Your Excellency, Ambassador Ms. Vijay Thakur Singh, Director General of the Indian Council of World Affairs,
Excellencies, Distinguished Participants,
Let me begin by expressing my deepest appreciation to Ambassador Singh’s generous invitation to join you today and for her kind introduction.
It is indeed an honour to address this renowned Indian Council of World Affairs.
As India’s first independent international affairs Think Tank, the Council has unmatched standing on the global political landscape – and I look forward to hearing your views and recommendations for addressing today’s global state of affairs.
Exactly 70 years ago, India’s Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit became the first woman to serve as President of the United Nations General Assembly.
I am therefore privileged to lean on her pioneering shoulders, as one among the woefully low number of female Presidents of the Assembly in 78 years.
When I assumed the Presidency of the General Assembly last September, I made a pledge to reignite solidarity and to renew trust in multilateralism.
I am under no illusion regarding the significant challenges of delivering that pledge.
In the last year alone, military takeovers have repeatedly supplanted established orders across Western Africa; the war of aggression against Ukraine has entered another bloody chapter; and Haiti has descended into lawlessness – while violent conflict persists in such places as Yemen, Myanmar, and Sudan, resulting in massive internal human displacement.
One month into my tenure, the international community was rocked yet again by another major phase of the conflict in the Middle East.
The horrific escalation of violence since the 7 October attacks on Israel has further eroded trust between and among nations, triggered a humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip, and heightened security concerns throughout the world, particularly as it relates to the potential for regionalisation of the war.
Meanwhile, ever-present threats linked to climate change, sea-level rise, and our unsustainable consumption and production patterns continue to create new layers of complexity.
Taken together, these dynamics are undermining the cohesion we need to uphold international law, including the UN Charter – the backbone of our multilateral system.
To change course, while we must recognize these dynamics as being essentially centrifugal in character, our response; our collective response must instead treat them as unifying forces.
In the General Assembly – which is often referred to as the Parliament of Humanity – we are working to match our ambition with action at the scale and pace needed to make a meaningful difference in the lives of people and communities across the globe.
I am confident that together we can – and will – prevail.
For these reasons, I have anchored my Presidency in the belief that we are more effective when we work together – harnessing the immense power of multilateralism to secure and deliver peace, prosperity, progress and sustainability for all people everywhere.
Let me turn first to Peace:
Perhaps nowhere are the dynamics of division on more visceral display than in Gaza, where the crisis – now over 100 days – has shocked all of us across the globe.
With half the population nearing starvation and a public health catastrophe unfolding, legitimate questions are being raised over what it would take to stop the carnage and to save and sustain human life.
India’s delivery of humanitarian goods and medical supplies to those affected by the circumstances is highly valued and appreciated – as are India’s insistent calls for peace in the Middle East, Ukraine and elsewhere across the world.
Indeed, peace is the cornerstone upon which everything else is built – offering a stable and enabling environment in which all nations can thrive – bound by the unifying principles of the UN Charter, namely, sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence and the peaceful resolution of disputes.
The UN must work tirelessly to translate these principles into reality on the ground.
From sending the first-ever all-women contingent of peacekeepers in Liberia – in large part, thanks to India – to its involvement in peace negotiations in Colombia and Timor-Leste, the UN has been rightly ambitious in its promotion and defence of peace as the centre-piece of its mission.
I applaud and commend India as one of the largest troop contributors to UN peacekeeping operations.
Moreover, India has also contributed more personnel to UN peacekeeping than any other country since the beginning of these peace endeavours, demonstrating a high level of commitment to protecting lives and keeping the peace.
Over the decades, thousands of your communities have bid farewell to “Blue Helmets” – the beating heart of the UN’s commitment to a peaceful world – and counted the days to their return.
Turning to Prosperity:
We know the path to sustainable peace is forged collectively through sustainable development.
Yet, we are far off track on every goal of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. I repeat, every goal.
Extreme poverty is on the rise after years of decline, while hunger and food insecurity are again surging.
Despite these adverse headwinds, last September world leaders at the UN still registered a hard-won triumph of unity over division. The political declaration adopted at the 2023 SDG Summit reaffirmed the shared pledge to lift millions from poverty – and importantly, set out commitments to accelerate action to that end.
The declaration made clear that we can no longer ignore the pressing need to reform our global financial institutions.
We simply must close the financing divide inhibiting faster implementation of the SDGs.
In addition, we must update the way we measure prosperity – looking beyond GDP to a metric that captures the multidimensional nature of vulnerability and facilitates access to development resources on better, more affordable terms in order to avoid the crushing weight of debt overload in the Global South.
Further, we must prevent the debt crisis from becoming a deeper development catastrophe. The Fourth Conference on Financing for Development in 2025 will be a key moment to tackle these issues.
I highly commend India’s flagship programmes, which aim to deliver upon the 2030 Agenda’s goals at local, sub-national and national levels.
What’s more: India’s model can be adapted and applied elsewhere.
India’s leadership in the field of digital public infrastructure – from innovative governance systems to citizen-oriented services – represents unparalleled transformation in action.
I am confident that with the benefit of India’s extraordinary experience and its continued engagement, across all fronts, we can bring progress in attaining the SDG’s back on track.
On that note, a word about Progress:
A critical measure of our advancement will hinge on how well we level the playing field. This is especially true for women, who are less likely to work in formal employment.
We stand little chance of achieving the SDGs with half the global population relegated to the sidelines, left out and locked out from participating in the economic and social life of the communities of which they are an integral part.
