Remarks by Mr. Michael Møller, United Nations Under-Secretary-General, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva

Mr. President,
Mr. Secretary General,
Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a great privilege and pleasure to welcome you all to the Palais des Nations.

I very much appreciate that you have once again chosen to meet at the heart of International Geneva.

And I am once again impressed by your ambitious agenda- tackling everything from the state of the world to the fate of democracy, to the divisive issue of migration.

I. The State of the World

Start with the state of the world. These days, it has become somewhat fashionable amongst political pundits to diagnose a demise of the global order.

To be sure, this diagnosis is not without reason. Almost everywhere you look, tensions rise, conflicts deepen, animosities proliferate.

In fact, the number of countries with violent conflicts is the highest in the last 30 years.

Meanwhile, an increasingly strident, zero-sum nationalism is taking hold; a mindset of jealously guarding short-term interests that makes finding common solutions incredibly difficult.

Cynicism about the global order is spreading. But while the global order – built on consensus over many decades - may never have been fully global, nor very orderly, the progress it ensured was immense.

Not abstract progress, but very real and tangible improvements in the life of everyone on this planet. Unprecedented decades of great power peace, incredible advances in life expectancy, in literacy, in well-being, in economic opportunity.

The challenge - our challenge - is twofold. One, to resist joining the chorus singing the swansong of the global order. And two, to defend and reinvigorate it.

Defending and reinvigorating the multilateral order is not about striving to restore the status quo ante, to go back to the way things were. Because if yesterday’s tools are inadequate to tackle today’s problems, they will outright fail to fix tomorrow’s challenges.

Instead, it is about recognizing the structural changes that gave rise to the crisis in the first place and look whether these changes themselves might offer us new opportunities.

Let me unpack that last sentence: By structural changes, I mean the fact that international relations today are much messier and unpredictable than they used to be. Power is diffuse - and it’s not just that mid-level states act increasingly independent from the great powers. More importantly perhaps, a whole host of non-state actors - from NGOs to private businesses - are exerting ever greater influence on the global stage, on a global scale, and on virtually every global issue of the day. Whether its climate action or even matters of war and peace, states are no longer the only game in town.

But I also mentioned opportunities. By that I mean that the proliferation of actors - public and private, subnational and national, regional and international - may actually be the right mix to respond to the challenges we face.

Think about it: climate change for example is so existentially threatening to everything on this planet; it cannot be addressed by governments alone. We cannot succeed without the private sector embracing a change towards sustainability. We cannot succeed without citizens, everyday consumers, becoming more conscious of their ecological footprint.

What we need is a structuring device, a guidebook, to focus and direct the actions of every actor on the global stage - whether its governments, businesses, or civil society.

That is why the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is so critical.

Agreed almost three years ago by all 193 Member States of the United Nations, it defined 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 specific targets, covering everything from ending poverty and achieving gender equality to decent work, economic growth and the rule of law. It is, quite simply, the most ambitious development agenda in human history. But it is more than that: It is our collective guide for success in the new polycentric system. Our blueprint for working together towards the same set of goals. To join up and to step up. To take the long-term view, and together resolve not just the latest conflict, but the root-causes that triggered it in the first place - whether its poverty, inequality, or environmental degradation.

Here in Geneva - the heart of the international system - the 2030 Agenda already structures everything we do. But it still needs to embed itself more firmly in the national context. And that is why you - Socialist International - with representatives in national parliaments all over the world, have such an important role to play. As with all other international agreements, it is your responsibility to ‘translate’ and ‘domesticate’ the 2030 Agenda into national laws and local actions.

Your role is absolutely essential, so let me reiterate this key point: the 2030 Agenda is not just the best answer we have to restore trust in the global order; it is just as useful in reinvigorating the democracies that you all serve.

II. The State of Democracy

After all, and this brings me to your second issue, everything I said regarding the cynicism about the global order is also true about democracy.

Consider this quote: “Throughout the world it has become precarious to take democracy for granted.” This cautionary point could have been made only yesterday. In fact, it was made some 80 years ago, by the German writer Thomas Mann, just as the dusk of the Weimar Republic was giving way to the darkness of National Socialism.

Today, indices of the health of democracy show alarming deterioration. Last year, for the 12th consecutive year, countries that suffered democratic setbacks outnumbered those that registered gains, according to Freedom House.

This should be put in context. For it is a recent reversal after remarkable progress in the second half of the 20th century. At the time of Thomas Mann’s warning eight decades ago, there were only a dozen democracies; by 2000 only eight countries had never held an election, which is of course not the only but an essential characteristic of democracies.

But since the financial crisis of 2007, democracy has regressed.

