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15 Nov, 2018

World Leaders ‘Cannot Be Sleepwalkers’ about Rising Nationalism, Climate Change, UN Chief Stresses at Peace Forum

Paris, UN Media Centre — Following are UN Secretary‑General António Guterres’ address to the Paris Peace Forum, in Paris on 11 November:

Ten years ago, in 2008, Lazare Ponticelli, the last known French veteran of the Great War, died at the age of 110. Every year on 11 November, Mr. Ponticelli, an Italian immigrant, honoured the promise he had made to his comrades who had died too young on the battlefield. He used to visit his local war memorial to remember them.

Right at the end of his life, he had finally agreed to talk to schoolchildren about his experience. He always began with these words: “First of all, I never knew why we were fighting …”

Over time, this “why” has come to envelop both patriotic fervour and the sacrifice of the dead. The horror of those great global conflicts cannot be forgotten. I am reminded of that horror when I pass by the copy of Picasso’s Guernica on my way to the United Nations Security Council.

But horror must never prevail over hope — the hope with which I receive my guests in the meeting room on the thirty‑eighth floor of the Secretariat Building at United Nations Headquarters, adorned by the Matisse tapestry Polynésie, le Ciel, with its deep, peaceful shades of blue.

It was that same hope that gave rise to the development of multilateralism in the twentieth century. Over the past 100 years, the desire to settle conflicts peacefully on the basis of common rules has been converted into a universal system of institutions in the political, economic, social and environmental spheres.

That system rests on the values affirmed in the Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted right here in Paris 70 years ago. But the same hope was also reflected in the reconciliation between France and Germany and in the building of Europe.

I am therefore delighted to speak, following the addresses by President [Emmanuel] Macron and Chancellor [Angela] Merkel. A hundred years on, just a few kilometres from the clearing of Rethondes, this Paris Peace Forum, with the enthusiasm it demonstrates for collective solutions, has never been more relevant. I extend my warmest thanks to President Macron for this valuable initiative.

The past hundred years feel like an eternity. And yet, when you think about it, a hundred years represents only the tiniest fraction of world history. What if this spirit of multilateralism was merely a reaction to the devastation of the two world wars? I do not think so.

The world wars resulted in a return to basics. In his book, The Sleepwalkers, the historian Christopher Clark re‑examined the origins of the First World War. As part of his analysis of national rivalries, he insisted that the political leaders of the time were blind. Locked into distorted perceptions of their enemies, cut off from the realities of the world and its peoples, they precipitated an unlimited war.

As I see it, several elements today have many parallels with both the start of the twentieth century and the 1930s, giving us grounds to fear that an unpredictable chain of events could ensue.

The first element is the 2008 financial crisis. Let us not forget, the Second World War began 10 years after the 1929 stock market crash. It’s true that the lesson was learned in 2008. A great depression was avoided by deploying an unprecedented arsenal of budgetary and monetary instruments to shore up demand and rescue the financial system.

However, although the global economy returned to growth, scores were settled by voters on both sides of the Atlantic in 2016, and more broadly in Europe and elsewhere. Political revenge against macroeconomic rationale, reflecting the destabilization of the middle classes, the impact of wage stagnation in curtailing social mobility, growing inequalities and people’s indignation at the “treason of the elites”.

The second element is that, in the 1930s, democracies were swept along by a wave of totalitarianism. We are not in the same situation, but what we are seeing today is the polarization of political life and of society itself, which is leading to a dangerous erosion of fundamental rights and freedoms, democratic principles and the rule of law.

Identity‑related prejudice, terrorism and the corruption of information are putting political systems and constitutions to the test. Previously shored up by multiple strands of community life and culture, they are now being fractured by individualism and the conflation of ethnic, religious and national passions. Those bitter passions fuelled the nationalist backlashes and anti‑Semitism of the 1930s. We must never lose sight of that fact.

A weakening of the democratic spirit of compromise and an indifference to collective rules are twin poisons for multilateralism. Regrettably, I see several clear signs of their presence today: First, the division of the Security Council, particularly over the Syrian conflict, which signals a return to a system of alliances in the Middle East and, above all, a willingness to sacrifice the Syrian population.

Second, the trend towards trade confrontation, which signals a return to bilateralism away from the trade multilateralism embodied by the World Trade Organization [WTO] and its Dispute Settlement Body. We should again recall the 1930s and the succession of competitive devaluations that took place, causing the collapse of three‑quarters of all international trade and payments within a decade.

Third, the crisis of confidence faced by the European Union. Ownership of the European project by the peoples of Europe cannot be lost. This is a possibility that can and must urgently be considered. “Too meaningful to fail”, I would be tempted to say to my former colleagues.

I am not a fatalist. I must therefore try to prove why it is no longer just a hope but, more than ever, a necessity. First, multilateralism has yielded undeniable results. Bill Gates recalled recently that child deaths have more than halved since 1990, while the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has fallen from 36 per cent to 8 per cent.

