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We start 2023 staring down the barrel of a confluence of challenges
by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres
9:05am 8th Feb, 2023
Feb. 2023
One month ago, we turned the calendar on a new year. But just days ago, another clock turned – the so-called Doomsday clock. That symbolic clock was created 76 years ago by atomic scientists, including Albert Einstein. Year after year, experts have measured humanity’s proximity to midnight – in other words, to self-destruction.
In 2023, they surveyed the state of the world – with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the runaway climate catastrophe, rising nuclear threats that are undermining global norms and institutions. And they came to a clear conclusion. The Doomsday Clock is now 90 seconds to midnight, which means 90 seconds to total global catastrophe.
This is the closest the clock has ever stood to humanity’s darkest hour – and 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.
We have started 2023 staring down the barrel of a confluence of challenges unlike any other in our lifetimes. Wars grind on. The climate crisis burns on. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty rage on. The gulf between the haves and have nots is cleaving societies, countries and our wider world.
Epic geopolitical divisions are undermining global solidarity and trust. This path is a dead end. We need a course correction. The good news is that we know how to turn things around -- on climate, on finance, on conflict resolution, on and on. And we know that the costs of inaction far exceed the costs of action.
But the strategic vision – the long-term thinking and commitment -- is missing. Politicians and decisionmakers are hobbled by what I call a preference for the present. There is a bias in political and business life for the short-term. The next poll. The next tactical political maneuver to cling to power. But also the next business cycle – or even the next day’s stock price. The future is someone else’s problem.
This near-term thinking is not only deeply irresponsible – it is immoral. And it is self-defeating. Because it makes the problems we face today – in the here and now – more intractable, more divisive, and more dangerous. We need to change the mindset of decision making.
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. We have an obligation to act – in deep and systemic ways. After all, the world is not moving incrementally.
Technology is not moving incrementally. Climate destruction is not moving incrementally. We cannot move incrementally. This is not a time for tinkering. It is a time for transformation.
A transformation grounded in everything that guides our work – starting with the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration – the distillation of our shared mission to uphold and uplift our common humanity.
It was bold, ambitious and audacious. We need to take inspiration from its spirit and its substance. The Declaration reminds us that the “inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace.”
When I look at human rights in the broadest sense – with a 21st century lens – I see a roadmap out of the dead end. It starts with the right to peace.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is inflicting untold suffering on the Ukrainian people, with profound global implications. The prospects for peace keep diminishing. The chances of further escalation and bloodshed keep growing. I fear the world is not sleepwalking into a wider war. I fear it is doing so with its eyes wide open.
But the world needs peace and peace in line with the United Nations Charter and international law. We must work harder for peace everywhere.
In Palestine and Israel, where the two-State solution is growing more distant by the day. In Afghanistan, where the rights of women and girls are being trampled and deadly terrorist attacks continue. In the Sahel, where security is deteriorating at an alarming rate. In Myanmar, which is facing new cycles of violence and repression. In Haiti, where gang violence is holding the entire country hostage.
And elsewhere around the world for the two billion people who live in countries affected by conflict and humanitarian crises.
If every country fulfilled its obligations under the Charter, the right to peace would be guaranteed. When countries break those pledges, they create a world of insecurity for everyone. So 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.
That requires a holistic view of the peace continuum that identifies root causes and prevents the seeds of war from sprouting. One that invests in prevention to avoid conflicts in the first place, focuses on mediation, advances peacebuilding and includes much broader participation from women and young people.
As United Nations peacekeeping marks its 75th anniversary, many of its missions are under-resourced and under attack, with no peace to keep..
It is also time to bring disarmament and arms control back to the centre – reducing strategic threats from nuclear arms and working for their ultimate elimination. Nuclear-armed countries must renounce the first use of these unconscionable weapons.
In fact, they must renounce any use, anytime, anywhere. The so-called “tactical” use of nuclear weapons is an absurdity. We are at the highest risk in decades of a nuclear war that could start by accident or design.
We need to end the threat posed by 13,000 nuclear weapons held in arsenals around the world.
At the same time, no Agenda for Peace can ignore the dangers posed by new technologies. It should include such measures as international bans on cyberattacks on civilian infrastructure, and internationally agreed limits on lethal autonomous weapons systems. Human agency must be preserved at all costs.