What’s driving this? Given that the crisis of the global order closely correlates with the rise of anti-democratic sentiment, it seems reasonable that the underlying causes are related.

Indeed, I think they are. And the common denominator is a crisis of legitimacy, of confidence, of trust.

This crisis is not abstract – it is rooted in the legitimate fears, anxieties and even anger of people.

People are rightly questioning a world where a handful of men hold the same wealth as half of humanity; a world in which the young generation - particularly in the developed economies - can no longer expect to be better off than their parents. They are understandably growing distrustful of a system in which some - global elites, wealthy corporations - are seemingly living by a different set of rules, avoiding taxes and manipulating loopholes, while ordinary citizens feel that ‘banks may be too big to fail, but I am too small to matter’.

All of this is stretching the fabric of our societies to the breaking point, and putting the social contract into question.

I am thinking in particular about the social contract between business and society, which has been replaced by a contract between business and shareholders. How can we otherwise explain situations where companies lay off thousands of employees just to announce record profits and dividends the very next day? We must find a way back to a political consensus in which business understands, fulfils and embraces its social responsibility and in which the benefits of globalization and free trade are distributed more fairly both between and within countries.

The great advances of social democracy - advances that you have fought for and achieved - are today in peril.

Our response in defence of democracy on the national stage must be in lockstep with our efforts on the global stage.

When we say that “globalization is out of control” or that it “leaves too many behind”, it can give the false impression that it is a natural force beyond human control. It is not. But equally, we cannot assume that national solutions are possible to fix essentially global problems - the protectionist response is doomed to fail. Only multilateral, concerted and global action can hope to be successful.

Rampant inequality, high unemployment, technological disruption - these are all developments that produce legitimate fears.

But should migration be added to that list?

III. Migration

The problem with putting the question of migration on equal footing with, say, inequality, is that our debate about it is deeply flawed, biased, and often downright false.

It starts with the language: just ask yourself why a European engineer working in Africa is called an expat; but an African academic teaching in Europe an immigrant.

As you discuss how a response to migration could look like that upholds our values and ideals, I remind you of the following facts.

First, that migration is an essential part of human existence, a fact of life, and, importantly, a positive phenomenon. It powers economic growth, connects societies and helps us balance the demographic cycle of population growth and decline.

Second, that while the numbers of people on the move - and above all those forced to flee their home - are at record highs, it is rarely the countries that complain the loudest that bear the greatest burden.

In fact, there is a striking disconnect between perception and reality.

Consider the data:

First, on perception: A recent survey found that migration is considered the number one challenge in 21 of 28 European Union member states. In the developing world, by contrast, migration is rarely even mentioned, and even when it is, it lags far behind concerns over climate change, or economic opportunity, or regional security.

Now look at the reality of migration: Today, there are more than 68 million forcibly displaced people in the world. That is equivalent to the population of the world’s 20th largest country. But where are they? Only 186,000 refugees arrived in the European Union last year. That’s less than 0.04% of the EU’s entire population. The overwhelming majority - 85% - of the world’s refugees and IDPs are hosted by developing countries, often those directly neighbouring conflict zones.

And yet, it is in Europe and North America that anti-immigrant sentiment reaches new heights, even as many have never even met a migrant or refugee.

As we seek to counter the populist defamation and scapegoating of migrants with compassion and courage, a look at the “Global South” - the host of most migrants - is instructive.

And while I don’t have a comprehensive answer to the question posed by migration, I do know that it must begin with unity and solidarity. These are core values of Socialist International, and they are very much shared by the United Nations.

Dear delegates,

Our to-do list is daunting. Just safeguarding the democratic, multilateral order is sadly no longer self-evident. But it is merely the precondition for effectively tackling the challenges we face - whether its confronting conflict or curbing climate change.

The good news is that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development offers a convincing action plan that we can all get behind and that leaves no one behind.

It is rooted in human rights and it is universal, applying to every country. Even the richest have yet to fully empower women, protect the environment or eradicate poverty.

Wherever you look, the 2030 Agenda’s potential has yet to be fully leveraged.

Doing so requires us to unlock and ramp up funding and financing. Without the money for sustainable investment, the Goals will remain aspirational, but hardly achievable.

But we also need to get much more integrated in our efforts. At all levels of governance - including crucially within countries themselves - we still face silos and divisions, whether it’s one ministry being unaware of the other’s efforts, whether it’s the federal and the local level being out of sync, or whether its civil society being locked out of key discussions.

The 2030 Agenda shines a flashlight on duplications and missed opportunities for cooperation. But we need to get better at acting on them.

None of this will take a miracle. What it will take is leadership on a global and national level.

I wish you much success in your discussions.

Thank you.


Read the speech on the UNOG website