Theme: “Galvanizing multilateral efforts for poverty eradication, quality education, climate action and inclusion”
Mr. President, His Excellency Tijjani Muhammad-Bande,
The Philippines congratulates you on your election as President of the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly. You have our full support.
We congratulate Her Excellency Mrs. María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, President of the 73rd Session, for her success in “making the UN relevant for all” in a time of determined efforts to make it irrelevant. Working here in the UN, I witnessed her heroic efforts brought off to brilliant effect. It was a privilege to serve with her.
Since the 1st session of the General Assembly in 1946, member states have gathered annually to pledge their commitment to peace, because that is what the United Nations was founded for after the war.
Peace first; the big words and ideas proposing ways to create the right environment to make peace meaningful and thrive — or not, are secondary. But peace we know comes for sure when the fighting stops. Not just long enough to wash the dead and bury them; but long enough for survivors to start over.
To be sure, never getting back what they loved and lost; but starting again with what little is left. Because hope springs eternal. We are in the UN to sustain that hope and fight off despair.
As we approach the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, predictions are rife of the demise of multilateralism.
One evidence proferred is the democratic election of strong governments that talk tough and brush aside UN demands — well-meaning for the most part, about how governments should do their job kinder by standards more honored in the breach than the observance in the West. Weak governments, unable to protect their people, appear desirable; because they make the case for multilateral intervention at the prompting of conscience of course — but sometimes at the unilateral prompting of great powers or violent or civil non-state actors.
Strong government is better; that is why government was invented; to get things done — but always consistently constitutional in its actions. Firm is good and severity is justified; but all within the law.
Far from dying or dead the UN is alive and strong, though only as much as its members make it.
Most UN member states are democracies. And don’t say there are democracies and “democracies” in quotes.
All democracies are pretentions in some degree. The growing electoral trend toward strong governments does not change its democratic character. This trend proves the UN has achieved one of its key goals for peace: the spread of democracy because they incline more to peace than war. Although the jury is still out on that one.
Some in the rest of the world may not like the electoral result; but the people back home are happy with their choice. It is theirs to make; and regret; but it is not the UN’s to decide. The next election may change it more to one’s liking…or not. Still we are warned of states eroding multilateralism by each one asserting “too much sovereignty.” But in what respect? Perhaps by insisting on carrying out a state’s defining duty: to protect its population against harm by any means efficient to achieve that purpose.
That may cause dismay among the civil in society; civil society is free to complain. Better yet, they should run for public office to gain legitimacy and be able to do something about it. But the UN is not free to interfere with the state in its defining function of protecting its citizens and stamping out threats.
In a reflective mood, my President asked me, “When it did happen that the rule of law no longer means the rule of law but the rules of crime. When did the presumption of innocence, which attaches only after arrest and arraignment, attach itself to the perpetrator the instant he is caught. That makes it legally impossible to suspect, let alone arrest him on probable cause. There are no more suspects; only victims of human rights violations when enforcing the law for the protection of citizens.” All I could say was, “I don’t know; I just don’t know.”
The nations herein united should not let this platform be used to threaten others with accountability for taking a tough approach to crime; instead of taking seriously what they cannot: the Western proposition that the sure-fire way to end crime is to legalize it. Then it is no longer criminal. Well, that works after a fashion: not to punish lawbreakers but sit down and talk them out of repeating the only thing at which they are any good: crime. That I learned at the Munich Security Conference on human trafficking — not as the evil it is but as a regular job. And the pay is not bad. Traffickers know only how to traffic — anything, a German expert said. And they won’t stop because they cannot stop.
Until they are stopped.
The threat to multilateralism comes, as much from its own vain attempts to usurp state functions, as from unilateralist attempts to oust it from the world stage. And return us to the anarchy of the pre-War period out of whose ashes the UN was born. Talk before fighting, is what the UN is about; and if talk fails, talk some more; war is really ultima ratio regis.
