By Rene Raya
ASPBAE Lead Policy Analyst
25 September 2015, New York
Security was tight during the Papal address at the Opening Plenary of the UN Summit, so I missed these events as only a few civil society representatives could be accommodated, but certainly this was better than Addis Ababa during the 3rd Financing for Conference. The UN General Assembly formally adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the opening session without further debate as the document had gone through months of debates ad revisions before Member States agreed on the final text.
I attended the Plenary Session in the afternoon. For over three hours, I was sitting in the balcony hall listening to Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Kings making their speeches before the assembly. Well, back home, listening to just one President is taxing enough, so I cannot imagine how I managed to hear out over 20 Heads of States in one sitting.
Can you guess what the headline messages were in that afternoon plenary session as delivered by the Heads of States? Basically, the headline was Goal 13 on climate change – so not only the Presidents of Kiribati and Palau, but nearly all made a special note on climate change as the most challenging issue that confronts humanity at this time. And most are looking forward to the Paris COP21, hopeful that a substantive and binding agreement will be adopted by world leaders. The Hungarian President made such a passionate statement in support on Goal 13. The Honduras President also ended his speech with a strong appeal on the same issue after starting out with their problem on drug trafficking and poverty. Earlier in the day, Pope Francis made such a passionate call to choose environmental justice over power and material prosperity.
The other headlines were on gender equity, poverty and inequality, finance for the means of implementation, education, health and youth. Most State leaders simply narrated their achievements in the MDGs and their commitment to take on the SDGs. A few of them, the Presidents of Guyana and Panama, made special mention of education as a major priority concern. Chile also mentioned education as an important concern.
Unfortunately, there were only a few Asian leaders that were lined up in that afternoon plenary session. I didn’t hear anything new from the Mongolian President. The President of Vietnam was not a very passionate speaker but he was able to deliver clear points on peace and development, the need for a strong political will to mobilise domestic resources to achieve the SDGs, and on cooperation of all to achieve sustainable development.
I was a bit amused when President Mugabe of Zimbabwe delivered his address. He was escorted by a couple of attendants, perhaps bodyguards, who stood by the side and who collected him after his speech. Well, one can just imagine how repressive rulers would like to embellish themselves. Even the King of Spain did not privilege himself with any escort apart from the UN protocol person that guided speakers into the podium.
I was about to fall asleep towards the end of the day when the Bolivian President spoke. He made such passionate reference to the evils of capitalism, of imperialism, and the dictatorship of the financial system. He blamed capitalism for the willful destruction of the environment, for dragging countries into militarism and war, and for perpetuating poverty that is useful for capitalism to flourish. I initially thought he was overly polemical rather than substantive, and simply living in the past. I don’t know Bolivia and the background of the current President. But even if he was simply grandstanding, the speech delivered before the Assembly was a wakeup call for everyone. He was able to ask the hard questions, challenging us to think outside of the box, and search beyond the beautiful rhetoric of the SDGs. What are the real causes of poverty, of inequality, of the massive concentration of wealth in the hands of very few people and a handful of states? Why do billions go hungry and stay powerless when there is too much affluence in the world? Why is there too much foreign and private ownership of natural resources, of industry, of essential services that should have been in public hands? Honestly, I do not know the answer to many of these questions. But it gives us a lead on how to analyze, how to move forward, and how to achieve real transformation in society.
Well, it wasn’t a boring session after all, so hoping the rest of the deliberations over the next two days of the Summit will continue to be exciting and provoking.