Ask anyone for their abiding memory of 2015 and they will most likely recall a negative one.
Some will recall the horrifying stories of death and destruction caused by conflicts around the world, most notably in Syria where over 250,000 people have lost their lives and almost 11 million people have been displaced. Others will recall a sense of grief, fear and anger after violent extremists attacked, tortured, kidnapped and executed innocent civilians around the world. Others still might recall a simple but disturbing fact they heard in passing – that 2015 was the hottest year on record or that over 15,000 children continue to die annually, mostly from preventable diseases.
Yet, despite all of this, 2015 was also a year of progress and breakthroughs.
2015 was the year, for instance, when health workers and public officials supported by the international community brought an end to the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. It was the year when the UN Millennium Development Goals expired, having helped to reduce the number of people living in extreme poverty globally by over 50 percent. And it was the year when talks not tanks led to improvements in Cuba/US relations, an Iranian nuclear deal, a breakthrough in peace-talks in Colombia, transition in the Central African Republic. And most recently, a roadmap on resolving the Syria conflict was agreed on in the Security Council; the hope is that finally we can begin to contain this horrible humanitarian disaster.
Each of these is a great achievement in its own right. But it was the adoption, by more than 193 members of the United Nations, of three major international agreements that gives me greatest hope for the future.
In September, world leaders descended on New York to embrace a new compact for people and planet anchored in 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In Addis Ababa, just two months earlier, those same leaders committed to a new global framework on finance, capacity building, technology, trade, debt and other issues to support the realisation of these goals. And in Paris earlier this month, after years of disappointment, they overcame divisions and agreed on how to avert the catastrophic climate change while advancing human progress.
Through these agreements, governments everywhere have committed to advance three critical transformations in our world. First, they committed to address the root causes of poverty and hunger and to advance human development and gender equality everywhere. Second, they agreed to promote shared prosperity while transitioning to a low-carbon climate-resilient economy and protecting our natural environment. And, third, they agreed to improve governance at all levels so as to bring about more peaceful, just and inclusive societies.
2016 – From commitments to action
Sceptics will of course question both the ability and commitment of governments to translate these agreements into real change. But not only do I believe that we can succeed, I truly believe that we will succeed.
Let me explain why.
After 50 years in politics, I have never seen negotiations that were more deliberative or inclusive than those that gave rise to these agreements. The result is that these agreements have real political buy-in at the highest possible level. They have also helped create a global movement for positive change, involving civil society, young people, private companies and more, that will be with us every step of the way over the next fifteen years. And from the Millennium Development Goals to reduction in the price of renewables, many governments and companies are demonstrating that the change we need is not only possible but already happening.
In 2016, however, we must build on this momentum and secure early implementation. To do so, we need action from all actors. As President of the United Nations General Assembly, this is my top priority.
Governments, for example, must identify and plan for the changes they need to undertake to reach these new goals. They must invest in essential services so that all people can fulfil their potential. They must create an enabling legal and policy framework that encourages more responsible consumption and increased investment in sustainable infrastructure. And they must advance more transparent and inclusive governance so that everyone pays their fair share, people live in freedom and security, and societies become more cohesive and more equal.
At the international level, we need a United Nations system that is ready to give countries the support they need. We also need to ensure that exclusive economic decision making forums, such as the World Bank and IMF, the G20 etc, become more aligned with this new agenda.
In the area of peace and security, we need changes at the UN so that we can become better at preventing conflicts and protecting human rights before it is too late.
The SDGs also demand action from the private sector. They must align their corporate activities with the essence of the new goals. They can turn their innovation towards finding SDG solutions and partner with governments and other key actors to support and finance implementation. This includes the global finance industry which must now embrace the shift. Governments must ensure a framework of regulation and taxation for the private sector that makes it obvious that green investment is not just the best for the environment and the future of mankind, but the best for business too.
Finally, change will not happen without action and pressure from civil society and ordinary people everywhere. Non-governmental organisations need to hold governments to account for the commitments they have made in 2015. Philanthropic foundations need to support causes that are aligned with the SDGs and work more effectively with governments and other actors. And ordinary citizens, young people and others can use the incredible explosion in information technology in recent years to become key drivers of implementation.
If 2015 was a year of incredible breakthroughs, then 2016 must mark the moment when all of us begin to deliver, when we begin to make the transformation needed to a more sustainable and just world.
The writer is President of the United Nations General Assembly.