- by Matthew Hole
- The Guardian
- Issue #1981
“I am here to sound the alarm: the world must wake up. We are on the edge of an abyss – and moving in the wrong direction.” This was the warning offered by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly which opened on Tuesday 21st September. The event was attended by all UN member nations except Afghanistan and Myanmar, given the ongoing internal issues faced in those countries.
The General Assembly is being held as major transformations in global affairs are taking place. The COVID-19 pandemic is now over eighteen months old, with shocking levels of disparity for vaccine rollouts between countries rich and poor. The climate crisis is now a code red for humanity according to the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And new military alliances are being formed by some old colonial powers as they seek to maintain world hegemony in the face of a rising independent China.
In his opening remarks to the conference, Guterres went on to describe the “Six Great Divides” that the UN must work towards overcoming: peace, climate, inequality, gender, digital, and generational.
FOR MANY, PEACE AND STABILITY REMAIN A DISTANT DREAM
Guterres spoke of a range of regions undergoing conflict. In Afghanistan, humanitarian assistance is required in the wake of the US’s hasty withdrawal, as is the need to defend human rights, especially of women and girls. In Ethiopia and Eritrea, conflict rages between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) vs the governments of the two neighbouring nations. Myanmar has experienced a military coup earlier this year, and the situation there remains unresolved. Several peacekeeping missions continue in the Sahel region of Africa (between the Sahara and Sudanian savanna), whilst conflicts continue across Yemen, Libya, and Syria. Challenges within Israel-Palestine and Haiti were also mentioned.
Geopolitical divisions however are undermining international cooperation to solve these crises and are impossible to address whilst the worlds two largest economies are at odds with each other. Guterres continues, “To restore trust and inspire hope, we need cooperation. We need dialogue. We need understanding … and we need a new comprehensive Agenda for Peace.”
CLIMATE CRISIS A CODE RED
According to Guterres, meaningful action on climate change cannot happen without bridging trust between the Global North and the Global South. All countries need to commit to carbon neutrality by mid-century, and to have plans that will see emissions peak before 2030 – the conditions for this success need to be created in the leadup to the Glasgow meeting in November.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s later remarks highlighted that China would no longer provide funding for coal projects abroad. Conversely, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is still unsure if he will attend the summit. The coal industry in Australia continues to have significant political influence, to the detriment of the will of the majority, raising questions about what it really means to be labelled a “democracy.”
Guterres provided a range of measures governments should take that would see the best of possible outcomes with respect to climate: summoning the full force of their fiscal policymaking powers to make the shift to green economies, taxing carbon and pollution instead of people’s incomes, ending subsidies to fossil fuels, and committing to no new coal plants. Coalitions of solidarity are required, between countries still heavily dependent on coal, and those that have the financial and technical resources to support their transition.
A LOPSIDED RECOVERY IS DEEPENING INEQUALITIES
Differing levels in vaccine rollouts among nations rich and poor are deepening already existing inequalities worldwide. This was highlighted by Guterres in the proportion GDP nations are currently investing into their respective economic recoveries: 28 per cent for advanced economies, 6.5 per cent for middle-income economies, and down to 1.8 per cent for least developed countries.
It’s critical that vaccines are made available for peoples of all nations – seventy per cent of the global population could be fully vaccinated by the first half of 2022 should an effective plan be put in place. This plan would involve a coalition of partners, including present and potential vaccine producers, the World Health Organisation, ACT-Accelerator partners, and international financial institutions working with pharmaceutical companies.
The risk of an effective global vaccine plan not being carried out could see Sub-Saharan Africa achieve a culminative economic growth rate per capita over the next five years that would be seventy-five per cent less than the rest of the world. A shocking outcome, particularly given the already existing realities across the continent. China has produced approximately fifty per cent of all vaccines globally as at the end of August, of which over a quarter have been provided to developing nations; however Latin America and other Asia Pacific nations have received the vast majority of these to date.
GENDER, DIGITAL AND GENERATIONAL DIVIDES
Guterres closed out his opening address highlighting the need to continually bridge the gender, digital and generational divides.
He highlighted that when the pandemic hit, “women were the majority of frontline workers, first to lose their jobs, and first to put their careers on hold to care for those close to them.” He went on to urge governments, corporations, and other institutions to take bold steps, including benchmarks and quotas, to create gender parity from the leadership down.
The digital divide is a topic often not given as great an emphasis as those already discussed. Yet half of humanity still has no access to the internet. There is the potential for everyone to be connected by 2030. The digital world is not without risk, however, as our behaviour patterns are being commodified and sold like future contracts, and our data is being used to influence our perceptions and opinions. Guterres remarks that, “to restore trust and inspire hope, we need to place human rights at the centre of our efforts to ensure a safe, equitable and open digital future for all.”
The last of the divides discussed was the generational divide. sixty per cent of young future voters feel betrayed by their governments. Many young people are suffering from high levels of anxiety and distress over the state of the planet, and they do not feel like they have a seat at the table to resolve the issues that they face. To help address this, it was announced that a Special Envoy for Future Generations will be appointed, as well as the establishment of a United Nations Youth Office.
Guterres closed with a message of hope: “The best way to advance the interests of one’s own citizens is by advancing the interests of our common future. Interdependence is the logic of the 21st century. And it is the lodestar of the United Nations. 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.”