A New Agenda for Peace should aim to maximize the convening power of the United Nations as a platform for broad-based coalitions and effective diplomacy. The Black Sea Grain Initiative shows this approach can get results – even in the middle of a deadly war.
The Deputy Secretary-General’s recent visit to Afghanistan – and her consultations in the region and beyond -- show that we will seek to build consensus around human rights even in the most challenging situations.
Second, social and economic rights and the right to development.
Let’s be clear. When we see poverty and hunger on the rise around the world…. When developing countries are forced to pay five times more in borrowing costs than advanced economies … When vulnerable middle-income countries are denied concessional funding and debt relief… When the richest 1 percent have captured almost half of all new wealth over the past decade… When people are hired and fired at will, but lack any form of social protection… When we see all these gaping flaws and more…
Something is fundamentally wrong with our economic and financial system. The global financial architecture is at the heart of the problem. It should be the means through which globalization benefits all. Yet it is failing.
The global financial architecture does not need a simple evolution; it needs a radical transformation.. A new commitment to place the dramatic needs of developing countries at the centre of every decision and mechanism of the global financial system. A new resolve to address the appalling inequalities and injustices laid bare once again by the pandemic and the response.
A new determination to ensure developing countries have a far greater voice in global financial institutions. And a new debt architecture that encompasses debt relief and restructuring to vulnerable countries, including middle-income ones in need -- building on the momentum of the Bridgetown Agenda.
In particular, Multilateral Development Banks must change their business model and accept a new approach to risk. They should multiply their impact by massively leveraging their funds to attract greater flows of private capital to invest in the capacity of developing countries to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
This means scaling up guarantees and adopting first loss positions in coalitions of financial institutions to support developing countries. 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..
Despite a measure of better news in recent days related to the North American, European and Chinese economies, we cannot forget the enormous difficulties that are faced by developing countries and, indeed, by working people everywhere.
The right to development goes hand-in-hand with the right to a clean, healthy, sustainable environment.
We must end the merciless, relentless, and senseless war on nature. It is putting our world at immediate risk of hurtling past the 1.5-degree temperature increase limit and now still moving towards a deadly 2.8 degrees.
Meanwhile, humanity is taking a sledgehammer to our world’s rich biodiversity — with brutal and even irreversible consequences for people and planet. Our ocean is choked by pollution, plastics and chemicals. And vampiric overconsumption is draining the lifeblood of our planet — water.
2023 is a year of reckoning. It must be a year of game-changing climate action. We need disruption to end the destruction. No more excuses. No more greenwashing. No more bottomless greed of the fossil fuel industry and its enablers.
We must focus on two urgent priorities: cutting emissions and achieving climate justice. Global emissions must be halved this decade. That means far more ambitious action to cut carbon pollution by speeding up the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy – especially in G20 countries -- and de-carbonizing highest emitting industrial sectors – like steel, cement, shipping and aviation.
It means delivering on the Just Energy Transitions Partnerships.. And expanding on this cooperation through a Climate Solidarity Pact in which all big emitters make an extra effort to cut emissions, and wealthier countries mobilize financial and technical resources to support emerging economies in a common effort to keep 1.5 alive.
And it means more ambitious 2030 emissions targets from businesses, investors and cities, backed by credible and immediate action – meaning actual emissions and not fake carbon credits.
By September, all businesses, cities, regions and financial institutions that took a 2050 net zero pledge should present their transition plans with credible and ambitious targets for 2025 and 2030 -- aligned with the standards set by my High-Level Expert Group.
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. Your core product is our core problem. We need a renewables revolution, not a self-destructive fossil fuel resurgence.
Climate action is impossible without adequate finance. Developed countries know what they must do: At minimum, deliver on the commitments made at the latest COP. Make good on the 100 billion US dollars promise to developing countries. Finish the job and deliver on the loss and damage fund agreed in Sharm El-Sheikh. Double adaptation funding. Replenish the Green Climate Fund by COP28. Advance plans for early warning systems to protect every person on earth within five years. And stop subsidizing fossil fuels and pivot investments to renewables.
In September, I will convene a Climate Ambition Summit on our pathway to COP28 in December. The invitation is open to any leader – in government, business or civil society. But it comes with a condition: Show us accelerated action in this decade and renewed ambitious net zero plans – or please don’t show up.
