United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres addresses the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, at United Nations headquarters in New York. (Eduardo Munoz/Pool Photo via AP)
By EDITH M. LEDERER, Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — In person and on screen, world leaders returned to the United Nations’ foremost gathering for the first time in the pandemic era on Tuesday with a formidable, diplomacy-packed agenda and a sharply worded warning from the international organization’s leader: “We face the greatest cascade of crises in our lifetime.”

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres rang the alarm in his annual state-of-the-world speech at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly’s high-level meeting for leaders of its 193 member nations. More than 100 heads of state and government kept away by COVID-19 are returning to the U.N. in person for the first time in two years. But with the pandemic still raging, about 60 will deliver pre-recorded statements over coming days.

“We are on the edge of an abyss — and moving in the wrong direction,” Guterres said. “I’m here to sound the alarm. The world must wake up.”

Guterres said people may lose faith not only in their governments and institutions but in basic values when they see their human rights curtailed, corruption, the reality of their harsh lives, no future for their children — and “when they see billionaires joyriding to space while millions go hungry on Earth.”

Nevertheless, the U.N. chief said he does have hope.

Guterres urged world leaders to bridge six “great divides”: promote peace and end conflicts, restore trust between the richer north and developing south on tackling global warming, reduce the gap between rich and poor, promote gender equality, ensure that the half of humanity that has no access to the Internet is connected by 2030, and tackle the generational divide by giving young people “a seat at the table.”

Other pressing issues on the agenda of world leaders include rising U.S.-China tensions, Afghanistan’s unsettled future under its new Taliban rulers and ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region.


The following is the full text of the UN Secretary-General’s speech, delivered today at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks to the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, at United Nations headquarters in New York. (Image courtesy United Nations Facebook)

Mr. President of the General Assembly, Excellencies,

I am here to sound the alarm:  The world must wake up.

We are on the edge of an abyss — and moving in the wrong direction. 

Our world has never been more threatened. 

Or more divided. 

We face the greatest cascade of crises in our lifetimes.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has supersized glaring inequalities.  

The climate crisis is pummelling the planet.

Upheaval from Afghanistan to Ethiopia to Yemen and beyond has thwarted peace. 

A surge of mistrust and misinformation is polarizing people and paralyzing societies, and human rights are under fire.  

Science is under assault.  

And economic lifelines for the most vulnerable are coming too little and too late — if they come at all. 

Solidarity is missing in action — just when we need it most.  

Perhaps one image tells the tale of our times.  

The picture we have seen from some parts of the world of COVID-19 vaccines … in the garbage.  

Expired and unused.   

On the one hand, we see the vaccines developed in record time — a victory of science and human ingenuity. 

On the other hand, we see that triumph undone by the tragedy of a lack of political will, selfishness and mistrust.  

A surplus in some countries.  Empty shelves in others. 

A majority of the wealthier world vaccinated.  Over 90 percent of Africans still waiting for their first dose.

This is a moral indictment of the state of our world.

It is an obscenity.  

We passed the science test.  

But we are getting an F in Ethics. 

Excellencies, 

The climate alarm bells are also ringing at fever pitch. 

The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was a code red for humanity. 

We see the warning signs in every continent and region.

Scorching temperatures.  Shocking biodiversity loss.  Polluted air, water and natural spaces.  

And climate-related disasters at every turn.

As we saw recently, not even this city — the financial capital of the world — is immune.  

Climate scientists tell us it is not too late to keep alive the 1.5 degree goal of the Paris Climate Agreement.  

But the window is rapidly closing.

We need a 45 per cent cut in emissions by 2030.  Yet a recent UN report made clear that with present national climate commitments,  emissions will go up by 16% by 2030.  

That would condemn us to a hellscape of temperature rises of at least 2.7 degrees above pre-industrial levels – a catastrophe.

Meanwhile, the OECD just reported a gap of at least $20 billion in essential and promised climate finance to developing countries.

We are weeks away from the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow, but seemingly light years away from reaching our targets. 

We must get serious.  And we must act fast.  

Excellencies, 

COVID-19 and the climate crisis have exposed profound fragilities as societies and as a planet.  

Yet instead of humility in the face of these epic challenges, we see hubris.  

Instead of the path of solidarity, we are on a dead end to destruction.

At the same time, another disease is spreading in our world today:  a malady of mistrust.

