Time is running out as the world inches closer to meltdown and countries must change course before it is too late, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned, presenting his priorities for the year. Addressing the General Assembly in New York, he appealed for urgent action to achieve peace, economic rights and development, climate action, respect for diversity, and inclusive societies – both for generations to come.
Before unfolding his 2023 roadmap, the Secretary-General extended condolences to the families of the victims of the devastating earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria, adding that the UN is mobilizing to support the response.
Mr. Guterres stressed the need for transformation this year, grounded in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“As we look to priorities for this year, a rights-rooted approach is central to achieving our ultimate priority: a safer, more peaceful, more sustainable world,” he said, urging countries to “act decisively before it is too late.”
Doomsday Clock ticking
The UN chief began by referring to the news that the symbolic Doomsday Clock – developed more than 75 years ago by atomic scientists to measure humanity’s proximity to midnight, or self-destruction – was just 90 seconds away from that hour.
The Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the climate emergency, rising nuclear threats, and the undermining of global norms and institutions have pushed the world closer to annihilation.
“This is the closest the clock has ever stood to humanity’s darkest hour – closer than even during the height of the Cold War. In truth, the Doomsday Clock is a global alarm clock. We need to wake up – and get to work,” he said.
Think of tomorrow
Stressing that “we need a course correction”, the UN chief said action is possible, however, politicians and decision-makers lack the strategic vision to see beyond the short term. This “preference for the present” only focuses on the next poll, power move, or business cycle, making the future “someone else’s problem” – a mindset he described as deeply irresponsible, immoral, and self-defeating.
“My message today comes down to this: Don’t focus solely on what may happen to you today – and dither. Look at what will happen to all of us tomorrow – and act,” the UN chief said.
‘A time for transformation’
The international community has an obligation to act, he continued, as “this is not a time for tinkering” but, rather, “a time for transformation.” Action should be grounded in the UN Charter, the Organization’s founding document, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which turns 75 this year.
“When I look at human rights in the broadest sense – with a 21st-century lens – I see a roadmap out of the dead end,” he said, noting that it begins with the right to peace.
Work for peace
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, last February 24 inflicting untold suffering on the country’s population, and far beyond, prospects for peace keep diminishing while the risk of further escalation and bloodshed keeps growing.
“I fear the world is not sleepwalking into a wider war. It is doing so with its eyes wide open. The world needs peace. Peace in line with the United Nations Charter and international law,” he said. “We must work harder for peace everywhere.”
Mr. Guterres referred to the situations in the Middle East, where the two-State solution between Palestine and Israel is becoming more distant; in Afghanistan, where women’s rights are being trampled; in the Sahel, where insecurity is rising; in Myanmar, which is facing new cycles of violence and repression, and in Haiti, where gang violence is holding the entire country hostage.
Recommit to the UN Charter
“If every country fulfilled its obligations under the Charter, the right to peace would be guaranteed,” he said. “It is time to transform our approach to peace by recommitting to the Charter – putting human rights and dignity first, with prevention at the heart.”
The Secretary-General called for “a holistic view of the peace continuum” that identifies root causes of conflict and focuses on prevention, mediation, reconciliation, peacebuilding, and greater participation of women and young people. These are among the UN’s proposed New Agenda for Peace, aimed at addressing both old and new threats, and maximizing coalitions for diplomacy, as evidenced by the Black Sea Grain Initiative which is operating even amid the war in Ukraine.
Nuclear war risk
This year also marks the 75th anniversary of UN Peacekeeping, which will see an increased commitment to reform, he added. Mr. Guterres also called for bringing disarmament and arms control “back to the center” to both reduce strategic threats from nuclear arms and work towards their total elimination.
“We are at the highest risk in decades of a nuclear war that could start by accident or design,” he warned, urging countries with nuclear arms to renounce these “unconscionable weapons”.
Transform global finance
With poverty and hunger rising, developing countries drowning in debt, and social safety nets frayed, among other signs, the Secretary-General called for a “radical transformation” of the global financial architecture.
This will require new commitment and resolve, including addressing the appalling inequalities and injustices exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the response to the global crisis.
A new determination will also be needed to ensure developing countries have a greater voice in global financial institutions, and that vulnerable nations, including middle-income countries, can have access to debt relief and restructuring.
Multilateral Development Banks in particular, must change their business model and leverage their funds to attract more private capital that can be invested to help developing countries achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) before the 2030 deadline.
“Without fundamental reforms, the richest countries and individuals will continue to pile up wealth, leaving crumbs for the communities and countries of the Global South,” he cautioned.
Sustainable development in danger
This year will also provide opportunities to “rescue” the SDGs, such as the Summit of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) next month and another in September devoted to the goals. With the SDGs “disappearing in the rearview mirror”, countries should come to the summit with clear benchmarks on tackling poverty and exclusion, and on advancing gender equality.
