Every September, the world’s leaders gather at the United Nations to reaffirm our founding charter – our faith in fundamental principles of peace, justice, human rights, and equal opportunity for all. We assess the state of the world, engage key issues of the day and lay out our vision for the way ahead.
But this year is different. The 64th opening of the general assembly asks us to rise to an exceptional moment. We are facing many crises – food, energy, recession and pandemic flu – occurring all at once. If ever there were a time to act in a spirit of renewed multilateralism, a time to put the “united” back into the United Nations, it is now.
And that is what we are doing, as action on three issues of historic consequence demonstrates.
First, world leaders are uniting to address the greatest challenge we face – the threat of catastrophic climate change. Two weeks ago, 101 leaders from 163 countries met to chart the next steps toward December’s all-important UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. They recognised the need for an agreement that all nations can embrace – in line with their capabilities, consistent with what science requires and grounded in “green jobs” and “green growth”, the lifeline of a 21st century economy.
We at the UN have prepared carefully for this moment. For two and a half years, ever since I became secretary-general, we have worked to put climate change at the top of the global agenda. Today, we have entered a new phase. The summit defined the issue and focused attention in capitals the world over.
The issues are complex and difficult, especially those of financing adaptation and mitigation efforts in poorer countries. Yet leaders left New York committed to clear and firm instructions for their negotiators – seal a deal in Copenhagen.
Japan issued a challenge, agreeing to cut CO2 emissions by 25% by 2020 if other nations follow. China’s president Hu Jintao spoke about what his country is already doing to reduce energy intensity and invest in “green” alternatives. He said China was prepared to do more under an international agreement, as did US president Barack Obama.
We saw another turning point on a second issue of existential importance: nuclear disarmament. Finally, the assumption that such weapons are needed to keep the peace is crumbling. At a special summit called by Obama, the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution that opens a new chapter in the UN’s efforts to address nuclear proliferation and disarmament.
That resolution improves prospects for expanding the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty next May, and offers hope for bringing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty into force. It also sets the contours of a legal framework for action against misuse of civilian nuclear technology for military purposes and reflects an emerging consensus, seen in meeting after meeting, that the time has come to increase pressure on countries that fail to respect these principles.
The world is united on a third front, too. Though some may speak of “turning the corner to recovery”, we see a new crisis emerging. According to our recent report, “Voices of the vulnerable,” the near-poor are becoming the new poor.
An estimated 100 million people could fall below the poverty line this year. Markets may be bouncing back, but jobs and incomes are not. That is why, earlier this year, the UN put forward a global jobs pact for balanced and sustainable growth. It is also why we are creating a new global impact vulnerability alert system, giving us real-time data and analysis on socio-economic conditions around the world. We need to know precisely who is being hurt by the financial crisis, and where, so that we can best respond.
That is also why, next September, we will convene a special summit on the Millennium Development Goals. We have only five years to meet the targets for health, education and human security that we set.
At the various G-20 summits over the past year, including the latest in Pittsburg, the UN has stood firm to speak and act for all those being left behind.
Rhetoric has always been abundant at the general assembly, action sometimes less so. Yet listening to the world’s leaders speak, I was struck by their passion, commitment and collective determination to turn a page from a past of countries divided by narrow interests to nations united in the cause of a global common good.
From climate change to creating a world without nuclear weapons to building a more equitable and sustainable global economy, I saw a sprit of renewed multilateralism, with the UN at the fore. No country can deal with these challenges alone. But as nations united, we can. – Project Syndicate
* Ban Ki-moon is secretary-general of the United Nations.