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Following Year of Death, Disaster, Despair, Secretary-General Outlines Priorities for 2021, Telling General Assembly ‘Crisis Gives Rise to Change’

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the General Assembly’s informal briefing to Member States on priorities for 2021, held today:

2020 was a global annus horribilis — a year of death, disaster and despair.  The COVID-19 pandemic unleashed havoc in every country and every economy.  We lost 2 million lives, including many dear members of our United Nations family.  The human toll continues to multiply.  The economic costs continue to mount.  Five hundred million jobs — gone.  Extreme poverty — back up to levels not seen in a generation.  Inequalities widening.  Hunger rising again.  And global fragilities continue to be exposed.

We have declared war on nature, and nature is striking back.  The climate crisis is raging.  Last year, natural disasters caused $210 billion in damage and incalculable human costs.  Biodiversity is collapsing.  Meanwhile, geopolitical tensions are undermining our collective efforts for peace.  Humanitarian needs are escalating.  Forced displacement reached record levels last year.  The risk of nuclear and chemical proliferation grows.  Human rights face a backlash.  Hate speech is booming.  Lawless behaviour in cyberspace has created a new domain for the propagation of crime, violence, misinformation and disruption.  And COVID-19 has had an especially pernicious impact on the world’s women and girls.

2020 brought us tragedy and peril.  2021 must be the year to change gear and put the world on track.  We need to move from death to health, from disaster to reconstruction, from despair to hope, from business as usual to transformation.  The Sustainable Development Goals are more important now than ever.  Now is the time to secure the well-being of people, economies, societies and our planet.  It is possible.  So, we must make it happen.  Together.

Our first priority for 2021 is to respond to COVID-19.  Vaccines are the first great moral test before us.  These must be seen as global public goods — people’s vaccines — available and affordable to all.  The COVAX facility urgently needs more resources to procure and deliver vaccines for low- and middle-income countries, and to continue vital research and development.  I thank the countries and organizations that are supporting COVAX and the leadership of the World Health Organization (WHO).  I welcome new engagement by major developed countries.

But, the world is falling short.  Vaccines are reaching a handful of countries quickly, while the poorest countries have almost none.  Science is succeeding, but solidarity is failing.  Governments have a responsibility to protect their populations, but COVID-19 cannot be beaten one country at a time.  If the virus is allowed to spread like wildfire in the global South, it will inevitably mutate; it is mutating, becoming more transmissible, more deadly and, eventually, more resistant to vaccines, ready to come back to hound the global North.  Moreover, recent studies have found that vaccine hoarding could cost the global economy up to $9.2 trillion, with almost half of that impact in the wealthiest countries themselves.  That figure is over 340 times more than the $27 billion funding gap for the ACT-Accelerator.  There is only one victor in a world of vaccine haves and vaccine have-nots:  the virus itself.

Today, I am calling for six specific steps:  Prioritize health-care workers and those most at risk everywhere; protect health systems from collapse in the poorest countries; ensure enough supply and fair distribution, including by having manufacturers prioritize supply to COVAX; share excess doses with the COVAX facility; make licenses widely available to scale up manufacturing; boost vaccine confidence.  Our “Verified” initiative is fighting the infodemic.  But, there is no panacea in a pandemic.  We must continue to take the scientifically proven steps that reduce transmission:  wearing masks; physical distancing; washing hands.  To defeat COVID-19 is possible.  We must make it happen.  Together.

Second, the world cannot heal from the virus if economies are on life support.  An inclusive and sustainable recovery must start now.  We need massive investments in health systems everywhere, universal health coverage, mental health care, social protection, decent work and children safely back in school.  Developing countries have been drained of remittances, tourism revenues and earnings from commodities.  Wealthier countries are implementing recovery and stimulus plans worth trillions of dollars.  Yet, the poorest countries have been able to spend only about 2 per cent of their small gross domestic product (GDP).

