It’s been a banner day at UN Headquarters today as Pope Francis first addressed UN staff and then opened the 70th session of the General Assembly. That was just in the morning. Malala Yousafzai, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and several other world leaders could be seen around the hallways and made appearances at the summit where the Sustainable Development Goals were officially adopted as the new global standard for international development.
It was a whirlwind. And there are several more days of big events and big meetings to come. Here are 5 key quotes from the first day of the UN Summit in New York.
1) “Real human beings take precedence over partisan interests, however legitimate the latter may be” — Pope Francis
At first glance this quote by the Pontiff may seem like it is a critique of the UN Security Council and their utter lack of progress regarding the humanitarian needs of Syrian refugees and resolving the deadly conflict. It certainly was that, but it was also reflective of the Pope’s commitment to the environment in a way, something he related to at practically every turn of his statement.
He also mentioned he is confident that there will be a legitimate agreement to come out of the climate negotiations this December in Paris and this comment may have been directed towards countries who are putting economic growth of the few at the top over the welfare of the many at the bottom who suffer the greatest because of the effects of climate change. It was perhaps the most environment-focused general speech we have heard in the General Assembly and it was clear why Pope Francis agreed to open the day since it is a shared passion with the Secretary General.
The Pope set the tone for a full day of questioning ‘business as usual’ at the UN and even the parallel climate talks when he said that “solemn commitments” are not enough at the UN, there has to be more than that especially when “any harm done to the environment, therefore, is a harm done to humanity”
2) “Some 8.5 million people have made their voice heard to the United Nations” — Ban Ki Moon
In speaking with several NGO leaders and even UN staff, you find that one of the biggest complaints about the Millennium Goals is that they were formed behind closed doors by high level delegates. This was not the case with the creation of the SDGs. Civil society members had unprecedented access to the SDG negotiation rounds and often were able to have direct input on the language of the goals simply because the UN opened its doors and realized any agenda needs to be an agenda of the people.
‘8.5 million’ is a reference to the number of people who filled out a survey asking them what they would like to see prioritized in the international development agenda for the next 15 years. The real test will be whether these 8.5 million people will be able to enforce the need for action on these goals given that the Declaration is not legally binding
3) “All the SDGs come down to education…” — Malala Yousafzai
Malala is known for her poise and powerful voice for young women and girls around the world and it was no different today. Still, she maintained that she’s “just like any other girl” in wanting an education and having the right to get one. This came as no surprise to any of the press who spoke with her, but her statement about all the goals being achievable through promoting education for children around the world is intriguing. An obvious connection can be made to reducing poverty, maternal health, children’s rights, and human rights if we have more educated populations in even the farthest reaches of the globe.
Can we say the same for other goals?
Is education the linchpin of the SDGs on fighting climate change through political understanding of science, sustainable cities that are more inclusive of poorer populations? Her point is a valid one even if those connections are not clear on the surface because it speaks to the inherent interconnectivity of all the goals and makes you wonder if countries can pick a ‘catalyst’ SDG to focus the majority of their efforts on in order to achieve a wide range of goals in the coming years.
4) “The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities is the bedrock of our enterprise for a sustainable world” — Indian Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi
In his second address to the General Assembly, it’s clear Modi has transformed as a leader and found his presence as a Prime Minister of one-sixth of the world’s population. His comments are not just important for that reason, but because the concept of having a common responsibility to eradicate poverty, fight climate, empower women, etc has to be differentiated among countries in order to actually achieve truly sustainable development.
This concept of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ is very much a rallying cry of the developing world in negotiations on climate and sustainability issues. To that end, India has become a cheerleader of sorts for the developing world. His speech today reflected that developing countries need the financial and technical support of the developed world, but can also be leaders in development in their own right by tailoring ways to achieve the goals to their own culture, needs, and an independent vision for their future. It was reflective of India’s new role in the world and will certainly come into play in December as we head to Paris for the final round of climate change agreement negotiations.
5) “A little less conversation, a little more action” — Prime Minister of Norway Erna Solberg
The fact that Solberg quoted Elvis is amazing in and of itself, but she also made an excellent point about the SDGs when she spoke at a side event regarding the implementation phase of the goals. Waxing poetic about the SDGs will not actually help countries achieve them. Solberg boiled down what Ban Ki Moon said earlier, “implementation is the litmus test of the new agenda.”
Her comments echoed what appeared to the sentiment of the day: the UN has to go beyond talk and stop operating as just a meeting place, but a place of actual action.