COP28 in December will set the stage for the first-ever Global Stocktake – a collective moment of truth -- to assess where we are, and where we need to go in the next five years to reach the Paris goals.
We must also bring the Global Biodiversity Framework to life and establish a clear pathway to mobilize sufficient resources. And governments must develop concrete plans to repurpose subsidies that are harming nature into incentives for conservation and sustainability.
Action on oceans means new partnerships and tougher efforts to tackle marine-pollution, end overfishing, safeguarding marine biodiversity, and more. The Water Summit in March must result in a bold Water Action Agenda that gives our world’s lifeblood the commitment it deserves.
Climate action is the 21st century’s greatest opportunity to drive forward all the Sustainable Development Goals. A clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a right we must make real for all.
Fourth — respect for diversity and the universality of cultural rights.
Wherever we are from, wherever we live, culture is humanity’s heart and soul. It gives our lives meaning. Universality and diversity are critical to cultural rights. Those rights become meaningless if one culture or group is elevated over another.
But from the destruction of sacred burial sites to state-sponsored religious conversion and so-called re-education programmes, universal cultural rights are under attack from all sides.
Antisemitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, the persecution of Christians, racism and white supremacist ideology are on the march. Ethnic and religious minorities, refugees, migrants, indigenous people and the LGBTQI-plus community are increasingly targeted for hate, online and off.
Many in positions of power profit from caricaturing diversity as a threat. They sow division and hatred. They weaponize cultural differences.
Social media platforms use algorithms that amplify toxic ideas and funnel extremist views into the mainstream. Advertisers finance this business model. Some platforms tolerate hate speech – the first step towards hate crimes.
The United Nations Outreach Programmes on the Holocaust and the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, and our Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, are part of our commitment to protecting cultural rights and diversity around the world.
We call for action from everyone with influence on the spread of mis- and disinformation on the internet – Governments, regulators, policymakers, technology companies, the media, civil society. Stop the hate. Set up strong guardrails. Be accountable for language that causes harm..
Fifth — the right to full gender equality.
Gender equality is both a fundamental human right, and a solution to some of our greatest global challenges. But half of humanity is held back by the most widespread human rights abuse of our time.
Women and girls in Afghanistan are exiles in their own country, banned from public life, with every aspect of their lives controlled by men. As one young woman said: “We are dead, and yet alive.”
In Iran, women and girls have taken to the streets demanding fundamental human rights, at great personal cost.
While the most extreme examples get attention, gender discrimination is global, chronic, pervasive and holds every single country back.
There are huge gender pay gaps even in the most advanced economies. Less than one-quarter of countries have reached gender parity in upper secondary education. At the current rate, it could take 286 years for women to achieve the same legal status as men. And things are getting worse.
At the international level, some governments now oppose even the inclusion of a gender perspective in multilateral negotiations. We face an intense pushback against the rights of women and girls. Women’s sexual and reproductive rights and legal protections are under threat.
I am frequently confronted with all-male panels – so-called “manels” – on issues that affect women and girls just as much as men and boys. These should be banned. Gender equality is a question of power. The patriarchy, with millennia of power behind it, is reasserting itself..
Sixth, civil and political rights as the basis of inclusive societies.
Freedom of expression and participation in political life are the essence of democracy and strengthen societies and economies. But in many parts of the world, these rights are under threat as democracy is in retreat. The pandemic was used as cover for a pandemic of civil and political rights violations.
Repressive laws restrict the freedom to express opinions. New technologies often provide excuses and methods to control freedom to assemble and even freedom of movement. Human rights activists are targeted for harassment, abuse, detention and worse.
The space for civil society is vanishing before our eyes. In an increasing number of countries, the media are in the firing line. The number of journalists and media workers killed last year skyrocketed by 50 percent. Many more were harassed, imprisoned and tortured.
We must work to advance fundamental freedoms, promote more systematic participation by civil society in all our work, and protect civic space around the world. To strengthen 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.
We must recognize that all the threats we face undermine not only people’s rights today, but also the rights of future generations. This is a basic responsibility — and a litmus test of good governance. Yet too often, future generations are barely an afterthought.
* UN Secretary-General's remarks at the 52nd session of the UN Human Rights Council:

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