Uphold UN in global governance
Editor's Note: Oct 24 marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, Sha Zukang, UN under-secretary-general for economic and social affairs from 2007 to 2012, shares his views with China Daily on the world body's important role in global economic and social development:
Q: As a former UN under-secretary-general for economic and social affairs, what do you think have been the UN's biggest achievements in promoting global economic and social development in its 75-year history?
First is peace and security. The main motivation for establishing the United Nations was to save future generations from war. Since its founding, the UN has often been called upon to settle disputes between countries and thus prevent them from escalating into war, or to help restore peace following the outbreak of armed conflict.
By and large, the UN has succeeded in achieving that goal, creating conditions conducive to social and economic development.
Second is decolonization－it is an achievement not often talked about but I think it is a major success story of the UN.When the UN was founded in 1945, some 750 million people, nearly a third of the world's population, lived in colonies and semi-colonies.
Today, fewer than 2 million people live under colonial rule in the 17 remaining non-self-governing territories. The wave of decolonization, which changed the face of the world, began with the founding of the UN and represents the UN's first great success.
The global poverty rate has been cut by more than half over the last few decades, with significant progress being made in East and Southeast Asia. China has made the most dramatic achievement, lifting about 800 million people out of poverty. And the UN has played an important role in promoting global cooperation in the fight against poverty.
The UN has also been coordinating global partnerships to combat pandemics. It is now leading the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Again, this is an achievement of the UN some countries choose to ignore, which is sad especially because the world body supplies vaccines to 50 percent of the world's children, and helps save 3 million lives a year.
As for climate change, the UN family is at the forefront to save our planet. In 1992, its Earth Summit gave birth to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as a first step toward addressing climate change.
In Paris in December 2015, the parties to the UNFCCC reached a landmark agreement to combat climate change. The agreement builds upon the convention and, for the first time, brings all member countries together for a common cause－that is, to make efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects. I can say with pride that China has played a significant role in advancing the implementation of the Paris Agreement, leading by example.
Q: How did the UN Millennium Development Goals come about? And how impactful have they been for the world?
The MDGs emerged from the Millennium Declaration adopted at the UN Summit in September 2000 at the UN Headquarters in New York City. The world leaders who gathered at the summit committed their countries to a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty, and set a series of time-bound targets, with a deadline of 2015. These came to be known as the MDGs.
The eight MDGs are eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality and empowering women; reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and developing a global partnership for development.
The MDGs facilitated the most successful anti-poverty movement in history, and served as the springboard for the Sustainable Development Goals. The number of people living in extreme poverty has declined by more than half, falling from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015. And I am very proud to say that China's success was a large part of that story.
Thanks to the MDGs, the world also saw a dramatic improvement in gender equality in schooling and an almost 50 percent drop in the mortality rate of children below five, dropping from 90 to 43 deaths per 1,000 live births since 1990. The maternal mortality rate has also declined worldwide.
Q: Why did the UN decide to roll out the SDGs? How is the UN pushing forward this initiative?
A major reason for launching the SDGs, which are at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, was to ensure that globalization remains inclusive in the future, addresses the emerging inequalities within and between countries. Indeed, the SDGs are not just for developing countries; they are for developed countries too. They are universal.
The SDGs comprise social, economic and environmental targets－while the eight MDGs comprised 21 targets, the 17 SDGs consist of and 169 targets. The SDGs as a vision and action framework are bolder, more ambitious and aimed at addressing the emerging global challenges in a more comprehensive and integrated way.
All 193 UN member states have signed the SDGs, and the 2030 Agenda is being pushed by the whole of government, not just the ministry of environment or the ministry of foreign affairs. Also, there is a progress monitoring mechanism, called voluntary national reviews, and the UN has set up a forum－high-level political forum－for exchanging experiences and for mutual learning.
Overall, after five years of implementation, the record is uneven. Progress had been made in some areas, such as improving maternal and child health, expanding access to electricity and increasing women's representation in government. Yet even these advances have been offset elsewhere by rising food insecurity, deteriorating natural environment, and persistent and pervasive inequalities.
Funding remains a challenge, with many developing countries facing financing difficulties. That is why the UN secretary-general has launched a financing strategy to mobilize the international community to increase financing for the SDGs.
If all the 17 goals are achieved, then we will have a world free of poverty, hunger, disease and want; a world free of fear and violence; a world with universal literacy; with equitable and universal access to quality education at all levels, to healthcare and social protection; a world where everybody has access to safe drinking water and nutritious, safe and affordable food; a world with universal access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy, and a world with sanitary, healthy living conditions.
