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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 October 2018

Cancer doesn't stop at borders and climate change is the ultimate issue for multilateralism, says UNGA president

In an exclusive interview, Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces discusses the year ahead

María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés President of the 73rd Session of the General Assembly speaks during the General Debate of the 73rd session of the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York. AFP
María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés President of the 73rd Session of the General Assembly speaks during the General Debate of the 73rd session of the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York. AFP

As a platform for the year ahead, the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly set the stage for strengthening multi-lateral co-operation, adopting a global compact on migration, protecting the Middle East peace process and extending rights for those in work, the body’s president, Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces told The National.

In an exclusive interview from New York, the Ecuadorian diplomat said the opening week of high-level speakers underlined a broad global consensus that acting together was the only means of tackling the gravest problems facing the world.

“I was very pleased by the unanimity about the need to strengthen multilateralism and the usefulness of this house to address global issues,” she said. “Of course it’s very crowded and very intense during this time but there is a very strong message the UN is unique. This is going to be a very busy year.”

One landmark on the horizon is the signing of the Global Compact on Migration, slated for Marrakesh in December. The key role for the General Assembly is to ensure that there is rapid implementation of the principles of the contract in its first year. The need is urgent with 260 million migrants worldwide as well as 25 million refugees displaced by conflict.

The 2020 review of progress for the Sustainable Development Goals looms for the UN members. Ms Espinosa reports that the SDG process was in large part the focus for 450 side events during the high-level week, which wrapped up on 30 September.

“More and more countries are coming voluntarily forward with their national report,” she said, noting that the General Assembly mandates would help deliver reforms that allowed countries to gain the technical assistance they needed to deliver on the goals. “To guide the Sustainable Development Goals we see most states developing frameworks at the national level. This is very powerful.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, joined by UN General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa, addresses the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit in the United Nations General Assembly. AP
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, joined by UN General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa, addresses the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit in the United Nations General Assembly. AP

An expert and writer on Amazonian river cultures, Ms Espinosa has served as Ecuador’s foreign minister as well as its permanent representative to the UN. That perspective informs her drive to bolster access to the workplace and equality of treatment for women and also the disabled.

“I have one priority for each day of the week,” she said. “The right to decent work is very important.”

The centenary of the International Labour Organisation in 2019 creates an opportunity to stress the need for “equal pay for an equal job” for women and the case for access to “decent jobs especially for persons with disabilities”.

At a time when international politics is scarred by division and rancour, it is inevitable that the debate over the reform of UN institutions has been revived. This includes the two tier structure of the Security Council, which has been paralysed on important issues, such as Syria.

The president of UNGA observes that the General Assembly has the right to act when the Security Council is deadlocked. She points to the intervention in the last session after the US announced it was shifting its embassy to Jerusalem in defiance of long-standing resolutions.

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“On the one hand it is a big challenge to ensure there is proper coordination with all the main organs of the UN to avoid overlap and advance the multilateral agenda,” she told The National. “Peace in the Middle East has been part of the UN agenda for a long time now. Regarding Palestine, after the decision of certain member states to change the place where they have their embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, we saw that the General Assembly can indeed act.”

After the failure of the Paris Accord on climate, there is a sense that countries must regroup quickly and Ms Espinosa would like the General Assembly to act as the engine for that. “After all there is no other way to tackle climate change but through multilateralism.”

The same could be said for tackling the endemic health problems that are often overshadowed by high-profile eradication campaigns. An event on non-communicable diseases presented an opportunity for action in the year to come. “Cancer doesn’t stop at borders,” said Ms Espinosa.

The threat of religious extremism underpins an emphasis on the youth when addressing peace and security, according to Ms Espinosa. Only by a strategy of addressing opportunities and the elimination of barriers to political participation will the drift towards violent extremism be eliminated.

Support for the efforts of the special envoy of the secretary general for youth, who used the UNGA to launch a 2030 strategy, is designed to ensure a sustainable peace can be achieved through preventative approaches.

United Nations General Secretary Antonio Guterres and UN General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa chat before the Mandela Peace summit at the United Nations building in New York. AFP
United Nations General Secretary Antonio Guterres and UN General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa chat before the Mandela Peace summit at the United Nations building in New York. AFP