Recovery must be inclusive.  No country should be forced to choose between providing basic services and servicing their debts.  The high-level events I convened last year with the Prime Ministers of Canada and Jamaica highlighted the urgent need for a quantum leap in financial support.  This includes:  an expansion of the G20 [Group of 20] Debt Service Suspension Initiative; debt relief for all developing and middle-income countries that need it; increased resources for multilateral financial institutions and a new allocation of special drawing rights to the benefit of developing countries; a voluntary reallocation of unused special drawing rights.  Liquidity is crucial to prevent debt defaults.  Recovery must also be sustainable, embracing renewable energy and green and resilient infrastructure.  Otherwise, we will lock in harmful practices for decades to come.  The 2030 Agenda [for Sustainable Development] points the way.  A sustainable and inclusive recovery is possible.  We must make it happen.  Together.

Our third priority must therefore be making peace with nature.  2021 is a critical year for climate and biodiversity.  Last month, I called on all Member States to declare a climate emergency in their countries.  Today, I call on the international community to reach five key milestones by COP26 [twenty-sixth session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] in November.  First, let’s keep building the global coalition to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.  The coalition now represents 70 per cent of the world economy and 65 per cent of global carbon‑dioxide emissions.  In the year ahead, let’s ensure it covers at least 90 per cent of emissions.  G20 countries and main emitters must lead the way.  I call on every city, company and financial institution to adopt concrete road maps with clear intermediary milestones to get to carbon neutrality by 2050.  Key sectors such as shipping, aviation, industry and agriculture must do the same.

Second, Governments must submit nationally determined contributions to cut global emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 compared with 2010 levels.  Third, we need to achieve a breakthrough on adaptation.  Adaptation cannot be the forgotten component of climate action.  Donors and multilateral development banks should increase the share of adaptation finance from 20 to at least 50 per cent by 2024.  Fourth, meet all finance commitments.  Developed countries must fulfil their pledge to mobilize $100 billion annually for climate action in developing countries, and it is not yet happening.  This should include full capitalization of the Green Climate Fund.  All development banks should align their portfolios with the Paris Agreement [on climate change] and the Sustainable Development Goals by 2024, and help mobilize private finance and investment through guarantees and partnerships.  This will shift billions of financial flows.  The United Nations‑convened Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance and Global Investors for Sustainable Development Alliance are critical to this effort.

Fifth, adopt transformational policies.  It is time to:  put a price on carbon; stop building new coal power plants; phase out coal in OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries by 2030, and everywhere else by 2040; phase out fossil fuel finance, starting with the overseas financing of coal; end subsidies to fossil fuels; shift the tax burden from income to carbon, from taxpayers to polluters; make climate-related financial risk disclosures mandatory; integrate carbon neutrality into all economic and fiscal policies and decisions; and finally, promote, fund and implement just transition plans.  Particular solidarity is owed to the world’s small island developing States.  Some face an existential threat; their territories could disappear within our lifetimes.  We must never allow any Member State to be forced to fold its flag because of a problem that is within our power to fix.

COP26 in November will be a moment of truth for climate action.  COP15 [fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity] on biodiversity is a chance to halt the extinction crisis through a new post-2020 biodiversity framework.  Let’s not forget that 75 per cent of new and emerging human infectious diseases are zoonotic.  This year’s high‑level dialogue on energy will propose solutions for the shift to renewables and the expansion of energy access.  As we prepare for the Ocean Conference in Portugal, the world must accelerate action to stop overfishing, drastically reduce pollution — including plastics — and promote the blue economy.  The Food Systems Summit and the global conference on sustainable transport can transform these vital sectors.  2021 will also be critical in advancing the New Urban Agenda and cities are important.  To reconcile with nature is possible.  We must make it happen.  Together.

Our fourth priority is to tackle the pandemic of poverty and inequality.  More than 70 per cent of the world’s people are living with rising wealth inequality.  But, wealth is not the only measure.  People’s chances in life depend on their gender, race, family and ethnic background, whether they have a disability and other factors.  These injustices feed each other, cause people to lose trust in Governments and institutions and resound down the generations.  The pandemic has made things worse.  We see it in the way COVID-19 has preyed on the vulnerable and marginalized.  This week’s report by Oxfam found also that simply the increase in the wealth of the 10 richest men, and they are men, during the crisis would be enough to prevent anyone from falling into poverty because of the virus and to pay for COVID-19 vaccinations for all everywhere.

I continue to call for a new social contract within countries to ensure that all people have prospects and protection.  Education and digital technology must be the two great enablers and equalizers.  Reforms to labour markets and forceful efforts against corruption, tax havens, money-laundering and illicit financial flows will also be critical.  Societies must transform the world of care.  Official development assistance (ODA) remains a lifeline.  It is time to redress the wrongs of the past and address the systemic injustices of our time.  To keep our promise to leave no-one behind is possible.  We must make it happen.  Together.

