretary-General
Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva

Geneva Summer Schools
“The United Nations in Geneva: Past, Present and Future”
University of Geneva, Room S-150, UNI-MAIL
Monday, 23 June 2014 at 17:15

Vice-Rector Flückiger
Dear Students
Ladies and Gentlemen:

Thank you for the invitation to be with you today. And a warm welcome to International Geneva to all of you who have come to take part in the Summer School to learn more about global governance. You have come from all corners of the world, with different experiences, different backgrounds and different aspirations. But you are all united by at least two facts:

First, you all want to learn about global governance in our globalized world, about the challenges we face as the international community and how we can address them collectively. And second, you share the fact that in any 24-hour period you are all touched directly by the work initiated, negotiated or implemented by all the partners based in Geneva.

You have travelled here safely by air or by car due to standards elaborated here. You have probably signed up to the course via the Internet, which was born here. Throughout your childhood, you have had vaccinations and you have undergone health checks performed according to guidelines agreed in this city. You can now call your friends to tell them you have arrived only because your mobile phones work thanks to standards, regulations and agreements all negotiated in Geneva – just as you can tweet if you disagree with what I am saying because your right to freedom of expression is protected by universal human rights standards that are promoted and monitored from here. Also feel free to tweet if you agree, of course!

My hope is that by the end of your summer school, you will also be united in your readiness to contribute to and be part of this work – in whatever form that may take. Because we need exactly your different experiences, backgrounds and aspirations – and your energy – to address the challenges that you are here to learn about.

The title of my intervention refers to the past, present and future work of the United Nations in Geneva. Yet, it does actually not make much sense to speak about the work of the United Nations in Geneva separate from the global work of the Organization because it is all connected. Just as it does not make entirely sense to speak about the United Nations in Geneva separately from the context of the partners that are here: a multitude of international organizations, a rich civil society, a dynamic private sector and world-class academic and research institutions. It is only when all of these stakeholders come together, addressing different aspects of the challenges we face, that we can have a profound impact that we need to address the problems of today. By working together, International Geneva is more than the sum of its parts.

And this understanding and approach are essential because the challenges we face today not only cut across borders, they also cut across all thematic boundaries and require all kinds of expertise.

Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum – one of the key partners here in International Geneva – released their Global Risk Report, which highlighted, in particular, 10 challenges: fiscal crises; structurally high unemployment; water crises; severe income disparity; failure of climate change mitigation; extreme weather events; global governance failure; food crises; failure of a major financial mechanism; and profound political and social instability. A rather depressing list. And while we can argue about the order of the risk, this list does show the interconnected character of the challenges. It demonstrates clearly that societal, economic and environmental risks are the issues that most people are concerned about.

Interestingly, there are three environmental risks listed in the top 10, which reflects this growing awareness. Even more interestingly, the younger generation included in the project rated the impact of environmental risks higher than others. For me, this shows a very welcome understanding of the need for a sustainable approach to our future, and I think that will result in a stronger and more transformative response in this area. In short, we are relying on you!

In a place such as Geneva, steeped in the history of global governance, what lessons can we draw from the past to address these present challenges? And how can we use them to move forward?

First, I would say that capacity and knowledge is built up over time – and it needs to be nurtured. It is not only individuals who learn from experience; institutions do as well. Such experience needs to be internalized and transformed into operations. It does not happen overnight, but it is an indispensable process for a lasting impact on the ground.

Second, building consensus and accommodating competing interests in compromises requires trust. And that is also built over time when different stakeholders are brought together in a meaningful process of exchange. It may seem slow at times. Truth be told, sometimes it can be infuriatingly slow – I certainly think so. But it is how solutions become legitimate and lasting.

Third, we need to be particularly vigilant when it comes to inequality and disempowerment of individuals. The social cohesion of countries and communities is undermined by the absence of opportunities, by unmet expectations and feelings of injustice and by lack of dignity. These are the most powerful drivers of instability and conflict, and provide breeding ground for extremist sentiments.

All of these lessons are critical when we look at the challenges facing us today:

Globally, some 1.5 billion people in an estimated 40 countries live in an environment marked by persistent conflict and fragility.

Last Friday, our colleagues in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time since World War II, exceeded 50 million people. This is the result of our collective failure to end wars and prevent conflict from erupting.

These worrying figures are in line with the findings of the latest edition of the Global Peace Index, which measures the peacefulness of countries. In the latest edition, which was launched only a couple of weeks ago, it was shown that world peace has deteriorated gradually since the Index was created in 2007. This trend has been driven predominantly by deterioration in internal peace indicators, such as the homicide rate, the likelihood of violent demonstrations, levels of organized conflict and perceptions of criminality – in different ways, all indicators of lack of social cohesion.

