Photo: Secretary-General António Guterres (left) briefs the UN General Assembly on his Priorities for 2020 and the Work of the Organization. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten. - Photo: 2020

2020 Priorities and the Work of the United Nations

Viewpoint by António Guterres

The following are extensive excerpts from the UN Secretary-General’s remarks to the General Assembly on 22 January on his priorities in 2020.

NEW YORK (IDN) – 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. I draw tremendous strength from all that we represent and all that we have achieved together. Yet anniversaries are not about celebrating the past; they are about looking ahead.

We must cast our eyes to the future with hope. But we must also do so without illusion. Today I want to speak to you in stark and simple terms about the challenges we face.

I see “four horsemen” in our midst — four looming threats that endanger 21st-century progress and imperil 21st-century possibilities.

The first horseman comes in the form of the highest global geostrategic tensions we have witnessed in years.

Devastating conflicts continue to cause widespread misery.  Terrorist attacks take a merciless toll.  The nuclear menace is growing.  More people have been forced from their homes by war and persecution than at any time since the Second World War.  Tensions over trade and technology remain unresolved.  The risk of a Great Fracture is real.

Second, we face an existential climate crisis.

Rising temperatures continue to melt records.  The past decade was the hottest on record.  Scientists tell us that ocean temperatures are now rising at the equivalent of five Hiroshima bombs a second.

One million species are in near-term danger of extinction. Our planet is burning. Meanwhile, as we saw at COP25, too many decision-makers continue to fiddle. Our world is edging closer to the point of no return.

The third horseman is deep and growing global mistrust.

Disquiet and discontent are churning societies from north to south. Each situation is unique, but everywhere frustration is filling the streets. More and more people are convinced globalization is not working for them.

As one of our own reports revealed just yesterday, two of every three people live in countries where inequality has grown.Confidence in political establishments is going down. Young people are rising up. Women are rightly demanding equality and freedom from violence and discrimination.

At the same time, fears and anxieties are spreading.  Hostility against refugees and migrants is building.  Hatred is growing.

The fourth threat is the dark side of the digital world.

Technological advances are moving faster than our ability to respond to – or even comprehend – them. Despite enormous benefits, new technologies are being abused to commit crimes, incite hate, fake information, oppress and exploit people and invade privacy.

We are not prepared for the profound impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the labour market and the very structure of society. Artificial intelligence is generating breathtaking capacities and alarming possibilities.  Lethal autonomous weapons — machines with the power to kill on their own, without human judgement and accountability — are bringing us into unacceptable moral and political territory.

These four horsemen – epic geopolitical tensions, the climate crisis, global mistrust and the downsides of technology – can jeopardize every aspect of our shared future.

That is why commemorating the 75th anniversary with nice speeches won’t do. We must address these four 21st-century challenges with four 21st-century solutions. Let me take each in turn.

First, peace and security, that I mentioned. There are some signs of hope. Last year, conflict was prevented in the wake of several critical elections, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Madagascar …from Mali to the Maldives and beyond.

Despite hostilities in Yemen, the fragile cease-fire in Hodeidah is holding. A constitutional committee in Syria has taken form, even if it is still facing meaningful obstacles.

A peace agreement in the Central African Republic is being implemented. And the recent Berlin conference on Libya brought key players around the peace table at a critical moment, committing to “refraining from interference in the armed conflict or in the internal affairs of Libya” and urging “all international actors to do the same”.

All of these efforts require patience and persistence.  But they are essential and save lives.

As we look ahead, we have our work cut out for us. We see Gordian Knots across the world — from the Gulf to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from the Sahel and Lake Chad to Venezuela.

Security Council resolutions are being ignored. Outside interference is fueling fires.

And we are at risk of losing pillars of the international disarmament and arms control [architecture] without viable alternatives.

Yes, the United Nations continues to deliver life-saving aid to millions of people in desperate need. But temporary relief is no substitute for permanent solutions. Prevention must orient all we do as we engage across the peace continuum.

We must strengthen our mediation capacity and our tools for sustaining peace, leading to long-term development.

Our Action for Peacekeeping initiative is enhancing performance and safety. We are becoming more effective in the protection of civilians, and we have more female peacekeepers than ever before.

The 20th anniversary of Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security is also an opportunity to further match words with deeds.

At the same time, we know peacekeeping is not enough where there is no peace to keep.

We need to create the conditions for effective peace enforcement and counter-terrorism operations by our regional partners, under chapter VII of the Charter and with predictable funding. This is especially true in Africa, from the Sahel to Lake Chad.

