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Deputy Secretary-General Tells Students ‘Be Disruptive’, Raise Voices to Drive Progress on Peace, Human Rights, Development, at Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture in Sweden

Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, at the Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture at Uppsala University, in Sweden today:

Mr. Krag, the Permanent Representative of Denmark to the United Nations, had this to say on Wednesday the 20th of September 1961:

“Never before in the history of international organisations has one single man played so central a role as did Dag Hammarskjöld, or at his death, left a political vacuum, and a grief embraced the globe, even those who did not agree with a line of his action, had to bow to his diplomatic genius, his serenity and integrity, his fearless struggle for peace and for making our world organisation, the United Nations, an effective instrument of international law.  That was his ambition and he died trying to serve it.”

These were tributes made on Wednesday the 20th of September 1961. I don’t forget 1961 — the year that I was born, a man whose shoulders that one would stand on today in the United Nations, had died.

Students, ladies and gentlemen, friends I’ve just seen in the audience today.  It is a great honour and a pleasure for me to be here today, at this prestigious university, paying tribute to the legacy of Dag Hammarskjöld — the second Secretary-General of the United Nations and a trailblazer in so many ways.

Sixty-three years after his death, Dag Hammarskjöld remains a source of inspiration to the United Nations, to its leaders, aspiring diplomats and the world.  His wisdom, his compassion and dedication to serving humanity is reflected in his own writing, from everything written about him, and the work he did until his tragic death.  He was a highly cultured man, a consummate diplomat who enjoyed the arts, history and devoted time every day to literature — a habit that our current Secretary-General, António Guterres, also cherishes.

I see my friend and the former United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Mr. Jan Eliasson in the room here today.  Over the years, I have learned so much about Dag Hammarskjöld and his legacy from Mr. Eliasson, including in his writings.  What I admire most about Dag Hammarskjöld is that he was a man who acted on his deep commitments.  He did not sit on the sidelines; he did not deal only in abstractions.  Far from it.  He really did walk the talk.  He backed his principles with passion and pragmatism. 

And he had the courage to redefine the parameters of his action to achieve transformative impact in the lives of people, bringing to life the Charter across the pillars.  He pushed the envelope and in practice strengthened the leadership of the function of the Secretary-General in ways that few anticipated at that time.  He redefined the function more as one of a General, less of a Secretary.  Through his courage, he carved out greater operational autonomy for both his office and the United Nations, all in the pursuit of the charter's aims.

And in doing so, Dag Hammarskjöld created a closer collaboration with the Security Council in what was later to be labelled "preventive diplomacy".  He instilled a greater sense of responsibility to support developing nations and the obligation for the United Nations to act in times of crisis.  He led by example when he went on a mission to 21 countries and territories in Africa, assessing their needs and shaping his vision for international cooperation.  And it is precisely while pursuing peace, development, and human rights in what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo that he paid the heaviest price with his life.

He left us at a time when the first cohort of African countries were gaining independence and the continent had initiated the inexorable march towards freedom and self-determination.  A trajectory that was deeply influenced by Dag Hammarskjöld and the bold United Nations he spearheaded.  Today, we do stand on his shoulders when we promise to “leave no one behind”.

In a deeply polarized environment, at the height of the Cold War, Dag Hammarskjöld saw the vital role of the United Nations in building the bridges of multilateralism that worked for all countries. 

Today, tensions and divisions around the world are at levels not seen since the Cold War era.  A growing geopolitical divide is limiting our collective ability to respond and resolve the crises.  Old conflicts are escalating and becoming more complex.  New crises are erupting.  And we have not silenced the guns.  Inequalities at national and global levels are rising and triggering social tensions.  North-South divides are deepening, fuelled by frustration, anger, and a lack of solidarity.

Antisemitism, anti-Muslim hatred, the persecution of Christians and the harassment and abuse of vulnerable minorities of all kinds are on the march.  Gender equality has gone into reverse and there is a global backlash against the rights of women.  Political movements based on racist and extremist ideologies have taken root in some of our countries — a sign of weak and inept leadership.

Our war on nature is accelerating an environmental catastrophe, as nature is fighting back.  Technological progress brings enormous benefits, including in accelerating the green transitions, facilitating education and learning, and helping to save lives.  But it also brings serious risks, from sophisticated new autonomous weapons to the emergence of cyberspace as a potential new domain for conflict.  The nature of conflict itself is also evolving, accompanied by significant levels of violence and human rights crises in several regions and countries, across borders.

In the Sahel, where lack of development, the climate crisis and governance weaknesses are being exploited by terrorists threatening to engulf the region and where we have witnessed several recent unconstitutional changes of Government, sadly celebrated by their populations, a sign perhaps, that our democratic institutions are failing the very people they were set up to serve.

In Haiti, where natural disasters and a prolonged security and constitutional crisis are causing a deep humanitarian and human rights emergency, there are horrific levels of gender-based and gang violence.  In Afghanistan and other places in the Muslim world, women and girls’ lives and futures are put on hold by men with extreme ideologies.  This is just one example of the severe global backlash against gender equality and the indelible rights of women and girls.

