The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be the most challenging period the world has seen since the Second World War, said the UN Secretary-General on Tuesday – as the 75th session of the General Assembly gave way to the new – deepening inequalities, decimating economies and plunging millions into extreme poverty.
Passing on the gavel to the new Assembly president, António Guterres saluted his predecessor: “Throughout this difficult and historic moment, we have all been fortunate to rely on the leadership of His Excellency, President Volkan Bozkir”.
The UN chief credited the outgoing Turkish diplomat and politician for prioritizing a sustainable recovery, rooted in the 2030 Agenda, and supporting countries and communities as they rebuild systems shattered by the pandemic.
Ambitious vaccination campaign
Mr. Guterres said that under Mr. Bozkir’s leadership, the Assembly had sought to “strengthen health systems, deliver COVID-19 testing, treatment and equipment, and contribute to the most ambitious vaccination campaign in history”.
Moreover, he drove the General Assembly’s vital work in the areas of peace and security, disarmament, human rights, gender equality and sustainable development while also overseeing the adoption of major resolutions on key issues - from peacebuilding to counterterrorism and preventing crimes against humanity - addressing climate change and ending human trafficking.
“In short, under President Bozkir’s stewardship, this Assembly has proven, time and again, the value of multilateralism and a rules-based international system”, said the Secretary-General.
‘Unequal, challenging and ground-breaking’
In a heartfelt speech before closing the 75th Assembly’s final meeting, outgoing President Bozkir noted that his tenure took place amidst a “tumultuous, historic, transformative, unequal, challenging and ground-breaking year”.
“From the earliest moments of my Presidency, we knew that COVID-19 would dominate our agenda. However, I can now say that it has reinforced our belief in a more effective and more responsive UN”, he said.
Before stepping down, Mr. Bozkir made a series of recommendations that ranged from strengthening the Assembly to realigning “a serious mismatch in the way this Organization treats its employees and the world’s highest political office”.
He also suggested a shift from focusing on procedures “at the cost of substance” to a “more streamlined, priority driven agenda” and to prioritize the UN as a single entity of respect, integrity and progress.
Before bringing down the gavel for the last time, he called for a moment of silent prayer or meditation.
Pushing through challenges
Newly sworn in General Assembly President, Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives, then opened the new 76th session, noting that his country’s flag is “flying at the highest peak today”.
He spoke of near-universal “collective anxiety” and hopelessness, not all of which is pandemic-related, saying: “the narrative must change”, and that the General Assembly “must play a part in this”.
This moment in history calls for hope above all, he said, to demonstrate to the global population that “we are aware of their plight…are listening…and are willing to work together to overcome problems”.
And that we can find the courage to “push forward”, “vaccinate the world” and spur a greener, more inclusive, pandemic recovery.
Read our exclusive and in-depth interview with Mr. Shahid, here.
‘Beating heart’ of the UN
This spirit of partnership, of uniting in common cause, is “the beating heart of our work here at the United Nations”, Mr. Guterres told the opening session of the 76th General Assembly.
Congratulating Mr. Shahid of the Maldives on his election, the UN chief outlined his longstanding diplomatic experience and noted that “coming from the Maldives, he brings a fresh perspective on the unique experience of small island States”.
“Mr. President, I look forward to close collaboration as we work to serve and support countries during this extraordinary moment in time, and live up to the great promise and potential of the multilateral system and the United Nations”, he said, promising the UN family’s “full support and partnership”.
Busy months ahead
The UN chief reflected on conflict and climate change; deepening poverty, exclusion and inequality; and “a pandemic that continues to threaten lives, livelihoods and futures”.
“These challenges are worsened by the divisions scarring our world…between the rich and poor [and] between those who take basic services for granted…and those for whom these essentials remain a distant dream”, he said.
He underscored the need to speed-up our response to COVID-19, with vaccines, treatment and equipment for all; to invest in human development, health care, nutrition, water and education; and commit, and commit and live up to bold climate targets at the COP26 UN climate conference in Glasgow, in November.
“The war on our planet must end”, he said. “These challenges and divisions are not a force of nature. They are man-made”.
Mr. Guterres also stressed the need to re-commit to the UN values of human rights, supporting the most vulnerable, peace through dialogue and solidarity.
“Over the next year, every day, let us keep this better world in view. Let us live and breathe our values in this Assembly, and across our work”, he said, telling the new president: “The entire Secretariat is at your disposal”.