I have therefore made gender equality and women’s empowerment a priority of my Presidency, and I am committed to rallying all Member States around this issue. In this regard, the ever increasing profile and participation of women in India’s revolutionary transformation, based on public policy, is worthy of note and I encourage the authorities to remain steadfast in that trajectory given its potential to empower the SDG’s.
To this end, I have appointed a Special Adviser on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment – who is with me on this important visit – and I have re-established the Advisory Board on Gender Equality to assist me with policy ideas and practical measures to mainstream a gender perspective across the priorities of the General Assembly.
Is this enough? No, and I will aggressively seek more opportunities for the empowerment of women and girls.
But these are important steps I can take to push back against the trends eroding the rights of women and girls, including in the latter case, the right to education, all of which imperil trust in our multilateral system.
As you may recall, we recently commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
And as you would know better, it was India’s delegate, Hansa Mehta – a staunch defender of equal rights for women in the 1940s – who made history by insisting on changing the phrase “all men are born free and equal” to “all human beings are born free and equal” in the Declaration’s often quoted – and now famous – Article 1.
Her contribution is one of the many ways India has championed respect for human rights, and I count on India to continue writing narratives that showcase women’s leadership, including through women-led development.
Of course, there have been setbacks on our shared journey to create a more equal, sustainable world.
From the COVID-19 pandemic and impacts of climate change, to the debt crisis and persistent disparities in everything spanning the heath, education and digital connectivity sectors – today’s global challenges are simply too great for any one nation to tackle alone.
It is often said that adversity breeds resilience.
And there have been examples of tremendous ingenuity and solidarity along the way, especially in the Global South.
I commend India for its generosity in exporting vaccines to over 150 countries during the pandemic and championing sustainable recovery through its successful chairmanship of the G20.
I continue to hear the loudest demands for progress from the young people whom I regularly meet – including at COP28 and my other official visits. As the “Dubai Consensus” makes clear, we need ample, predictable financing to enact the necessary reforms.
Natural disasters are increasing in frequency and intensity, while sea-level rise is fast becoming an existential threat, especially for Small Island Developing States like my own country of origin, Trinidad and Tobago.
We simply must meet the demand to observe the 1.5-degrees threshold for temperature rise.
We glimpsed instances of leadership at COP28 in the capitalization of the Loss and Damage Fund. But as policy and decision-makers, we simply must do more and act with a greater sense of urgency.
A final word on Multilateralism itself:
As you know better than most, many continue to question the relevance and ability of our multilateral system to effectively deliver real results in people lives.
And yet, we continually resort to multilateralism, time and again – because of the very nature of the process itself, as one that, in principle, gives voice to all countries in shaping global policy.
Underpinning all our work – and an issue which I know is close to India’s heart – is the urgent need for reform of the multilateral system.
Let us face facts: it is no longer 1945. Our institutions cannot remain stuck in the past and at the same time hope to fix the challenges of today using a toolkit of yesterday.
The call to reform the Security Council was again raised by a resounding number of world leaders at the opening of the General Assembly’s 78th session.
This is a clear political signal of the need for change. And there is a UN process in place to achieve this goal – famously referred to as the IGN – the intergovernmental negotiations.
While it is true that formal negotiations have yet to begin in earnest, such a decision requiring a broad consensus among members, for many delegations the sluggish pace towards formal engagement leave much to be desired.
I thank India for its continued active engagement to breathe new directional life in this urgently needed process.
I should like to acknowledge the efforts of Ms. Ruchira Kamboj, the Permanent Representative of India to the UN, for bringing this important discussion to multiple platforms in New York – as evidenced by the important informal exchange I attended last December.
Colleagues, dear friends,
Despite the stark realities, our challenges are certainly not insurmountable. There are opportunities to harness in 2024 and in the years ahead.
Foremost among them is the Summit of the Future, in September – where leaders are expected to forge a new global consensus on how to strengthen the multilateral system: thus fast-tracking the SDGs – and importantly – holding Member States more accountable to their commitments.
As President of the General Assembly, I have prioritized this process – and from now until September, preparations will be at the centre of our attention.
In that connection, in April, I will also hold the first-ever Sustainability Week – a flagship event of my Presidency, and an important steppingstone on our path to a sustainable future, featuring transport, tourism, infrastructure, energy and debt sustainability.
I look forward to India’s active engagement in these and other high-level initiatives as we move through the session.
Let me close by acknowledging, once more, India’s enduring commitment to and exemplary leadership in multilateral affairs.
India’s G20 Presidency marked a historic milestone as the first ever to usher in the African Union as a permanent member – a critical step towards a more just, more inclusive and effective multilateralism, and which sent a strong signal of solidarity across the Global South.
For seven decades, India and the UN have been key strategic partners in navigating global challenges such as rapid population growth and yet through the years remarkable progress has been achieved in sustainable development.
Time and again, you have put forward your most precious resource – your people – in support of the UN’s noble ideals and principles, its timeless values to promote and ensure human dignity.
As I mentioned earlier, this includes the first woman President of the General Assembly, Ms. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit – in whose esteemed footprints I follow, and whose reputation of integrity and tenacity I can only hope to match as I discharge my duties.
On behalf of the UN and more particularly, on behalf of the General Assembly, I thank India for its exceptional contributions to humanity, and count on its continued involvement – as we chart new pathways to a more peaceful, more prosperous, and more sustainable world for everyone, everywhere, without distinction.
I thank you, most kindly.