By Cecilia Ologunagba
UN Secretary-General António Guterres says humanity is on the edge of an abyss, and moving in the wrong direction, such that leaders must wake up to restore trust and hope to the world.
Guterres said this at the opening of the General Debate of the 76th session of the General Assembly at the UN headquarters on Tuesday, in New York.
The UN correspondent of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that President Muhammadu Buhari and Joe Biden were among the world leaders that attended the opening of the debate.
Buhari was accompanied by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the UN, Prof. Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, and the Head of Chancery of the Permanent Mission, Muyiwa Onifade.
Outlining six “Great Divides” that must be bridged now, Guterres called for greater action in areas such as climate policy, gender equality and closing the gap between the rich and the poor.
“This is our time. A moment for transformation. An era to re-ignite multilateralism. An age of possibilities. Let us restore trust. Let us inspire hope. And let us start right now,” the secretary-general told world leaders and ambassadors.
Amid “the greatest cascade of crises in our lifetimes” – which include the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate emergency and upheavals in places such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Yemen – Guterres singled out one disturbing image as indicative of the present moment.
He cited “the picture we have seen from some parts of the world of COVID-19 vaccines…in the garbage. Expired and unused”.
“On the one hand, we see the vaccines developed in record time – a victory of science and human ingenuity. On the other hand, we see that triumph undone by the tragedy of a lack of political will, selfishness and mistrust.”
For the secretary-general, the fact that most wealthy countries are vaccinated, while more than 90 per cent of Africans are still awaiting their first dose, was “a moral indictment of the state of our world” and “an obscenity”.
While the pandemic and the climate crisis had exposed profound fragilities, countries have shunned solidarity and are instead pursuing what Guterres described as “a dead end to destruction.”
Additionally, people are at risk of losing faith not only in their governments, but in UN values such as peace, human rights, dignity for all, equality, justice and solidarity. “Like never before, core values are in the crosshairs.
“A breakdown in trust is leading to a breakdown in values. Promises, after all, are worthless if people do not see results in their daily lives,” he said.
Stating that “now is the time to deliver” and also to restore trust and inspire hope, the UN chief stressed that these problems could be solved. He listed six “Great Divides”, or “Grand Canyons”, that must be bridged, starting with achieving peace.
“For far too many around the world, peace and stability remain a distant dream,” he said, pointing to places such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Syria, and the Sahel region in Africa.
“We are also seeing an explosion in seizures of power by force,” he continued, adding that “military coups are back.”
Additionally, lack of international unity is another hindrance, with geopolitical divisions “undermining international cooperation and limiting the capacity of the Security Council to take the necessary decisions.”
The fact that the world’s two largest economies are at odds represents another concern, making it impossible to address “dramatic economic and development challenges.”
The secretary-general called for cooperation, dialogue and understanding to restore trust and inspire hope among nations, and for investment in prevention, peacekeeping and peacebuilding.
Bridging the climate divide will require bridging trust between the North and South, he said, underscoring the need for success at the COP26 UN climate conference in Glasgow, which starts on 31 October.
Countries need to show more ambition in the key areas of mitigation, finance and adaptation, which includes committing to carbon neutrality by 2050, and providing the $100 billion dollars annually promised a decade ago, to support developing nations.
“My message to every Member State is this: Don’t wait for others to make the first move. Do your part,” he said, urging governments to shift to the green economy through steps such as taxing carbon, ending subsidies to fossil fuels and committing to no new coal power plants.
“This is a planetary emergency. We need coalitions of solidarity – between countries that still depend heavily on coal, and countries that have the financial and technical resources to support their transition.
“We have the opportunity and obligation to act,” Guterres said.
Ending the pandemic for everyone, everywhere, is the first step in bridging the gap between rich and poor, the secretary-general said.
He underlined the need for a global vaccine plan to reach 70 per cent of the world’s population by mid-2022, through at least doubling present production capacity.
“We have no time to lose,” he said. “A lopsided recovery is deepening inequalities. Richer countries could reach pre-pandemic growth rates by the end of this year, while the impacts may last for years in low-income countries.”
The secretary-general advised richer economies to reallocate their surplus SDRs to countries in need, and renewed his call for debt suspension to be extended to 2022, calling it “solidarity in action.”
The pandemic has also exposed and amplified the power imbalance between men and women: “the world’s most enduring injustice”, according to the UN chief.
“Bridging the gender divide is not only a matter of justice for women and girls. It’s a game-changer for humanity,” he stated.
“Women’s equality is essentially a question of power. We must urgently transform our male-dominated world and shift the balance of power, to solve the most challenging problems of our age.”
This transformation would see more women leaders in government and business, and women’s full representation everywhere. He called for “bold steps” in implementing quotas and benchmarks for gender parity.
“At the same time, we need to push back against regressive laws that institutionalise gender discrimination. Women’s rights are human rights.
“Economic recovery plans should focus on women, including through large-scale investments in the care economy. And we need an emergency plan to fight gender-based violence in every country,” he said.