Smallpox has been eradicated as a result of the vaccination campaigns conducted by the World Health Organization. Today, we are on the verge of eradicating polio. Better access to treatment has prevented 7.6 million deaths from AIDS.

In the area of peacekeeping and security, more than a million men and women from 125 countries have served in peacekeeping missions over the last 70 years to prevent the spread of crises, protect civilians and support political processes. The blue helmets are now our brand in the world — a presence that is cost‑effective.

The United States Government Accountability Office estimates that a national peacekeeping operation in the Central African Republic would have cost the United States 10 times as much as the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) did.

Indeed, for a young person from the Central African Republic, multilateralism is both a necessity and a hope. The same is true for the world’s 65 million refugees and displaced people. My ten years as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees convinced me that the pain of displacement can be avoided only through conflict prevention and improved integration of development and human rights protection efforts in our peacebuilding work.

The multilateral framework has also shown itself to be indispensable in resolving nuclear proliferation crises. It was the Security Council’s unity in dealing with the Iranian and North Korean situations that opened up the way for negotiated solutions, both in 2015 and in 2018.

On the other hand, unilateral intervention, or intervention by just one group of States, does not in itself guarantee either success or cost‑effectiveness. The intervention in Iraq argues, negatively, in favour of multilateralism. We should also acknowledge the extent to which international conventions have promoted greater interdependence among peoples.

We tend not to think about it anymore, but we should not forget the existence of a codified law of the sea in the Montego Bay Convention, or the existence of the International Civil Aviation Organization.

History is not a game of dice; the “father” of international law — the Dutch scholar Grotius — was the first to formulate the principle of the freedom of the seas back in the sixteenth century. That principle was the corollary of the freedom of trade, recognized well before WTO existed.

The United Nations remains at the centre of the harmonization of efforts to achieve peace and sustainable development. During the General Assembly debate held in New York in September, I had the honour of welcoming 126 Heads of State and Government to Headquarters. In just one week, my staff organized 566 high‑level meetings and 1,676 bilateral meetings. It would be disconcerting to think that this is nothing but talk.

Governments will not be able to meet their people’s expectations for protection in the absence of international cooperation. The recent General Assembly debate has convinced me that this is widely recognized. The themes mentioned over a hundred times in the addresses delivered by heads of delegations were all global: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (158 times), climate change (146 times), terrorism (123 times) and migration (100 times).

The first of these “countdowns” — as my friend Hubert Védrine rightly said — is of course the challenge of climate change. The clock is ticking. Unless we change course in the immediate future, we will lose control of the situation. A few days from COP24 [twenty‑fourth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change], I will say this clearly: we — world leaders – cannot be sleepwalkers.

It is pointless to build sand castles before high tide while claiming to be engineers. These are not children’s games. We are playing with our children’s future. The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should serve as our wake‑up call. Realities on the ground exceed even the most pessimistic forecasts.

Climate change is moving faster than we are. Natural disasters are becoming more frequent, more intense and more destructive. Arctic sea ice is shrinking, desertification is spreading and coral bleaching is widespread.

The second challenge is demography and migration. It took from the Big Bang until the year 1820 for the number of people on Earth to reach one billion. Today that number is approaching 8 billion, and half of the growth in the global population will be in Africa. In a context of climate change, inequalities and conflict, migration will remain an enduring phenomenon.

We must come to our senses. Without international cooperation, and if we retreat behind our national borders, we will sacrifice our collective values, and we will perpetuate the tragedy of migrants being exploited by the worst traffickers.

Our third challenge is technology. Like the invention of printing, the digital revolution has opened up a new realm — this time the virtual world. We have been given the opportunity to experience a revolution that has given birth to a new world. The digital transformation is turning our economies and societies upside down. Shortly, artificial intelligence will redefine the job market and the nature of work itself.

While offering immense opportunities, the Internet can unfortunately also be used to manipulate information. It is a place where cybercrime spreads. Terrorist groups use the Internet to foster hate speech and recruit alienated youth. The main risk today is the gap between innovations and our legal framework, whose basic concepts are not suited for the virtual world.

These three joint challenges are arising at a time of great anxiety and geopolitical disorder, which increases the risks of confrontation. Gone are the days when a super‑Power could shore up the global economy or guarantee international security.

Our world at present seems chaotic. But it is moving towards multidimensional multipolarity. And it would be wrong to regard this multipolarity, in and of itself, as the solution. Without the multilateral system and respect for international rules, we risk a return solely to power relations, reward‑sanction mechanisms and a cycle of frozen conflicts.

That is why I will not sit back and watch an assault on multilateralism just when it is most needed. In contrast, I believe in strong reformed multilateralism “on the move”. This is what I am working towards. I cannot detail here all the reforms that my colleagues and I are undertaking in that direction. But allow me to convey our gratitude to the staff of our organizations. They work in places where other people do not go, on the most dangerous missions.

