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Global Governance Challenges: What Role for the United Nations

20 February 2017
Global Governance Challenges: What Role for the United Nations

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

“Global Governance Challenges: What Role for the United Nations”

Université de Genève – Unimail Building –
Boulevard du Pont d’Arve 40, 1211 Geneva – Room S150

Monday, 20 February 2017

M. Flückiger,
Professor Chappuis,
Professor Kaddous,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be here with you at the Université de Genève, a touchstone of Switzerland’s vibrant intellectual life. This evening, we celebrate the launch of its “Master in European and Intellectual Governance”, an initiative that is particularly relevant here, in International Geneva. This joint undertaking by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and this university brings together practitioners, academia and researchers to instruct the next generation of diplomats, international civil servants and scholars. It is this exchange of perspectives – born out of the close proximity between a variety of actors in international affairs – that makes Geneva the hub for consultation, collaboration and action on the issues of our time.

To those students in the audience tonight, let me begin with a rather blunt existential question: do you ever wonder why you are here? Why you enrolled in graduate school? Perhaps these dangerous thoughts emerge on a late night before a looming deadline. Perhaps after one too many cups of coffee. Certainly, you are here to learn and earn a degree, but these years are a unique opportunity in your lives. You are afforded time to dedicate yourselves to an issue and, by plumbing its depths, to reinterpret a topic. The fresh thinking that emerges from this exercise is sorely needed at this time of rapid change and fundamental stresses to global governance and to international institutions.

Reading the day’s headlines it is clear that the world is entering a period of disorder. After a prolong drop in their numbers, the world is witnessing a worrisome rise in new conflicts, of a nature different from those of the past. Today’s struggles are increasingly complex civil wars with a multitude of warring parties, often divided along sectarian lines and backed by rival global and regional powers. These realities combine to make today’s conflicts increasingly intractable, with severe repercussions for civilian populations.

War, coupled with natural disasters and political oppression, is a driving element in another international concern: the world’s refugee and humanitarian crisis. In its Global Humanitarian Overview 2017, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that 128.6 million people were in need worldwide and that some 60 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes. Caring for those in need would require a record-breaking 22.2 billion US dollars, the sixth year in a row that OCHA had to increase its appeal. But while the rise in humanitarian aid is linear, the need is exponential and the gap keeps growing in spite of ever larger donations. In 2016, only 52% of the global humanitarian appeal was met and while aid agencies are finding innovative ways to deliver on their mandates under trying circumstances, millions still suffer because of that.

Underpinning these conflicts and humanitarian crises are a series of mega trends that are outpacing development efforts and the ability of governments, markets and civil society to respond. Climate change, natural disasters, population growth, rapid urbanization and environmental degradation leave in their wakes greater competition for limited resources and services. While globalization, technological progress and global trade led to gains in standards of living and progress against poverty over the last decades, this same period saw also the withering of certain industries with devastating consequences for their communities. And while capital, goods and – increasingly – services move freely, the movement of people remains restricted by borders. In this environment, few prosper economically and many are left behind. This divide contributes to the sharp inequalities now found both between and within countries. According to recent figures, the eight richest people in the world have more wealth as the 3.6 billion poorest – half of the world population. Technological developments and the globalization of mass communications, meanwhile, make these inequalities apparent to everyone everywhere for the first time in human history.

Yes, the 7.3 billion mobile phones on the planet give us all a voice and make us all better informed, but they also facilitate the spread of misinformation through social media. Reports uncovering corruption on the part of the politically and economically powerful play an important role in holding leaders accountable, but they can also undermine public trust if justice is not served. A myopic focus on short-term political survival and the failure to exercise leadership on the part of too many politicians only serves to reinforce public mistrust that we are seing. In this environment, whole communities and even nations, feel abandoned, ignored and sometimes victimized. The resentment that follows weakens the bonds that bind together society and undermines confidence in public institutions and leaders, at every level of governance. A November 2016 poll carried out by Ipsos Public Affairs found that 63% of respondents in 25 states said their country was heading in the wrong track. The related narrative of “us against them” dangerously undermines the fact that our common future in an interconnected world demands a shared responsibility.

We already see these narratives at play in multilateral governance as national interests are continuously overriding the need for international solidarity. State parties have withdrawn from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and others are threatening to do so from the European Union, the European Court of Human Rights and even the United Nations. Too many people no longer believe that these institutions serve them or their interests. With institutions coming under fire, so do the fundamental values that they represent and uphold, such as human rights and international commitments to refugees.

