The world has never been more threatened or more divided, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told nations of the world on Tuesday as he kicked off the 76th General Assembly session, urging all 193 member states to “wake up” and realise that solidarity is the only way out of disaster.
“We are on the edge of an abyss,” Guterres said to an assembly hall meeting together for the first time since last year’s suspended in-person session due to the coronavirus pandemic. “We face the greatest cascade of crises in our lifetimes.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has supersized inequalities, the climate crisis is pummeling the planet, upheavals in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Yemen have thwarted peace and a surge of misformation is polarizing people everywhere.
“Human rights are under fire. Science is under assault. And economic lifelines for the most vulnerable are coming too little and too late —if they come at all,” the UN chief said.
While vaccines have been developed in record time, they are missing for far too many people.
“A surplus in some countries. Empty shelves in others,” he said. “This is a moral indictment of the state of our world. It is an obscenity. We passed the science test. But we are getting an F in Ethics.”
More than 90 percent of Africans are still waiting for their first dose, he added, calling for a global vaccination plan to ensure that vaccines reach 70 percent of the world’s population in the first half of 2022.
The secretary-general sounded the alarm on global warming as well, citing a recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the vivid warning signs sweeping every continent.
“As we saw recently, not even this city — the financial capital of the world — is immune,” he said, referring to the deadly remnants of Hurricane Ida that ravaged New York earlier in September.
The window to keep alive the 1.5-degree-Celcius (2.7-degree F) goal of the Paris Climate Agreement is quickly closing, Guterres warned, and urged the world to commit to a 45 percent cut in emissions by 2030.
Citing a recent UN report that predicted emissions to go up by 16 percent by 2030, he said that would condemn the world to a “hellscape of temperature rises”.
“We are weeks away from the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow, but seemingly light years away from reaching our targets,” he said.
Developing countries must finally see the promised $100bn a year for climate action, said the UN chief. Taxing carbon and pollution instead of people’s income would encourage the switch to sustainable green jobs and ending subsidies to fossil fuels would allocate funds to invest back in education, renewable energy and social protections.
“The people we serve and represent may lose faith not only in their governments and institutions — but in the values that have animated the work of the United Nations for over 75 years,” Guterres warned.
The Secretary-General’s Common Agenda, which builds on the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Paris Climate Agreement, is a tool to bring the UN forward, he added.
Country specific concerns
Turning to country-specific concerns, the secretary-general stressed the need to defend human rights, especially of women and girls in Afghanistan; create the conditions for the start of an Ethiopian-led political dialogue in Ethiopia; promote human rights and democracy in Myanmar; overcome stalemates in Yemen, Libya and Syria and show solidarity to the people of Haiti.
On Israel and Palestine, he urged leaders to resume a meaningful dialogue and recognise the two-state solution as the only pathway to a just and comprehensive peace.
Warning against tensions among superpowers — the United States and China, he said, “It will be impossible to address dramatic economic and development challenges while the world’s two largest economies are at odds with each other.”
The UN chief expressed concern that the world is “creeping towards two different sets of economic, trade, financial, and technology rules, two divergent approaches in the development of artificial intelligence — and ultimately two different military and geo-political strategies.”
This would be far less predictable than the Cold War, he warned, calling for a boost in cooperation, dialogue and understanding.
On technology, he said that half of humanity still does not have access to the internet and stressed the need to connect everyone by 2030. It is critical to put the legal frameworks into place to regulate new technologies and protect human rights so that governments and other entities do not use data to “control or manipulate the behaviour of citizens.”
Lopsided recoveries and no silver bullets
The secretary-general warned that a lopsided recovery is deepening inequalities, expressing concern that richer countries could reach pre-pandemic growth rates by the end of this year while low-income countries may suffer economic hardships for years to come.
Advanced economies are investing nearly 28 percent of their gross domestic product into economic recovery while middle-income countries are investing only 6.5 percent and least developed countries are investing a measly 1.8 percent.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects that cumulative economic growth per capita across the next five years will be 75 percent less than the rest of the world, Guterres said.
While welcoming the IMF’s issuance of $650bn in Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) — an IMF reserve asset that can be exchanged for hard currencies like US dollars — he said that the SDRs will largely go to the countries that do not need them.
“SDRs are not a silver bullet,” Guterres stressed, calling for the Debt Service Suspension Initiative to be extended to 2022 and available to all highly indebted vulnerable and middle-income countries that ask for it.
“Countries shouldn’t have to choose between servicing debt and serving people,” he said.
Guterres called on countries to reform their tax systems and end tax evasion, money laundering and illicit financial flows.
World’s oldest injustice
The secretary-general said that the coronavirus pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the world’s oldest injustice: the power imbalance between men and women.
When the pandemic hit, women made up the majority of front-line workers, were the first to lose their jobs and the first to put their careers on hold to care for their loved ones, Guterres said.
Moreover, school closures disproportionately affected girls and have slowed their education journeys and boosted their risk of abuse, violence and child marriage.
“Bridging the gap between women and men is not just a question of justice for women and girls. It is a game-changer for all of humanity,” Guterres stressed.
Calling on member states “to transform our male-dominated world”, the secretary-general urged the need for more women leaders in parliaments, cabinets, ministries and boards of directors.