Our fifth priority must be to reverse the assault on human rights.  Well before the pandemic, human rights were facing growing pressures.  The rule of law was being challenged by weak justice systems.  Repressive political systems infringed on basic freedoms.  There was little accountability for atrocity crimes.  Women, girls, minorities and LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex] people confronted chronic discrimination and violence.  Indeed, my Call to Action for Human Rights, the Plan of Action on Hate Speech and the Initiative to Safeguard Religious Sites were all issued before COVID-19.

Today, the pandemic has triggered a human rights crisis of its own.  Hate speech has multiplied.  Several States have used lockdowns to limit civic space and the work of journalists and human rights defenders.  And the disease is having disproportionate impacts on minorities, people with disabilities and those on the margins.  I welcome today’s new momentum in the global fight for racial justice.  Racial inequality still permeates institutions, social structures and everyday life.  We must all stand up against the surge of neo-Nazism and white supremacy.  The United Nations will never veer from its commitment to fight racism and discrimination.  There is no place for racism within our Organization, and we will continue our work to root it out.  To fully promote and protect all human rights is possible.  We must make it happen.  Together.

Our sixth priority is perhaps the world’s greatest human rights challenge:  gender equality.  COVID-19 has brought to light what is too often invisible.  Women are the essential workers keeping people and communities alive.  Yet, women have suffered higher job losses, and been pushed into poverty at higher numbers.  The pandemic has also sparked a parallel epidemic of gender-based violence, from violence in the home and online, to increased child marriage and sexual exploitation.

At the same time, the COVID-19 response has highlighted the power of women’s leadership.  Women leaders have kept prevalence rates lower, and countries on track for recovery.  Indeed, there is a long and growing list of the transformative impacts of women’s equal participation.  Larger investment in social protection.  More transparent governance.  More durable peace processes.  Women’s equal leadership and representation is the game changer we need.  It is time to change entrenched structures and models.  The formal economy only functions because it is subsidized by women’s unpaid care work.  Investment in the care economy could be a spur to economic growth and pandemic recovery.  It is time to take greater, targeted measures to overcome the approaches and attitudes that deny women their rights.  No more tinkering at the margins.  Gender equality is possible.  We must make it happen.  Together.

Our seventh priority for the year must be to heal geopolitical rifts and find common ground.  To address today’s roiling peace and security threats, we need to find a bridge back to common sense.  We need a united Security Council.  And we need to avoid a great fracture that would divide the world into two, working instead to ensure one world economy, one secure and open Internet, cybersecurity, respect for international law and rules agreed by and adhered to by all.  Any dysfunction in the relations among major powers creates space for spoilers.  And spoilers trigger and prolong conflicts.  We can’t solve our biggest problems when our biggest powers are at odds.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, I called for a global ceasefire to focus on the enemy that all countries are facing.  We have seen some encouraging signs and new life breathed into faltering peace processes.  Ceasefires and pauses in hostilities are more or less holding in a number of places, from Libya to the Ukraine, from Syria to Sudan, from Nagorno-Karabakh to South Sudan.

But, elsewhere, fighting continues and new conflicts have erupted.  In Yemen, which is on the brink of famine, I reiterate my call for a nationwide ceasefire, economic and humanitarian confidence-building measures and a resumption of an inclusive political process.  In the Central African Republic, I condemn the increased violence by armed groups and call on the newly elected authorities to pursue peaceful and inclusive dialogue and national reconciliation.  In Mali, attacks by extremist groups, human rights violations and violence across community lines continue, in the context of challenging efforts towards the restoration of constitutional order and implementation of the peace agreement.  In Afghanistan, violence is going unabated, even if peace negotiations hold out the possibility of an end to decades of conflict.

There is no military solution to any of these situations.  I call on all Member States to pressure all relevant parties to end these senseless wars.  United Nations mediators and political missions continue to explore every opening.  2021 must also be the year in which we restart the peace process in the Middle East and create conditions for a two-State solution.

