October 29, 2020

Event Report: UN75: The Future We Want, The UN We Need: Building a Safer, Fairer, and Sustainable World

By Akiko Teramoto

On September 18, 2020, the International Peace Institute (IPI) held a virtual event on “UN75: The Future We Want, The UN We Need:  Building a Safer, Fairer, and Sustainable World” in partnership with the UN75 Office, The Group of Women Leaders, and New York University’s Center of Global Affairs. The speakers included H.E. María Fernanda Espinosa, the  President of the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA); Ambassador Elizabeth Cousens, CEO and President of the United Nations Foundation; Natalie Samarasinghe, Deputy and Chief of Strategy of UN75; and Nisreen Elsaim, Chair of the United Nations’ (UN) Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change.

On the realizations gained through COVID-19, Espinosa and Cousens noted how the lack of leadership and solidarity has damaged multilateralism. Additionally, Cousens recalled that today’s inequities were why the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were established. Elsaim called attention to internet-based solutions to stay-at-home orders, which has been another form of privilege not all enjoy. Focusing on what has been gained through the pandemic, Samarasinghe shined a light on how major transformations, such as the UN working virtually, have been possible and that this gives hope for combatting climate change.

Having focused on poverty during her time as the UNGA President, Espinosa recognized the progress reversal triggered due to COVID-19. While there have been creative proposals and solutions, the lack of leadership has hindered the implementation. Echoing Espinosa’s call for shared responsibility, Cousens stated the need to highlight the SDG’s localization, as has been exemplified by cities and states submitting voluntary reviews. On the findings from the UN75 consultations, Samarasinghe supported the UN Secretary-General’s will to listen to people and noted that the rethinking of the global economy and tackling climate change were among the many issues raised as priorities for the UN. Elsaim, on what the youth demand, raised the need to “walk the talk” and being part of the solution and implementation process.

As the former President of the UNGA, Espinosa recognized that female leaders must act quickly, leave a footprint, and be action-oriented within the short political cycles they may serve. Samarasinghe, as a woman of color, emphasized the importance of bringing attention to women who are more vulnerable to discriminatory practices, such as immigrants or racial minorities. Adding to this sentiment, Cousens called for a clearer focus for justice, specifically by recognizing the need for policy, legislative, and structural change to achieve gender equality and representation.

Elsaim stated that COVID-19 and its socio-economic impacts hit everyone equally and that the inequalities have and could continue to exist post-pandemic. This sentiment was supported by all speakers, with Espinosa adding how the rich have continued to benefit. On the policy-makers’ response, Cousens drew a contrast between the lack of political solidarity and people’s continued will to contribute, as exemplified by the WHO’s COVID-Solidarity Response Fund, and Samarasinghe noted that the pandemic has been used by political leaders as an excuse to attack international norms and human rights. Samarasinghe noted that political decisions could override organizational structures and that good leadership and inclusion are necessary to improve the UN system and its effectiveness. Samarasinghe further recognized the few references the UN receive in the media, and that due to the focus being on success stories, the public is less aware of the lack of progress the UN has made. To this end, Espinosa offered input with the need for the UN to be more accessible through alternative means of promotion. In concluding, Espinosa noted that the international community must commit to “building back better” post-pandemic and that the UN should exercise its full convening power to bring states together.

Although time limitations did not allow for an in-depth discussion on their respective organizations' work, the speakers were united in their views on the lack of political leadership that has been demonstrated during the global pandemic. In response to the lack of leadership, the speakers all called for the need to implement the SDGs at lower and local levels while raising awareness of best practices. In a rare moment of disagreement among the speakers, Elsaim provided a counterargument to Cousens, who negotiated the SDGs and stated that renegotiation was unnecessary. Specifically, Elsaim called attention to Member States' lack of capacity to implement the goals and what must be achieved within the next ten years to mark the SDGs' achievement. Further, reaffirming the motto of "leaving no one behind," Elsaim stated the positives in lowering expectations. To this end, the event could have benefitted from speaker-to-speaker interactions to enrichen the discussions further. 

To watch the full event, visit: https://t.co/aoq81ZW94c

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