51st Plenary Meeting - General Assembly 75th Session

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28-Jan-2021 02:55:02
Secretary-General warns States against locking themselves into harmful practices ‘for decades to come’, as he spells out 2021 priorities in General Assembly.

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More, Not Less, International Cooperation Needed, President Stresses, as Climate, COVID, Counter-terrorism Top List of Concerns

Following a year of devastating economic, social and development setbacks, Secretary-General António Guterres briefed the General Assembly today on his urgent priorities for 2021, calling upon nations to embrace bold, green and equitable shifts “or risk locking the world into harmful practices for decades to come”.

“The COVID-19 pandemic unleashed havoc in every country and every economy,” he said, presenting his annual report on the work of the Organization (document A/75/1) to the 193-member Assembly. Reflecting on the challenges wrought by 2020, he noted that the novel coronavirus — now known as COVID-19 - has claimed 2 million lives so far, including members of the United Nations family.

Its economic costs continue to mount, with some 500 million jobs lost, he continued. Hunger is rising again, inequalities are widening, and extreme poverty has reached levels not seen in a generation — all against the backdrop of a global climate crisis. “Vaccines are the first great moral test before us,” he said, emphasizing that the first priority for the international community must be to ensure equitable and universal access to COVID-19 immunizations as a global public good.

Warning against vaccine hoarding, he called upon Member States to prioritize the most vulnerable, stressing that failing to do so could allow mutations to spread and even become more deadly. Universal health coverage, mental health, decent work and social protection schemes all need massive investment, he said, calling for a quantum leap in financial support to support low- and middle-income countries.

Meanwhile, countries must declare national climate emergencies, submit nationally determined contributions to cut emissions, phase out fossil fuels and build a coalition to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, he said. Calling upon developed countries to fulfil their pledge to mobilize $100 billion annually for climate action in developing nations, he also spotlighted the critical challenges of poverty, inequality, systemic discrimination and the massive digital divide.

Increasingly common attacks on human rights seen around the world must be urgently reversed, he continued, pointing out that COVID-19 has only exacerbated the spread of hate speech and allowed some States to curb fundamental freedoms. Among other priorities, he highlighted gender equality, pointing out that women were severely impacted by pandemic-related job losses and many have been plunged into poverty. There is also an urgent need to heal geopolitical rifts, address roiling threats to peace and security and “avoid a great fracture that would divide the world into two”.

Any dysfunction in relations among major Powers creates space for spoilers, he warned, welcoming recent ceasefires in some — but not all — the most serious conflicts. More action is needed to bring peace to Yemen, Central African Republic, Mali and Afghanistan, as well as the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin regions, among others. In addition, he called for a “ceasefire in cyberspace”, underlining the need to ensure the safe use of data and to outlaw lethal autonomous weapons.

Volkan Bozkir (Turkey), President of the General Assembly, noted at the meeting’s outset that the annual review of the Secretary-General’s priorities allows Member States to reflect on the wider work of the United Nations — including helping refugees, keeping peace, protecting civilians, providing electoral assistance and promoting and protecting human rights. Recalling that 2020 marked 75 years since the Organization’s founding, he said that, in the wake of the many new challenges arising in that year, it is even clearer that “the world requires more — not less — international cooperation”. In that context, he suspended the meeting and invited Member States to engage in an informal question-and-answer session with the Secretary-General before resuming plenary proceedings.

Delegates applauded the Secretary-General’s candid assessment of a uniquely challenging 2020 and his bold vision for 2021. Many echoed his description of the imminent COVID-19 vaccine rollout as a moral test, emphasizing that no country will be safe until people everywhere have equitable access to vaccines. Others sounded the alarm about economic losses suffered due to the pandemic, harmful unilateral sanctions, the rolling back of human rights and a Security Council whose membership structure some speakers described as “frozen in the past”.

India’s representative pledged her country’s support for the global COVID-19 recovery — including as a leading contributor of peacekeeping troops — recalling that it immediately deployed medical teams through its peacekeepers in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere. She also emphasized the world’s failure in relation to the crucial challenge of terrorism by continuing to procrastinate in drafting a global counter-terrorism convention.

The representative of the European Union delegation joined other speakers in underscoring the primacy of multilateralism in resolving the current global crises, with the United Nations at its heart. Whereas the European Union was among the most affected by COVID-19, he noted, international solidarity was embedded in its vaccine strategy “from day one”, he said, pointing to the COVAX Facility as the best route out of the pandemic.

Djibouti’s representative, speaking for the African Group, called for renewed global investment in the continent’s COVID-19 response and overall sustainability. Warning that the world has become more polarized with the rise of unilateral actions, he expressed concern that negotiations on issues critical to Africa’s development are growing more complex, from strengthening national health systems to properly tackling today’s health crisis. “It is about seizing shared opportunities,” he emphasized, calling for vital global cooperation in all its forms and at all levels. In particular, he called for accelerated progress on food security, agricultural development, the “blue economy”, trade, digital connectivity and the structural transformation of poor economies.

Sweden’s representative, speaking for the Nordic countries, said the Political Declaration on the seventy-fifth anniversary United Nations, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change “now serve as our common agenda towards building back better and greener” after COVID-19. The equitable global distribution of vaccines also offers an immediate opportunity to showcase a renewed spirit of multilateralism. She joined other speakers in voicing concern over the organization’s own financial challenges and called upon all Member States to pay their dues in full, on time and without conditions.

The representative of Maldives, speaking for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), called the Assembly’s attention to the urgent challenges of climate change, ocean warming and sea-level rise, alongside COVID-19, global economic decline and enormous pressure on multilateralism. The shared vision of the United Nations must be to help recoup lost development gains, she said, emphasizing that the upcoming high-level meetings on oceans, energy, biodiversity, trade and food systems must be practical and impactful for small States.

Also speaking were representatives of Brunei Darussalam (on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)), Liechtenstein, Singapore, Oman, Argentina, Pakistan, South Africa, Japan, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, Peru and Iran.

Representatives of India and Pakistan spoke in exercise of the write of reply.

The Assembly will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Friday, 29 January, to conclude the session.

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