When people see promises of progress denied by the realities of their harsh daily lives…

When they see their fundamental rights and freedoms curtailed…

When they see petty — as well as grand — corruption around them…

When they see billionaires joyriding to space while millions go hungry on earth… 

When parents see a future for their children that looks even bleaker than the struggles of today…

And when young people see no future at all…

The people we serve and represent may lose faith not only in their governments and institutions — but in the values that have animated the work of the United Nations for over 75 years.

Peace.  Human rights.  Dignity for all.  Equality.  Justice.  Solidarity. 

Like never before, core values are in the crosshairs.  

A breakdown in trust is leading to a breakdown in values.  

Promises, after all, are worthless if people do not see results in their daily lives.  

Failure to deliver creates space for some of the darkest impulses of humanity.

It provides oxygen for easy-fixes, pseudo-solutions and conspiracy theories.  

It is kindling to stoke ancient grievances.  Cultural supremacy.  Ideological dominance.  Violent misogyny.  The targeting of the most vulnerable including refugees and migrants.    

Image courtesy United Nations Facebook.

Excellencies, 

We face a moment of truth. 

Now is the time to deliver.  

Now is the time to restore trust.  

Now is the time to inspire hope.  

And I do have hope.  

The problems we have created are problems we can solve. 

Humanity has shown that we are capable of great things when we work together.

That is the raison d’être of our United Nations.  

But let’s be frank.  Today’s multilateral system is too limited in its instruments and capacities, in relation to what is needed for effective governance of managing global public goods. 

It is too fixed on the short-term.  

We need to strengthen global governance.  We need to focus on the future.  We need to renew the social contract.  We need to ensure a United Nations fit for a new era.  

That is why I presented my report on Our Common Agenda in the way I did. 

It provides a 360-degree analysis of the state of our world, with 90 specific recommendations that take on the challenges of today and strengthen multilateralism for tomorrow.  

Our Common Agenda builds on the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Paris Climate Agreement. 

It is in line with the mandate I was given by the UN75 Declaration to seek a pathway to a better world.  

But to reach that land of our promises, we must bridge Great Divides.  

Excellencies, 

I see 6 Great Divides — 6 Grand Canyons — that we must bridge now.   

First, we must bridge the peace divide.  

For far too many around the world, peace and stability remain a distant dream.  

In Afghanistan, where we must boost humanitarian assistance and defend human rights, especially of women and girls. 

In Ethiopia, where we call on parties to immediately cease hostilities, ensure humanitarian access and create the conditions for the start of an Ethiopian-led political dialogue.

In Myanmar, where we reaffirm unwavering support to the people in their pursuit of democracy, peace, human rights and the rule of law.

In the Sahel, where we are committed to mobilizing international assistance for regional security, development and governance.

In places such as Yemen, Libya and Syria, where we must overcome stalemates and push for peace.

In Israel and Palestine, where we urge leaders to resume a meaningful dialogue,  recognizing the two-State solution as the only pathway to a just and comprehensive peace.

In Haiti and so many other places left behind, where we stand in solidarity through every step out of crisis.  

Excellencies, 

We are seeing an explosion in seizures of power by force.  

Military coups are back.  

And the lack of unity among the international community does not help.

Geopolitical divisions are undermining international cooperation and limiting the capacity of the Security Council to take the necessary decisions.

A sense of impunity is taking hold.  

At the same time, it will be impossible to address dramatic economic and development challenges while the world’s two largest economies are at odds with each other.  

Yet I fear our world is creeping towards two different sets of economic, trade, financial, and technology rules, two divergent approaches in the development of artificial intelligence — and ultimately the risk of two different military and geo-political strategies, and this is a recipe for trouble.  It would be far less predictable than the Cold War.  

To restore trust and inspire hope, we need cooperation.  We need dialogue.  We need understanding.  

We need to invest in prevention, peacekeeping and peacebuilding.  We need progress on nuclear disarmament and in our shared efforts to counter terrorism.

We need actions anchored in respect for human rights.  And we need a new comprehensive Agenda for Peace.

Excellencies, 

Second, we must bridge the climate divide.  This requires bridging trust between North and South.

It starts by doing all we can now to create the conditions for success in Glasgow.  

We need more ambition from all countries in three key areas — mitigation, finance and adaptation.