There is a crisis of trust — in institutions, in leadership, between nations and amongst citizens.  We need to leverage our ambitious global frameworks and wage leadership to respond to the current interlinked crisis.

Tomorrow marks one year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  A year of unspeakable suffering and devastation for the Ukrainian people.  A year of grave violations of the United Nations Charter and international law.  A year of tragic setbacks around the globe due to the impact of the war on food and energy prices, economic stability and beyond.  Millions of people have fled in search of safety inside Ukraine or across borders as refugees, the majority of them women and children.  And the chances for further escalation and bloodshed are growing.  Ukrainians need peace.  Europe needs peace and the world needs peace.  Peace on earth and in the hearts and minds of leaders.

Dag Hammarskjold once said, and I quote:  “The pursuit of peace and progress cannot end in a few years in either victory or defeat.  The pursuit of peace and progress, with its trials and its errors, its successes and its setbacks, can never be relaxed and never abandoned.”  We need to remember this simple yet profound realization.

We need to transform our approach to peace and security for a new era of geopolitical and international relations, with the risk of fracture and decupling in different blocks.  This means protecting the Charter, fighting for it, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — which turns 75 this year.  We need to invest in sustainable development as the ultimate solution for a future of peace, dignity, and prosperity.

This is the only way to address the root causes of conflict and other vulnerabilities.  The only way to prevent the seeds of war from sprouting.  It is the only way to give a fair chance to people, wherever they live, to prosper in our human family, with a life of dignity. 

This is at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  It is also the cornerstone of the Secretary-General’s vision for a United Nations that is able to act more coherently across its activities on peace, development, humanitarian and human rights.  After all, as Dag put it:  “Constant attention by a good nurse is just as important as a major operation by a surgeon”.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative is a key example of this approach.  Beyond the devastating consequences for the people of Ukraine, the war has far-reaching global implications.  Accelerating global crises in access to food, energy, and finance, with a heightening risk of famine from the Gulf of Aden to the Horn of Africa.

 The Black Sea Grain Initiative has been critical to address the global implications for the world’s most vulnerable people and countries.  By ensuring a safe maritime corridor from Ukraine ports, the Black Sea Grain Initiative has enabled exports of grain and much more to continue in spite of the war.  More than 20 million metric tons of foodstuffs have now been safely reconnected to global supply chains on more than 700 ships, helping to bring down prices around the world.  More than half have gone to developing countries, where the needs are the greatest.

Peace, human rights and sustainable development go hand in hand.  A lack of sustainable development ferments grievances, injustice and inequalities.  When people lack access to education, health care, jobs, opportunities and basic rights, they are deprived of their human rights, and they lose trust in institutions and the leadership that is there to serve them.  When the rule of law and democratic representation are weakened, hostility and intolerance may flourish.

And conflict and insecurity make sustainable development impossible and often reverses progress that has already been made.  Sustainable, inclusive development is the only way to achieve durable peace that is resilient to the shocks and crises of our times, that brings our human family together.  Sustainable development and respect for all human rights — economic, social, cultural, civil, and political — are the only reliable tools that can break through cycles of instability, address the underlying drivers of fragility and humanitarian need, and tackle the root causes of conflict.

Put simply: if we fail to meet the development needs of our time, we fail to secure peace for our future.  And that is why we need strengthened political leadership to achieve the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals.  It is why we need to double down on our efforts to implement the Goals, particularly in the countries that are farthest behind.

Along with many others, I spent four years in the run-up to 2015 negotiating and crafting the 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  In 2015, when the goals were adopted, I did not think any of us imagined that half-way through our journey to 2030, we would actually be moving backwards.

For the first time since it was established in 1990, the United Nations Human Development Index has declined for two years in a row.  This is the very difficult development landscape we face, in an even more complex environment.  The United Nations Secretary-General issued an SOS for the Sustainable Development Goals last year — we need to rescue them.  We need to fight for them.

This year, when world leaders gather for the SDG Summit in September, we will need a radical shift.  The Summit must be a turning point in the SDG implementation — or we will never make up the ground that is lost.  We need an ambitious Political Declaration that generates fresh momentum and higher ambition, creates important breakthroughs and strong partnerships that will ignite a new wave of progress between now and 2030.

We are calling on every world leader to come to the Summit with a clear vision on how to get the Goals back on track, to accelerate key transitions on energy, on food systems, digital technology and education.  We need to transform our education systems to achieve SDG4 and prepare for the fourth industrial revolution that’s already arrived.  Today’s education needs to teach students how to learn, and it should be available to people throughout their lives.

We need a just and inclusive energy transition to renewables if we are to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C — the commitment made by all countries in the Paris Agreement in 2015.  And yet today, 1.5 is on life support.  The energy transition has to encompass social protection and decent job investments for those employed in fossil fuels and related industries.  The transitions must deliver more resilient, inclusive economies that can withstand the challenges of our times and the crises of the future.

We also need the digital transition to improve people’s lives — particularly those farthest behind.  And yet, they risk being left even farther behind unless we work together to secure an open, free, inclusive and secure digital future for all, especially for our women and girls.