In the Sahel, Lake Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique, we see terrorism rising in the absence of effective security arrangements and insufficient capacity to address economic, climatic and social root causes.  It is time to recognize the need for African peace-enforcement and counter-terrorism operations to receive a mandate by the Security Council under Chapter VII and sufficient and predictable funding, including assessed contributions.  Our peacekeeping operations are totally committed to the protection of civilians in volatile situations and are providing vital support to peace processes.  But, they operate more and more in areas where there is no peace to keep.  Already this year, nine peacekeepers have been killed in hostile incidents.

We must ensure that every peacekeeping mission and every peacekeeper possesses the full resources and equipment necessary to fulfil their duties.  We will continue to implement the reforms, namely the Action for Peacekeeping.  We need a global ceasefire, but we must also intensify our efforts to prevent crises from erupting in the first place.  Unity and peace are possible.  We must make it happen.  Together.

Our eighth priority must be to reverse the erosion of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime.  Last Friday, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force.  I call on all States to support the goal of this treaty.  Despite this step, we should all be alarmed by the deteriorating relations among nuclear-weapon States.  I urge them to find common ground at this year’s review conference of the Treaty on the Non‑Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.  I welcome the decision by the United States and the Russian Federation to extend the “New START” treaty for five years — the maximum under the agreement — thus allowing time to negotiate further reductions.  A world without nuclear weapons is possible.  We must make it happen.  Together.

Our ninth priority must be to seize the opportunities of digital technologies while protecting against their growing dangers.  During the pandemic, digital technologies have kept societies functioning and people connected.  But, the pandemic has also highlighted a yawning gap in access to these tools, including vast gender disparities.  The world entered the digital age decades ago, but a core challenge remains:  closing the digital divide.  Our aim is for people everywhere to have affordable, meaningful and safe access to the Internet by 2030 and all schools online as quickly as possible.  We need to strengthen cybersecurity and promote responsible behaviour in this domain.  We need a ceasefire in cyberspace, including to end cyberattacks on vital infrastructure.  We need to address the digital spread of hatred, exploitation and disinformation.  And we need to come to terms with the use of our data.

Much of the information gathered about us is used to positive ends.  But, there is a growing demand for all of us to have a greater say about how data is used, including to influence and control behaviour.  There is also growing alarm about how Governments can exploit data to violate the human rights of individuals or discriminated groups.  We must bring together all stakeholders to look at these practices and business models, and find a way forward that does not infringe on privacy or dignity.  Efforts to come up with appropriate international standards and tax regimes need to be advanced.

The importance of how we manage data will only grow with the rapid spread of artificial intelligence.  AI has opened powerful possibilities.  But, biased data can lead to dangerous biases in applications.  And human beings must remain in control.  I continue to call for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons.  Last year, I launched a road map for digital cooperation.  In the year ahead, I will continue to take steps to bring it to life, including through the strengthening of the Internet Governance Forum.  I commend the President of the General Assembly’s intention to hold a debate on digital cooperation in April.  An open, free and secure digital future is possible.  We must make it happen.  Together.

Our tenth priority must be a reset for the twenty-first century.  Our governance of critical global commons, not just public health, but also peace and the natural environment, needs to be reinforced and re-imagined.  The General Assembly has recognized the pivotal nature of this moment.  In your declaration marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations, you called on me to make recommendations to advance our common agenda.

I am well-embarked on a process of profound reflection, building on last year’s UN75 global consultations.  The challenges ahead clearly demand a more inclusive and more networked multilateralism.  I have also called for a new global deal among countries to ensure that power, benefits and opportunities are shared more broadly and fairly.  Developing countries merit a larger voice in global decision-making.  Young people must also be at the table as designers of their own future, not as recipients of decisions of elders who have, let’s be honest, failed them in so many key respects.  My report in September should be seen as the beginning of this reset.  Strengthening global governance to deliver global public goods is possible.  We must make it happen.  Together.

With your support, we have taken important steps to strengthen our United Nations.  The pandemic has been the first major test of these reforms, and I am grateful for your feedback indicating that these changes have improved our work.  I am totally committed to continue this effort.  Opportunity has been granted to us in the most unfortunate of ways.  But, crisis gives rise to change.  We can move from an annus horribilis to make this an “annus possibilitatis” — a year of possibility and hope.  It is possible to build the world we want.  We must make it happen.  Together.  Thank you.


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