Established international institutions are in part vulnerable because they have not kept up with the changing times. The United Nations was born in the aftermath of the Second World War in a world largely dominated by the state-centric principles of the Treaty of Westphalia. Its structure reflected the national bureaucratic structures of the time and its mandate was to address the problems that extended beyond national borders. Today, nearly every issue has an international dimension and the United Nations is just one of many actors on the global stage. These include regional organizations at various stages of integration; increasingly influential regional, municipal and local governments; multinational firms and non-governmental organizations; and even influential individuals. All our international organizations need to reflect and engage with the changing global landscape.

While acknowledging today’s challenges and the shortcomings of multilateral governance, it is important not to ignore the effective work that the United Nations and its partners carry out every day to the benefit of us all. By most objective measures of human well-being, the past decades have – on average – been the best in history: More and more people in more and more places are enjoying better lives than ever before. The United Nations family and its partners have decisively contributed to it. This work, which is largely unappreciated or unknown by the public, often forgotten by politicians and unreported by world media, goes from the practical to the more existential, for example road signs we all saw on the way to the venue today, to medical guidelines for checks to be carried out before an operation, to international dialling codes for the phones that we all use, to standards for the food that we eat, to capacity-building for developing countries to be able to trade more effectively, to the clearing of millions of landmines to help communities develop, to the millions of children that get vaccinated across the globe, to the integration of human rights into all that we do, just to name but a very few examples. Every single one of you in this room is impacted by these activities every day of your lives! And most of you are oblivious to that fact.

Protecting these gains and addressing today’s challenges, however, will require us to rethink the way we operate and the way we speak about them, and to be open to radical reforms and innovative partnerships. This is the case for us at the United Nations. Our new Secretary-General, António Guterres, announced plans to reform the United Nations’ approach to peace and security, development and its internal operations, recognizing that we cannot keep to business as usual.

Central to the Secretary-General’s plan is a renewed focus on better and more effective prevention. Previously, prevention meant urgent diplomatic action to advert a catastrophe at the eleventh hour. Today, prevention in particular means investing in institutions and programmes to strengthen societies long before conflicts erupt and natural disasters strike. In a world of ever-growing humanitarian expenses, prevention is both more cost-effective and more likely to yield results. Prevention, however, requires a long-term perspective and the ability to break down the silos separating peace and security from development and human rights. Because the experience of the last decades has shown us that there cannot be peace without development, no development without peace and neither without human rights. Guided by that principle, Member States agreed in 2015 on a far-reaching blueprint for the next 15 years known as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Its 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets are wide-ranging and focus on everything from fighting extreme poverty and illiteracy to addressing climate change and building stronger global institutions. In so doing, they address the root causes of instability and conflict. Together with the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development and the New Urban Agenda, the 2030 Agenda represents an investment on the part of the international community in prevention.

The United Nations – by virtue of its unique role in international affairs and its decades of experience and human capital – has a vital role to play in our collective efforts to reach the global goals by 2030. In many areas, the United Nations itself will continue to provide the services no other actor can or wants to deliver. In most situations, however, the United Nations can best serve the international community by acting as a convenor, conveyor and facilitator. Doing so will require that the United Nations adapt its internal operations to the changing times. The Secretary-General has called for significant reforms to streamline the United Nations operations and break down internal and external silos. We need to foster horizontal collaboration across issues and forge new partnerships. We also need to improve our communication and public outreach and foster a culture of openness and transparency. Finally, we have to live up to our ideals by building a culture of gender equality and sustainability. In addition to the important role of the United Nations in the implementation of the SDGs, governments, civil society, academia, the private sector – in short all actors, including you and me, have a responsibility to contribute to the implementation of this Agenda. Partnerships between the different actors are essential in this endeavour.

In Geneva, home to many of the technical organizations that will be implementing the 2030 Agenda and other policy frameworks, we are continuously exploring new ways to enable and promote collaboration between different actors. This includes structures to facilitate exchanges between States, civil society, parliamentarians, the private sector, researchers, practitioners, think tanks and universities. Ultimately, the coming decades will be written by those with the creativity, idealism and dedication nurtured in universities. Each of you can play a role in promoting change as citizens, activists and consumers. Spread knowledge of the SDGs, get involved in campaigns and activities, hold your leaders accountable and dare to look at the world differently.

Thank you. I look forward to a spirited discussion.