And we must focus on the roots of crisis and upheaval — combatting the drivers of violence and extremism – from exclusion to economic despair, from violent misogyny to governance failures.

Last year, I launched first-of-its-kind action plans to combat hate speech and to safeguard religious sites. This year, I will convene a conference on the role of education in tackling hate speech.

And we must continue to advance the Agenda for Disarmament. I call on all State Parties to work together at the 2020 Review of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons to ensure the NPT remains able to fulfil its fundamental goals – preventing nuclear war and facilitating the elimination of nuclear weapons.

The second “horseman” is the threat of climate catastrophe. We must respond with the promise of climate action. We are at war with nature.  And nature is fighting back hard.

One cannot look at the recent fires in Australia – at people fleeing their homes and wildlife consumed by the flames – without profound sadness at today’s plight and fear for what the future may bring.

Meanwhile, air pollution combined with climate change is killing, according to the World Health Organization, 7 million people every year. Gradual approaches are no longer enough.

At the next climate conference — COP26 in Glasgow – Governments must deliver the transformational change our world needs and that people demand, with much stronger ambition – ambition on mitigation, ambition on adaptation, and ambition on finance.

Every city, region, bank, pension fund and industry must completely reimagine how they operate to keep temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. The scientific community is clear.  We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, and reach net zero emissions by 2050.

The main obligation rests on the main emitters. Those countries that contributed most to this crisis must lead the way. If they dither, we are doomed. But I still believe the climate battle is a battle we can win. People get it. Technology is on our side.

Scientists tell us it is not too late. Economists and asset managers tell us climate smart investments are the key to competing and winning in the 21st century. All the tools and knowledge to move from the grey economy to the green economy are already available.

So let us embrace transformation – let us build on the results of last September’s Climate Action Summit — and let us make the commitments to make Glasgow a success.

Together with Glasgow, we have two other opportunities to act decisively this year. First, the Oceans conference in Lisbon in June. The world’s oceans are under assault from pollution, overfishing and much else.

Plastic waste is tainting not only the fish we eat but also the water we drink and the air we breathe.

We must use the Lisbon conference to protect the oceans from further abuse and recognize their fundamental role in the health of people and planet.

For example, based on the success of several national initiatives, it is time for a global ban on single-use plastics.

Second, the Biodiversity conference in Kunming in October. The rate of species loss is exponentially higher than at any time in the past 10 million years.

We must make the most of the Kunming conference to adopt a post-2020 global biodiversity framework. Living in harmony with nature is more important than ever.

Everything is interlinked.

To help vanquish the third horseman — global mistrust —we must build a fair globalization. We have a plan. It’s called the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and all of your governments pledged to make it a reality.

The good news is that I hear tremendous enthusiasm for the SDGs wherever I go —from political leaders at the national and local levels, to entrepreneurs, investors, civil society and so many others.

We see concrete progress – from reducing child mortality to expanding education, from improving access to family planning to increasing access to the internet. But what we see is not enough. Indeed, we are off track. At present course, half a billion people will still be living in extreme poverty by 2030.

And the gender gap in economic participation would have to wait more than 250 years!  That is unacceptable.

For all these reasons, we are launching a Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The Decade of Action is central to achieving a fair globalization, boosting economic growth and preventing conflict.

We will leverage the reformed United Nations Development System to engage partners from the local to the global:

To mobilize a movement for the Sustainable Development Goals. To unlock financing. To generate the ambition, innovation and solutions to deliver for everyone, everywhere.

Throughout the Decade of Action, we must invest in the eradication of poverty, social protection, in health and fighting pandemics, in education, energy, water and sanitation, in sustainable transport and infrastructure and in internet access.

We must improve governance, tackle illicit financial flows, stamp out corruption and develop effective, common sense and fair taxation systems. We must build economies for the future and ensure decent work for all, especially young people. And we must put a special focus on women and girls because it benefits us all.

The 25th  anniversary of the Beijing Platform is an opportunity to rethink economic, political and social systems from an equality perspective. It’s time to drive women’s equal participation in decision-making and end all forms of violence against women and girls.

We must dismantle obstacles to women’s inclusion and participation in the economy, including through valuing unpaid care work. And we must listen and learn from so many women around the world who have been driving solutions.

I will convene, on an annual basis, a platform for driving the Decade of Action.

The first SDG Action Forum in September will highlight progress and set the trajectory for success.

So let us make the 2020s the Decade of Action and let us make 2020 the year of urgency.

And, as we do so, let us spare no effort to rebuild trust. I make a special appeal to all Member States: Listen to people. Open new channels for all to be heard and find common ground. Respect freedom of peaceful assembly and expression. Protect civic space and freedom of the press.