In ASEAN we are still talking; knowing that talk — so long as we give up nothing vital in the process — does not hurt. We are negotiating a Code of Conduct with China in the South China Sea.
We’ve had incidents with swarming Chinese ships and lost a reef in our EEZ. But, so far, we’ve had no interference in the joint exploration and development of oil and gas in areas within our EEZ but China claims them as well.
I crafted and China accepted a Memorandum of Understanding on Oil & Gas that allows us to move forward without the slightest compromise or diminution of our respective sovereign and international rights. But who can tell?
So the COC is a code of reality: the reality of the proximity of the soon-to-be biggest economy in the world in one place; with a commensurate industrial war-making capacity.
But war is a totally remote possibility. All parties have built so much and achieved such material progress that none of us, nor any outside power, will risk losing the richest market in the world. So, it is a code of live and let live with China — until it is not. We’ve all asked of each other — ASEAN members and China — for mutual restraint and complete respect for UNCLOS, to which we are signatories binding ourselves unqualifiedly thereto. Including China.
And then it is something else; we’ll come to that, and cross that bridge, when we get there. Maybe.
Multilateralism has come into question because it allows itself to be bent to unipolar purposes — or worse to the purposes of non-state actors — against multilateralism’s reason for being: the protection and safety of the weak and many, against the strong and few. Multilateralism is not owned by a select club of member states. It is by and for all — or no one.
The Philippines believes that the UN stands on the single pillar of the aggregated sovereignties of its members. That’s parlous but stable enough for a time. The UN is a collection of sovereign states, not a sovereign collective itself. It is only as effective as its members make it. It harnesses sovereignties, not for some against others, but to common purposes of peace and productive cooperation.
Sovereignty is as much a duty of care as it is an assertion of unlimited freedom of action. In the UN the two combine in the willing assumption of that duty on the part of states toward the international order to ensure peace and the wellbeing of “We, the peoples of the United Nations.”
The Philippines is a proud founding member of the United Nations, present at the Creation even before we were independent. General Carlos P. Romulo proclaimed at the 1st session of this General Assembly in 1946, “by the circumstances of our birth as a free and independent State, we are committed to the aims and purposes of the United Nations.” Even as our state was cloaked with sovereignty at birth, so was it saddled with the duty, commensurate with that power, to use it only for good.
Our engagement with the UN has been in the belief that the UN’s work must reflect the realities of the times — so as to be practical and useful in achieving the aspirations of “We, the peoples of the United Nations”: peoples as they are, in the real situations they are in; and not the member states. The UN does not work with abstractions; that’s for politicians and professional do-gooders.
Only then can the UN stay relevant and become effective. The aspiration of the vast majority of my people today — call them shortsighted or just plain wrong — is to be free of drugs and safe from crime. Is that so hard to understand? It seems impossible for some to accept. But the cartel can be persuasive in kind if not in reason.
The United Nations is the core of the multilateral global order. As long as the UN exists, none can trumpet the end of multilateralism. But it must be a United Nations strengthened and capacitated in its every member, so that all collectively may achieve its aim of peace and safety.
An increasingly complex security and global situation, which is to say an anarchy beyond that of the inter-War years between states — but which now includes non-state actors both violent and civil, require the Security Council to adapt, reform, and expand its membership. But only of formal states. Throw everything in the pot and nobody can eat it.
It needs to be representative, even at the risk of stasis. And democratic, for the sake of legitimacy. It cannot let itself be paralyzed when the situation screams for humanitarian action. It must be prompt, yet circumspect and sharply focused, when it takes action. Attempting no more than end the carnage; with just enough rebuilding to enable reason and compassion, not hysteria and the usual self-dealing, to find a good way forward. No one expects the best.
We ask the Security Council to provide the General Assembly a plural number of candidates — especially women — for the post of Secretary-General, with due regard to gender balance and regional rotation. Something’s not right with its mindset and system if, after nearly 75 years, the UN has failed to have a woman Secretary General.