Moreover, while the number of armed military personnel continues to decrease on a global scale, we also witness a continued growth in military spending – both in terms of global military expenditure in total and as a percentage of GDP in three regions: Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and the Middle East.

Taken together, these trends point towards a growing peace deficit in our world. This not only has far-reaching political implications and affects the security of all of us, but has a very severe economic impact as well. Also according to the Global Peace Index, the economic impact of containing and dealing with the consequences of violence amounted to 9.8 trillion US dollars last year - or 11.3% of global GDP.

At the same time, we live at a time of tremendous progress. Take as just one example the growth in Internet access and mobile phone use. The International Telecommunication Union – also based here in Geneva – estimates that by the end of 2014, there will be almost three billion Internet users, with two-thirds of them coming from the developing world, and seven billion mobile subscriptions. That is the equivalent of one mobile phone per person on this planet. Globally, mobile-broadband penetration will reach 32% by the end of this year. And here Africa stands out, with a growth rate of over 40% - twice as high as the global average. The possibilities for leap-frogging in development through intelligent use of information and communication technologies are enormous. And they are being worked on, of course.

Yet, we must also ensure that the rapid progress for some does not mean that the most vulnerable get left behind, with their exclusion compounded by lack of access to ICTs. If one-third of the world population is online, it also means that two-thirds are not. And this clearly brings the risk of entrenching or even exacerbating inequalities.

The potential tension in some of the most significant global developments is particularly stark when it comes to your generation. We live at a time when young people have more options for education and greater access to information than has ever been the case at any point in history.

Yet, many experience that their choices are more limited than for the generation before them. Another contradiction. According to the International Labour Organization – yet again one of our colleagues here in International Geneva – nearly 75 million young people across the world are looking for work, while many, many more are trapped in low-paid and precarious job situations. On average, young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. And in some countries, such as Greece, Spain and South Africa, youth unemployment rates are around 50% or more. Currently, one out of two young people is either poor or unemployed.

This not only translates into an incredible opportunity cost in terms of lost human and economic potential, but also carries a high risk of social unrest and instability. A clear challenge for all of us is how to help this generation to be empowered and enabled to fulfil their ambitions – your ambitions.

Our challenge is to bring together these contradictory – sometimes even conflicting – trends in a global policy-making process that harnesses the opportunities for all while limiting the risks and mitigating their impact.

International Geneva is often referred to as the cradle of our multilateral system. This is where the institutions that we rely on today took their baby steps, so to speak. As we all know, the way that we nurture and protect in the early years influences greatly the trajectory of an individual’s life. Many of the structures of our institutions today are a direct continuation of organizations established here many years ago – such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Labour Organization and the International Telecommunication Union. Or they are continuations in different forms of the best parts of programmes initiated here also a long time ago, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Health Organization. Or, they are a direct response to negative lessons learned, as is the case with our United Nations, which is built around the lessons of what did not work with the League of Nations.

Working – as I do – at the Palais des Nations, which was the headquarters of the League of Nations and is now the base of so much of the United Nations’ current work, we are very conscious of this background. It is true that many of our institutional structures still reflect geopolitical realities of a different era. But more important than their origins is how we choose to manage these institutions, structures and processes in today’s world. And here I think that the way of working together in International Geneva points towards the way forward for the rest of the system.

We need to work across institutional and thematic lines. Our institutions are in many ways not equipped to do this, but we need to work against the tendency to work in silos as we have done for the past 70 years. In Geneva, networking of actors on cross-cutting themes such as peacebuilding has been particularly successful in generating new ways of thinking and new collaboration on long-standing problems. We have also recently created the Geneva Internet Platform, which will bring together partners in this important area.

We must also build wider and deeper partnerships with civil society in the broadest sense. This includes advocacy NGOs, the academic and research communities, scientific partners and the private sector. I spoke earlier about climate change and this is a good example of an area where these partnerships are critical. We cannot expect to find real answers to climate change if we do not connect to scientific knowledge, just as we cannot expect to build a meaningful green economy without the involvement of business.

This approach is based directly on the lessons learned: the need to build results over time, through inclusive processes that bring together stakeholders around cross-cutting challenges in a way that builds trust.

And this is the hallmark of International Geneva, and it is the approach that ties together the past, the present and the future of the United Nations and of all the actors here.

I hope that you will all be part of this work in the years to come. And I wish you a rewarding, enlightening and fun stay in our International Geneva.

Thank you for your attention.