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Foreign Minister's speech at the 74th United Nations General Assembly

74 United Nations General Assembly
Speech by
H.E. Mr. Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson
Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland

Mr. President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Next year, we will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. This fundamental cornerstone of the international rule-based order, along with other important building blocks, has served us well. We live in a world that has become ever more interconnected and the most demanding challenges of our times call for even greater unity and global action.

Still, this architecture is being tried and tested. It remains our responsibility to ensure that the principles, rights and obligations, enshrined in the UN Charter, including safeguarding peace and promoting development and human rights, are fulfilled and carried out in good faith. History tells us that these goals are best achieved in open democracies where fundamental freedoms are respected and allow for individuals and nation-states to prosper. And, most importantly, where politicians are accountable for their words and deeds, both at home and abroad.

We need to safeguard the international rules-based system, with the United Nations at the helm but also, where need be, pursue reforms if the system is no longer serving the very ideals it is founded upon – and even rewards states that violate our principles.

Mr. President,

Small and medium-size states, in fact the vast majority of UN members, should not shy away from taking on a more active role on the global scene. Iceland, for its part, is prepared to shoulder responsibility and has steadily increased contributions to UN funds and programs. We have also taken on a more active role within various UN and other international and regional bodies.

Last year, for the first time, Iceland became a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. It is a privilege and responsibility that we take seriously. Human rights, and treating one another with respect and fairness, is the basic DNA for progress, peace and development. During our tenure, Iceland has actively promoted gender equality, children’s rights and rights of LGBTI individuals. We have also advocated for much-needed reforms in the work and composition of the Council where we continue to see certain member states elected as full members, passing judgements and casting votes abroad while their human rights record at home should be on trial.

The Human Rights Council is the focal point and driving force for protecting and promoting human rights and making sure that all states honour their commitments that they have voluntarily signed up to. True, UN member states are diverse and deal with different challenges, but regional groups and UN member states should make sure that those serving in the Council are truly committed to upholding human rights.

In Iceland, our experience shows that individual and human rights are essential for positive economic and social development. This rings particularly true for gender equality, which has allowed our society to prosper and thrive. But this is not a competition. Our goals should be common - to make sure that women everywhere can realize their individual strengths and pave the way for sustainable development that leaves no one behind. Next year, the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 2020 will be an important opportunity to reflect on our progress and shortcomings - and chart the way forward.

Mr. President,

Iceland is committed to pursuing and implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, both at home and in international cooperation. For Icelanders, sustainability is not a new concept. More than a century ago we started using geothermal power for heating our houses. And decades ago we realised that our essentials fishing stocks would need to be protected and harvested in a sustainable way. Sustainability has been the key to our survival for a long time and that is not going to change.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     .

More effort and research are, however, needed in addressing non-communicable diseases and neurological disorders, including spinal cord injuries, that affect up to a billion people worldwide. Iceland will continue to promote cooperation on research and raise awareness in this important field.

Iceland will also continue to share insights and expertise in renewable energy, gender equality, land restoration and fisheries – all of which can act as powerful levers for sustainable development. United Nations training programs in Iceland in these fields have played an important role in exporting know-how and, still, many untapped opportunities remain for closer partnerships between trade, development and business.

Such synergies should be promoted, and it remains my firm belief that open, fair, and free trade is the single most important driver for economic growth, stability and breaking the bonds of poverty. We need to ensure that the all states can reap the benefits of the multilateral trading system. We need to build bridges, not barriers, if we want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Mr. President,

Climate change is the one of the most important challenge of our times, if not the most important one. It affects global security, sustainable development, the health of our environment and, ultimately, human civilization. This is not a distant abstraction, but a stark reality. In the Arctic, including in my country, we are witnessing glaciers melting and vanishing, and our seas and marine life are rapidly changing. And let us keep in mind that these development in the world´s northernmost region have global repercussions. What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.

Iceland is firmly committed to reaching the Paris Agreement goals by 2030. We have done quite well so far, with almost 100% of our electricity and heating now based on renewables. But we can do even better and therefore we are aiming to reach full carbon neutrality by 2040.

Climate change and the health of our oceans are a key priority in our foreign policy, including in the Arctic Council and in Nordic co-operation, which Iceland currently chair. Over 70% of the surface of the planet is covered by water. Yet, we tend to think of climate change only in connection with the atmosphere. Our oceans are of crucial importance for any meaningful discussion on climate change and have too often been on the margins instead of at the centre. Climate change is also Ocean change.

The Convention on the Law of the Sea, the global constitution for our oceans, is the most important tool for ensuring the conservation and sustainable use of our marine environment. It is our firm belief that more effective implementation of the Convention and regional management of conservation and sustainable use of our oceans is the best way to ensure their long-term health. A new BBNJ instrument that is being negotiated at the UN might become an important tool for conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity on our high seas, if based on consensus and universal participation.

The fight against climate change needs to begin at home, but the high-income countries also need to support lower-income countries in addressing the causes and consequences of climate change. This is a focus area in Iceland´s new development cooperation policy and, earlier this week, my Government announced that we would double our contributions to the Green Climate Fund. Also, let us bear in mind that some of the most effective solutions are low cost, simple and nature-based solutions like land restoration. Furthermore, we need to work more effectively with the private sector to achieve our common goals.

The Climate Action Summit earlier this week was an important event. We must now build on the momentum and push for further actions. We have no time to spare.

Mr. President,

The connection between climate change, human rights, development and security is evident in many conflicts and demand a wholistic approach. We support the Secretary General´s in-house reform agenda and believe it will make the United Nations more fit for purpose. However, the Security Council, not least its permanent members, need to take on a more active role in preventing and resolving these crises, and live up to their responsibility as enshrined in the UN Charter. We must act and make full use of the tools available to hold to account those responsible for breaking international law, including before the International Criminal Court.

In Syria, there seems to be no end to the carnage. Attacks on civilians occur on a regular basis, leaving the country in ruins and large parts of its population displaced. In Yemen, with the surge in fighting, there is a real risk that the hard-won gains in trying to establish peace and political process will be ruined – again adding to the already immense suffering of the civil population. Regional powerbrokers, which fuel tensions and fund the warring parties, need to step back in support of a peaceful political process. In this context, the recent drone attacks on Saudi-Arabia, intensifying an already intense situation, are of grave concern.

The fighting in Libya also continues and there is an urgent need for a ceasefire to pave the way for the UN-supported political process. The issue of Western Sahara remains unresolved and developments in Israel and Palestine seem to bring us further away from the only viable solution of peaceful coexistence – the two-state solution. In Venezuela the appalling humanitarian situation, driven onwards by the Maduro regime, continues to be of great concern with 4.3 million people having fled the country and the ongoing crisis. In Myanmar, it remains important to keep our focus on the plight of the Rohingya population and we have not forgotten the blatant disregard for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and Georgia.

These, and unfortunately other protracted conflicts, amid the growing distrust between major powers, call for a greater commitment, creative thinking and more resources, both to the traditional arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation agenda, but also emerging technologies, cyber security and hybrid threats.

Mr. President,

The great generation that build the United Nations after the horrors of the Second World War is gradually leaving us – a generation that witnessed the arms race and highest tensions of the Cold War and fought for many of our civil liberties. Their legacy will never die, and as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of this great organization next year, we should remember their achievements, but also look ahead and into our hearts and discuss how we can best promote the values and principles of the United Nations.

We must never forget that our rules-based international system is based upon determination and awareness that derived from one of the greatest tragedies in human history. We must never take it for granted.

Thank you.

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Postal address: Institute of Spinal Cord Injury, Iceland - ISCI,
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