Don’t blame it on the vote; the vote goes only as far as the Security Council lets it. From my experience, women know best how to build; men how to tear down.
Central to UN reform is funding. The Philippines is deeply concerned with the UN’s deteriorating financial situation. States look to the UN to implement their priority agendas — peace and security, of course; humanitarian assistance foremost, along with human rights; and lately sustainable development, climate action, migrants and refugees.
But states will not provide it with the means to meet those mandates. They come to complain about what they expect of the UN; but step down from the podium without committing — what all states can spare: far more than even the poorest actually contribute. Almost all the countries of the world can afford to give more to the UN; as I know all governments have the capacity to do if they are careful not to waste and steal at home what they can well afford to give to the United Nations.
Some can give more money to peacekeeping; others more personnel. No country can take the lion’s share of credit there; they all wear the same uniform, with the same badges, the same Blue helmets; they bleed the same color; and give up their last breath like any other.
But the UN itself must engender trust in its use of funds. The Secretary General’s financial reform proposals would do well to uphold accountability, transparency, and sustainability. The public is awash with stories of fiscal irresponsibility.
POVERTY ERADICATION, QUALITY EDUCATION
With the 2015 SDGs, we vowed to end poverty. In the Philippines, poverty incidence fell from 27 percent to 21 percent from 2015 to 2018. But as my President says, the important number is the six million Filipinos still very poor. It can be done. And it has been done on a far greater scale than anyone thought possible. In 20 years, the New China lifted 800 million out of utter poverty into what is, by any economic indicator, a real middle class.
Aligned with the SDGs, our development plan points to the direction of achieving the aspirations of the Filipino people.
These are no different than those of any other people or nation: getting out of poverty, attaining a comfortable lifestyle, feeling secure about the future especially for one’s children, and being safe by stopping crime, especially drug dealing which strikes at the victim’s reason and soul.
I know, I know: drug dealing falls somewhere between race, religion, political belief and gender as something to be equally protected. Admittedly, the drug experience is a bit religious. So taking it down is a crime against humanity up there with the others. But drugs is the reason my government was elected by a landslide; a mandate that has only grown to 80% because of unceasing criticism. In defending it, the public now own it. But that, as I said, is the problem with democracy; you cannot pick and choose the winner based on your delicacy; it turns entirely on the vote. The one with the most, wins; the others, more to one’s taste, lose.
These aspirations, whatever the phraseology adopted to express them, are not captured by measuring poverty based solely on income per capita. To truly gauge the progress of our strategies, we have to stop reporting the wrong metric. That is why we have begun to use the Multidimensional Poverty Index.
Education is how people lift themselves out of poverty. It doesn’t do that by itself. Philosophers are poor. Charity is how we as individuals, and social programs is how governments lift them out faster. This year, even more Filipinos received basic education — with over 27 million enrolled. Over 600,000 out-of-school youth and adult learners benefit from an Alternative Learning System. Tuition is free in state-run colleges, universities, and state-run technical-vocational institutions both national and local. Tuition is tightly controlled in private institutions.
I urge all States to implement the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. It is telling that advocates of multilateralism conveniently leave out issues of migration. Migration is as multilateral as it gets.
Migration is the pervasive reality today. The positive contribution of migrants fosters growth in countries of origin by remittances and countries of destination by its industriousness. Migrant labor raises great cities out of deserts, mans the ships that enable global trade; migrant health workers care for the sick, the children, the elderly; giving to strangers as much care as they gave their own loved ones back home. Sure, they’re paid; and for that we are grateful to host countries for our migrant peoples. And migrants themselves are grateful for the love that is sometimes returned. And sad when they are hurt instead.
CLIMATE ACTION AND INCLUSION
Climate change — or as Secretary General Guterres calls it, the climate crisis — is the defining development issue of our time. Failure to address it nullifies all other endeavors in the long run. As an economist puts it, “climate change matters so much for poverty: it is the poorest who are, and will be, hit earliest and hardest.” Yes, Keynes was prophetic: “In the long run we are all dead.”