More ambition on mitigation — means countries committing to carbon neutrality by mid-century — and to concrete 2030 emissions reductions targets that will get us there, backed up with credible actions now.

More ambition on finance — means developing nations finally seeing the promised US$100 billion dollars a year for climate action, fully mobilizing the resources of both international financial institutions and the private sector too.

More ambition on adaptation — means developed countries living up to their promise of credible support to developing countries to build resilience to save lives and livelihoods. 

This means 50 per cent of all climate finance provided by developed countries and multilateral development banks should be dedicated to adaptation. 

The African Development Bank set the bar in 2019 by allocating half of its climate finance to adaptation. 

Some donor countries have followed their lead.  All must do so. 

My message to every Member State is this:  Don’t wait for others to make the first move.  Do your part. 

Around the world, we see civil society — led by young people — fully mobilized to tackle the climate crisis.

The private sector is increasingly stepping up.  

Governments must also summon the full force of their fiscal policymaking powers to make the shift to green economies.  

By taxing carbon and pollution instead of people’s income to more easily make the switch to sustainable green jobs. 

By ending subsidies to fossil fuels and freeing up resources to invest back into health care, education, renewable energy, sustainable food systems, and social protections for their people. 

By committing to no new coal plants.  If all planned coal power plants become operational, we will not only be clearly above 1.5 degrees — we will be well above 2 degrees.

The Paris targets will go up in smoke.

This is a planetary emergency.  

We need coalitions of solidarity — between countries that still depend heavily on coal, and countries that have the financial and technical resources to support their transition.

We have the opportunity and the obligation to act. 

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks during the 76th Session of the General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. (Timothy A. ClaryPool Photo via AP)

Excellencies, 

Third, we must bridge the gap between rich and poor, within and among countries. 

That starts by ending the pandemic for everyone, everywhere.  

We urgently need a global vaccination plan to at least double vaccine production and ensure that vaccines reach seventy percent of the world’s population in the first half of 2022.

This plan could be implemented by an emergency Task Force made up of present and potential vaccine producers, the World Health Organization, ACT-Accelerator partners, and international financial institutions, working with pharmaceutical companies. 

We have no time to lose. 

A lopsided recovery is deepening inequalities.  

Richer countries could reach pre-pandemic growth rates by the end of this year while the impacts may last for years in low-income countries. 

Is it any wonder?

Advanced economies are investing nearly 28 per cent of their Gross Domestic Product into economic recovery. 

For middle-income countries, that number falls to 6.5 per cent. 

And it plummets to 1.8 per cent for the least developed countries — a tiny percentage of a much smaller amount. 

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the International Monetary Fund projects that cumulative economic growth per capita over the next five years will be 75 percent less than the rest of the world. 

Many countries need an urgent injection of liquidity.  

I welcome the issuance of US $650 billion in Special Drawing Rights by the International Monetary Fund. 

But these SDRs are largely going to the countries that need them least.  

Advanced economies should reallocate their surplus SDRs to countries in need.  

SDRs are not a silver bullet.  

But they provide space for sustainable recovery and growth.

I renew also my call for a reformed, and more equitable international debt architecture.  

The Debt Service Suspension Initiative must be extended to 2022 and should be available to all highly indebted vulnerable and middle-income countries that request it.  

This would be solidarity in action. 

Countries shouldn’t have to choose between servicing debt and serving people. 

With effective international solidarity, it would be possible at the national level to forge a new social contract that includes universal health coverage and income protection, housing and decent work, quality education for all, and an end to discrimination and violence against women and girls.  

I call on countries to reform their tax systems and finally end tax evasion, money laundering and illicit financial flows. 

And as we look ahead, we need a better system of prevention and preparedness for all major global risks. We must support the recommendations of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response.  

I have put forward a number of other proposals in Our Common Agenda — including an emergency platform and a Futures Lab.

Excellencies, 

With real engagement, we can live up to the promise of a better, more peaceful world.

That is the driving force of our Common Agenda.  

The best way to advance the interests of one’s own citizens is by advancing the interests of our common future.  

Interdependence is the logic of the 21st century. 

And it is the lodestar of the United Nations.  

This is our time.  

A moment for transformation.  

An era to re-ignite multilateralism. 

An age of possibilities.  

Let us restore trust.  Let us inspire hope.  

And let us start right now.  

Thank you.