However, the world must unite now to mobilize resources, said Mr. Guterres, so that developing economies have the liquidity to invest in education, universal healthcare, pandemic preparedness, decent work, and social protection.
Climate action ‘reckoning’
As the right to development goes together with the right to a clean, healthy, sustainable environment, “we must end the merciless, relentless, senseless war on nature. 2023 is a year of reckoning. It must be a year of game-changing climate action. We need disruption to end the destruction,” said Mr. Guterres, repeating a message that has become a mantra for his tenure.
Countries are hurtling past the 1.5-degree limit on global temperature rise, therefore focus must be on the urgent priorities of cutting greenhouse gas emissions and achieving climate justice.
Shift to green energy
He said global emissions must be halved this decade, including through “far more ambitious action” in shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy, especially in the G20 group of industrialized nations. Additionally, businesses, cities, regions, and financial institutions that have pledged net-zero carbon emissions, must present their transition plans, with credible and ambitious targets, by this September.
“I have a special message for fossil fuel producers and their enablers scrambling to expand production and raking in monster profits. If you cannot set a credible course for net zero, with 2025 and 2030 targets covering all your operations, you should not be in business,” said Mr. Guterres.
Deliver on COP27 pledges
Climate action is impossible without adequate finance, and the Secretary-General urged richer countries too, at minimum, deliver on promises made at the UN COP27 climate change conference in Egypt last year.
These commitments include establishing a fund to address loss and damage, doubling adaptation funding, and advancing plans on early warning systems globally within the next five years. The Secretary-General will convene a Climate Ambition Summit in September, ahead of the COP28 conference in the United Arab Emirates in December.
It will be open to all government, business, and society leaders, he said, though under one condition:
“Show us accelerated action in this decade and renewed ambitious net zero plans – or please don’t show up.”
Diversity under attack
Turning to his fourth priority, Mr. Guterres spoke of how respect for diversity and the universality of cultural rights are under attack, as evidenced in part by the rise in antisemitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, the persecution of Christians, racism, and white supremacist ideology. At the same time, ethnic and religious minorities, refugees, migrants, indigenous people, and the LGBTQI-plus community, are increasingly targeted for hate, both online and off.
Meanwhile, many people in positions of power are profiting from caricaturing diversity as a threat, sowing division and hatred, while social media platforms use algorithms that amplify toxic ideas and funnel extremist views into the mainstream.
Fighting hate online
The Secretary-General underlined the UN’s commitment to protecting cultural rights and diversity, including through programs on the Holocaust and the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, as well as its Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech.
“We will call for action from everyone with influence on the spread of mis- and disinformation on the internet – Governments, regulators, policymakers, technology companies, the media, and civil society. Stop the hate. Set up strong guardrails. Be accountable for language that causes harm,” he said.
Patriarchy pushing back
With half of humanity “held back by the most widespread human rights abuse of our time,” the UN chief underscored the right to full gender equality. He especially emphasized the plight of women and girls in Afghanistan, now “exiles in their own country” due to laws banning them from public life, and their counterparts in Iran, who have taken to the streets to demand fundamental human rights at great personal cost. Gender discrimination is global, he said, and things are getting worse.
“We face an intense pushback against the rights of women and girls. Women’s sexual and reproductive rights and legal protections are under threat. At the international level, some governments now oppose even the inclusion of a gender perspective in multilateral negotiations,” he said.
Gender equality is fundamentally a question of power, and the patriarchy is reasserting itself, he said, but the UN is fighting back and standing up for the rights of women and girls everywhere, including in its own ranks.
Mr. Guterres also pledged to “double down” on support for measures towards greater gender equality, including quotas to close gaps in women’s representation, in elections, corporate board rooms, and peace negotiations.
‘Pandemic’ of rights violations
Meanwhile, the civil and political rights that are the basis of inclusive societies are also under threat, as democracy is in retreat.
“The pandemic was used as cover for a pandemic of civil and political rights violations,” said Mr. Guterres, warning that civic space “is vanishing before our eyes”.
He reported on threats such as repressive laws that restrict freedom of expression, new technologies that serve as a guide for controlling freedom of assembly or even movement, and the increase in attacks against the media.
Through the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights, the UN is working to advance fundamental freedoms, promote civil society participation, and protect civic space around the world.
“And we are strengthening our support for laws and policies that protect the right to participation and the right to freedom of expression, including a free and independent media,” he added.
Championing young people
The Secretary-General emphasized that the threats undermining rights today will also have an impact on future generations, who are often perceived as barely an afterthought. He expressed hope that the Summit of the Future, scheduled for next year, will bring these rights to the forefront of the global discussion.
“There is no greater constituency to champion that future than young people – and the new UN Youth Office that will be up and running this year is designed to strengthen our work,” he said.
These efforts are also an opportunity to boost global action and build a UN that is fit for a new era, he added.