Climate change has brought my country – already one of the most vulnerable countries to disasters —extreme weather events of increasing recurrence and strength.
Disasters are the reverse of God; they can make nothing out of something already there; built with great sacrifice. They wipe out socio-economic gains like an eraser wipes the lesson off the blackboard at the end of the school day. Disasters do more — they reverse economic growth so you start not just from nothing but with far less strength and spirit to try again.
If climate action does not measure up to what is needed, we all face the same fate: a diminished existence then extinction altogether. But the most to blame will suffer less; and only much later than those who are the least at fault.
We already have the global frameworks to address poverty, sustain development, and combat climate change. So, let’s just do it. To borrow from Kung Fu Panda, “Enough talk, let’s fight.” The Secretary General urges us to actually plant trees than plan some more to plant them. I think he’s fed up.
PEACE AND SECURITY
When President Corazon Aquino addressed the General Assembly in 1986, after her Peaceful People Power Revolution, she said, “perhaps it is only the tragedy of conflict that teaches us the true value of peace.”
Everything we have, such as it is; everything we work for; all for which we wish and strive; indeed, the world as it is with much to be desired and the better world we think we can make — all that will be erased in an instant by nuclear war. We must eliminate this possibility. And we have tried. The Universal Ban on Nuclear Weapons was overwhelmingly adopted in the UN and swiftly ratified back home, except for the Philippines for bureaucratic reasons no one can divine — unless you work in government.
Let us not wait for the conflict to make us value the peace we have. Let’s hope Cory Aquino is proved wrong; and that we will learn by reading and recollection, rather than living through our violent mistakes all over again —and again.
Terrorism, with its links to drug trafficking and organized crime, is the most pressing threat to us all. The fight to retake the city of Marawi, which left it looking like Swiss cheese, was triggered by an attempt to serve a warrant of arrest for drug trafficking on the leader of an Islamic jihad. Some would argue; we should have just let him get on with his business. Unfortunately, my President won’t oblige. He wants to eliminate the drug trade. I know, I know; this is terrible; where will we get our fix?
Peace is out of the hands of peacemakers; it is entirely in the hands of lawbreakers, who have attained a level of organization far superior to poor states like mine. The violent initiative lies entirely with them.
But what lies with us is decency. How we fight, how we protect, how we defeat our enemies with arms when we are attacked with arms; with the truth when attacked with lies; always and ever — all constitutions mandate it — with only victory in mind; refusing anything less. Compromise throws away the advantage gained in a fight for survival, giving the other side time and space to recover and rally. But always and ever the fight must be fought with a decent regard for the civilized opinion of mankind.
That the UN endures after nearly 75 years is an affirmation of the world’s abiding desire for peace in spite of its failures — which are broadcast; and the dispiriting silence, that greets its many successes.
With successes, continuing challenges, and unceasing criticism, the UN has demonstrated its resilience and affirmed its continuing relevance; something that cannot be doubted given the alternative: the terrible wars out of which the UN was born.
Shifting political realities, successive power configurations, and the increasing confused nature of global realities should not make the United Nations change its character and goals: peace and democracy, sustainable development if possible; climate action for our sake and our children’s. For God’s sake, they’re already screaming at us. They see what’s there and we refuse; none so blind, indeed.
Those grim realities teach no values; they only urge surrender by compromise. That is unacceptable to the community of civilized nations. There can be no other world order than the one established with the United Nations as its guardian.
As a sovereign country, the Philippines renews its commitment to the ideals of the United Nations: to end the scourge of war; to uphold justice and, yes, human rights but starting with the right of the many who are good, to be safe and be protected from the bad; and to maintain peace and amity among the nations under this one roof — united. Thank you. END
 “Poverty and Climate Change” (Afterword by Nicholas Stern) in Professor Anthony B. Atkinson’s Measuring Poverty Around the World (2019), p.232