Q: How effective has the UN been in curbing climate change?
I served as former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon's adviser when he attended all the climate change conferences during my five years as under-secretary-general for economic and social affairs. So I witnessed first-hand the multilateral negotiations on climate change.
It was not easy. Climate change is the defining issue of our times. From shifting weather patterns, to rising sea levels, the impacts of climate change are global in scope and unprecedented in scale. Without coordinated global action today, coping with these impacts will be very difficult and highly costly.
The UN has tried hard. From the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which studied the science of climate change, to UNFCCC, to the Kyoto Protocol, and finally to the Paris Agreement, the UN has done its level best to strengthen the global response to the climate threat by keeping the global temperature rise by the end of this century below 2 Celsius from the pre-industrial level, and make efforts to limit the rise to 1.5 C.
Developing countries have made huge sacrifices in this process－historically they contributed little to carbon dioxide emissions but now they suffer most from the impacts of climate change. That is why the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities is key to effective international cooperation.
Therefore, climate change would have been a greater threat had there been no UN-led response. Similarly, if all the parties to the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement fulfill their commitments, the UN could more effectively curb climate change.
That is why it is deplorable that a major power has decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
Q: For many of us, the only chance we get to see how the UN works is when the UN General Assembly sessions are telecast. But what happens at the meetings off camera? What is the mood like, especially when a high-stakes matter is involved? Are there any behind-the-scene stories you can share with us? What is backstage diplomacy like among countries?
Indeed, the high-level session, also known as the General Debate, is multilateral diplomacy at its peak. On average, about 150 heads of state or government gather at the UN Headquarters in New York City, delivering statements, elaborating their national positions on major global issues. These are the podium moments we see on TV.
Indeed, off camera, there are a lot of special events and those on the sidelines. They provide important additional platforms for multilateral diplomacy. Many of these events address specific hotspot issues or major social and economic challenges.
Often, the multilateral platform is used for conducting bilateral business, as the physical presence of national leaders provides a convenient opportunity for focused bilateral meetings. The off-camera, behind-the-scene activities help advance bilateral and multilateral relations and help mobilize support for specific issues.
Q: What would you say to people who have doubts about the UN's functions and effectiveness, and ask "why does the world need the UN"?
The world needs the UN because it has helped prevent disputes from escalating into wars, and established an international legal system through treaties. And the UN Charter is the basis that governs relations among countries. For example－in the field where I devoted a significant part of my diplomatic career, nuclear disarmament－a number of multilateral treaties have been signed by the UN and member states with the aim of preventing nuclear proliferation and testing, while promoting nuclear disarmament.
These include the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water, also known as the Partial Test Ban Treaty, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty that was signed in 1996 but is yet to enter into force, and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which was opened for signature in 2017 but is yet to come into force.
These treaties have helped maintain global peace and security.
Take human rights as another example. There are nine core international human rights instruments. Each of these instruments has established a committee of experts to monitor the implementation of the instruments' provisions and some supplemented by optional protocols. China has been a strong defender of human rights, and I was on the front line of these battles when I was China's permanent representative at the UN Office in Geneva.
In the development field, we have the three Rio Conventions－on climate change, on desertification, on biodiversity－and we have the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In the social field, we have the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; the UN also has several conventions on fighting crimes.
We have multilateral treaties governing trade relations, international post, international telecommunications, civil aviation, maritime transport－you name it, the UN has it.
The UN secretary-general is the depositary of some 560 multilateral treaties which cover a broad range of issues including human rights, disarmament and protection of the environment, as mentioned above.
Therefore, the UN provides the foundational framework for the rule of law in international relations, and a normative framework on how countries should conduct business. Without these legal and normative frameworks, the 75 years of peace, security and development would not have been possible. And every global citizen has an obligation to ensure these frameworks continue and be strengthened.
That is why it is cause for concern when some countries withdraw from multilateral treaties.
Q: What are your thoughts on the UN's future prospects?
The UN is strong when member states make it strong. The UN's future prospects are bright when member states empower it to do more.
Those who want to weaken the UN system are short-sighted, and are doomed to failure.
But fortunately, the absolute majority of member states want a stronger UN.
We should make the UN stronger, empowering it to do more and deliver more.
China is committed to the UN and to multilateralism. So I am more than optimistic that the UN's future is bright.