The 76th United Nations General Assembly

Blog by Linda Witong, SI Special Advisor to Advocacy.

In September 2021, world leaders and ambassadors came together, to attend the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. They engaged in high-level meetings which focused on a parade of major crises facing the world including COVID-19, climate change and conflict. The result was a mix of bold declarations and calls for unity and condemnation.

Gender inequality continued to be a focus of concern. The President of the General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid, observed that, of 194 speakers, only 18 were women proving that more must be done to balance the scales. UN Secretary-General António Guterres agreed, observing that the world had to wake up “like never before” as core values including gender equality were in “the crosshairs.”  Guterres added that while “women’s rights” were ‘human rights”, the pandemic had “exposed and amplified the power imbalance” between men and women; “continuing the world’s most enduring injustice.” Guterres added that bridging the “gender divide” was “not only a matter of justice” for women and girls. It was also “a game-changer for humanity.”

According to Guterres, as women’s equality was essentially a “question of power,” we had to “urgently transform our male-dominated world” and “shift the balance of power” in order to “solve the most challenging problems of our age”. This transformation would enable more women to be  “leaders in government and business” and guarantee “women’s full representation everywhere”. “Bold steps” including implementing quotas and benchmarks for gender parity while “at the same time pushing “back against regressive laws” that institutionalised “gender discrimination” were needed. Guterres added that economic recovery plans had to focus on women, including through “large-scale investments” in the care economy. He also urged states to create an emergency plan to “fight gender-based violence in every country.”

When speaking, female leaders presented a distinctive contrast to the endless stream of all-male speakers. Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan pointedly noted that COVID-19 was threatening to rollback the gains that had been made in gender equity. The Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Amor Mottley, asked the audience why heads of state came to New York every year to give the same speeches about peace, development and justice for all and then went home and forgot everything they had just said.

As to the climate crisis, Fiji’s Prime Minister Josaia V. Bainimarama expressed it best. He observed that the world was on a course which was pushing that future even further out of reach, with the new coronavirus “burning through humanity like a bushfire” while inequity was “fanning the flames” and climate-driven catastrophes such as floods, heatwaves, fires and cyclones, were killing hundreds in 2021 alone and causing immense damage. He urged the audience to “find new frontiers of co-operation” if we were to “stand any chance of averting future pandemics – or staving off the worst of climate change.”

Whether the UN is as strong as its members want it to be, depends on their willingness to be “good neighbours.” The message during the 76th session was clear: Humanity and the planet are depending on member states living up to their commitment. Failure is not an option.

(Lead image courtesy of the UN)

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