I deeply believe that strong multilateralism only comes from strong States. Only robust States have the power to make commitments, then to explain to citizens the rules by which they and other States have agreed to be bound.

As a former Prime Minister, I know the difficulty of this myself: a multilateral rule is an agreement that is more difficult to amend than a national law. People often see what it dictates, not what it maintains. It is therefore essential for States to renew their citizens’ compacts.

Alongside Jürgen Habermas, we must recognize that the oxygen of a modern democracy is a continuous flow of communication between civil society and the political authorities. A flow that must contribute directly to political decision‑making.

Having grown up under a dictatorship, I know this from experience. This principle is also becoming increasingly valid at the global level. We need an inclusive multilateralism that is closely related to civil society and the business community. In renewing citizens’ compacts, we also must not overlook the key issue of inequalities.

And I congratulate President Macron for making this a priority during the French presidency of the G7 [Group of Seven] in 2019. The fight against global inequalities must serve as the guiding compass for the work of multilateral organizations. It is central to the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals.

In this context, my mission is simple: to be more effective in order to better serve the people for whom we are a necessity and a hope. Consequently, reform of the United Nations Secretariat has been a priority since my arrival. Our Organization must be exemplary.

In particular, it must respect geographical diversity and gender equality. We are convinced that women hold the key to our development. And that is why we have achieved gender parity in the Organization’s senior management, one year after I took office. I will tirelessly pursue these steps towards modernization, and I ask you to place your trust in me.

Conflict prevention and resolution, with respect for international humanitarian law and human rights, remain my priority concerns. We must never accept the plight of the victims of violence and terrorist acts in Syria, Yemen, Mali or Myanmar. Our organizations must therefore act in concert. This is the purpose of our special partnerships with the African Union and the European Union.

As we speak, the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) peacekeepers, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and non‑governmental organizations, like Médecins Sans Frontières, are working hand‑in‑hand with the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to prevent an Ebola epidemic in the east of the country.

Multilateralism must not enter the future backwards. In the next few months we will approach key milestones related to the three existential challenges that I mentioned: First: three years ago, here in Paris, States showed that an international agreement is still possible on one of the most complex issues. This opportunity will not come again. There is no alternative to this agreement. COP24 in Poland marks a key step in implementing the Paris Agreement.

I will organize a climate summit in 2019 to elicit more ambitious national contributions for the reduction of carbon emissions, and ultimately to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But also, to keep the promise to mobilize $100 billion a year for developing countries.

Let us also not forget that the oceans cover 73 per cent of the Earth’s surface and absorb a third of the carbon emissions generated by human activity. I would ask Member States to be bold in negotiating a legal instrument to protect biodiversity on the high seas. In the long term, codifying the fundamental principles of environmental law would provide predictability and clarity.

Second: migration movements — I will be visiting Marrakech in December for the adoption of a global compact on migration. This will be the first international framework on this issue, without being legally binding. But it will provide a common vision able to counter shameful prejudice against migrants while establishing a basis for international cooperation for safe, orderly and regular migration.

The recent example of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement shows the importance of soft‑law texts. Despite being non‑binding, the Guiding Principles have proved useful to Governments in their protection and integration policies, and in their international cooperation.

At the same time, I reiterate my call to maintain the integrity of the international refugee protection regime. For me the regime, like international humanitarian law, remains a standard by which to measure our humanity.

Third: the technological revolution — I sincerely believe that technological developments are a major ally in the implementation of our 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Tomorrow the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will host an Internet Governance Forum on the “Internet of Trust”.

I am struck by the symbolism: trust in the potential of the digital revolution needs to promote education and an appetite for culture, not hatred and exclusion. In the Data Age, we must find a balance between innovation and regulation.

This work clearly lies ahead of us. I believe that in certain areas it should not be possible to circumvent the basic rules of international law. My disarmament agenda underscores the urgency and necessity of paying attention to the military uses of new technologies. Imagine the consequences of an autonomous system that could, by itself, target and attack human beings.

I call upon States to ban these weapons, which are politically unacceptable and morally repugnant. Given the pace of innovation, we should allow less stringent forms of regulation in other areas. But whatever is lost in terms of binding force should be offset by the rigorous monitoring of the commitments undertaken.

I recently established a High‑level Panel on Digital Cooperation as a catalyst for this process. I would like the United Nations to be a platform where Governments, businesses, civil society and researchers can agree on codes of conduct, guidelines and voluntary commitments. Ultimately, it is about the digital revolution becoming a positive force for progress.

The multilateralism that is now part of our daily life is at risk of disintegrating just when it is most needed. Its legacy has been invaluable: an impulse by which devastation gave way to membership of a shared humanity. Your presence here to defend multilateralism at work is a mark of confidence. It also makes me confident about the future and even more determined. Thank you.