And let us harness the ideas and energy and sense of hope of young people —in particular young women — demanding change and constructive solutions.

Fourth, to address the dark side of digital world, we must steer technology for positive change. I see several areas for action — starting with the global labor market. Automation will displace tens of millions of jobs by 2030.

We need to redesign education systems. It’s not just about learning but learning how to learn, across a lifetime.

We need more innovative approaches to social safety nets and rethinking the concept of work, and the lifelong balance among work, leisure and other activities.

We also must usher in order to the Wild West of cyberspace.

Terrorists, white supremacists and others who sow hate are exploiting the internet and social media.

Bots are spreading disinformation, fueling polarization and undermining democracies. Next year, cybercrime will cost $6 trillion.

Cyberspace itself is at risk of cleaving in two. We must work against digital fragmentation by promoting global digital cooperation.

The United Nations is a tailor-made platform for governments, business, civil society and others to come together to formulate new protocols and norms, to define red-lines, and to build agile and flexible regulatory frameworks.

Some responses may require legally-binding measures. Others may be based on voluntary cooperation and the exchange of best practices.

This includes support for existing processes and institutions like the Open-Ended Working Group on information and telecommunications in the context of security, and the Group of Government Experts on advancing responsible behavior in cyberspace and within the General Assembly.

I believe consensus has been built to strengthen the Internet Governance Forum to serve as a central gathering point to discuss and propose effective digital policies.

Following up on the Report of the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation, I will soon present a Roadmap for Digital Cooperation covering internet connectivity, human rights, trust and security in the age of digital interdependence. At the same time, we need a common effort to ensure artificial intelligence is a force for good.

Despite last year’s important step within the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, we are still lurching toward a world of killer machines acting outside human judgment or control. I have a simple and direct plea to all Member States:  Ban lethal autonomous weapons now. 

These are the four big threats — and four big solutions I see in the year ahead.

Across this work, the promotion and protection of all human rights must be central.  I am deeply concerned about the different ways in which respect for human rights is being eroded around the world.  As I have repeatedly underscored, the Charter compels us to place people and their rights at the heart of our work. That is why, next month in Geneva, I will launch a call for stepped up global action on human rights and human dignity.

In order to meet all these challenges, we must continue to make the United Nations fit for the challenges of our new age.

That is why from day one, and with your support, I have pursued wide-ranging reforms rooted in flexibility, transparency and accountability.

In 2020, we will build on our progress. Indeed, we already began the year with a major success. On January 1st — for the first time in UN history — we achieved gender parity across our senior-most ranks of full-time Under-and Assistant-Secretaries-General taken together. We did it two years ahead of schedule.

And I plan to keep going — ensuring greater inclusion and parity at all levels of the Organization. I appeal for your support in removing out-dated regulations and byzantine procedures that stand in the way.

I am equally committed to making 2020 a year of meaningful progress for more equitable geographical distribution and greater regional diversity among staff of the United Nations.

We have launched a Secretariat-wide strategy to do so. But, as you know, reaching gender parity and diversity targets also depends on the ability to fill vacant posts — and that largely depends on resources.

I am also determined to build on our efforts to prevent and end sexual harassment.

A specialized investigation team in the Office of Internal Oversight Service is already up and running.

A new sexual harassment policy is being incorporated into respective frameworks across the wider UN family. A centralized, system-wide screening database is in place to deny the ability of sexual harassers to sneak back into the system.

Our strategy to combat sexual exploitation and abuse is also advancing, including through greater assistance and support to victims.

In the broadest sense, I am determined to make the United Nations a workplace leader in ensuring all staff are respected, all have a voice, and all are enabled to do their best.

We are making progress on our new disability inclusion strategy. And I am strongly committed to ensuring equality and non-discrimination for LGBTI staff in the UN system and our peacekeeping operations.

The year ahead will be pivotal for our common future.  I want people around the world to be a part of it. Too often, governments and international institutions are viewed as places that talk —not places that listen.

I want the United Nations to listen. In this 75th anniversary year, I want to provide as many people as possible the chance to have a conversation with the United Nations.

To share their hopes and fears. To learn from their experiences. To spark ideas for building the future we want and the United Nations we need.

We are launching surveys and dialogues around the world to do so. And we are giving a priority to the voices of young people. Together, we need to listen. And together, we need to act.

At this 75th anniversary milestone, let us make the difficult yet vital decisions across our agenda that will secure a peaceful future for all. [IDN-InDepthNews – 07 February 2020]

Photo: Secretary-General António Guterres (left) briefs the UN General Assembly on his Priorities for 2020 and the Work of the Organization. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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