Fundamental Reform of International Institutions Needed, Secretary-General Tells General Assembly’s Nelson Mandela International Day Observance

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks at the General Assembly observance of Nelson Mandela International Day:

We come together to celebrate one of humanity’s greatest heroes. Nelson Mandela was a colossus of courage and conviction.  I will never forget visiting his cell in Robben Island.  I was deeply moved to peer through the same barred windows we just saw in the film, and glimpse what he endured for decades; to reflect on his remarkable capacity for forgiveness and pursuit of reconciliation over revenge.

How do we pay tribute to such a giant?  Through words of respect, certainly.  But we best honour Madiba through action:  action to expel the poison of racism, discrimination and hate; action to extinguish the legacies of colonialism; action to promote equality, human rights and, above all, justice.  Action, as he put it, “to give life to a workable dream”.

Here at the United Nations, we are starting at home — putting into effect our Strategic Action Plan to tackle racism and promote dignity and inclusion in the workplace.  And striving to create a more just and peaceful world for all.

In 2020, I was privileged to deliver the Nelson Mandela lecture.  I intended to travel to South Africa — but the pandemic hit.  As I said at the time, COVID-19 shone a glaring spotlight on global inequalities.

Three years on, the need to bridge the global justice gap is more urgent than ever.  The climate crisis is intensifying — destroying the lives of those who have done the least to cause it.  The global cost-of-living crisis is hitting families everywhere — especially in the developing world.  Poverty, hunger and inequality are on the rise.  Countries are drowning in debt.  Many African countries now spend more on debt repayments than on health care.

And our unfair and outdated international financial system is not fulfilling its function as a global safety net.  We must recognize that there is an injustice at the heart of that system — an injustice that is rooted in colonialism.  The Security Council, the Bretton Woods system and other international organizations reflect the world of 1945, when many African countries were still part of European empires.  To this day, the continent is underrepresented in the global financial architecture, just as it lacks a permanent seat on the Security Council.

We don’t need to wonder what Nelson Mandela would think about this.  Because he told us.  Almost thirty years ago, he came to this very podium and argued against what he called the “maldistribution” of resources and decision-making power.  The world is still waiting for that change.  Ultimately, we need fundamental reform of our international institutions.

But we must also support developing countries with concrete steps that we can take today.  Overhauling the business models of multilateral development banks so that they leverage far more private finance at reasonable cost.  Providing an SDG stimulus to help to create the world of peace and prosperity for all, envisaged in the Sustainable Development Goals.  Establishing debt-relief mechanisms to support payment suspensions, longer lending terms and lower rates.

And, at the same time, to make sure that developed countries deliver climate justice — providing the finance that has been promised to help countries reduce emissions, adapt to climate change and address loss and damage. Every nation must honour the promise of dignity and equality enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that Nelson Mandela has interpreted better than anybody else.  And we must all stand with the women, girls and young people around the world demanding change, on issues from gender equality to climate change and more.

Twenty-five years ago in this Hall, Nelson Mandela reminded us, and I quote, that:  “Social ills are not a pre-ordained result of the forces of nature or the product of a curse of the deities.  They are the consequence of decisions which men and women take or refuse to take.”

As we commemorate Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy, let us be animated by his spirit of humanity, dignity and justice.  And let us choose to take action to build a better, more inclusive world.  The world that he has fought for.  Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.