UN S-G Antonio Guterres’s “Our Common Agenda” relaunches multilateralism in the face of contemporary challenges: Highlights from the UNGA general debate at the United Nations 76th Session
While the impact of the pandemic restrictions still affected the organization of international summits in person, the High-Level General Debate of the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA76), held from 21st of September to the 27th, 2021 focused on “‘Building resilience through hope – to recover from Covid-19, rebuild sustainably, respond to the needs of the planet, respect the rights of people and revitalize the United Nations.”
Member States called for renewed multilateralism, international cooperation and solidarity to overcome current global crises, recover and build a new united system able to tackle and prevent crises, as well as one able to close existing inequality gaps that endanger peace and security. Sustainable development, climate change, and staggering economic inequalities have all been exacerbated by the recent pandemic, which has disproportionally affected the most vulnerable. World leaders emphasized that our existence depends on our choices, and hope should inspire us to act and respond accordingly.
His Excellency Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General (SG) of the United Nations (UN), opened the General Debate with remarks on some of the most urgent and pressing issues the global community is facing worldwide, such as the aggravation of wide inequalities and climate change, the increase in polarization, government mistrust and misinformation, as well as the onset of new harsh world conflicts. “The world needs to wake up,” resolutely stated the SG, underlining how we are on the abyss of a crisis like never before, and we need to shift direction before it’s too late. Reiterating the theme of the 76th UNGA, Guterres called for international cooperation and action in order to inspire hope in this moment of truth we are globally facing. Additionally, the SG underscored the importance of generational thinking and the need to bridge the divide between generations, because young people will be the ones inheriting the bad consequences of today, and he launched the creation of a UN Youth Office to allow at the decisional table the generations of the future.
His Excellency Abdulla Shahid, President of the 76th General Assembly, also highlighted the need for multilateralism and action, noting that we all share the same concerns, goals and commitment to overcome obstacles—we just might disagree on tactics—which is why is crucial to use diplomacy and work together. “We need to turn every challenge into an opportunity: an opportunity to strengthen multilateralism and deliver results on the ground,” stressed the President, pleading world leaders to listen to the current global crises and work together to shift the change into the right direction—which is the one of hope and cooperation.
The recent Covid-19 pandemic was the central topic of the General Debate, with Heads of State and Government focusing on vaccination plans, the role of science and research, and the dangers of misinformation and public distrust in governments. Vaccine solidarity was a common thread this year, which was introduced by the SG as the picture that exemplifies the global situation - with vaccines thrown in the garbage or in surplus in some countries,and empty shelves in others “We passed the science test (with record-time in the achievement of vaccines),” added Mr Guterres, “but we are failing the ethics one.”
In that regard, Mia Amor Mottley, Barbados Prime Minister, advocated for an urgent world-wide vaccination plan, as no one is safe until the virus continues to circulate and the risk of new variants remains. “If we are to overcome this pandemic, vaccine solidarity is a crucial condition,” reiterated Alexander De Croo, Prime Minister of Belgium, who expressed his outrage in regard to the low levels of vaccinations in Africa (90% of Africans still missing the 1st dose) and called for action in collaboration with COVAX.
Finally, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, President of Ghana, deplored the use of vaccines to control immigration, as AstraZeneca was donated to African countries, but it is now not accepted to enter European countries.
Climate change was another crucial topic throughout the General Debate, with Head of States from small island developing countries praising the election of Mr Abdulla Shahid (Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Maldives) as UNGA President, and calling for additional help in the environmental fight that particularly affects their territories and economies.
“Challenges like climate change are a reminder as to why a multilateral response remains necessary,” reaffirmed Marc Garneau, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Canada, who joined Stefan Löfven, Prime Minister of Sweden, and other Member States in a call for global cooperation towards a common goal: “The recovery from the pandemic will provide an opportunity to Build Back Greener. It’s time to redefine the human relationship with nature,” concluded Mr Löfven.
A variety of other social issues were also discussed, including gender equality in relationship to the pandemic which was exacerbated by the pre-existing gaps and power imbalance between men and women—the most enduring inequality of our times. “Women equality is a question of power,” stated Guterres, adding that it is imperative to have more women in position of power and leadership.
“History will be divided into pre and post Covid-19” announced Ukhnaa Khurelsukh, President of Mongolia, followed by Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, who warned that “Humanity faces an historical choice: A breakdown or a breakthrough”, calling for action from the generations in charge today, as well as the youth. President of Cabo Verde, Jorge Carlos De Almeida Fonseca, reiterated how it is time to choose to act, because “the missing link between crises and opportunities lies in this greater exercise of global solidarity—to turn possible solutions into reality.”
Carlos Alvarado Quesada, President of the Republic of Costa Rica, made a compelling argument stating that “The best way to be selfish is to be supportive and generous,” asserting that it is unacceptable that during a raging pandemic and a unprecedented climate crisis, we are still investing more in weapons than vaccines: “How will we explain this to the next generations?”
“We know what must be done—we just need to choose to do it,” expressed Canadian Mr Garneau, who joined the other Member States in reinvigorating the message of hope inspired by the President of the 76th Session of the UNGA—as well as reinforcing the importance of multilateralism to solve global issues. “The privileges that the major powers enjoy in the UN system are only justified as long as they promote and uphold the international peace and order in the interest of all,” stated Frank-Walter Steinmeier, President of the Federal Republic of Germany, and that it is crucial to be more honest, smarter and stronger: “We can achieve more when we want less”.
The number of challenges that our states face is significant for the construction of a world under the banner of equality”, concluded H.E. Luis Abinader, President of the Dominican Republic, “However, we must not face them alone; integration and multilateralism are the ideal ways to advance towards the goal without leaving anyone behind”.
The general debate took place just a few weeks after the release of the UN S-G's “Our Common Agenda” which builds on the shared vision of renewed multilateralism, echoed at last year’s 75th anniversary of the UN Charter. In his landmark report, the S-G called for re-embracing global solidarity; renewing the social contract between Governments and their people and within societies; ending the “infodemic” that plagues the world; capturing the human and environmental costs of growth, thus correcting a blind spot in how we measure economic prosperity and progress; delivering more for young people and succeeding generations; and strengthening a more networked and inclusive multilateral system, anchored within the United Nations.