All these transitions depend on investment — in people, in human security, in our shared prosperity — to address the root causes of conflict and violence.  Yet investments in development are falling far short.  Many countries have been forced to divert funds away from long term development in order to meet immediate crises.  Their future has been traded for the desperate needs of the present.  This may have grave consequences.

The Secretary-General has called on the Group of Twenty (G20) for an SDG stimulus this year to support the countries of the Global South.  He has also called for significant transformation to the global financial system — designed so many decades ago and no longer able to respond to today’s demands and needs.  And this is important when we talk about vulnerable middle-income countries and our least-developed countries.

We need to place the needs of developing countries at the centre if we want genuine partnerships, if want a more stable world, if we want a world where we can trade, where prosperity would reign, where we have human rights at the centre.

We also need to look at ODA — official development assistance — with a new mindset — a mindset of investment.  It is such a small amount yet it’s such a critical and important part of the finance mix for any country to develop.  It has huge returns in the lives of people, especially women and youth. 

We should see ODA as an investment by developed countries in developing countries — as a partnership for the future.  A partnership for peace and prosperity.  An investment that can catalyse other sources of funding and together with domestic resources enable transformative policies and enabling environments for trade and technology.

Sweden is one of the few countries that fulfils its commitment to dedicate 0.7 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to official development assistance.  This shows your strong engagement to the SDGs and your solidarity with countries of the Global South.  Sweden is also a strong supporter of development coordination, which ensures that our resources go further, in line with the needs and priorities of Governments.

Development coordination is low cost and high impact.  Out Resident Coordinators — the leaders of the United Nations development team in each country — are driving greater coherence and impact at the country level, they forge partnership and convene for joint support to countries strides to achieve the Sustainable Development goals.

Dag Hammarskjöld understood that the United Nations — like our world — is not perfect.  But he knew it is indispensable.  For over seven decades, the United Nations has been the cornerstone of the multilateral system.  It is our global town hall for our global village, in which all countries are represented and have a voice.  And it is foundational to building peace and global solidarity.  The United Nations remains the only forum in the world where parties come together to transform common threats into shared solutions. 

Today more than ever, our challenges are deeply interconnected, and yet we struggle to find the solutions together.  During the commemorations of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations, our Member States recognized the urgent need for collective action to address today's challenges.  They adopted a resolution — that Sweden, together with Qatar, facilitated — where, for the sake of future generations, Member States pledged to ensure the future we want and the United Nations we need.

In response, the Secretary-General presented a report on Our Common Agenda — his vision for the future of global cooperation and a reinvigorated multilateralism to deal with today’s interconnected threats.  He’s called for a multilateralism anchored in the full, equal, and meaningful participation of women and young people, and greater inclusion of all groups that are marginalized.  Our Common Agenda is a booster shot for the Sustainable Development Goals.  And it addresses challenges and gaps in the multilateral frameworks that have become more urgent since 2015.

We are now working with Member States, civil society and academia to give substance to this vision — renewing solidarity between people, meeting the needs of future generations, protecting our precious planet and environment, forging a new social contract anchored in human rights, and also embracing the need for a new financial architecture and a new peace architecture.

You all have a role to play, as students, academics, surely.  But also, as young people.  We know it is not easy.  Many young people, in Sweden and elsewhere, feel insecure about the future — for some very obvious reasons.  You may feel exhausted and perhaps even hopeless at times — inheriting a world with so many crises.

But I appeal to you to continue to raise your voices.  Continue to work and fight for that change.  You are one of the most precious resources in our world. You are agents of transformation.  Your thoughts and opinions are fundamentally important for the changes and transformations we need today.

We need more, not less, participation and activism by young people to drive progress on peace, human rights and sustainable development.  We do need you to be disruptive because the challenges of today will not go without it.  And I can assure you that the United Nations are listening and amplifying your voices.  We are strengthening our work with young people by establishing a dedicated youth office that will represent you in intergovernmental decision-making.

The future belongs to you.  But the future is already here.  It is your action today that will shape tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow…  And the day after.  It is a journey, and it’s a tough one.  Every single step counts, and you should make it matter.

Sweden has been a force for multilateralism and an important partner to the United Nations over the last 75 years.  The strong voice and leadership of Sweden in the United Nations, for it is made up of Member States and it is only as strong as its weakest link, is crucial for building solidarity that we need to remind us of our common humanity.

So, I appeal to Sweden, to those in this room who have leadership responsibilities in your different countries, in your communities, to continue your strong commitment to international cooperation, with the United Nations at the centre.  And I look forward to continuing our partnership with the European Union during your presidency of the European Council.  We need leadership.

And just as Dag Hammarskjold did, we need to act.  Let us act together in solidarity, to ensure that current and future generations can enjoy a life of dignity and prosperity on a safe and healthy planet.  We can do this.

Much of what I’ve said today is to paint a picture of the reality, but perhaps what you all know — and I haven’t had the time to say — is that we have never been more endowed with the tools, the education, the partnerships, and a world that can do.  So let us find strength in our common humanity, our diversity, and together confront the challenges and turn them into opportunities.

For information media. Not an official record.